FLEMINGTON, NJ - It appears that Hunterdon County and its residents are able to benefit from an abundance of resources through newly-announced grants, educational programs and funding plans over the coming weeks.

Several items discussed during the freeholder board’s Aug. 4 meeting demonstrate opportunities for the county government and locals to build themselves in unique ways, and become better equipped for life during and (hopefully) post-pandemic.

Freeholder Director Shaun C. Van Doren commented on CARES Act funding expected to trickle down to counties from the State of New Jersey soon. He said Gov. Phil Murphy should realize and honor the fiscal responsibility demonstrated by Hunterdon County when, on May 19 following a public hearing, the county’s 2020 budget of $89.35 million was approved with positives for taxpayers during a time of great crisis.

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The CARES Act established a $150 billion coronavirus relief fund to cover expenditures incurred during the public health emergency that were incurred during the period of March 1 through Dec. 30, 2020. Counties with populations over 500,000 were originally earmarked for funds, but legislators have called on the state to make some of the money available to the 12 counties in New Jersey with populations below that threshold.

“It was time for the State of New Jersey to step up and distribute general C.A.R.E.S. Act that they’ve had since early spring,” he said. “For the second year in a row, this county freeholder board froze the tax rate, put forward a no-debt capital improvement plan for the sixth straight year and has provided substantial funds for emergency and public health pandemic response. Since April, the State has had C.A.R.E.S. Act funds for local governments that are designed to be distributed to Hunterdon and 11 other New Jersey counties that were shut out of receiving direct federal aid due to having populations of under 500,000 people.”

“Since we at the county level have done our job, I called on Gov. Murphy to do his job and release the funds to help counties and local property taxpayers deal with the extraordinary costs of helping the public deal with the COVID-19 pandemic,” he added.

On July 31, Murphy’s office provided information that, of the C.A.R.E.S. Act funds, $37 million will be released to the counties that did not qualify for direct C.A.R.E.S. Act funding. Each of the recipient counties will be required to enter into a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the state to secure these funds.

“This is good news that falls into the category of ‘better late than never,’” Van Doren said. “There has not yet been a breakdown of how much will be provided to each of the counties.”

Freeholder Zach Rich said he’s happy to learn the state finally came through with disbursing federal C.A.R.E.S. Act funding.

“Director, I want to offer you the entire board’s thanks for staying on top of this issue,” he said.

In his own update to the board, Rich reported that the Hunterdon County Library System has been selected to receive a $15,000 grant award from Cognizant, a global IT consulting firm, for educational S.T.E.M. programming, specifically for children ages 12 through 16.

The S.T.E.M. series will run online from Aug. 15 through Oct. 10 on Saturday mornings. Rich said that materials to participate in the educational program are available free of cost, weekly, from the county library branches.

“The grant from Cognizant supports summer and after school organizations in their efforts to expose children to 21st century skills and S.T.E.M. literacy,” he said. “The program recognizes a need for students to be work-ready for the future workplace. The grant’s workshop will expose our young participants to all kinds and formats of technology, from coding to robotics and 3-D technology. While this program was not originally designed to be online, adaptations have been made so that students are able to participate remotely.”

Rich extended congratulations on obtaining this grant, on behalf of the entire Board of Chosen Freeholders, to Hunterdon County Library Director James Keehbler and librarian Sandra Janosik, who identified the Cognizant grant and completed and submitted the grant application on the library’s behalf.

Rich also explained the unfortunate upward trend in unemployment countywide, at 13,892 people since the pandemic started. Rich noted programs the Workforce Board has in place to assist the unemployed.

During the most recent meeting, he discussed the Workforce Board’s application for $275,000 “Dislocated Workers’ Grant” from the New Jersey Department of Labor that would be used to provide training and other opportunities for the unemployed.

“The Workforce Board continues to offer its web-based ‘SkillUp’ program, which can provide training and new skills for people looking to improve their employability,” he said. “It also provides an updated listing of all Hunterdon County employment opportunities on the website.”

“SkillUp” is an online portal that allows participants to explore career pathways, access hundreds of different courses and earn digital certificates.

Van Doren also noted that the Hunterdon County Vocational School District/Polytech Career & Technical High School, which has its central campus in Flemington, has a new initiative for the fall learning semester, open to older teens and adults opting for continuing education courses.

“The vocational district is putting together a program to give learners of any age a fresh start with a wide range of classes,” he said, “with certification courses and apprenticeship programs offered through its ACE (Adult and Continuing Ed) program. This type of program is valuable to those in Hunterdon County who are now out of work and are looking for a career change or to improve their employment opportunities,.”

For anyone currently unemployed or lacking the funds for tuition to the PolyTech ACE program, it is affiliated with One-Stop Career Center, organized and run by the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development (NJDOL), “which offers information on grants for training and education up to $4,000 for those who are unemployed and qualify,” Van Doren said.

The 2020-2021 PolyTech ACE course catalog reached xounty mailboxes in early August, and, according to the County Vocational School District (HCVSD), the Adult and Continuing Education programs will largely take place in-person this fall “as the intimate class sizes enable social and physical distancing,” Van Doren said. The location is subject to change or shift to remote learning per state regulations and executive orders.  

PolyTech noted that practical, hands-on experiences students need in many of their courses will come first, in the early parts of their courses, and Van Doren said courses’ theory portions “will be acceptable online, as this was planned to account for any possible changes in the public health conditions,” especially in the winter months with concerns over a resurgence in COVID-19 cases.

“There are a number of good organizations that are truly trying to help with the unprecedented economic downturn in New Jersey resulting from the decision to close down and to very slowly reopen the state’s economy,” he said. “Their efforts are appreciated.”