Freeholders Hire Economic Director; Walton Questions Government's Role

FLEMINGTON, NJ – County freeholders voted at their meeting Tuesday to hire Marc Saluk as development director of their Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) program. He’ll be paid $105,000 a year.

Saluk previously held a similar position in Darke County, Ohio. Its population is about 53,000; Hunterdon’s is about 128,000.

Freeholder Rob Walton cast the sole vote against the hire. Walton emphasized he had no issue with Saluk personally, but that his vote reflected his beliefs about “the proper scope of government.”

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The freeholders developed CEDS to draft an economic plan for Hunterdon. The plan cites the county’s aging and declining population, lower school enrollment, commercial vacancies and changing demographics as the need for a plan to attract more business, tourism and improved infrastructure. The county’s CEDS plan was approved by the federal Economic Development Administration in May.

Walton doesn’t dispute Hunterdon’s economic issues. “Hunterdon’s problems are many,” he said. The 2008 recession led to a decline in the county’s ratables and to millennials delaying starting families and buying single family homes, he said, and the county’s high property taxes and limited state aid for schools compound its other problems.

What Walton challenges is the plan’s promise to “become a roadmap for the county’s future” by ensuring “coordination and consistency with regional priorities and other established land use plans.” Walton said the county lacks the authority to “enact any policy that would bring about any of this.”

As much as Walton objects to the plan, freeholders such as Matthew Holt and Suzanne Lagay endorse it. Holt was re-elected last month to the executive committee of the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority and previously served as its chairman. The agency oversees transportation planning for the area and controls federal money earmarked for ground transportation.

Lagay was the chief executive officer for the county’s Chamber of Commerce, serving in that role from 2000 to 2008 before being elected freeholder.

Holt and Lagay join Freeholders John King and John Lanza, and county Planning Director Sue Dziamara, as enthusiastic supporters of the CEDS plan. The plan makes Hunterdon eligible for federal money that can be used for infrastructure and programs that help foster economic development.

Walton’s opposition isn’t confined to his ideological beliefs about government. After citing a string of reasons for casting his vote yesterday, Walton added, “My final reason for voting no is the intention to use open space tax revenue to pay for 10 percent” of Saluk’s salary. While he acknowledged that it may be legal to use the tax for that purpose, “I cannot imagine one voter entering the polls to vote for the tax, thinking that any of this revenue would ever pay for an economic development director.”

Holt said it isn’t yet decided whether Open Space tax proceeds will be used towards the CEDS director’s salary. “We’re just getting started on the budget” for this year, he said, and any use of the Open Space tax “rests with this board.”

Freeholder King, who also voted in favor of hiring Saluk, questioned whether Open Space tax funds could be applied to the new position. “From my standpoint, that would not be possible,” he said.

Walton acknowledged, “There is much to like in the CEDS and I did vote for it ... the main reason ... is that the federal government, who doles out money for road projects, gives extra credit to counties and projects that are part of CEDS.” Walton said he favors the county taking a “leadership role in championing development,” limiting regulatory burdens and improving infrastructure, but “that needs to be tempered by the limitations of our authority and government’s effectiveness.

Walton said he also favors an economic development corporation, such as is used in Morris County, that works as a public-private partnership. In the Morris County model, the entity is funded with a 60-40 split between taxpayer and private funding. “There, economics, not politics, drives the work of the economic development director.”

Holt said he so favored hiring Saluk that he’d vote twice in support, if he could. Lanza said, “If we don’t change what we’ve been doing, we’ll be on a glide path to failure.”

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