HUNTERDON COUNTY, NJ - The Hunterdon County Board of Chosen Freeholders recently approved several grant awards, which come at a time appropriate to support county operations and initiatives regarding interactions with the public, and offsetting a number of costs that would fall on the taxpayer base otherwise.

County Health Officer Karen DeMarco reported initiatives for Hunterdon County highlighting a COVID-19 testing increase made available through C.A.R.E.S. Act funding, plus a new strategy (County Testing Access Plan) approved by the State Department of Health and a much higher than usual annual Public Health Preparedness Grant.

Since 2003, Hunterdon’s Health Department has received the preparedness grant funds, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and tragedies in New York, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania, as well as the ensuing 2001 anthrax attacks.

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“Although the funding has decreased over the years, the planning and activities related to the public health preparedness program created a foundation that has proven critical in response to the pandemic,” DeMarco said. “Dollars are spent largely on staffing as well as equipment. The PPE provided to first responders and medical personnel throughout the pandemic were purchased and procured throughout the years.”

The freeholder board voted to approve a $600,673 PHILEP (Public Health Infrastructure, Laboratories and Emergency Preparedness) grant from the State Department of Health covering the period from July 1, 2020 through June 30, 2021. The annual grant award to the County’s D.O.H. of $270,000 more than doubled this year, with an addition of $331,000 over the normal amount allocated because of COVID-19 pandemic-related costs.

“Our proposed use of the funding includes hiring additional preparedness staff workers and purchasing equipment,” DeMarco said.

Hunterdon County CFO Janet Previte explained that, with its vote to approve, the freeholder board was authorizing the health department to accept the grant through next June. The related county finance approval, insertion of an item of revenue and the live sum as an appropriation of $331,000 in the 2020 Hunterdon County budget, accounting for the State DOH PHILEP grant, was also confirmed.

The State Department of Health has approved Hunterdon’s plans for expanding COVID-19 testing access for residents. New measures funded by the C.A.R.E.S. Act in Hunterdon County will include mobile testing at walk-up sites plus the mail-in, at-home residents' COVID-19 testing option.

Including the COVID-19 testing site service at Hunterdon Medical Center, three testing choices will be offered free to residents and made available without a prescription. DeMarco detailed the big picture of preparedness for the public health emergency as a potential second spike in positive cases and community spread arrives during fall and winter.

“In an effort to identify cases of COVID-19 quickly and to expand our availability of testing, the county recently developed a Countywide Testing Strategy,” she said. “Part of that involved expanding our existing test site (at Hunterdon Medical Center) to include testing for first responders, teachers, restaurant and food service workers, daycare workers and other critical infrastructure workers who have routine close contact with the public. COVID-19 testing is conducted free of charge to such county residents and it does not require a prescription.”

Mobile COVID-19 walk-up testing sites will be located conveniently in the county’s municipalities, while residents can conduct their own test at home, with their sample mailed to a lab.

“Depending on the demand or need for COVID-19 testing, the county can increase any or all of the testing methods and availability,” she said. “Information and requirements for mobile and at-home testing will be made available to the public in the near future.”

With the election just days away, and an anticipated lengthy process considered for before and after Election Day, both the Office of Hunterdon County Clerk Mary Melfi and the county’s Board of Elections, led by the work of administrator Beth Thompson, have received substantial grants that when combined total over $80,000. The grants come from the nonprofit entity Center for Tech & Civic Life, and are designated for election administration and expenses from this year’s election.

The grant to Melfi’s office is for $47,435, while the Board of Elections has received $35,576.25.  

Melfi, Thompson and their staff were commended for efforts to defray unintended costs due to the 2020 election being vote-by-mail or provisional ballots only, which Freeholder John Lanza said, "which would otherwise be more costs paid by property taxpayers."  

“Great job by our Board of Elections and county clerk,” he said. “Everybody knew this election being vote-by-mail during a presidential election year is going to be expensive, with unintended costs associated with it. This whole situation is very easy to complain about, with legitimate issues, but our people see problems coming and they deal with it. These two remarkable people and their staff are able to find these grant funds from a private organization to reduce costs. That is leadership and effectiveness, and this is what Hunterdon County is fortunate enough to have.”

Also at the meeting, the freeholder board approved an Open Space Acquisition Assistance Grant to the Flemington-based nonprofit organization Hunterdon Land Trust, upon the recommendation of Hunterdon’s Parks & Open Space Advisory Committee, in an amount not to exceed $253,750 for the approximately 70-acre GenOn Energy corporation property.

“HLT appreciates that Hunterdon County and Holland Township have prioritized preserving properties in the Delaware River corridor,” said Hunterdon Land Trust Land Acquisitions Director Jacqueline Middleton. “Acquisition of this property for open space and passive recreational use is a continuation of those efforts.”

Freeholder Director Shaun C. Van Doren commented on the Open Space Acquisition grant, and said the freeholder board is appreciative of working with the municipality (Holland Township Committee) and HLT, noting that this area has the “magnificent vista of the Delaware River” as a backdrop,

“The preservation of the GenOn property is another example of the county working with one of our municipalities as well as a longtime preservation partner in the Hunterdon Land Trust to achieve preservation of this significant acreage,” he said.

Last week, Hunterdon County POSAC also provided the recommendation for the Freeholder Board to approve a (not-to-exceed) $120,000 municipal grant to Alexandria Township for the replacement of the barn roof at Alexandria Park.

Two weeks after a freeholder board authorization was formalized for the County’s new COVID-19 Relief Municipal Grant program to begin – with grant awards of between $1,000 and $5,000 to offset costs for PPE, supplies, staffing overtime and other pandemic-related costs to the 26 county municipalities – one local-level official spoke before the freeholder board.
 
East Amwell Township Mayor Rick Wolfe stood to address the freeholders during public comment, and noted the new Municipal Grants program. Hunterdon County had set aside $100,000 for COVID-19 response costs in the county budget earlier in the year, and half is going to the 26 municipalities.

Wolfe noted the county’s assistance with PPE for local-level first responders, critical to East Amwell’s response services.

“This has been a very difficult eight to nine months for our country, our county and East Amwell,” he said. “Shaun Van Doren’s performance as county director throughout this period has been nothing short of spectacular, and I’d like to thank him publicly. Your weekly conference calls with the county’s mayors are extremely helpful, as we could not have gathered that information on our own. And in making Hunterdon County resources available to municipalities, we would have never received that much expertise and information, and they remain incredibly helpful to us.”

When the board approved the program on Oct. 6, Van Doren explained at the time that the grant program for municipalities was established:

“As I have stated previously, our mayors and local governing body members and their workforces, have been on the frontlines in responding to the COVID-19 emergency,” he said. “I wrote to the governor in August recommending CARES Act funds also be distributed to municipalities, but have had no response. So where the county can provide some financial relief, we should. While the county has faced significant emergency response costs, I believe sharing half of those funds with our municipalities is the right thing to do.”