HUNTERDON COUNTY, NJ - County departments continue serving the public during the pandemic, although many employees must now work from home due to social distancing and other state mandates.
Some statistics presented during the freeholder board’s April 7 meeting shed light on socio-economic factors county employees are working on relative to the surge in COVID-19 cases and workplace closures in New Jersey.
Deputy Freeholder Director Sue Soloway, liaison to the Hunterdon County Health & Human Services Department, reported on the 166 percent increase in new clients for the Flemington Area Food Pantry due to the pandemic.
Soloway also explained that the county division of social services has received a surge in SNAP, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps), as well as Medicaid, “as residents lose their sources of income and their health insurance benefits.”
“Economic issues from the COVID-19 outbreak have caused real effects on people needing social services,” she said. “The county social services staff is working to process changes and to provide benefits to many first-time applicants. The county division of social work services has seen an increase in Adult Protective Services calls, and they continue their efforts in preventing homelessness.”
“The LINK bus continues to serve those who need it on a reduced schedule and with cleaning and protocols for social distancing, and Meals on Wheels continues to be a food lifeline for people age 60 and over who have no other ways to obtain food, have health issues or are unable to leave their homes,” Soloway added.
The Hunterdon County Senior Center in Flemington was tentatively scheduled to reopen April 3, but will now remain closed until May 4 at the earliest, pending future decisions on closures and group participation.
“Longer-term social distancing is required as the response to the public health emergency evolves, and those requirements are having an effect on our senior citizens and other county programs,” Soloway said. “The May 4 date may also be too optimistic, and we will be guided by our health professionals going forward. The senior center staff is exploring ways to keep our seniors engaged during this crisis, including a proposal to implement virtual classes.”
Hunterdon County Sheriff Fred Brown said that county inmates housed at the Warren County Correctional Center in Belvidere are not experiencing the same level of concern over spacing if patients come down with the virus as other parts of the state have.
“I am happy to report at the Warren Center we have 26 inmates with no reported cases of COVID-19 and also none among the Warren County inmates there,” he said. “Our inmates there are quite safe and doing well.”
The county sheriff’s office in Flemington remains open and maintains security posts at its location on the first floor as well as in the county’s Route 12 complex. Brown said that, to limit exposure, sheriff’s officers are working two squads at this time.
One sheriff’s department officer is out on 14-day quarantine.
The County Justice Complex in Flemington remains open, with an average of 62 admissions daily.
“For March 2020 compared to March 2019, we were down only 26 percent,” he said. “Month-to-month, we are down 80 percent.”
In addition, Hunterdon Corrections officers are working regularly-scheduled shifts and handling new arrests.
Freeholder J. Matthew Holt serves on the board’s finance committee, and spoke about recalculation on-the-fly of the revenues for FY 2020 due to the pandemic. Despite an emergency allocation of $100,000 for COVID-19 response and contingencies last week, Hunterdon County has zero debt, and measures are being made for re-examining portions of this year’s budget for some trimming.
Holt spoke about fiscal management by Hunterdon County in the midst of a global pandemic, beginning with the leadership of CFO Janet Previte.
“We are spending today less than we did over a decade ago, and I have to add, as the longest-serving member on this board, perspective on long-range planning,” he said. “If in 2006 and 2007, we took a $100 million county budget and added 1 percent to 2 percent per year, a very well-accepted practice, in 2020 we would have been staring at a county budget between $120 million and $130 million. Instead, we have a budget today under $89 million, and it is testament to the fiscally conservative planning and work that has been done here, how Hunterdon County put its financial house in order.”
Freeholder Zach Rich expressed his thanks to Hunterdon County employees, “dedicating themselves to helping and protecting our residents -- those who continue to steadfastly do their jobs despite the crisis raging all around them.”
He said the county government continues to rise to the occasion in continuing delivery of services and operations during the pandemic.
Freeholder John Lanza praised the commitment and efforts of people in Hunterdon County’s governmental divisions.
“Let me again offer the sincere thanks of the freeholder board to our local doctors and nurses, first responders, law enforcement officers, our parks rangers, county OEM, the county’s health department staff and 911 dispatchers who have tirelessly and selflessly continued to man their stations while we navigate this crisis,” he said.