HACKENSACK, N.J. — Before a crowd of local leaders spanning Bergen County and the Board of Chosen Freeholders, Bergen County Executive James Tedesco delivered the first state of the county address of the new decade on Thursday, February 20, touching upon the many achievements county leaders have made in various areas from parks and recreation, to finance, to social issues, health and wellness, quality of life, and the environment.
“I’m happy to report that the state of the county is strong, and only growing stronger,” said Tedesco at Two Bergen County Plaza. “Out of all 21 counties in New Jersey, we are the county setting the example and taking the lead. From shared-services, mental health awareness, wellness initiatives, and homelessness to rebuilding our infrastructure, we are leading the way.”
In the area of parks and recreation, Tedesco said the county has worked hard to expand and improve the park plan — a goal he notes is “vital to provide residents with spaces to relax, unwind and stay healthy and physically active.”
Last summer, Darlington Park in Mahwah, he said, attracted more than 8,000 visitors following the addition of a new playground and obstacle course and “new dimensions” of aquatic recreation which will reopen to the public on Memorial Day.
Tedesco said the restoration of funding to its open space program — grants for Bergen County’s 70 municipalities to utilize towards maximizing recreation opportunities, acquiring flood-prone properties and preserving farmland in historic areas — has led to administering more than $18 million in open space grants for over 70 projects around the county.
He also noted the forthcoming work that will begin to the boathouse at Riverside County Park in Lyndhurst, which will provide kayaking and boating access on the Passaic River. A partnership with the Passaic River Rowing Association, he said, will bring expanded recreational and sporting opportunities to southern Bergen County.
Upon launching the Bergen County Ambassador Program at the Bergen County Zoo, Danielle Monaro, cohost of Elvis Duran and the Morning Show on Z100, was tapped the county’s first ambassador to promote tourism. This past December, Monaro made a special visit to Van Saun County Park during Paramus’ annual Christmas tree lighting which was well-attended by hundreds of area residents who enjoyed ice skating, food vendors, a beer garden, children’s games and a visit from Santa and Mrs. Claus.
On the subject of entertainment, Tedesco also acknowledged the county’s newly-established Film Office which is currently field inquiries from directors and filmmakers seeking to shoot around the county’s historic, picturesque locales (for one, the Bergen County courthouse in Hackensack, a revitalization project for which is underway). Since its opening last fall, the office has already received “dozens” of requests from scouts and directors. The office, Tedesco said, carries economic benefits for the county including the creation of job opportunities for NYC commuters seeking to work closer to home in addition to attracting film crews to dine at the county’s bevy of restaurants and spend money on hotel stays.
Regarding the film industry, Tedesco noted Fort Lee’s current construction of the Barrymore Film Center at the corner of Main Street and Park Avenue, which will pay homage to its roots as the birthplace of the motion picture industry at the turn of the 20th Century. Named after late actor John Barrymore, who is the grandfather of actress Drew Barrymore and made his stage debut in the borough at the then-Buckheister Hotel, the film center — slated to hold a grand opening at year’s end — has partnered with Manhattan’s Museum of the Moving Image which works to preserve moving image-related artifacts. The center will serve as both a museum and movie theater that will support the next generation of filmmakers by providing a slew of educational opportunities in the form of boot camps and film screenings to foster their movie making dreams.
Speaking of entertainment destinations, Tedesco noted the continued construction of the American Dream at The Meadowlands in East Rutherford — another development and tourist attraction in the making — that will house “the world’s largest indoor water park along with “hundreds of stores and dining options.”
“American Dream is a unique addition to our esteemed malls and entertainment centers,” he said.
In Hackensack, Tedesco mentioned the current development of 133 River Street, a piece of property that was condemned and vacant following Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and now under construction to become the site of workforce-oriented housing for disabled veterans and county office space. Adjacent to the Hackensack Bus Station, which is designated as a primary bus route to American Dream, the finished structure will also serve as a transit-oriented revitalization.
Also serving as a “vital piece of transportation” is the De Jessa Memorial Bridge connecting Bergen with Essex County. Tedesco personally thanked the Department of Transportation engineer for changing the moveable bridge to a fixed one — a move that will save county taxpayers “over $30 million” on the construction and longterm maintenance.
On the topic of infrastructure, Tedesco said that over $12 million was appropriated for resurfacing the county roads which equated to 90 tons of asphalt — a record he said he hopes to break this year.
On the subject of environmental health, Tedesco said the county was the sole one in the Garden State to receive a $3.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Lead Hazard Control and Healthy Homes which permitted the removal of lead paint hazards in low-income homes. What’s more, the county, he added, is working with local utility to replace lead line services that connect water mains to residences and have waived the fee for road opening permits to move the process along to save time.
On the subject of health and wellness, Tedesco mentioned the accomplishments of the Youth Homeless Taskforce which targets homeless youths ages 18-24 and offers them temporary housing at the Bergen County Housing, Health and Human Services Center in Hackensack. Bergen County, he said, is the first to end veteran homelessness and cease chronic homelessness in the nation.
As a result of achieving such feats and being one of 11 communities in the country to have ended veteran homeless — among them, Rockford, Illinois, Montgomery County, Maryland and Riverside, California — the county is invited to participate in a convention with the Rockefeller Foundation and Community Solutions to discuss solutions of pressing social problems of homelessness.
Mental health is also a priority for the county. Since taking office in 2015, Tedesco said more than 3,000 people have been trained in mental health first aid to recognize signs of a mental health crisis and be schooled on how to help those in need. All 70 Bergen County municipalities, he added, have joined the Stigma-Free movement, which was launched in Paramus six years ago.
On the heels of progress in tackling mental health issues, Fort Lee High School, he said, was one of only 35 schools in the country tapped for a Teen Mental Health First-Aid Training Program launched by the Division of Mental Health Services, the National Council for Behavioral Health, and Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation. The foundation, according to its official website, “is committed to supporting the wellness of young people, and empowering them to create a kinder and braver world.”
The annual LGBT Youth Summit held at Bergen Community College, he said, brings more than 250 students from area high schools together to make impactful changes in their communities “to ensure our schools are a place where all students can be their authentic selves and have an opportunity to thrive.”
To address the growing number of hate crimes and bias that has afflicted the area (the most recent of which was the horrific Monsey Hanukkah stabbing in December), the Bergen County Human Relations Commission comprising a diverse group of community leaders is working to bridge the gap between county government, law enforcement and the community. Down the road, Tedesco said he plans to propose a countywide program that “addresses those found to have committed acts of hate or bias especially by young people.”
“Eliminating bias and hate is something I will continue to work on,” said Tedesco. “It will always be a priority.”
Speaking of mental health, Tedesco also praised the work of the Bergen New Bridge Medical Center which he called a “social safety net for vulnerable people” that is helping to tackle the opioid crisis by supporting those with mental health issues and offering longterm care for seniors and people with disabilities. In planning to expand their mission, Tedesco said he has an initiative in the works to address the opioid crisis.
In regards to physical health, Tedesco said the Bergen Bites Back initiative continues to address mosquito and tick-borne viruses. The county, he said, is one of a few authorized to have its own land to evaluate sources of illnesses such as the West Nile Virus.
On the subject of health and wellness, Tedesco said the Northern Valley Regional school district was once again able to secure funding for another year for its Valley Program to address the needs of children with autism spectrum disorders in the school district from ages 3-16 using the county’s AAA bond rating.
Also in line with economic fortitude, Tedesco mentioned the success of a shared-services agreement with the Medical Examiner’s Office and Rutgers University to oversee the services for county residents.
This partnership, he said, will assist in the training of new pathologists and blaze a trail for the expansion of other shared-services with neighboring towns.
On the subject of cost savings, the county is also making strides to address energy conservation. Tedesco said its switch to LED lighting at 1 Bergen County Plaza in Hackensack has reduced power consumption by over 600,00 kilowatt hours throughout the course of a year. The difference, he said, is equivalent to powering 60 households.
The conversion to LED bulbs in six of its largest facilities has cut energy costs by more than $800,000 per year — all while reducing its carbon footprint. On the horizon is the installation of electric car charging stations at the county complex. The initiative will afford residents with a green alternative to gasoline and “incentivize” the use of hybrid vehicles.
Continuing its green practices, Tedesco mentioned the water filtration system installed at 2 Bergen County Plaza to eliminate the need for plastic bottles.
“We are a county of vision and a region of history,” said Tedesco. “By understanding our past, we can build a brighter future.”