The Warren County Board of Chosen Freeholders named Edward J. Smith as director for 2014 as the Board conducted its annual reorganization meeting at the Courthouse in Belvidere.
Freeholder Jason J. Sarnoski, who was re-elected in November, took the oath of office for a second three-year term, and Freeholder Richard D. Gardner was named Deputy Director.
Also taking the oath of office was Warren County Sheriff David Gallant, who was re-elected in November.
In front of a crowd of well-wishers that included federal, state, county and local officials, as well as family and friends, the freeholder board got right to business, with Smith vowing to file suit next week against the New Jersey Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) over disputed renovations to the Courthouse.
“We will bring an end to the Courtroom #2 fiasco,” Smith said, referring to a dispute over the courtroom created during a $5.8 million renovation project that opened nearly two years ago, but has gone unused for its intended purpose of conducting criminal trials.
Although the County worked closely with court officials on the renovation plans, which were approved by the AOC, a judge later declared that Courtroom #2 was unsuitable because a support column restricted a defendant’s ability to see all members of the jury, and vice versa, according to the freeholders. Despite its involvement in the project, Smith said the Judicial Branch “suddenly denied any responsibility.”
Both Gardner and Sarnoski backed Smith on the issue. Gardner called it “unconscionable” that the Court system has looked to the County to completely fund more renovations, when court officials were involved in the plans that have since been criticized.
“I for one, along with my colleagues, will not allow these individuals to shake down the county taxpayer for more money for mistakes they made, and I will add, unquestionably, they made,” Gardner remarked.
Sarnoski during his remarks noted the freeholders tried to resolve the Courtroom #2 issue in a “diplomatic and fair manner” but noted the courts were “a big part of the problem” that occurred. The Administrative Office of the Courts “refuses to take responsibility for their own decisions, and has tried to put the burden of their mistakes entirely on the taxpayers of Warren County, and we will not let that happen,” Sarnoski said.
Smith also pointed to accomplishments of his first year on the board, including the freeholders passing the state’s first policy requiring a public vote on any county bonding; passage of a Delaware River Flooding Resolution that Hunterdon and Mercer counties have now adopted; privatization of laundry, housekeeping and food services at Warren Haven for a projected $1.4 million in annual savings; and creation of a Warren Haven Task Force that investigated funding dilemmas facing the county-run nursing home. The Task Force report will be ready for public review later this month, he said, and a public hearing will be held in February.
Looking ahead to this year, Smith said he hopes to encourage the development and implementation of shared service programs, such as the health inspection services that will be offered to municipalities at affordable rates as of April 1.
Referring to Warren County Technical School and the Warren County Special Services School District, Smith noted, “I will continue to advocate for expanded development of our county educational programs to provide valuable services to the local school boards in our county, at costs that will help to control local school tax levies.”
Smith said he will be proposing a fee to be levied by the County on out-of-county garbage or ash that is deposited at the landfill in White Township, noting this proposed revenue source will not be paid by Warren County residents, and can help to address some of the financial challenges the County faces.
Smith added, “I believe economic growth can come to Warren County, and I will continue to advocate for creation of a Highlands Commercial Corridor Zone along our major roads and railroads to nurture that growth. I believe we can consolidate our tourist-oriented assets, both public and private, into to a marketable theme that will attract visitors and further stimulate our economy.”