Remarks delivered at New Jersey League of Municipalities 104th Annual Conference League Luncheon
Thursday, November 21, 2019
Thank you, Mayor Colleen Mahr, for that introduction. And, thank you, as well, for your leadership on behalf of your fellow mayors and elected local officials as president of the League of Municipalities over the past year.
It has been an honor to work with you on so many issues, but perhaps none more important than our efforts to get NJ TRANSIT back working again, as it should, for our commuters. You were with us in Westfield when we announced the return of one-seat off-peak Raritan Valley Line rides to New York-Penn, and I know how hard you and your fellow RVL mayors worked to that day. So, for all you have done, thank you! Thank you, as well, to your fellow officers, and I’d like to give a particular shout-out to Hardwick Commiteeman, and the 1st Vice President of the League, Jim Perry.
And, Jim, I look forward to continuing this relationship and to partnering with you. We’ve already had the opportunity to come together over the issue of our state’s opioid crisis – something I know is uniquely and deeply personal for you – and our administration stands ready to work with you to continue to chip away at this scourge. I also must thank the League and its staff – starting with Executive Director Michael Darcy – for all its hard work of ensuring the voice of every community, large and small, is heard on issues large and small. And, even though he usually shuns the spotlight, Assistant Executive Director Mike Cerra deserves to be in it because he puts so much into ensuring a successful conference.
So, Mike, congratulations to you, yet again. So many of the issues the League tackles, and which our administration takes on day-in and day-out, aren’t Democratic or Republican issues. They’re simply New Jersey issues. I know that’s a well-worn phrase, but that doesn’t make it any less true. So much of the rest of the country – and yes, even parts of our state – have retreated to deeply blue or deeply red corners. Yes, how we view issues matters, but how we work on issues matters even more. I am, as you may have heard, somewhat a fan of President John F. Kennedy. Two years before he was elected to the presidency, he spoke at Loyola College in Baltimore, Maryland, where he said the following, “Let us not despair but act. Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer but the right answer.” These are words I believe we should all look to for guidance. Let’s not despair over the challenges our state faces – and, in case you haven’t noticed, we have a few – but let’s act.
Everyone in this room shares a common mission. We serve people. Let’s act together. It’s the surest way we can get good things done. This is my third time addressing you at this lunch – once as governor-elect, and now twice as governor. One of the things I am most proud of is that, over these past two years, we are who we said we’d be. We haven’t ducked problems because we decided they were too hard or because of who the solutions would offend. The problems we inherited weren’t created overnight, and they won’t be solved overnight. Many can’t. But, we have put the needs of New Jersey’s communities first and foremost. And, yes, we are making New Jersey stronger and fairer. And, at no point have I lost my optimism. We are moving New Jersey in the right direction, and we are doing the right things to keep it pointed in that direction. I am extremely proud of our accomplishments thus far, and I am proud of the work we are undertaking – along with Senate President Sweeney, Speaker Coughlin, our partners in the Legislature, and so many of you. One of these areas, yes, is in the work of property taxes. Over the past year, thanks to the work we put in to pass a fiscally sound state budget, we have made significant strides to rein in one of the largest drivers of municipal property tax increases – health care. We worked alongside our partners in organized labor to put real health care savings into the state budget, and, as a result, premium rates for local government and school employees are going down in the vast majority of your communities. But, at the same time, we protected the quality of their health care.
This is an important point. We can’t be part of a race to the bottom. These are the people who keep our communities safe, who plow our streets and clean our parks, who teach our kids, and who, quite frankly, do the yeoman’s work of making our communities run. We must prove that we can provide them the high-quality care they deserve – and which they’ve earned – at a better price. We can save them, and other taxpayers, money. And, we are. We still have a way to go, certainly, and none of us are spiking any footballs. We’re going to continue to keep our eyes on New Jersey’s bottom line, so we can continue to reduce pressure on yours and those of your residents and taxpayers. In this, we must work together. One of the areas ripe for such partnership is shared services, and I thank our Shared Services Czars – mayors Jordan Glatt and Nicholas Platt – for their continued service and hard work. Over the past year, we built capacity at the Department of Community Affairs to work with you on furthering shared service ideas to bring them to completion. And, DCA’s opened its new Local Assistance Bureau – the LAB – to provide free, on-site, and hands-on technical assistance in a wide variety of areas, like budget, bond, and local public contracts law, risk management, civil service, among others. The year’s budget provided $10 million for shared services and school district consolidation study and implementation grants, and, with that, we created the Local Efficiency Achievement Program – LEAP – within the Division of Local Government Services. Through the LEAP initiative, DLGS will provide up to $3.8 million in grants for local and county government efforts to help cover the costs associated with shared services implementation. We also established countywide LEAP Challenge Grants to invite local governments and authorities to compete for a share of $150,000 in available funds per county. Each county can have up to three winners, and Challenge Grant winners will automatically be eligible for shared services implementation grants.
So, I encourage you to apply. We also set aside $50,000 for each county to on-board a young professional – who will receive initial training through the Division of Local Government Services and be paired with an experienced county professional – to work full-time among and between county and municipal administrations to identify shared services opportunities. We know good things can happen for property taxpayers when communities come together. Beyond this, we are continuing our ramping-up state aid for our public schools and our expansion of pre-K funding. School taxes make up the lion’s share of the average New Jersey property tax bill, and our efforts over the past two years are relieving significant pressure from countless Boards of Education in their policymaking. And, I am equally proud of the work we have done to help families and communities come out from underneath the foreclosure crisis that has gripped many of your communities for the better part of the last decade. This past spring, I was proud to work with our legislative partners to enact nine strong measures to help us more directly combat the foreclosure crisis … to support programs and counseling that we know can keep a family in their home and out of foreclosure … and to give you new options for working with financial institutions to turn a home that is in foreclosure around more quickly, so it can get a second chance, and so it doesn’t become a blight on a recovering neighborhood. I also take particular pride in ending the raids on the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, and our Administration looks forward to working with you all to use those funds to strengthen our supply of affordable housing. On issue after issue, we have not put forward narrow policy proposals, but rather broad sets of solutions that really highlight our whole-of-government approach.
I know that approach can come across as wonky, and that some of our ideas won’t fit on a bumper sticker. But, our focus must be on getting things right. This focus is why I’m proud that our administration is doing more to partner with your communities on key local issues. This protects the quality of life your residents enjoy, and ensures a stable tax base, which is good both for you and for your property taxpayers. So much of our effort has been to protect, if not enhance, the values of our residents’ greatest assets – their homes. For example, I am extremely proud that this administration has not only stepped up with more DOT municipal aid grants than ever before, but it is now distributing that funding in alignment with your planning needs, so you can get money in hand more efficiently and get projects paid for more effectively. And, today, I am proud to announce that DOT will soon be releasing another round of municipal aid grants – $160-plus million that will again be synched-up with your calendars and construction plans, so it will hit the streets in time to get shovels in the ground come Spring. More than 540 municipalities – that’s nearly 96 percent of our communities – will be receiving a DOT municipal aid grant. And, according to DOT, you should be receiving your notification letters within the next week or so. All totaled, we will have distributed $1.2 billion over the past 18 months, and we have done it in a way that’s best for you – and which is allowing many smart projects to move forward. This solutions-oriented mindset is also evident not just in our work to turn around NJ TRANSIT, but our work with you so you can maximize its benefit. For example, I am proud that NJ TRANSIT and the Middlesex County Improvement Authority came together so North Brunswick can finally get a long-overdue rail station to complete its transit village. Last month, I also announced that NJ TRANSIT is reviewing its real estate portfolio to identify parcels that are ripe for transit-oriented developments. While that review is still underway, I am confident that, ultimately, it will allow us to spur real economic development across the state. In that same vein, I signed legislation enabling municipal land banks to help more municipalities turn empty and overlooked properties into places where neighborhoods can rise. It’s also why we have taken such a strong position on promoting our Opportunity Zones, and why we initiated the Opportunity Zone challenge, to incentive communities to engage in smart, forward-looking planning. Engagement is what leads to better outcomes. Here’s another example – on Monday, I met with local officials from our lakeside communities for an in-depth discussion on preventing future harmful algal blooms. And, from the state side, we are stepping up with $13 million in grant funding and local principal reimbursement to pursue long-term solutions. These are just a few of the many areas where we’re taking action together.
And, we’re going to need cooperation in tackling the danger of lead It is unconscionable that any child, or any family, in New Jersey – in 2019 – should still face lead exposure. The risk of lead exposure, both water-based and paint-based, is real and it is statewide. Two-thirds of our housing stock predates 1980. Lead wasn’t prohibited from house paint until 1978. It was not banned in plumbing until 1986. I was proud to unveil a comprehensive plan to remove and replace every lead service line in New Jersey within 10 years, to ensure our schools are safe, to do more to certify rental homes as “lead safe,” and to do more to train the workforce we’ll need to get the job done. To make our schools safe, we’re using voter-approved funds from last year’s Securing our Children’s Future Bond Act. To accomplish other parts of our plan I proposed a $500 million bond referendum for next year. I and my team continue to talk with the Senate President and Speaker, and their teams, about this proposal. Together, I am confident that we’ll end in the right place. But one thing is for certain, we must all be committed to this – state, county, and local government, improvement authorities, municipal utility authorities, private water systems, and developers and landlords. And, there’s one more issue where I am confident that we’ll end in the right place – implementing a new system of corporate tax incentives. This is just as important to the towns along the Route 24 corridor in Morris County as it is to the City of Camden or anywhere else. I thank the Senate President and the Speaker for their willingness to engage in thoughtful discussions over the past several months.
It’s no secret that there are very strong opinions on this issue. But, at the end of the day, we all want the same thing – a sustainable system that will allow for the innovation economy to fully take root here, that will grow jobs and economic opportunity, and that will spur inclusive revitalization. I remain confident that we will be able to move forward with a set of incentives that can receive broad support from the Legislature and our business community. It comes down to this – two years in, this administration has a record of accomplishment that I put up against any previous administration and any other state. We are taking on the issues with sound policies educated by listening and a desire to simply do the right thing. This mindset is something I promised you when I first spoke to you as governor-elect. I am proud that it has been a promise kept as governor. New Jersey is a special place – a patchwork quilt of 565 unique municipalities.
Trust me, that doesn’t necessarily make governing easy! I’m reminded of the line from former French President Charles de Gaulle, “How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?” But, it also makes our accomplishments all that more noteworthy. And, for the next two years – at least – I remain committed to continuing to govern as we have. Honestly. Humbly. And in partnership. I thank each of you for all you do to better your communities – because it betters our entire state. And, I look forward to working alongside you in the year to come! Thank you. May God bless you, and may God continue to bless the Great State of New Jersey and the United States of America.