Thu Dec 17 2020 05:00:00 GMT+0000 (Coordinated Universal Time)

Freehold Director Vicari reflects on 2020

AFTER 39 YEARS in office and as the longest serving freeholder in New Jersey's history, Freeholder Director Joseph H. Vicari looked back on 2020 as the most "challenging and difficult" year in his long tenure of public service.

Vicari, who was first elected in 1981, presided over the final meeting of the Ocean County Board of Chosen Freeholders on Wednesday, December 16, 2020.

Following state law signed by Gov. Phil Murphy, the title of "Freeholder" has been eliminated from New Jersey government, to be replaced by the more innocuous label of "Commissioner" effective January 1, 2021.

The Freeholders ended the year by unanimously passing a resolution honoring all of the men and women who have held the title of Ocean County Freeholder since the county's founding in 1850.

"This change in no way will diminish the hard work and dedication of all those who served on the Boards of Freeholders throughout time in Ocean County," the resolution reads. "Whereas, today as we prepare to change the name, Freeholders that have served before us are remembered and sent our gratitude."

Vicari said his final year as an elected Freeholder - he will be sworn in as Commissioner in January after winning re-election to his 14th term - was far from what he expected.

"The year was devastating," he said. "Not just in Ocean County but across the country and around the world. It changed the lives of nearly all of our 600,000 county residents."

More than 1,100 Ocean County residents have succumb to COVID-19. That number is expected to continue to climb even as the county prepares for the first wave of vaccinations against the virus.

Despite the tragedy, Vicari said the county would move ahead.

"Ocean County is resilient," he said. "We acted quickly to protect our senior citizens and the most vulnerable members of our community."

The Ocean County Office of Senior Services increased its Meals-on-Wheels program to meet the growing demand from homebound seniors.

It also instituted a shopping assistance program that brought food and other supplies directly to a senior's home so older adults would not have to visit crowded supermarkets.

While the pandemic closed many county offices to in-person public visits, services continued to be provided online or by phone.

Senior Services, where Vicari serves as Chairman, began a mobile program to bring professional staff and services directly to senior communities.

Mobile Assistance for Seniors at Home, or MASH, will be expanded in 2021 when a specially designed vehicle staffed by Senior Services employees will hit the road and visit the county's many senior developments, Vicari said.

The county also provided help to small businesses hit by the pandemic.

In partnership with the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (NJEDA), the county provided $10 million in grants to small businesses impacted by COVID-19.

A second grant totaling $30,000 was available for businesses needing help paying their rent.

"We could see as many as 30 percent of our small businesses close because of the pandemic," Vicari said. "They need help and they need it now."

The county's annual Buy in Ocean County program also encourages residents to shop locally for the holidays. "When you buy locally you are supporting your friends and your neighbors," Vicari said.

While many schools were forced to switch to at-home learning this year, he said training at the Ocean County Vocational-Technical Schools remained a priority.

"For businesses to grow and prosper we need a well-trained workforce," Vicari said. "Through our apprentice program and other initiatives our students are learning skills that will last them a lifetime."

Tourism is also a priority for the New Year. "People will be coming back to Ocean County in 2021," he said. "Tourism is a $5 billion industry that is absolutely vital to our local economy.

Vicari said the Freeholders also did their part to keep money in Ocean County.

"We have lowered the tax rate for 4 straight years," he said. "We've maintained our AAA Bond Rating both through Superstorm Sandy and now through this pandemic."

Vicari also opposed rate hikes by JCP&L and other utilities. "Raising rates during the pandemic when people where already dealing with job loss and higher prices for everyday needs was just unconscionable," he said.

A top priority for 2021 of course is the COVID-19 vaccination rollout. The first doses arriving in the county are earmarked for first responders, frontline health care workers and long-term care facilities. The first vaccines for the general public are expected early next year, Vicari said. "We will be working hard to get the vaccine out to as many people as possible," he said.

Another project delayed because of the pandemic is the new sensory room at the Main Branch of the Ocean County Library in Toms River.

The goal of the sensory space is to provide an area for children and adults with a variety of disabilities including autism spectrum disorders, developmental disabilities, post-traumatic stress disorder, cerebral palsy, memory loss, dementia and sensory processing disorders," said Ocean County Library Director Susan Quinn. "While these individuals are welcome to visit all areas of our library branch, this space is especially designed for them."