Middlesex County Freeholder Director Ronald G. Rios emphasized the continued financial stability of the county during the 2019 State of the County Address.
More than 350 residents, business leaders, elected officials, students and county officials were on hand for the address, delivered by Rios on behalf of the Board of Chosen Freeholders, on April 11 at Middlesex County College in Edison.
Rios explained, “This budget reflects the board’s stated goal of drawing down county debt, which has been reduced by $237 million dollars since 2014. We’ve eliminated the use of one-time revenue sources in favor of building sustainable, recurring revenue streams, and our retained surplus has increased to over $74 million,” he said in the statement.
As a result of this financial responsibility, the county has continued to maintain, for an unprecedented 18th year, a Triple A bond rating. This budget, a result of the sound financial stewardship of the Board of Chosen Freeholders, provides a sound footing for all the county’s programs and initiatives, according to the statement.
Rios shared the freeholder board’s continued commitment to making ideas to advance the arts become reality across the county.
Coinciding with the opening of the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, the board will be creating The Arts Institute of Middlesex County.
“This institute will bring top quality infrastructure and resources to the four resident organizations at the new performing arts center – George Street Playhouse, the State Theatre, Crossroads Theater and the American Repertory Ballet – and drive collaboration with arts organizations across our county,” Rios said in the statement. “By sharing and bundling services in areas like marketing and programming, the institute will enable all the county’s arts organizations to focus on providing residents in every area of the county with access to vibrant arts programming.”
The freeholder board has also continued to prioritize a partnership approach to healthcare.
On April 9, the Middlesex County Improvement Authority ratified Middlesex County’s agreement with RWJBarnabas Health to formalize the partnership for the Roosevelt Care Centers.
“As this new partnership begins in earnest, I’ve charged RWJBarnabas Health with evaluating our facilities and finding new ways to bring innovative solutions and services to our residents,” Rios said.
This partnership will preserve and expand Middlesex County’s commitment to the quality of care residents have been receiving at the Roosevelt Care Centers, including an emphasis on more therapeutic activity.
Rios then introduced two new initiatives to support veterans. He noted that the federal Veteran’s Affairs system struggles to provide for the mental health and well-being of veterans.
“To address this critical service gap, my colleagues and I have asked the Otlowski Center for Mental Health Care to create a program that specifically addresses the mental health needs of our veterans. This program will provide psychiatric evaluation, individual and group therapy, and other services tailored specifically for our veterans.”
Rios also announced a new veterans housing initiative.
“I’m proud to announce today that over the next few years, Middlesex County will be committing half a million dollars and partnering with housing developers with the goal of building affordable housing for veterans in need, in keeping with our mission of maintaining functional zero homelessness for veterans in Middlesex County,” he said in the statement.
In keeping with the board’s priority of providing best-in-class services, Rios announced that Middlesex County will be exploring partnership opportunities to continue to provide best-in-class treatment at the Otlowski Center.
“We will seek to continue leveraging the healthcare assets of our county, which includes major healthcare providers such as Hackensack Meridian Health, RWJBarnabas Health, Penn Medicine, and Saint Peter’s [University Hospital]. As a freeholder board, we are dedicated to making sure that our county residents have access to the care and support they need, when they need it, to help deal with mental health and substance abuse issues,” he said in the statement.
Rios expanded upon the board’s intention to establish a Department of Transportation.
“The intent is to establish an aligned, accountable, and coordinated transit system for residents, businesses and visitors. This department will work with local, state, and federal agencies, and be equipped to lead the way to take innovative new transportation ideas and make them a reality,” he said in the statement.
Rios also spoke about the need continually to drive economic development through strategic planning. He shared that he and his colleagues on the board have tasked the Middlesex County Improvement Authority (MCIA) with becoming the economic development engine for the county.
“The MCIA will be focusing on linking and coordinating economic growth, research and development, and technological opportunity – their mission will be to make Middlesex County the place where innovation becomes reality,” he said in the statement. “The MCIA is uniquely suited to this task, as they can use their bonding and funding abilities to help invest in future economic development projects that are aligned with our county priorities and focus to make Middlesex County a leading destination for both businesses and residents.”
The Freeholder Board has also partnered with Dr. Carl Van Horn and the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University to undertake the Middlesex County Economic and Workforce Competitiveness Project. This project will help Middlesex County assess its existing economic and workforce development strengths and identify potential areas for improving economic development and workforce opportunities for residents who are unemployed or underemployed, as well as help the county to ensure it is focusing on the right areas of workforce and talent development that businesses need to successfully operate and grow in the county, according to the statement.
Finally, Rios provided an update on the Destination 2040 Master Plan effort. Middlesex County is already out in the community with its partner, the Public Outreach and Engagement Team (POET) from the Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University. POET is working with the county to solicit feedback from residents, businesses and thought leaders, according to the statement.
“Our team will create a plan with specific and measurable action items to be implemented beginning on Day 1. This will be a dynamic program, a vision and a roadmap to guide the decisions and policies we implement today to prepare all of us for tomorrow,” he said in the statement.
Rios summarized at the conclusion, “What is hopefully clear to all of us as we tell the Middlesex County story and show how that story comes alive for our residents, businesses and visitors, is the fact that Middlesex County is the place to work, play and raise a family … the county where ideas become reality.”