State legislators, Mercer County commissioners, Mercer County mayors and administrators gathered virtually to discuss their aspirations for federal funds from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act.
Organized by the Capital City Area Black Caucus, the discussion on April 24 centered on how Mercer County government and municipal officials would hope and plan to utilize the federal funds. As of April 27, the U.S. Department of the Treasury has not provided specific guidance yet on how the federal funds can be used by the county and local municipalities.
Through the American Rescue Plan, which was signed into law by President Joe Biden on March 11, New Jersey is being allocated $10.18 billion in direct federal assistance to the state government and local governments (county and municipal).
“The money is going to be an enormous amount with so many different people looking at how to spend this. I look at it as four ways of how we need to think about this money,” Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex, Somerset) said on April 24. “The first one is the immediate. We know people are hurting, businesses are hurting and businesses are closing. I think the first thing we do is look at where this money be used for the immediate.”
He added that inclusivity, looking to the future when it comes to helping prosperity grow in communities, and tying it into what officials are currently doing, such as community programs, are other ways to the funds could be used.
Assemblyman Dan Benson (D-Mercer, Middlesex) suggested transportation as an area where he would want funds to be allocated.
“We have done a great job of building equity for our seniors and disabled. We need to do more,” he said. “People should be able to get from A to B, whether it is for work, child care, health care or just recreational purposes. People need to be able to get around and it should not matter if you own a car or not or have the right income or zip code. We need to use some of this money to figure out where the gaps and invest in that infrastructure.”
Benson also included broadband infrastructure and education infrastructure as additional areas for funding.
Mercer County as a whole will receive more than $186 million in federal aid. The county government would be allocated $71.26 million and the total amount to municipalities is more than $115 million.
“One of the first things we need to do is get vaccines into arms. We need to look into pushing a vaccination campaign. I talked with several mayors that we have gotten the people that are easy and low hanging fruit, but that it is going to be challenging to get this other group,” said Sam Frisby, chairman of the Mercer County Commissioners. “The other thing we need to do is stabilize some of our small businesses right now. We need to help with that with all of our towns.”
He also cited infrastructure opportunities, internet mesh work and increased investment into the county’s vocational program.
Commissioner Lucy Walter proposed increased investment in programs that provide housing in Mercer County for all people during the April 24 discussion.
“We have young professionals, nurses, trades people, secretaries and administrative assistants who cannot afford to buy a house in Mercer County. We need to provide programs that assist in down payments, that assist will all of those needs to buy a house and make you a home owner in this county,” she said. “We need to have business incubators, so that young businesses starting out have the internet structure and have the structure they need to get these businesses off the ground and going.”
Walter also suggested upgrading waste water plants and expanding access to Trenton.
A breakdown on aid for municipalities includes East Windsor – $2.68 million, Hightstown – $521,023, Hopewell Borough – $187,230, Hopewell Township – $1.74 million, Lawrence Township – $3.18 million, Pennington – $253,046, Princeton – $6.05 million, Trenton – 73.78 million and West Windsor – $2.74 million.
“In general categories we look forward to first of all, we have budgetary needs. We do a lot of direct servicing to our community,” East Windsor Mayor Janice Mironov said. “We had to step up in a lot of the health areas to do vaccinations and outreach and we want to fund that and continue to do that. We have had to fill major revenue gaps an we are going to have to continue to do that and we want to make sure we have robust programs.”
Mironov also spotlighted the expanding of the senior center, build on health related recreation and exercise, and continue partnerships with social service nonprofits.
Hopewell Township Mayor Julie Blake said for her town they will use the dollars allocated to repay uncollected taxes and a gap in revenues.
“We are in some ways a large suburban community that really depends on property owners to pay for things. We depend on a few large commercial tax bases that have disappeared over the last few years,” she said. “It is not a pretty picture for us in Hopewell in terms of having new opportunities. I would like to see our dollars go to social service needs. I would say health services, COVID-19 brought to the forefront that we were so underfunded and underserviced.”
Hopewell Borough Councilman Ryan Kennedy, speaking for the borough, highlighted the municipality’s infrastructure needs as an area of focus for the federal aid.
“We are a traditional small town. We are dense, so we have infrastructure needs. Things like water, a new well, needs for public works, capital needs for the Hopewell Borough train station building and ultimately we want to be connected,” he said. “We want to be connected with our businesses. We need to invest in making sure our in-person meetings work as well as Zoom. This is a personal dream of mine as well, but we want to be connected with public transportation.”
Princeton Mayor Mark Freda said Princeton is looking to use the funding to not increase taxes and community investment.
“I know in Princeton we are going to get it in two waves, part of it this year and part of it next year,” he said. “I think what we are going to end up doing this year is saving property owners and taxpayers some money and try to keep our tax increase to nothing. We are talking about a lot of ways to use the money next year to invest in the community and invest in a way to give back to the community.”