Leadership on the Hudson County Board of Freeholders remains unchanged from 2018. The board voted on Jan. 2 to retain Anthony Vainieri of North Bergen as chairman, Bill O’Dea from Jersey City as vice chair, and Anthony Romano from Hoboken as chairperson pro-tempore, the third ranking member on the board.
This marks the third year in a row that Vainieri will serve as chairman. He is the first freeholder to do so since Sal Vega retained the chair for five terms starting in the late 1990s.
The appointments came with a bit of levity, as O’Dea mistakenly nominated Romano for chairmanship, and then quickly corrected his error.
Historically, the vice chair of the previous year is named chairperson for the new year. Vainieri, not to be outdone by O’Dea’s levity at the nomination, reflected on the past year and its accomplishments, claiming that overall the board had a successful legislative year, except for a sudden chill in the summer.
“We had a little trouble with ICE,” he said, referring to the controversial contract for holding detainees for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that the board passed in July, and then was forced to amend in October to add a phase out clause.
Hudson County receives as much as $35 million a year to hold ICE detainees in the Hudson County Correctional Facility in Kearny. This has raised significant protests from activists who want the county to cease this operation.
The freeholders amended the contract to include a sunset clause that would theoretically end the contract by the end of 2020.
“Things look good for 2019 if nothing bad happens at the jail,” O’Dea said. The facility has had a number of deaths, suicides, health concerns, and problems providing for inmates in the past. Most of these issues have been addressed over the last year, but another death or medical concern could raise protests again.
New courthouse almost ready to break ground
The most significant projects for the upcoming year will be the start of construction on a new county courthouse complex and the possible opening of a county police academy, said Vainieri.
“We’ve finished clearing the land for the new courthouse on the north side of Newark Avenue,” he said. “We should have a ground breaking shortly.”
Early last year, the freeholders awarded a $4.45 million bid to clear the land and develop a master plan for construction of a new Hudson County Courthouse.
Hudson County Assignment Judge Peter Bariso, who has been pushing for the development of a new courthouse for years, praised the freeholders for the move, citing problems in the existing courthouse.
“There’s water around people’s desks,” he said. “I would love for the project to move ahead with rabbit speed, but I’ll settle for a turtle’s pace as long as it keeps moving ahead.”
Judge Bariso was concerned that acquisition of land would become unaffordable due to new luxury development in the Journal Square area.
The freeholders have been debating a new courthouse complex for more than a decade to replace the County Administration Building at 595 Newark Ave. The building was constructed in the 1960s but has had massive and costly problems over the last 20 years.
“Every year we wait conditions in 595 Newark Ave get worse,” said Romano. “This is a critical issue.”
County officials were notified about the problems at 595 Newark Ave. more than 25 years ago. Now the cost is nearly 10 times what the county originally estimated. A 1988 study done by the National Center for State Courts showed that the administration building was “functionally unsatisfactory in terms of circulation, structural, and environmental systems.”
After the new complex is complete, the building at 595 Newark Ave. will be demolished and the property will likely be sold to a private developer to help offset the cost of the court house construction.
The historic Brennan Court House at 495 Newark Avenue will remain.
Maybe next year for county police academy
Vainieri hopes the county will move ahead to convert the former Juvenile Detention Center in Secaucus into a new police academy. Romano said this is contingent on whether money will be available.
Currently police departments around the county send their cadets to academies elsewhere, often at a significant cost. Jersey City in particular has been recruiting at a record pace, but because the state allows only county governments to set up academies, Jersey City cannot build its own.
“We’re waiting on permits from the state,” Vainieri said.
Romano said the upcoming budget may not have enough money to make the conversion this year.
Romano, however, said the county will be focusing on parks and roads. This will include upgrades to two parks in Hoboken as well as sorely needed repair of county roads that passed through the Mile Square City.
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“Things look good for 2019 if nothing bad happens at the jail.” — Bill O’Dea