By James R. Kern III
The COVID-19 pandemic has done great damage to the entire state of New Jersey. From our pristine shore to urban centers to our rural neighborhoods, every corner of this state has been impacted. Unfortunately, the entire state has not been represented.
After reading the editorial from Senator Menendez and Congresswoman Sherrill, I felt it important to add further commentary on their new sponsored legislation asking for more than $500 billion more in spending.
Four counties have yet to receive a single penny of federal aid from the CARES Act, the first COVID-19 relief bill that passed both houses in late March. Hunterdon, Salem, Sussex and Warren County were all excluded from direct funding based on “long standing, unchangeable and automatic federal formulas.” This oversight was attempted to be addressed when New Jersey’s entire congressional delegation sent a bipartisan letter to Governor Phil Murphy on April 10 asking him to immediately allocate the discretionary aid that was included in the act.
According to their letter, approximately $15 million is available for the governor to distribute as he sees fit. To date, this has not happened. During this time period, Warren County opened up a self-funded COVID-19 testing site to help ease the burden on our local healthcare system. Our neighbors in Hunterdon and Sussex were forced to partner with adjoining counties and Salem opened a site on their own as well.
Now two months later, congress has magically found a way to offer direct funding to localities such as Warren County in the latest bill: the “SMART ACT.” Don’t be confused by the clever title. Why should congress pass a new spending bill when millions of dollars sit in Trenton? This money should be distributed to the localities that have yet to receive any funding before any new funding is passed.
This fiscal insanity is not just limited to Washington DC. Politicians in Trenton have floated their own ill-advised spending bill. While these millions of federal dollars sit in Trenton’s coffers, legislators will be voting on S-2475, which allows towns and counties to borrow up to 30 percent of their government’s prior year budget. This borrowing would also not require taxpayer approval. Rather than pass this bill, perhaps legislative leaders should investigate where the discretionary aid from Washington is being allocated?
Don’t get me wrong, New Jersey has been greatly impacted by this pandemic and local governments will need to make difficult decisions because of it. I also believe federal money is not a bailout as long as the dollars are strictly used for COVID-19 expenses. Unfortunately, these bills continue to contain partisan provisions that make their passage unlikely. But above all, the failure to provide immediate need to some localities is unacceptable, and giving seconds and thirds to other areas before some have received their firsts is unacceptable.
The failure of our elected leaders is sad, but not surprising.
James R. Kern III is a Warren County Freeholder.