The Camden County Freeholder Board has many ongoing projects they hope to accomplish this year.
The statement below is by Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli, Jr. in regard to the 2018 state of the county address.
We entered 2017 with a variety of goals to accomplish, projects in need of completion, and problems we wanted to see solved. I’m here to tell you that we have succeeded in facing some of the year’s most formidable challenges, and that our county has even pioneered responses to some of these issues, setting an example that the rest of New Jersey will likely look to replicate. I’m happy to report that as we look back on last year the state of the county is good.
Briefly, I’d like to revisit some of our accomplishments from the past year, as well as to look forward to the plans we already have in place for 2018. Last year was an extraordinary year for the county — even a historic one — but there is still so much work to be done. In other cases, the projects we completed and celebrated in the last 12 months are still in their infancy. The most important work is not in the planning or designing that we do behind the scenes. The most important work is done by the professionals in our Parks, Health, and Public Works Departments, as well as every other professional who executes our proposals and who spends each day working with, and for, the wonderful people of Camden County.
Having said that, I’d like to start by highlighting and thanking the men and women of the Camden County Police Department. These dedicated public servants performed their jobs to their fullest potential in 2017, and in doing so, delivered one of the safest years in the modern era for Camden City residents. Year over year we’ve seen reductions in both violent and total crime, and the city’s homicide rate plummeted to a 30-year low. This amount of progress hasn’t been seen in the city since the 1960s. These men and women are proof that by fostering trust inside their community, they can forge lifelong bonds with those who live there, and that those bonds lead to safety and prosperity.
There have been many other stark changes in Camden over the past five years, including $2 billion of private investment, an expansion of higher education and a high school graduation rate that has incrementally increased each year. Today, the poverty rate in the city has decreased, more kids are getting a quality education, and the city is safer than it has been in a long time.
Throughout the rest of the county progress continues as well. The Freeholder Board has continued improving roadway infrastructure while increasing highway safety, and considers these improvements to be one of the best investments our body is capable of making. Innovation at the Department of Public Works has led to increased stability and reduced disruption on the roadways as well. Last summer the department took advantage of a centrifugal concrete culvert lining, an extremely innovative bit of technology, which allowed crews to work underneath the roadway without ever splitting the surface open. It cannot be overemphasized how greatly this technology reduced the disruption that the project caused to drivers. In 2018, we plan to continue innovating and investing in the safety of our drivers and motorists.
The Freeholder Board is also excited to report that it has officially finished pre-construction meetings, which were open to the public throughout the county, on the upcoming Cross-County Trail. This expansive, 32-mile trail will link Camden City to Winslow, and provide innumerable recreational opportunities to our residents. In 2015, Camden County adopted a Bicycling & Multi-Use Trails Plan, which envisions nearly 500 miles of multi-use trails and on-street bicycling facilities in every borough and township in the county. The Cross-County Trail will act as a “spine” to which future trails and bike lanes can connect. In order to jump start the implementation of this overall plan, the Freeholder Board is working to complete this Cross-County Trail running from the Delaware River to the Atlantic County line.
That said, we continue to preserve more property for future generations and enhance our award-winning greenspaces for families and residents. In 2018, we will be announcing the construction of two new parks and adding new amenities that both passive and active recreation enthusiasts will be able to take advantage of in the new year.
Unfortunately, 2017 was not all good news. The year continued a disturbing trend nationwide, and Camden County was not exempt. Vulnerable populations continued to struggle for help, and drug overdose officially became the number one cause of death among Americans under the age of 50 as the opioid crisis rages forward in unprecedented growth. Here, however, we elected to attack these growing issues from every possible angle.
In May, the Freeholder Board created the Camden County Department of Health and Human Services Office of Mental Health and Addiction. Thousands of Camden County residents struggle with the disease of addiction, and our goal was to assure each and every one of them that if they seek help, they will be able to find it. This new office has allowed us to direct every single caller to the appropriate resources and help them on their way to recovery. Law enforcement officials have reported that combining these services with their work on the front lines is essential to effectively combatting the rise of dangerous opioids in our communities. This extreme time period calls for innovation and evolution and I think that is what we’ve done in our county with the creation of this new office.
As we look forward to this year, the Office of Mental Health and Addiction and the Freeholder Board’s Addiction Awareness Task Force plan to work even harder to further programs and initiatives that combat the stigma and scourge of the opioid crisis. They will be working alongside the Freeholder Board to find treatment solutions and to deliver the help residents suffering from this disease desperately need. In addition, speakers, panel discussions, prevention education and referral resources will have an increased presence at schools, community centers and libraries across the county. Furthermore, we will be working on pioneering programs with medical professionals at each hospital in the county to work together against this epidemic.
Work is also underway to renovate the former FOP Lodge in Camden City into the Camden County Child Advocacy Center. This space will serve as a safe haven for victims of abuse to speak with detectives who are specifically trained as child forensic interviewers. The center will enhance the intervention, investigation and prosecution of child sexual abuse, physical abuse, sexual exploitation, and neglect cases. The facility serves to reduce the trauma and promote the healing of children, and their family members, using a coordinated multidisciplinary approach in a child-friendly, confidential and neutral setting.
For those struggling to find housing, the Freeholder Board launched a six-point plan to address homelessness with progressive programs and innovative partnerships. These new programs represent a holistic approach to ending homelessness, and one that encompasses all facets of the many challenges related to this endemic issue. The fight to end homelessness will be accomplished by breaking down silos and providing more effective resources for individuals. This new initiative will address a spectrum of needs, from 24-hour access to social workers to seasonal employment for individuals looking for work.
Before I close, I would be remiss, if I did not say that in 2018, much like in 2017, I will continue to speak out about access to guns. This continues to be a national public health crisis that is now, according to the CDC, the third leading killer among children. I will continue to advocate for stronger gun laws that stem the tide of firearms flowing into our county from the iron corridor in the south and the from the Midwest. There is no question in my mind, that if we do not get common sense gun legislation, we will continue to see mass shootings daily.
In short, 2017 was an outstanding year to be a resident of Camden County. The roads are being improved, neighborhoods are safer than ever, and new services are being added and consolidated to make sure that you and your loved ones are secure and healthy. There is plenty of work still to do, nevertheless we will continue to work on completing the big things that positively impact and affect the lives of residents. We will continue to work towards being a shining light for our community by implementing policies that improve and enhance the quality of life for all taxpayers.