Opinion

Camden incentives squabbles overshadow RFQ for Riverfront State Prison site

The specifications and descriptions of the property in the RFQ were reasonably precise:

  • Riverfront property, views of Philadelphia skyline;
  • Approximately 8.75 acres of prime land, close to a newly established public park, roadway improvements;
  • Large-scale environmental cleanup that involved capping the property with clean fill, topsoil and vegetation;
  • Seemingly ideal location for commercial or mixed-use development.

If interested, the EDA release says (bolded and ALL CAPS as it was presented):

Qualifications must be received by 2 p.m. on September 18, 2019 in a securely SEALED envelope or carton.

Here’s what the Request for Qualifications for those interested in redeveloping the former Riverfront State Prison Site in Camden doesn’t say:

Will the developer or any companies using the site have access to any Economic Development Authority-sponsored tax incentive programs?

Will those using any potential incentives become pawns in the growing war involving Camden — a war Gov. Phil Murphy’s team says it did not want, but it has, thanks to a task force many in Camden feel (rightly or wrongly) was constructed with an eye on them?

Will — and it’s becoming increasingly easier to question — there be any incentive programs actually on the books when it comes time to advance the process?

And, finally, if there are no incentives available, will that be an acknowledgement that the previous incentives for Camden did what they were supposed to do: create an urban environment where incentives are no longer needed to attract development?

If the EDA’s release of the RFQ for the former prison site was intended to show the Murphy administration is committed to development in Camden, it may have fallen short.

Firms are not racing to do business in Camden right now.

“The EDA is toxic,” one developer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said. “No one wants to be associated with it right now. That’s not good.”

There is a lot of uncertainty.

And tension.

Earlier Friday, Camden Mayor Frank Moran (along with city council President Curtis Jenkins and state Sen. Nilsa Cruz-Perez) issued a tough-talking news release regarding Murphy’s planned visit to the city — only his second since taking office, they said.

“Gov. Phil Murphy is swooping into Camden to attend a small group event out of the eye of the public, but he won’t come here to talk to the leaders of the city about why he’s attacking it or the potentially devastating impacts his attacks could have on the amazing progress Camden is making,” Moran said in the release.

“That’s why it’s so important that he understand from those of us who were elected to represent the people of Camden a simple message: He’s not welcome here unless and until he stops attacking the city and talks to the people of Camden and the leaders who were elected to represent them.

“Using Trenton attack dogs to try to destroy any of the more than two dozen companies which are making major investments in Camden makes it harder to attract new ones here, and that hurts the people of Camden.”

Darryl Isherwood, a spokesperson for the EDA, took exception to Moran’s words, and reiterated the governor’s interest — and efforts — in Camden. Efforts, he said, are demonstrated by the RFQ.

“The focus of the task force has never been about one geography or one company or one person,” he said. “It’s always been about determining if taxpayer dollars — including those paid by the residents of Camden — have been spent wisely, and to ensure that the program works for everybody, not just a select few.

“Gov. Murphy continues to make the well-being of the city of Camden a priority,  in areas like education where we have allocated more than $310 million to school funding, the most in recent memory; transportation, where we have distributed more than $54 million to the county; and property tax relief, where more than $180 million has been earmarked under three separate programs.”

Isherwood said the governor is eager to get his new incentive programs passed.

“The governor has proposed a robust package of tax incentives that we’re still hopeful will be passed into law by the Legislature,” he said. “Those incentives certainly would benefit developers interested into the site.”

The process figures to be a long one. The RFQ is just the first step.

But it’s the first step into a situation some are hesitant to get into.

This much is a clear: A highly desirable piece of real estate (and a good part of that desirability comes from the investment that has come to Camden) is available. But it comes with many more questions than can be answered right now.

And that’s not good for New Jersey.

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N.J. manufacturer: ‘The belief that China pays these tariffs is totally inaccurate’

When he woke up this morning and saw the news — saw that President Donald Trump was increasing the Section 301 tariffs on a whole host of products coming out of China — Gary DuBoff had a simple reaction:

“This is going to hurt,” he thought to himself.

But DuBoff, the CEO and president of Arrow Fastener in Saddle Brook — a million-dollar manufacturer we tend to check in with during tariff decisions — said the pain will not go to the intended target.

“The U.S. consumer will, at some point very soon, pay these tariffs,” he told ROI-NJ. “The belief that China pays these tariffs is totally incorrect. China does not pay these tariffs.

“China will not pay 5 cents more.”

The reason, he said, is simple.

Arrow is the owner of the products coming out of China — and, thus, Arrow is the one who will be hit with the tariff.

“Everything is FOB (freight on board) in China,” DuBoff said. “As soon as the Chinese vendor sends it to the port and our freight forwarder signs for it, we own it.

“So, I fail to understand how the administration feels that China is paying this tariff.”

It’s the same reaction that DuBoff — and so many other New Jersey manufacturers — have had during Trump’s trade war with China.

This one, however, may be different.

Last summer, when the Section 301 tariff was set at 10 percent, most consumers didn’t know it.

“To be frank, because we really thought this was not going to last,” he said. “We can no longer eat that. So, we’re in the process of executing a price increase.”

DuBoff estimated his company manufacturers 65 percent of its products here. Some items — he specifically noted rivet tools — are far easier to manufacture in China. Because of it, DuBoff expects to see a jump in the cost of them from approximately $20 to approximately $25.

Finding a solution, he said, will not be easy.

And it’s certainly not as easy as simply going to a different country for the product.

“If you go to other countries, lower-cost countries like Vietnam, they’re not prepared,” he said. “They don’t have the same internal structures set up that China has.

“There aren’t even enough vendors.”

There will be soon, however. And DuBoff knows exactly where they will come from: China.

“I think you’ll see some of the Chinese vendors go in and set up factories in other countries,” he said. “You’re not going to hurt the Chinese. They’re very smart people. They’re going to get around this.

“They’re not going to be put out of business. They’re businessmen just like we are. They woke up today and said to themselves, ‘What are we going to do?’

“So, it might start trying to (affect China) short term. But, long term, I don’t think (there will be) any real effect on China.”

Arrow Fastener, best known for its staple gun, employs more than 300 in New Jersey, which it has called home for more than 50 years.

Like everyone else impacted by tariffs, DuBoff said he’ll try to find a way to make it forward.

But don’t expect any wild proclamations. He knows opinions on this issue are mixed, even in the manufacturing sector.

“I just got back from the national hardware show,” he said. “This is all we talked about.

“I’ve talked to a lot of people who support this 100 percent, even though it’s going to hurt, because they feel that we have been bullied by China for so long that somebody has to stand up and say, ‘Enough is enough.’

“And there are other people that say, ‘We just can’t afford to do this.’”

DuBoff respects both opinions.

There’s only one viewpoint he doesn’t agree with.

“The Chinese are not going to pay this tariff,” he said.

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EDA investment has been part of watershed transformation of Camden — and wasn’t that exact purpose of Economic Opportunity Act?

(Editor’s note: This op-ed originally appeared on NJ.com. It is reprinted here with permission.)

There’s another round of “dog pile on the rabbit” occurring in New Jersey. In this case, it’s politicians and the media bashing the how the Economic Development Authority has been doling out tax credits to businesses connected with South Jersey political leader George Norcross — the rabbit, it would seem, at the bottom of this particular pile of dogs.

I’ve sat and watched this with incredulity, because it appears that everyone so scandalized by the Economic Development Authority’s actions seems a bit clueless about the law itself, and what its intentions were.

A primer:

What was the intended purpose of the Economic Opportunity Act?

The bill was designed as a mechanism to help bring economic development to South Jersey, specifically creating set-asides for the eight southern counties, especially Camden. Why? As Matt Friedman (then with NJ.com, now with Politicoreported in 2013, state Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) noted that in the “last incentive bill … almost 97 cents out of every dollar went to Jersey City and Newark. If something isn’t done, South Jersey won’t see any of it.” At that point, $211 million had gone to Prudential for its headquarters in Newark. Honeywell received $40 million to move five miles from Morris Township to Morris Plains, and on and on.

But the geographical inequities in state funding weren’t limited to the Economic Development Authority: Millions of dollars of Casino Reinvestment Development Authority money had gone to North Jersey pet projects. CRDA money was taken from needy Atlantic City and used to help build a museum to Yogi Berra (who I love, but that’s beside the point) on my Montclair State University campus (which I also love, but is also beside the point) in one of the most affluent communities in the state (which is the point). The EOA was designed to address some of these historic inequities.

Who supported it?

In short, almost everyone. OK, not everyone. A total of seven legislators in both houses opposed the measure, with the lone Republican opponent in the Senate citing his support of the free market system rather than government subsidies as his motivation for opposition. The point is that sometimes, in politics, deals are made. Through logrolling, one legislator supports a bill that doesn’t matter to her in order to gain support of a measure that will benefit her constituents. It’s not pretty, but it’s how politics is done. And the overwhelming majority of the state Legislature supported the set-asides for South Jersey.

Why Camden?

When this legislation was drafted, Camden was the poorest city in the nation. Its unemployment rate was approaching 40 percent, nearly half of its families lived below the poverty line, and the average income was about $26,000 (compared with a statewide average of over $70,000 at the time). And, unlike most of the state, the damage to Camden’s economy hadn’t been caused by the Great Recession. Rather, Camden had witnessed decades of abandonment by industry and outmigration by residents.

So, what’s the deal with the George Norcross ‘connections’? 

He’s the most powerful unelected man in the state, and, by all accounts, the Camden native envisioned Camden’s transformation. Should it be surprising that companies that want to do business in Camden are “connected” to him, or, heaven forbid, he convinced companies to locate in Camden? Is there something illegal about that?

At the height of his power, could you imagine development in Newark’s North Ward in which the principals didn’t go kiss Steve Abudato Sr.’s ring? Or major development in Union City where Brian Stack wasn’t tangentially involved? If a company is looking to secure tax incentives, wouldn’t it be reasonable that they contract with a law firm that specializes in securing these incentives?

In watching the recriminations of companies connected to Norcross, I couldn’t help but ask, “So what?” Should business leaders with “connections” to Norcross be precluded from receiving the tax incentives? Is there something illegal about having a connection to the man? Are these people who are so incensed new to politics? To New Jersey? Do they not understand how spheres of influence work?

Have you been to Camden lately?

Since the EDA’s investment, the poverty rate is down 5 percent, the unemployment rate is down 8 percent, the high school graduation rate is up 20 percent, and the crime rate is down nearly 60 percent. There have been improvements in public safety and green spaces to encourage Subaru, Holtec International and the Philadelphia 76ers’ employees to stay in town; the Eds & Meds anchor institutions — Rutgers University and Cooper University Hospital — have expanded their downtown footprints; market-rate housing is being built for millennials who are increasingly seeing Camden as desirable. A hotel is opening.

I am not claiming that all of these indicators are a direct result of the EDA investment exclusively, but, clearly, the investment has been part of a watershed, systemic transformation of the city of Camden, what the Wall Street Journal characterized as “a development boom.” And isn’t that exactly what the purpose of the Economic Opportunity Act was?

Brigid Callahan Harrison is professor of political science and law at Montclair State University, where she teaches courses in American government. A frequent commentator on state and national politics, she is the author of five books on American politics. Like her on Facebook at Brigid Callahan Harrison. Follow her on Twitter @BriCalHar.

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University Place, transformative project on Jersey City’s West Side, celebrates another milestone

They brought 10 shovels to the ceremonial groundbreaking.

They didn’t have enough.

Generations ago, that may have led to a cliché joke about Hudson County. Wednesday morning, on the West Side of Jersey City, it represented just how many officials from top companies, as well as higher education and governmental agencies, are working together to start the second phase of the transformational University Place project.

This groundbreaking was for the start of Rivet 2, which will feature 199 residential units and approximately 10,000 feet of service-oriented ground retail.

File photo
A rendering of the University Place project in Jersey City.

The unit follows the success of Rivet 1, a 163-unit luxury apartment building that opened last summer and already is more than 80 percent full.

The two buildings are part of a master plan that calls for an eight-building live-work-play (and learn) destination that will feature more than 1,000 residential units, 120,000 square feet of retail, a state-of-the-art performing arts center (which will house the Joffrey Ballet School — coming over from New York City), cafes, three upscale restaurants and plenty of green space.

For Sue Henderson, president of New Jersey City University, it is a perfect marriage of public and private interests.

“This is bringing together a real live, work and play space with a higher education and an arts component,” she told ROI-NJ. “That’s why we are calling it University Place. It is going to be a place to be — a place where the city can grow.

“As an anchor institution, you are supposed to be reaching out to your community and being part of the city. You want to be in and of your city.”

Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop is certainly grateful for her exuberance.

“When you think about the transformation that’s taking place on the West Side, we’re lucky to have NJCU as an anchor,” he said. “They are very proactive, thinking about development, and we want to be partners with them.”

Many others do, as well.

The development partners were led by Hampshire Cos. (Jon and Jimmy Hanson), Claremont Cos. (Richard Sciaretta) and Circle Squared Alternative Investments (Jeffrey Sica).

They see the potential, too.

“The successful leasing of Rivet 1’s retail and residential components is a strong indicator that our vision for Jersey City’s west end is shared by residents and businesses alike,” Sciaretta said.

Rafael Perez, chair of the NJCU board of trustees, thanked them, and all of the other contributors, including Freeholder Bill O’Dea and Strategic Development Group CEO Tony Bastardi.

“The university is not equipped to do this (by ourselves),” he said. “This is a partnership.

File photo
The Rivet 1 building at Jersey City’s University Place development.

“It’s gratifying being here today — after many years — knowing what it takes to make these projects come to fruition.”

Fulop, who thanked Ward A Councilperson Denise Ridley and Ward B Councilperson Mira Prinz-Arey, along with Council President Rolando Lavarro, said the day’s event marked another day forward in the town.

Fulop, in fact, already was looking forward to future groundbreakings, including ones for Bayfront, the transformative 100-acre project one block over that is gearing up to start.

“If you think about what this place is going to look like five years from now, it’s going to be entirely different,” he said. “The RFP for the first four buildings of Bayfront should go out later this month.”

Together, he said, they will have great impact — and symbolism.

“I think the two will really complement each other,” he said. “The fact that the first Rivet is ahead of schedule is only going to serve us on Bayfront. For the people who are skeptical about whether the market can support it, or people want to be here, Rivet is a testament to a fact that it’s ‘Yes.’

“This is becoming just another Jersey City community that is changing.”

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Most CPAs are telling clients to relocate out of N.J. — here’s how we can change that

Certified public accountants often hear objections about New Jersey’s high taxes from clients who are looking to leave New Jersey — and this past tax season was no exception, according to members of the New Jersey Society of Certified Public Accountants. And a Rutgers-Eagleton poll done in collaboration with the New Jersey Business & Industry Association serves to underscore why.

The overwhelming majority of New Jersey residents polled — 82 percent — said they are overburdened by taxes and are not getting their money’s worth in services. Similarly, 81 percent of respondents said they were dissatisfied with the way state leaders are addressing New Jersey’s affordability challenges.

Against this backdrop of taxpayer angst about some of the highest personal and business taxes in the nation, Gov. Phil Murphy’s Fiscal Year 2020 budget proposes more tax increases on top of the $1.6 billion in tax hikes enacted last year. He is proposing a top 10.75% marginal tax rate affecting income over $1 million. If enacted, more New Jersey residents and small businesses that flow income through their personal returns would be taxed at rates well above New York state’s 8.82% and Pennsylvania’s flat 3.07% rate.

It is no wonder a recent NJCPA member survey found that 75% of CPAs have advised some clients to relocate their homes or businesses out of New Jersey in order reduce their tax burden.

New Jersey must break its destructive tax-and-spend habit by addressing the structural imbalances in its budget in order to put the state on sounder financial footing.

A recent NJBIA analysis of 10 years’ worth of audited state revenues, expenses and debt found state debt increased 382% from 2007 to 2017, and state spending increases outpaced revenue, 45% to 23%. New Jersey’s combined net pension liability and post-employment benefit obligation totals $151.6 billion, which is four times the size of the annual state budget.

Without changes to the pension and benefit structure, costs will rise from $6.6 billion a year to about $11 billion annually in 2023, according to state Treasury projections and other health benefit reports. That means 27% of the state budget would go to support pensions and benefits, leaving less money for essential state services and making it more likely the state will resort to additional tax increases to make up the difference.

The NJCPA strongly endorsed the pension and benefit reforms spelled out by the New Jersey Economic and Fiscal Policy Workgroup in its Path to Progress report last year. These include shifting from the current defined benefit pension system to a more sustainable hybrid system that combines the best elements of both a defined benefit and defined contribution system.

In May, the state treasurer will brief legislative budget committees on the administration’s updated revenue projections for the current fiscal year that ends June 30. Murphy had been counting on 7.7% revenue growth to balance the FY 2019 budget; however, through March, the total growth rate of all major revenue sources has been only 4.74%.

In short, New Jersey remains on a counterproductive path of spending more money than it has and relying on tax increases to make up the difference. The changes to the income tax bracket in the proposed FY 2020 budget will further undermine the state’s ability to grow and attract businesses.

NJCPA supports policies that produce a fair tax system and economic growth so that companies and residents will stay in New Jersey and thrive. NJCPA stands ready to serve as a resource to the governor, his administration and the Legislature to develop policies that foster economic growth.

Ralph Albert Thomas is CEO and executive director of the New Jersey Society of Certified Public Accountants. With more than 14,500 members, NJCPA represents the interests of the accounting profession and advances the financial well-being of the people of New Jersey. The NJCPA plays a leadership role in supporting the profession by providing members with educational resources, access to shared knowledge and a continuing effort to create and expand professional opportunities.

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Opportunity Zones … we need Entrepreneur Zones

Small businesses are the largest employers in New Jersey. These enterprises are the heart of the middle class, because they provide the income that residents need to survive in this expensive state. Increasing the number of successful entrepreneurial businesses in New Jersey is the only sustainable way to generate the tax revenue and employment necessary to reduce taxes and help the state through its current fiscal crisis. This is especially true in the poorest urban communities. 

I believe that the best social program is a job. The quickest way to turn around low-income communities is to create new jobs that provide previously poor households with the income they need to pay their monthly bills on time. The Unemployment Rate Index is a measure I developed to estimate the number of jobs required to make the municipal unemployment rate equivalent to the state unemployment rate. To calculate the URI, I subtracted the state unemployment rate percentage as determined by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (4% in 2019) from the municipal unemployment percentage calculated by the U.S. Census. I then multiplied that percentage difference by the municipal population. The resulting number represents the number of new jobs needed for the municipality to have the same unemployment rate as the state. 

The URI results are insightful because they suggest that, in Newark, an increase of 23,768 jobs would significantly increase student academic achievement, reduce crime and enhance the quality of life in the city. However, in Jersey City, only 7,113 new jobs are needed to make the same transformation.

The most effective way to create these jobs is for the state to provide the tax incentives, regulation relief and financial support that local entrepreneurs need to help them increase profitability and employment in the local community. I believe that Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration and the New Jersey Legislature should work together to create these needed jobs through “Entrepreneur Zones,” or “EZones,” within the poorest sections of the new Opportunity Zones.

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act passed by Congress in 2017 contains a unique economic development and tax incentive called Opportunity Zones. This program was designed to encourage long-term private capital investment in low-income communities in the United States. The purpose of this tax incentive is to spur economic development and job creation in distressed communities by providing tax incentives to investors. However, Opportunity Zones encourage investment in real estate assets, not risky entrepreneurial businesses in poor communities. 

I am suggesting that Entrepreneur Zone legislation be created to ensure that a significant amount of the money invested in Opportunity Zones is focused on increasing the number of jobs and business tax revenue for both the municipality and the state. The establishment of Entrepreneur Zones should ensure that investments in Opportunity Zone locations are more impactful than they were in Enterprise Zones. 

However, these jobs created should pay sufficient income to enable households to pay their basic expenses. Using the MIT Living Wage Calculator and the U.S. Census, I developed a measure of poverty called the Living Wage Index or “LWI.” This measure indicates the percentage of households in any municipality in New Jersey that earn sufficient income to pay their basic bills. This data suggests that there is a major economic crisis in eight major New Jersey cities, including Asbury Park, Atlantic City, Camden, Jersey City, Newark, New Brunswick, Paterson and Trenton. Tragically, there are 144,634 households in Newark and 97,498 households who do not earn enough money to pay their basic bills.

The only sustainable way to increase jobs and the LWI is for state and local governments to create Entrepreneur Zones and provide the incentives necessary to help these businesses succeed and create local jobs paying sufficient income. 

Dale G. Caldwell is the executive director at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Rothman Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

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Only fair that Trinitas gets Level II trauma status

Recent news detailed the overcrowding that is being experienced by Newark’s University Hospital and the need for $10 million from the state for expansion of that facility. In recent articles, people associated with University incorrectly stated Trinitas Regional Medical Center’s trauma volume and capabilities. Trinitas is seeking approval to become a Level II Trauma Center. Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin (D-Newark) and University’s acting CEO, Judith Persichilli, both maintained that granting Level II trauma status to Trinitas will siphon patients and thereby hurt University Hospital. I cannot let these comments go unanswered.

Joseph P. Cryan

Trinitas already treats more than the minimum number of 350 trauma cases required for it be designated a Trauma Center, and has done so for more than eight years. This was the unanimous finding of the State Planning Board. And, for many years, Trinitas has operated successfully in stabilizing critically ill and injured patients, and transferring them to University when appropriate for Level I care. The trauma system in New Jersey depends on this high degree of collaboration between Level I and Level II facilities, as well as community hospitals.

Now is not the time to begin building silos.

University Hospital states that Trinitas becoming a Level II Trauma Center will result in $20 million in lost revenue to University if it lost 250 patients to Trinitas. That would amount to $80,000 per patient. This is simply not the case. Even if University did lose cases, the financial losses would be a fraction of that amount. Indeed, the formalization of a Level I and Level II relationship between Trinitas and University could result in more patients coming to University, not less. The bottom line is the people of the greater Elizabeth community also deserve a trauma center.

After an accident, no patient wants to be driven past one hospital to wait in traffic to go to a further hospital. Every patient wants to be taken to the closest hospital possible to be cared for or, at a minimum, stabilized. Designating Trinitas a Level II formally recognizes its expertise and allows the doctors to do what they are trained to do — take care of trauma patients.

In an emergency, it does matter how close you are to the care you require. Did you know that Boston, with its population of 500,000, nearly rivals Union County in number of residents? But there’s a profound difference. Boston has seven Level I trauma centers and two Level II trauma centers — but Union County has zero trauma centers. We simply cannot keep the status quo of one trauma center in Newark serving two of the state’s largest urban areas. Everyone knows that getting from any place in Union County to Newark in a short amount of time is nearly impossible.

This thinking correctly prompted the State Health Planning Board to unanimously overturn the Department of Health’s initial rejection of Trinitas’ trauma application. I was there, I heard the discussion. There was no reason to vote otherwise. Approval was obvious, as the need was well-proven and capabilities carefully documented.

The bottom line is the people of the greater Elizabeth community also deserve a trauma center.

Homeland Security officials have labeled the section of the New Jersey Turnpike in Elizabeth and Newark as the most dangerous two miles in America. The current arrangement of having just one trauma center — located in Newark — is unacceptable to those of us living and working in Elizabeth and Union County.

You don’t need to search far to find evidence of Trinitas’ commitment to the well-being of my community. In just the last year, Trinitas invested $18.7 million (raised entirely by the Trinitas Health Foundation, with not a penny from the state) in an expansion of its Emergency Department that nearly doubled the number of treatment beds and added four Intensive Care Unit rooms (two of which are Trauma ICU rooms). The project also addressed the emotional aspect of emergency care, providing separate treatment areas with specialized expertise for children, seniors and behavioral patients. Trinitas sees nearly 70,000 emergencies each year, and it does it very well. It is anxious to be formally recognized for this level of care and become a true, Level II trauma center for the people who live, work and visit Union County.

Trinitas is not seeking to cause harm to University, and there is no credible evidence that designation of Trinitas as a Level II trauma center will have any material financial impact on University. Trinitas has a long history of working with University and will continue that practice.

The residents of the greater Elizabeth community are not second-class citizens. We are not a suburb of Newark, nor should special interests be chosen over patient care. Decisions on trauma care should be based on the needs of the community. The citizens of Elizabeth and the rest of Union County deserve the respect and the equal fairness afforded to New Jersey citizens everywhere. For the safety and peace of mind of my constituents, Trinitas’ application for Level II Trauma Center designation must be approved. To do otherwise would be a decision that will not withstand scrutiny, and will not best serve New Jersey’s patients.

Joseph P. Cryan (D-Union) is a state senator representing the 20th District.

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‘Credibility issue’: Zoffinger, longtime power broker, says EDA upheaval puts N.J. in bad light — one it caused itself

George Zoffinger has served on approximately a dozen boards across the state — and across the globe.

He’s overseen the Economic Development Authority and the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority — and he’s the current chairman of the New Brunswick Economic Development Corp.

He’s worked — in some capacity — for every New Jersey governor since Jim Florio, who appointed him commissioner of commerce and economic development.

So, he knows a thing or two about how agencies and government are supposed to operate. And he’s not happy about what he sees going on in connection with the EDA.

“It pains me to see what has happened at that organization,” he told ROI-NJ.

Zoffinger is talking about Chairman Larry Downes stepping down at the request of Gov. Phil Murphy — a request other members of the EDA who were appointed by former Gov. Chris Christie have not complied with so far.

He’s talking about a scathing audit — the parameters of which have been called into question.

He’s talking about the efforts of outside groups calling for a complete overhaul of the EDA for reasons some feel are based more on politics than performance.

“It’s not necessary, I guess is the way I would put it,” Zoffinger said. “We’ve had so many good people that have dedicated their life to it and have done some really positive things for the economic development of the state.

“And, now, because people didn’t agree with some of the things that were done during the Christie years, they’re basically throwing the baby out with the bath water.”

Zoffinger was on a roll.

“I know Larry Downes very well,” he said. “I’ve worked with Larry. I’ve been on the board of New Jersey Natural Gas for 20 years. I’ve seen him. And I know the kind of person he is. And all Larry wanted to do is to make a positive contribution, and he’s done that.

“To make him a scapegoat because you don’t agree with some of the policies that were undertaken at the time, in my opinion, is really wrong. So, it’s really pretty bad to see what’s happening there.”

Zoffinger did offer some praise for Kevin Quinn, who was named to replace Downes on Friday morning.

Quinn is the founder of the Genki Advisory investment firm in Short Hills and, like Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive.

“It could be a good first step,” Zoffinger said. “He seems to be a qualified guy.

“As long as the turmoil doesn’t continue, I think it’s a positive thing. But if they’re going to fight over the four board members, then that will be the focus of the place. They won’t be focusing on what they should be focusing on, which is economic development.”

Regardless of what happens going forward, Zoffinger knows it won’t go perfectly. He’s been around the block enough times to know that no agency is like that.

But, he said he has confidence in the EDA. He said he’s never lost it.

“You’re always going to have situations where people try to game the system,” he said. “You’re always going to have that. But in the case of the EDA, over the years, to my knowledge, it’s always been very difficult to game the system. They basically have so much backup, not only the paperwork, but the constant scrutiny they are under.”

Zoffinger said the problem is an age-old one in the state.

Because the governor — whoever it is — has so much power, few people are willing to challenge the office, he said.

“The governor’s position is so strong, people will not buck it,” he said. “They won’t fight against it. If the governor’s position is to do just about anything — we gave away Giants Stadium (when I was at the sports authority) because the governor wanted to do it.

“People in New Jersey have this aversion to bucking what most governors say. It’s really sad, because some really good people maybe could have made some of the policies (better), but we don’t do that in New Jersey.”

This will lead to a bigger problem, Zoffinger said.

How many others will want to serve the state?

“They’re going to ask, ‘What’s going to happen when somebody else comes along and they don’t like them because Murphy appointed them,’” he said. “We’re going to throw them out for no reason — or because some conservative groups or some liberal groups or some other groups say that they should?

“When people say, ‘We’ve got to get rid of all these people,’ what do they mean get by, ‘these people’? These are people. You got to look at the person and see what’s this person all about.”

Why would people — or, more importantly, big companies — want to settle here? And who is going to help them?

“Larry is a really good guy who brought real stability to that organization,” Zoffinger said. “Now you put the whole organization into an upheaval.

“Now, what’s going to get done while these people fight over whether they’re going or staying, right? I would say, ‘Nothing.’”

Zoffinger said it’s necessary for the state to clean up the mess. He hopes Quinn can do that.

“You have to make sure that people understand their responsibilities and you have to stop the personal attacks and the rancor that seems to be around the organization,” he said. “Because, if you don’t, they will never be able to have the credibility necessary to be able to do that job.

“That’s really what it comes down to. There’s a credibility issue right now that has to be addressed, and it has to be addressed by competent people. Hopefully, some stability or some kind of positive reaction will take place instead of fighting.

“So, if a company wants to come to New Jersey, they know that they could deal with the people that are there versus people that have been asked to leave.”

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Stopping natural gas in N.J. would threaten economy

New York was hit with a stark realization just weeks ago: When anti-pipeline rhetoric replaces facts in energy policy, the results can be devastating for neighborhoods, businesses and job-creating economic development. Worst of all, what is unfolding on Long Island and in Westchester County is entirely avoidable, providing a cautionary tale New Jersey must avoid as the siren song of stopping all natural gas projects begins to rear its head in the Garden State.

ConEd announced that, beginning March 15, it will not add any new natural gas utility customers in Westchester County because it cannot guarantee reliable service without new supply. That’s a frightening development.

National Grid added that it, too, could not provide reliable fuel to heat the pending $1 billion Belmont Park initiative on Long Island, threatening the major development of a new hockey arena, a hotel and retail spaces.

Mike Stiles, business manager, Pipefitters Local 274.

Bipartisan officials across the impacted communities are now sounding alarm bells about the “devastation” the lack of gas utility service means to their downtown redevelopment projects, new affordable housing and job-creating commercial projects. 

The Environmental Defense Fund even testified on Feb. 13 that opposing or preventing all pipeline expansion “is not an effective climate policy,” because insufficient pipeline capacity is “causing adverse environmental impacts.”

Massachusetts is in a similar position. Politicians gave false comfort in a now-debunked 2015 report that recommended, like some in New Jersey do today, that no new natural gas pipelines were needed. Just two years later, not only did the state run out of natural gas in the dead of winter, it imported Russian fuel to save residents from weeks-long cold. The ripple effects continued in February as Holyoke Gas announced it, too, was forced to stop new natural gas hookups to residents and businesses without new energy supplies.

The problems in New York and Massachusetts took root years ago with political stunts and regulatory delays to deny new natural gas pipelines, causing the problems we see in those states today. There’s no easy solution in sight, unless pending projects are fast-tracked — particularly for next winter.

New Jersey’s future will look the same should policymakers hastily ban new gas pipeline construction or seek to delay projects that are critical to advancing our own energy security and economic growth. Imagine the ripple effect: a major pharmaceutical or manufacturing company being turned away because a utility company couldn’t guarantee it reliable energy, or an end to providing new customers with the low-cost natural gas they expect.

New Jersey is already a model when it comes to clean power. Marked emission reductions have been achieved because of responsible state leadership to advance natural gas investments, both for electricity generation and home heating needs. In fact, over 90 percent of the state’s electricity is provided by carbon-free nuclear power and clean, low-emission natural gas. Three out of four New Jersey customers already heat their homes with natural gas, too.

Ernest Moniz, President Barack Obama’s Energy Secretary and an MIT physicist, has not only called natural gas a common-sense bridge to a low-carbon future, but that extreme renewable-only mandates like those contained in the recently announced Green New Deal are “impracticable unrealizable objectives.” 

Here in New Jersey, our clean and efficient power sector accounts for just 16 percent of carbon emissions, yet our cars and trucks emit three times that amount. Addressing our transportation sector is the best opportunity for our state to advance our climate goals. 

Most important, natural gas is a critical energy resource that is lowering bills. Public Service Electric & Gas, for example, has said a typical customer’s bill is $844 per year lower than in 2008. This is a victory in particular for the state’s seniors on fixed incomes and the working poor — as well as our ability to attract and keep businesses.

Natural gas is an indispensable part of New Jersey’s energy mix, and has earned its place in a low-carbon, cleaner energy future by providing reliable and affordable heat, electricity and fuel. Stopping new natural gas supplies through a short-sighted moratorium will only take us backward in getting to our shared clean energy goals, while jeopardizing our economy and threatening higher bills. 

Mike Stiles is the business manager at Pipefitters Local 274.

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Numbers game: Fixing Meadowlands transportation issues is more important than fixing blame

While others were playing the blame game following the latest transportation problem/debacle at MetLife Stadium, Jim Kirkos was doing the math problem.

And he got the same answer he got before WrestleMania came to the Meadowlands last week. In fact, he got the same answer he got before Super Bowl XLVIII came there in 2014.

New Jersey Transit, as the system is currently designed, can move approximately 10,000-12,000 people an hour, he said. That’s the issue.

So, if you have a situation where 30,000 people want to use it at approximately the same time — like the end of a major event at the stadium — it’s going to take three hours to handle the volume.

More importantly, if the region keeps getting that answer, the area is not going to be able to capitalize on the economic benefits such major events bring.

That’s why Kirkos, the longtime CEO of the Meadowlands Regional Chamber of Commerce, is trying to make a solution the topic of conversation — rather than trying to blame the post-event problem on officials from NJ Transit, MetLife Stadium, WWE or either of our most recent governors.

“I always want to look through the windshield, not the rear-view mirror,” he said. “I think it’s important for us all to understand just how important big events at the sports complex at the stadium are for economic impact — and that we need to make ensuring the transportation infrastructure in all modes will allow us to leverage our ability to bring these big events here a top priority.

File photo
Jim Kirkos of the Meadowlands Regional Chamber of Commerce.

“We’re building these great destination-related assets and we have to get it right. It’s beholden on all entities to make sure that we can give visitors a great experience.”

That wasn’t the case last Monday, when fans leaving the WrestleMania event (in the pouring rain) discovered just how many people could (and couldn’t) get through the station in a timely manner.

“No train, we riot,” it was reported many chanted.

You can be sure that won’t be part of the marketing campaign to try to lure WrestleMania, the Super Bowl and — let’s not forget — the final of the 2026 World Cup to New Jersey.

Here’s what will, Kirkos said: a comprehensive plan.

“If somebody wants to come back or bring a new event here and that issue is raised, everybody’s going to need to sit down and provide some assurances this type of thing won’t happen again,” he said. “We need to not only have a Plan A and Plan B and maybe even have a Plan C.

“But we need to have long-term plans to complete the mobility issue because, at the end of the day, it’s really about that.”

The problem isn’t new. 

“The fact that we built the train line to the train station and we dropped the idea of continuing the loop is unacceptable,” Kirkos said.

And it’s an issue that’s talked about repeatedly.

“Transportation and infrastructure investment have been one of our top priorities, always has been,” he said. “Especially for the last 15 or 20 years.

“There is never a comment about economic development that isn’t led or followed by it. We need to focus on our ability to move people and create good mobility experiences. I think that’s the message here for everybody.”

So, ignore the blame game, Kirkos said. 

Solve the math problem instead.

“We, as a region and as a state, have yet to complete the transportation infrastructure that’s necessary to leverage all that we can from an economic development and a tourism destination standpoint,” he said. “All of our priority must go to that, now and in the future.”

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