COURT HOUSE - County Commissioner Director Gerald Thornton finally held his State of the County Address March 18, roughly one year after it was postponed because of the emerging pandemic.
During that year, 190 succumbed to the virus' infection and7,385 cases were reported.
The county expects 15% of its businesses not to reopen, which was originally forecasted to be roughly 30%, according to Thornton.
Recovering economically was at the core of Thornton's remarks to Cape May County Chamber of Commerce members and guests, in a Zoom meeting. Thornton stressed that the county could be on a three-tofive-year recovery path from the pandemic, but he remains optimistic that the county will fully recover amid a continuously changing life.
Thornton's remarks came as the area prepares for the summer tourism season, perhaps one of the more important ones in recent recollection. He said the Board of County Commissioners’ job as the weather warms is to get businesses fully open in time for the season, some of which may consider earning enough money to stay afloat as a failure-is-not-an-option situation.
"We're going to fight for our businesses and our residents here, in Cape May County," Thornton said. "We will do everything that's necessary to see that our businesses are open and are able to survive in this county.
"We will really fight like hell for everybody, and I mean that. It's extremely important that we do this together," he added, while commending the chamber and its president, Vicki Clark, as being advocates for the local business community.
This year, Thornton said, the county set its budget at $181 million. Tax rates were anchored at 0.2374, representing a one-cent tax increase.
The budget includes $1 million for Covid-related expenses, such as vaccine clinics. Operational expenses were forced to take a cut, as an allotment to the adjusted budget.
Despite the challenges the pandemic inflicted and its lingering uncertainty, Thornton remains optimistic the county will have a better tourism season this year, as the vaccination program improves, Covid-related restrictions are lifted from Trenton, and the county's hospitality-tourism businesses get a boost from hotel and motel occupancy tax collections being fully allocated for arts, historical heritage, and tourism purposes, if a bill is eventually signed by the governor.
New businesses are also seeing the county as their home base, specifically when it comes to new tenants to the Tech Village, at the county airport, in Erma.
Thornton also said he believes the county will be able to continue projects, including one to bolster the county's bridge infrastructure.
"I'm certainly optimistic about the county and its investment in some of these projects because our bond rating is really good," he said, adding some of the bond ratings are coming in at less than 3%.
Thornton also applauded the county Department of Health's work in establishing a Covid vaccination plan. The department oversees operations of its site at the Avalon Community Center, with a second site, at Lower Cape May Regional High School, on deck for use once additional vaccine doses are received.
Following Thornton's speech, the Health Department announced that, as of March 18, 47,499 vaccine doses were administered in the county, 13,345 of which it supplied.
J-1 Questions Abound
A priority to Thornton and the commissioners is to figure out how a county-dependent J-1 program will operate this year.
Thornton said concerns about the program stem from quarantine periods for J-1 visa workers once they arrive to the U.S. He said he, along with the commissioners, hopes for actions on the matter from Trenton. He couldn't provide specific details about J-1 program plans regarding pandemic guideline reform.
Clark also expressed concern with regards to Proclamation 10052, issued by former President Donald Trump, which suspended the processing of several visa applications, one of which are J-1s. The proclamation was instituted as an attempt to address the coronavirus pandemic's travel concerns.
She said her concern is that the applicants may not have enough time to complete the application process if the proclamation isn't rescinded before it is set to expire. That could make filling employment positions for summer troublesome if members of the program can't obtain their visas in time.
Several U.S. senators, including Sens. Cory Booker and Robert Menendez (both D-NJ), put their names on a letter to President Joe Biden, urging him to retract the proclamation before its March 31 expiration date. That's also something for which Clark is hoping.
"This proclamation barred the entry of thousands of people seeking to enter as temporary workers and continues to harm a wide cross-section of families, businesses, and communities across the country," a portion of the letter states. “Rather than attracting talented individuals to the U.S., allowing these bans to remain in effect makes the immigration system harder to navigate and drives foreign talent to other countries.”
The White House did not immediately respond to the Herald's request for comment on the letter.
Chamber Concerns Over NJPACT Rules Persist
During her president's report, Clark said the chamber crafted a letter to the state Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) about its concerns with NJPACT, environmental policies a part of Gov. Phil Murphy's plan to tackle climate change. Concerns about the policies were discussed at the chamber's January meeting.
In a follow-up interview, Clark said the chamber's concerns revolve around the new rules changing land development procedures, something she feels is happening "too quick."
Clark said the letter would become publicly available once it's received by the DEP.
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