COURT HOUSE - The Herald asked candidates for the Board of Chosen Freeholders to share information about their candidacy, and answer questions of broad interest to Cape May County voters.
Elizabeth Casey and Brendan Sciarra are the Democratic freeholder candidates challenging Republican incumbents Will Morey and Jeffrey Pierson in the Nov. 3 general election. The terms are for three years.
All candidates responded, and their answers are below.
What do you believe are the top two issues facing Cape May County? How do you plan to address these issues as a freeholder? By what timeline will you address them?
Morey: Business and resident economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Through my work as co-chair of the county’s business task force, we are transitioning from the active engagement needed to get and keep businesses open while driving the county’s "Safely Together" campaign, to assisting businesses in their determination to sustain themselves through the winter and to May 2021.
To do so, we are deploying the full resources of the county’s economic development, as well as workforce development teams in this regard.
Additionally, we will continue actively engaging and lobbying for state and federal small business stimulus, as well as unemployment supplement to aid during the seasonal gap period.
Bridge infrastructure has been a top issue and will remain so. However, with the county now taking the lead to address this issue through its comprehensive bridge replacement and improvement plan, we will now shift more attention to addressing the seasonal staffing shortages suffered by tourism businesses, in 2020, and work to further gains in technology job employment, as supported by the county’s investment in its “Tech Village” technology and innovation campus and “Coastal Shift” business marketing initiative.
Casey and Sciarra: The most troubling issue in Cape May County is the wasteful spending on the freeholder board. The county is fortunate to be rich in ratables, with non-voting second homeowners predominantly footing the bill. This lack of accountability allows the freeholders to mindlessly spend tax dollars without any checks and balances.
During every annual county budget adoption, the freeholders boast about having a low tax rate, hiding behind the abundant revenues they receive from such a high ratable base, but the tax rate doesn’t tell the real story. Property owners are hit with substantial county spending increases every year.
With a declining population, these annual spending hikes threaten the affordability of our residents regardless of the growth of second-home ownership. We would immediately look at services that are no longer prudent to be provided by the county government and can be offered by the private sector.
We would create a fair work environment free from the outrageous employee lawsuits that waste tax dollars. Enough is enough. We’ve been taxed, tolled, and fee’d to oblivion.
The second top issue facing Cape May County is the lack of job opportunities, which, for years, has caused the exodus of our young people in seeking employment and building their careers. Our overreliance on the tourism economy is undermining the future character of our county. We risk the threat of becoming a year-round senior community and a six-month playground.
We must develop a plan that changes our county’s direction. Put aside the COVID-19 impacts for a moment, and we can look at the alliance Atlantic County started with its partnerships between government and the private sector. We would use that as a model for developing a path for more economic diversity in Cape May County.
Pierson: The following are in no particular order and no particular priority.
All county projects and activities are ongoing within the county and receive review, updating, and action as equal as possible based on circumstances and funding. My personal feeling is that the top three are: funding for infrastructure projects (bridges/roads/facilities), the opioid crisis, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
What are the most significant impacts – socio-economic et al. – of the COVID-19 pandemic on Cape May County, and how do you propose to deal with these impacts?
Sciarra and Casey: Obviously, the most significant impact has been the upending of all our lives and the damage to our local businesses. Much of these impacts are bigger than Cape May County.
The recovery of our county, as well as the state and most of our nation, will require strong leadership and a cooperative approach between government and business at all levels to develop an economic and tax relief plan that will help us get back on our feet.
We will be strong voices at the county level, working with the business community on rebuilding our local economy.
Another overarching concern is the impact of COVID-19 on the education of our kids. We’ll need to continually assess how hybrid learning is affecting both the academic and social well-being of our kids. As freeholders, we will work with our county and local schools to explore the best options in keeping our kids up to speed.
Pierson: Obviously, the impact of COVID-19 has rampaged Cape May County, the state, and nation at various levels based on individual circumstances right from the beginning.
I feel the county did a fantastic job right from the get-go. (Freeholder) Director (Gerald) Thornton created a COVID task force (key county departments, health agencies, and all municipalities participated) the week before the governor signed the declaration of emergency.
This task force was excellent; consensus was achieved on many matters from closing the county down, to emergency operations, and reopening.
Remember that most actions could not be taken at the county or municipal level; the state controlled the big picture and still does.
With Thornton’s concurrence, I worked with Director (Jennifer) Hess, of our Crest Haven Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, to establish rules and guidelines to immediately shut down the facility to outsiders, with the exception of medical requirements and required deliveries.
Through our efforts, we had only one resident case of COVID-19, and we really think it was a false positive, although we did have nine staff that had COVID-19.
I fully support the reopening plan and the county working safely together plan, as do Freeholders Will Morey and Lenoard Desiderio. I will add that my (Cape May County) Health Department was directly involved in the safely together plan and they came up with the innovation of social ambassadors from the county to the municipalities, which worked out great.
They were able to friendly interact with the public to remind them about social distancing, cleanliness, and the wearing of masks.
Yes, there has been a significant impact on the county socially and economically. People adjusting to the social distancing requirements, lack of work, ZOOM meetings, teleconferencing, less travel, staying home, no nightlife, no school, and parents being teachers has played on everyone’s psyche.
We thrive on tourism, and that is down. Our entire county has been hit hard. Unemployment is up. Some businesses have shuttered for good. Some may return next year. Our county government remained open at limited staffing to ensure the public concerns were met.
Of course, the federal and state funding programs have helped small businesses and individuals, but not without pain.
As an example, Cape Regional Medical Center did not receive any funding because of the way the laws were enacted, until just recently. Staff was laid off, at the same time when needed to assist in the medical center. The county also played a major role in getting, stockpiling, and distributing medical supplies and equipment to the medical community, businesses, first responders, and county offices.
I worked up a COVID-19 actions list to keep the freeholders and key staff informed of actions being taken by the county, municipalities, and state so they were not left in the dark.
The reason for this is only two freeholders can be in attendance at meetings under the Sunshine laws, and most of the time the director and I were directly involved on a day-to-day basis, so I wanted to make sure all were kept informed.
Morey: Unfortunately, COVID–19 has thrust itself onto the scene as a top issue for Cape May County now and is expected to continue at least residually into 2021.
It’s hard to overstate the impacts that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on Cape May County families. Many continue to struggle to make ends meet after having reduced work schedules or being unemployed.
Our county’s children have really borne the brunt of social impacts. We have supported the opening of our schools and have advocated for the safe reopening of more of our society so that our children can return to a greater level of normalcy and our residents can get even more fully back to work.
The county government is, and will remain, heavily involved in providing services to our residents. It is heartwarming to see just how hard our Social Services and Human Services Departments have worked throughout the pandemic to assist our residents during their time of struggle.
As referenced above, the county’s task force will remain engaged in dealing with the considerable impacts brought upon us by COVID–19 until we break through our “normal for now” condition and return to full personal and economic health.
Cape May County generates well in excess of $500 million in state sales tax and local use taxes annually. Of such taxes collected in New Jersey, this figure represents over 10% of the statewide total. Relative to the county’s resident population, this is a disproportionate contribution to the state’s coffers. Meanwhile, the county derives a relatively small and declining share of state funds with respect to key programs, including transportation and education. Do you think this constitutes an imbalance of giving and receiving? If so, how do you propose to address and correct this imbalance? If not, why not?
Pierson: Yes, there is a significant imbalance, as I will call it, when it comes to receiving funds from the state. This is not new, and it will continue to be a challenge. Actually, South Jersey receives a disproportionate amount of funding in all areas than the rest of the state.
Perhaps with the three energetic new legislators from the south, we will see some changes. We are constantly working with the Southern Jersey Freeholders' Association and the New Jersey Association of Counties to change and improve things, but it is an uphill battle.
We, as a county, took recent action to cut 10% of our fiscal budget for this year. We want to continue to provide services effectively and efficiently while conserving for the future.
There is no plan to raise taxes. We have always kept the county annual tax low.
We are being very frugal, not taking on any new major projects, but still keep the flow going to do them in the future.
Morey: We are continually pressing for our “fair share” from Trenton and the federal government. When the state did not include Cape May County and 11 other counties in the first round of COVID-19 relief funding, the freeholders lobbied hard for the governor to reconsider that decision.
Ultimately, the state committed to nearly $2 million in reimbursement relief to Cape May County, which will allow us to cover many of the extraordinary COVID-19-related costs we have incurred.
It is difficult, given our exponential growth in seasonal population and our very low population during most of the fall, winter, and spring to fully succeed in making a per capita argument for the return of funding based on tax receipts, yet, as freeholders, we are continually pursuing more grant funding from state and federal sources for the projects and programs we oversee.
Interestingly, the county taking the lead to advance a comprehensive bridge plan provides an excellent and appropriate circumstance for the state to step up to support the very infrastructure that contributes so greatly to the tax revenues it receives.
Casey and Sciarra: Cape May County is consistently treated unfairly when receiving federal and state funding, especially compared to how much we generate in revenues.
We simply do not have the voting population to gain adequate and equitable standing in receiving funding for our infrastructure, transportation, education, and health care needs.
We have to make our voices heard loudly to overcome our lack of voter persuasion.
We will replace the current culture of complacency and be the strong and relentless voices at the federal and state level in making sure Cape May County gets its fair share.
We face concerns from the changing climate, including prospects of frequent and severe flooding, decreased potable water, and beach erosion. What is your perception of climate change concerns for Cape May County? How do you envision addressing these concerns?
Morey: We live in an area and have an economy based heavily on the natural resources of our beautiful region.
Sea-level rise is a concern for our region and must be accounted for in all forward-looking planning and infrastructure engineering activities throughout Cape May County.
As it relates to emissions, the state’s wind energy program will make good use of our coastal environment and the county will play a modest role as generated power will come ashore to the B.L. England site.
Through its Open Spaces Trust Program, the county has taken the lead in developing miles of bike trails that will serve to connect the barrier islands and towns throughout the county. This will provide a quality of life amenity and contributes to the reduction of traffic and emissions.
The County’s Municipal Utilities Authority has been a leader in waste management best practice activities and we will continue to support their commitment to environmental stewardship as a part of our sustainability and resiliency activities.
Sciarra and Casey: Our biggest concern for the impacts of a changing climate are the apparent lack of concern for the potential damage to our county, as well as the lack of urgency from too many people.
Being a peninsula makes Cape May County one of the most vulnerable counties in the state from the effects of a changing climate. Looking at forecast models from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state Department of Environmental Protection, our county faces serious threats.
We would make combating climate change a top priority. Using the framework of Sustainable Jersey, we will work with local green teams and environmental commissions in making Cape May County a showcase of sustainability for shore communities.
Pierson: Every construction project within the county is governed by state, county, and municipal environment laws, and we have to ensure they are complied with.
After Hurricane Sandy, the Office of Emergency Management and county engineer worked closely with the municipalities to ensure the newly established federal guidelines on flood plains were addressed.
Beach erosion is a continuous problem in the county, and we continually work with the federal government to find ways and funding to ensure the barrier islands are protected.
Some view this as a waste of dollars, but I look at this as maintaining the safety of our citizens, their heritage and livelihood, and our barrier islands.
The loss of the beaches impacts tourism, our number one economic driver, and if the barrier islands were abandoned it would be only a matter of time and the mainland would be affected.
We encourage the municipalities that are directing bulkheads being raised on the lee sides of the islands as this will help prevent flooding.
We encourage one-way valves/flaps placed on outfall and drainage pipes to help prevent flooding.
I believe there should be a study of our back bays and inland waterways for dredging to further help and prevent flooding.
One of our most recent and biggest projects to protect the flooding of Rio Grande Avenue coming into Wildwood was the gateway project. Where streets were raised, new curbing, drainage, and huge pumps were installed to help alleviate flooding.
At the county, we have completed major renovations in heating, ventilation, and air conditioning and lighting changes to help decrease the costs of electricity.
We are also discussing the vehicle fleet having electric cars and natural gas-powered trucks. Further, there has been discussion on solar panels for our buildings to defray the costs of electricity.
Our preservation of farmlands and Open Space is a superb program.
We have done many projects under this program, such as bike paths, playgrounds, parks, etc. All have an impact on our environment, our year-round citizens, and our tourists.
Modern bridges and roads within, and to and from, our county impact our economy and safety. Do you believe that there’s an issue with the county’s transportation infrastructure, including our 75-year-old bridges? If so, what do you intend to do about it? If not, why not?
Casey and Sciarra: Beyond public safety, our investments in roads and bridges are critical in keeping our tourism economy strong. As the county moves towards bringing together the federal and state governments in helping fund our costly infrastructure, we have to stop wasteful spending in other areas of county government.
If the county continues in the careless direction of short-term political expediency in prioritizing spending, paying lawsuits, and operating in a system of favoritism, our roads and bridges will continue to deteriorate.
Business-as-usual with the same old ideas is not going to get the job done. We need a change.
Pierson: Yes, there is a major impact to our economy and public safety when it comes to county bridges.
The bridges in the county are equally difficult to maintain, repair, and replace. Even the state gets involved in one of our bridges, the 96th Street Bridge, into Stone Harbor, as this is the only surviving operational bascule bridge in the state. They want it preserved, yet we wind up making all the major repairs to keep it operational.
The other bridges throughout the county date back to the 1930s, and require various levels of repair or replacement. To this end, Freeholder Morey undertook a survey of all the county bridges approximately a year and a half ago.
The draft product was reviewed last year around December, and with COVID-19 hitting, the actual approval of the survey was not completed until this August.
Now, we have to find the dollars through federal and state grants to get it underway. This will not be an easy task to complete, as we have to involve our federal and state officials, but we are destined to do so.
I already discussed the gateway project for the Wildwoods, and I want to add we are looking at such projects for other municipalities.
Roads in the county that are owned and maintained by the county are in various stages of repair requirements from just a pothole to major resurfacing.
Our county engineer has traveled our roads and has rated and prioritized repairs. He also must try to do the work equally across the county so that one municipality over the other is not left out of the small number of dollars set aside for road repairs, so he carefully sets up a list annually for review by the freeholder board.
Morey: For the past two years, I’ve worked with an outstanding county team to produce a comprehensive bridge replacement and improvement plan for county and Bridge Commission-owned and operated bridges.
Adopted by the freeholder board this past August, the plan spans 15 years, provides a solid financial plan, and details the required steps to renew and secure the county’s critical bridge infrastructure. Implementation of the plan is currently underway.
Last year, several events highlighted relationships with family and friends among government officials and staff. At the time, freeholders said this issue would be looked at, especially in terms of other New Jersey towns which adopted anti-nepotism regulations. What specifically have you done to address this concern? Do you perceive such relationships to be a problem? If (re)elected, would you seek to establish regulations to address this issue? Would you back regulations other New Jersey towns implemented?
Pierson: Yes, there are policies and procedures in place regarding nepotism, and they start at the federal government to the municipal level. There are also political appointment positions from the federal to the municipal levels of government.
This is not new to any government, but if the practices are violated, there are requirements for investigation and due process. The policies and procedures are not a problem.
As with any governmental entity, we have conflict procedures in place that we follow and take the appropriate corrective action if there is any violation of policies.
There is no prohibition of hiring family and friends, as long as they are not directly supervised by that family member or friend, they are properly selected, and, of course, meet the requirements of the position.
Many family members and friends are highly qualified to perform their duties and functions.
Morey: As freeholders, we have the responsibility to see that the best and qualified candidate for any position is attracted and hired via a credible and open process.
The county’s conflict of interest policy encompasses the provisions needed to protect against favored and/or inappropriate treatment; however, any policy that strengthens the county’s resolve in this area, which does not discriminate against qualified candidates, is suitable for further consideration.
Sciarra and Casey: Nepotism and favoritism are the substructures of Cape May County government. The history and record of the county’s nepotism and favoritism are well documented and appear not to be a concern for the political apparatus that directs and defines the county government.
It demoralizes employees, cripples the workplace, and costs taxpayers millions in unproductive work and employee lawsuits.
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over. If we continue to elect the same politicians unconcerned with nepotism and favoritism, then nothing will change.
Why should voters (re)elect you to the county Board of Chosen Freeholders?
Morey: I’m a firm believer that substance wins out over politics, meaning good projects and quality programs thoughtfully implemented are what matters and are the best way to gain needed consensus and, when applicable, attract state and federal support. I’m thankful to have contributed substantially in this regard.
Delivering projects of substance requires a significant dose of business experience, which I’ve endeavored to put to work in several areas, including the comprehensive bridge plan, the county’s municipal redevelopment initiative (Pacific Avenue pilot project underway), development of new job opportunities in the innovation and technology business sector, the Open Space creative placemaking plan, the new Rio Grande Gateway, redevelopment of the County Airport into the Cape May Air and Innovation Port, and several county-benefiting collaborative relationships involving the Delaware River and Bay Authority, South Jersey Economic Development District, and the Atlantic County Improvement Authority.
Casey and Sciarra: Current leadership is complacent and speaks with one voice. The Board of Chosen Freeholders appears stuck in the mud, too comfortable with complacency, and seemingly unable to tap the right resources or make the right connections to bring home Cape May County’s fair share.
We offer county residents a fresh and diverse voice with new and independent ideas, and we will move the county government in a clearer direction.
We will stop the wasteful spending, nepotism, and favoritism that sends tax dollars down the drain and show the taxpayers the respect they deserve.
Elected officials work for the people. The people don’t work for them.
Pierson: I’m thankful for the opportunity to contribute to our community as a freeholder and I am here for and focused on that purpose, not to advance politically.
I feel my background in the military, civilian world, and government gives me a unique grasp of the subject so that I can provide solid input and recommendations.
I’ve served from the municipal level to the county, state, and federal level, giving me roughly 59 years of dedication and experience. I’ve been in leadership and management positions from the lowest levels to the highest levels, and have received numerous accolades, awards, decorations, certificates, and letters of commendation/achievement. I also have the appropriate education to be qualified for this position.
I am a strategic planner, administrator, and trainer by trade. I take great pride in my endeavors to achieve success.
I work hard and long hours to stay on top of issues, keep abreast of the situation, work with my peers, and keep my subordinates informed. I am retired and fully involved in my position, whereas the persons that work a normal daily job will find it extremely hard to keep up.
I have served in the Army and New Jersey Army National Guard from private to brigadier general. I have been the undersheriff in charge of the Cape May County Correctional Center.
I have been a firefighter and deputy chief of the Marmora Volunteer Fire Company, and have served in many social and fraternal organizations. I know what commitment is, live it and love it.
I look for consensus on issues not compromise. I feel if you compromise you are giving up some of your beliefs, but in consensus, the action is worked until all can agree that it will work and is in the best interest of the county.
Finally, I have had my home of residence in Cape May County all my life. I was born in Philadelphia and raised in North Wildwood and Wildwood Crest.
When I got married, we moved to Rio Grande, Green Creek, and finally settling in Marmora, and raised my three children and 13 grandchildren, in Marmora.
I feel the sand on my feet and the surf coursing through my blood. I feel I understand the issues faced in all 16 municipalities and work hard to assist them, and I know there is no better county in New Jersey to live in.
To contact Karen Knight, email email@example.com.