Hughes presents “State of the County” plans

In his 2021 State of the County remarks presented to the County Board of Commissioners on January 28, Mercer County Executive Brian M. Hughes emphasized his commitment to continue battling COVID-19 while also looking toward to the future and a number of important projects and initiatives he said his administration will tackle.

Among the projects and initiatives he cited were pushing forward with the Dam Site 21 and Moores Station Quarry park development plans, the Lincoln Avenue bridge and Trenton-Mercer Airport terminal replacement projects, and proposing a voter referendum to shift the authorized allocation of the Open Space Trust Fund.

But first, Hughes discussed the nearly yearlong pandemic including its sobering death toll and the frustration that the current vaccine supply shortage has caused. He announced a positive development, however: beginning next week, Mercer County will get 700 more vaccine doses per week from the State, for a total of 1,500, not including those received by hospitals, pharmacies and private clinics.

“This is promising news but the fact remains that New Jersey needs more vaccine from the federal government, on which we rely,” he said. “We must work together, and when the vaccine supply improves, we will move forward as rapidly as we can.”

Mercer County has partnered with Capital Health to open a vaccination site at the CURE Insurance Arena in Trenton, which is up and running, and plans to open a vaccination site at Mercer County Community College in the coming weeks with support from municipal health staff departments and MCCC nursing students, Hughes said.

The County Executive praised and thanked health care professionals and first responders throughout the County, as well as other essential workers who found themselves on the front lines of the COVID-19 battle. He also applauded the County workforce for enabling County government to continue delivering programs and services “despite the many obstacles presented by the pandemic.”

Hughes commended the Board of Elections and the Offices of the County Clerk and Superintendent of Elections for successfully conducting two elections in 2020 – a primary in July and general election in November – where voting was conducted primarily by mail to help protect against COVID-19.

“Similarly, the Office of the Surrogate, where uncontested probate matters are settled, was overburdened with cases because of COVID-19 casualties, and I appreciate the service they have given to our residents,” Mr. Hughes said.

Hughes congratulated the many people throughout the County who he noted worked to achieve a 70.5 percent self-response rate for the 2020 Census “during very challenging times.”

“When we work together we can be successful, and the final self-response rate shows exactly that,” he said.

Hughes said that his administration’s focus in the coming months will continue to be on managing the pandemic through vaccinating, testing, and other efforts, “but as we steady the ship, we will turn our attention to a number of long-range endeavors that have been slowed or sidelined.”

One of those initiatives is the County’s Open Space Trust Fund, of which 70 percent is allocated to acquisition, 20 percent to park development and historic preservation, and 10 percent to stewardship. Mr. Hughes said that on the recommendation of the County Planning Department and Park Commission, he proposes a voter referendum to permit the reallocation of the fund to 50 percent acquisition, 30 percent park development and historic preservation, and 20 percent stewardship.

Such a shift, which would be a reallocation and not a tax increase, would enable the County to continue its acquisition program while investing more toward expanding recreational offerings and increased stewardship efforts, ensuring the ecological health of County lands and providing appropriate recreational and nature-based activities to residents, he said.

He then pointed to three major park projects that he said could be brought to fruition in the next five to 10 years. Two that are under way are Dam Site 21, a 279-acre County-owned property in Hamilton, Robbinsville and West Windsor townships whose Master Plan was adopted by the Park Commission a year ago; and Moores Station Quarry, a 166-acre Hopewell Township site of which the County will take possession in the spring of 2023 and begin a multi-year process of transforming the open-pit quarry into a park.

A new park initiative, Mr. Hughes said, could involve Princeton Country Club. A Park Commission facility, the 18-hole golf course in West Windsor doesn’t drain well and requires a great deal of maintenance, he said, and “could be reimagined to include golf-related activities with improved trail access and connection to the D&R Canal State Park.”

The County Executive said he also is anxious to see the County advance several infrastructure projects that have been slowed by the pandemic: Lincoln Avenue Bridge in Trenton, the Brunswick Circle Extension in Lawrence, and the Phase 1 Improvements on Princeton-Hightstown Road to widen the roadway and add bike lanes and sidewalks.

Mr. Hughes said the County is moving forward with another major project, replacement of the passenger terminal at Trenton-Mercer Airport with a “much-needed modern facility.”

“Pending a favorable determination from the FAA on the Terminal Environmental Assessment, we expect to complete design this year and anticipate completing construction of the facility within four years,” he said. “As air traffic continues to rebound, and with widespread vaccine distribution on the horizon, the outlook for the airport continues to improve.”

He said the County is working with the Federal Aviation Administration to finalize and publish the Draft Environmental Assessment for public review as well as schedule a public hearing.

Mr. Hughes also touched on a clean energy initiative where the County would purchase and install electric vehicle charging stations at locations throughout Mercer. He said the County has applied for grant funding to offset the cost of that project through the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s “It Pay$ to Plug In” program, and is on the waitlist to receive funding.

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