CAPE MAY COUNTY – Democratic challengers for two freeholder seats, Dan Kurkowski and John Amenhauser, said they want to fight homelessness and drug addiction from the county governing body.
They are challenging Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton and Freeholder Marie Hayes, both Republicans, for their seats on the Cape May County Board of Freeholders. Cape May County has not voted a Democrat onto the five-member county governing body since 2000, and the GOP has held the majority on the board since just after the Civil War.
Kurkowski and Amenhauser hope to break that streak. In their campaign, they've focused on spending and social issues.
“The Homeless Trust Fund is a no-brainer,” Kurkowski said.
The Homeless Trust Fund, he said, doesn’t raise taxes, but would be funded by a $3 fee on housing-related documents filed with the county clerk. The Board of Freeholders recently hired Triad Associates to set up a 10-year plan for using the fund, but the Democrats want to see movement on the issue soon.
“We need to do something and we need to do something fast,” Kurkowski said. “If not it will be like the heroin epidemic.”
Kurkowski said Cape May County is number three county in the state for heroin overdoses.
“That’s why it’s an issue. It’s a terrible epidemic,” Kurkowski said.
Kurkowski and Amenhauser said prevention and treatment are the key to combating addiction, and believe it is time the county step up education programs in schools, as well as establishing a treatment and counseling program.
Amenhauser said Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) programs are no longer being funded in schools, and said the county needs to do something about returning the programs to schools.
“Locking up addicts is not the way to break people of their addiction,” Kurkowski added.
In the long run, they said, lowering the rate of addiction will reduce the need for jail cells. The county plans to replace the existing county jail, said to be overcrowded, with a larger, multimillion-dollar facility.
“We don’t need a $37 million Taj Mahal county jail,” Kurkowski said. “A $37 million jail is nothing but a waste of money.”
Kurkowski said such a project would burden local taxpayers for generations. Kurkowski and Amenhauser said if crowding is the problem, which they said is a problem in all state prisons, there are remedies that cost less than $37 million. The Democratic candidates said bail reform goes into effect in January 2017, and has already started to be employed, and that will keep many offenders out of jail. They also advocate a veterans court, which would work with veterans facing charges to keep them out of jail.
The money, they say, could be applied to the county’s “crumbling infrastructure.”
“We have some of the worst roads and bridges in the state,” Kurkowski said, adding that the condition of roads and bridges affects everyone.
Kurkowski and Amenhauser are also looking to improve the county’s efforts in economic development and job creation. Kurkowski said lack of job opportunities are linked to problems such as homelessness and drug use.
“We feel the lack of jobs is where it all starts,” Kurkowski said. “Cape May County is the number one county in the state for collecting unemployment.”
He said he and Amenhauser are aware Cape May County has a tourist economy, but they feel more can be done to create year round jobs off the barrier islands. One of their ideas is to create a committee for economic development.
“The county has Division of Economic Development, but it’s basically one person,” Amenhauser said.
Kurkowski and Amenhauser, both lawyers, said the one person in the Economic Development division is a lawyer, not a business person.
“We need to have people who know about economic development,” Amenhauser said.
Kurkowski criticized efforts to expand the Unmanned Arial System industry in Cape May County, referring to pilotless aircraft better known as drones. The county has been working on an ongoing drone project at the airport in Cape May County.
“I don’t believe unemployment will be slightly or even remotely affected by the drone program,” Kurkowski said.
The Democrats said they would like the county’s core industries – fishing, tourism, and agriculture – to be expanded. Kurkowski said it would be cheaper for everyone to have more agricultural products grown in the Garden State, and they would promote a “Made in Cape May County” program, similar to the state’s Jersey Fresh program, but it would showcase all Cape May County products.
“We need to have more support for small businesses to grow, and reasons for larger businesses to relocate here,” Kurkowski said.
Amenhauser said they support the extension of Route 55 not only as another storm evacuation route, but as a trucking route for products made in Cape May County.
“We know this requires federal and state funding, but this is something Jerry (Thornton) has had a long time to get done, and he hasn’t done it,” Kurkowski said. “And we don’t need a $100,000 traffic study to tell us Route 47 is dangerous.”
The South Jersey Transportation Planning Organization (SJTPO) conducted a study this year on the Route 55, 347 and 47 corridor, focusing on traffic safety.
Also related to economic development and job growth, the Democrats wish to enhance the use of the Port of Cape May, which they said already does $125 million annually with its fishing industry.
“The port could be used for much more,” Amenhauser said. “It could receive products that would be shipped to the entire eastern region.”
Kurkowski and Amenhauser said they would like to see more engagement between the county, its schools, and the local colleges. Kurkowski said, considering there are so many small businesses and the county has a tourism-based economy, Atlantic Cape Community College currently has no small business entrepreneur or hospitality courses, for example. The Democratic team said they would like to see county sponsored educational programs for returning veterans and the senior population in need of job retraining.
“We don’t see any efforts by the county to address employment needs and options,” Kurkowski said.
This is despite paying approximately double the property taxes as neighboring counties, according to the Democratic candidates. Amenhauser said Cape May County residents pay an average of $1,592 per year, per resident to support the county’s $151 million budget. He said by comparison, Atlantic and Cumberland County residents pay in the low $700 range, and Monmouth and Ocean County residents pay $775 and $814 per year, respectively.
“That is half if what we are spending per capita,” Amenhauser said.
Measured by property assessments, county officials describe the local county tax rate per $100 of assessed value as one of the lowest in the state, an assertion backed up by numbers from the New Jersey Division of Taxation.