CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE – Republicans Gerald Thornton and Marie Hayes said they hope to bring more jobs to Cape May County by promoting local wineries, breweries, oyster production, and drone applications with economic development money.
Thornton said he sees the industries as a major source of growth here, with the potential for Cape May County to become a sought after place for wineries . He said the Cape May County Airport also has potential as a base for drone testing, which is a billion-dollar industry.
“These industries bring jobs and money into the county,” he said. Thornton is the director of the Cape May County Board of Freeholders, the five-member governing body for the county, which oversees a budget of more than $150 million. He has served on the board for more than 33 years, first from 1976 to 1987 and then 1995 to the present. “The county has six wineries now and they employ on average 20 to 30 people. Hopefully we can get a manufacturer at the airport. It is very, very difficult given the economic climate but we are trying.”
He said county freeholders started putting $100,000 a year toward economic development, and recently increased that to $150,000 a year.
Hayes, who joined the freeholder board in 2013, said that funding has helped promote industries based in Cape May County, and create more year-round jobs. The county’s tourism department has also done a good job of marketing the area to potential visitors, especially Canadians, she said. Tourists from Canada have become an important part of the county’s tourism economy thanks to those efforts, she said.
“If we can’t keep our young people here, the population of the community and the schools will continue to shrink,” she said. “We have to make it conducive to bring them back. That means full-time jobs and shrinking the offseason as much as possible. Business owners can rely on a shoulder season now. Now they kind of just have to get through January, February, March.”
Hayes said the county’s tax rate is one of the lowest in the state, which also helps keep people and businesses.
Both candidates defended the need for a new $37 million county jail, saying state and federal regulations made it necessary. Closing the jail and paying to house inmates elsewhere would still leave the county with the cost of corrections and sheriff officers to transport them, Thornton said.
“I know nobody wants to build a jail,” Thornton said. “We went back and forth with these numbers. The conclusion is the best decision for this county is a new jail.”
Hayes said that since 2005 the county has not complied with federal and state regulations at the jail. “We have been put on notice that we have to take action,” she said.
Thornton said freeholders looked at plans to deal with the issue starting in 2008. The county jail was built in 1976 to house 168 inmates, he said. It was later modified to hold 188, but in recent years it has averaged 240 to 250 a day, Thornton said.
“In the summer we get over 300 a day,” he said.
The antiquated design of the jail means it is not as safe as it can be for corrections officers, Hayes said. That was her biggest concern in the process, she said. Hayes is a former investigator for the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office. During the majority of her career, she handled child abuse and sexual assault investigations
She said the jail also has mold issues, which is unsafe for officers and inmates.
“We looked at rehabilitation,” Hayes said. “It would have cost more than $20 million and we would still have an antiquated facility that puts our officers in jeopardy.”
Thornton said the county will soon open a new $6 million central communications center at the airport in Lower Township. The Lower Township Police Department has been housed in the building for years, and will continue to use part of the rehabilitated facility. By working with the township, both the county and township saved $2 million to $3 million each, Thornton said.
“When the dispatch center is online, Lower Township will save $160,000 to $180,000 a year,” he said. “As more towns come on, the savings will be greater.”
Hayes said the county has a real problem with heroin use and addiction, like the rest of the country. She said it reminds her of the crack epidemic in the nation when she first entered law enforcement. Like crack, heroin has grown in popularity because it is cheaper and easier to use, she said.
“You used to have to put heroin in a needle and stick it in your arm,” Hayes said. “Now you can smoke it, lick it snort it.”
She said there is no easy solution to the problem, and addicts have to be the ones to change their lives. Thornton said the county’s drug court may be one part of the answer. Drug court keeps those convicted of drug crimes out of jail if they agree to regular drug testing, seek employment, and attend regular addiction programs.
He said the county recently invested money to refinish the third floor of the court house for the drug court program.
“It is a great system,” he said. “If you have a conviction you have to stay clean.”
Hayes said she attended a drug court graduation ceremony three years ago and was moved to see the difference people had made in their own lives.
“They were hugging the judge, who was very strict with them,” she said. “Those people realized it had to be them. If they don’t want it, there is nothing a family can do that matters.”
Thornton said the county has assumed responsibility for public transportation because there is little regular service in Cape May County, and that the Fare-Free Transportation is an award-winning system that provides a way to get around for many seniors. The system is important because the county has an aging population, Hayes said, and many senior citizens continue to live at home.
“We provide 230,000 rides a year throughout the county,” Thornton said. He said the county’s Department of Aging and Senior Services also provides a nutrition program and services at county senior centers. “The socialization aspect is very important.”
Thornton, who served in the Air Force for 11 years, said he takes pride in the county’s Veterans’ Bureau, which provides assistance to local veterans seeking health care or pensions. The Bureau was opened in 1946 and was among the first in the state, Thornton said.
Hayes said the freeholder board has managed its finances so that it can provide the same services with fewer employees.