June 26, 2008

What About the Children?? - Shouldn't they be a TOP Priority????

In 2004 the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders announced that they were entering into an agreement to purchase and rehabilitate the Union County Arts Center in Rahway. Called a “living landmark” by than board chairman Angel Estrada the old Rahway movie theater was considered the cornerstone of that city’s downtown redevelopment effort.

When skeptics of the plan were cautioning that it was not in the best interest of the county residents to go into the entertainment business a smiling Estrada merely bobbled his head and ended any further discussions. The county managed to come up with $7.2 million to include money from the Open Space Trust Fund, to cover the costs of improvements and the Union County Performing Arts Center opened it‘s doors this past March. The line-up of performers appears as though it should appeal to enough patrons to keep the UCPAC’s head above water with ticket prices set at $100 for the likes of Neil Sedaka, Jay Black and Connie Francis, however only time will tell.

According to the minutes for the Board of Chosen Freeholders Executive Session for May 15, 2007, Dr. Thomas J. Biostocchi, Superintendent Union County Vocational Technical Schools, requested $20 Million in Capital funding to develop and construct a performing arts academy intentioned to provide students with career track training in dance, acting, stage management and stage technology. According to Chairman Estrada, the performing arts are becoming a vital part of Union County’s economic landscape and the academy will provide the opportunity for young residents to grow into careers.

Almost exactly a year to the day of receiving the request the board approved the $20 million in funding for Biostocchi’s new project. $15 million is slated for construction of a new 42,000 square foot high school facility on the Union County Vo-Tech campus in Scotch Plains. The remaining $5million will be used for classroom space at Kean University as well as studio space and other resources, the school will be opening in September 2008 with a freshman class of 55 students.

One has to hand it to the freeholder board they certainly have the ability to get their ducks in a row quickly when a project is one that is high profile, one that will make them look good. It took the all Democratic Freeholder Board over 8 years to bring the much needed Juvenile Detention Center to fruition, yet the UCPAC came together in less than four, a two day rock music event for thousands takes them less than a year to plan and execute; yet a simple foot bridge for school children languishes on the county drawing boards for months and months.

The most repugnant of crimes are those which are perpetrated upon innocent children. For more than 25 years the Union County Prosecutor’s Office has operated the Union County Child Advocacy Center which has been providing legal and counseling services to child victims of physical and sexual abuse and their families. Housed in a Victorian era house since 1995 the Child Abuse Unit has handled referrals of possible child abuse from police, hospitals, DYFS and schools with the number of cases growing to over 500 a year. The Child Advocacy Center or CAC has not been updated in the 13 years that it has been in service and currently houses eight detectives, two clerical staff, three assistant prosecutors and a coordinator.

It has been reported that Prosecutor Romankow has been working with an architect to create a state of the art Child Advocacy Center that would include space for attorneys, detectives and other staff of the prosecutor’s office but also space for DYFS workers, and on-site nurse examiner and counselors. The new CAC would also include child-friendly age-appropriate interview rooms with digital recording capability and a waiting room, Romankow said “We would like to be able to provide every service the children and their families need under one roof, and make sure that the victims receive the proper medical, psychological and legal services.”

Assistant Prosecutor John Esmerado authored a successful $500,000 grant request which was awarded by the state in April, and combining that amount with the value of the current house Romankow says that they have $1 million but will still need about $2 million to complete the project. A local businessman has created a non-profit corporation, The Friends of the Child Advocacy Center of Union County Inc., to raise the rest, $2-1/2 million, from private sources.


* Why is it necessary for the county prosecutor to turn to private sources of financing for such an important public service such as the Child Advocacy Center?

* Why haven’t the Freeholders stepped up to the plate and supplied the funds required to update this facility?

* Why is it that the Board of Chosen Freeholders can come up with over $7 million to rehabilitate an entertainment venue for the benefit of one politically connected municipality and not $2-1/2 million for the benefit of the county’s most vulnerable residents?

* Why is it that $20 million can be had for the asking for a high profile construction project which will benefit only 55 students its first year when a project requiring less than $3 million which would benefit approximately 500 per year has to go begging for private monies?

The purpose of county government is to provide for the health, safety and welfare of the residents but obviously here in Union County that is not the case. The long overdue Juvenile Detention Center, upgrades to our correctional facilities and projects which deal with crimes against children don’t make for upbeat snappy ribbon cutting ceremonies or photo ops for freeholders who are up for reelection but rather make us turn our thoughts to our short comings as a society. It is just plain wrong that the county can find money for those high cost extra frills projects, such as the UCPAC and the new performing arts high school but not for something as important as the health, safety and welfare of our children, our most precious asset.