Freeholder Defends County Spending on Homeless, Vulnerable
Speakers share personal tales of struggle, ask for more help
The director of the Ocean Board of Freeholders defended the county's spending on social services Wednesday while rejecting the possibility of an additional surcharge on filed documents to bolster a Homeless Trust Fund.
Freeholder Director Gerry Little likened the optional surcharge to an unnecessary tax at the board's regular meeting, which was marked by several pleas from speakers for more assistance for the county's homeless and vulnerable population.
"We have no inclination to adopt a new and expanded tax on the backs of the people of Ocean County," Little said.
Speaker Carol Gay of Brick reiterated pleas by others in recent months for the county to consider the $3 surcharge on documents filed with the Ocean County Clerk's Office, as allowed by state law.
"There are more and more holes in the social safety net," Gay said.
The surcharges would be collected for a county-wide Homeless Trust Fund that would be dedicated for several uses: acquisition or rehabilitation of housing units; rental vouchers; support services; and prevention services. Only 5 percent of the fund would be legally permitted to be diverted to cover administrative costs, with the balance going directly toward assistance measures.
But Little said the board was not partial to the idea, calling it a "permissive tax" that only eight of 21 New Jersey counties have elected to impose. The freeholder director also said the county's citizens already send enough tax dollars to Trenton with inadequate return.
"This board believes our taxpayers are adequately funding the New Jersey Affordable Housing Trust Fund," Little said.
The freeholders heard from six speakers who urged the board to do all it can to assist those in precarious financial situations.
"It's clearly obvious that the system is broken," said Elizabeth Arnone of Brick, after a Forked River man and Toms River woman shared their personal stories of struggle.
"Every day that goes by is another day that people are suffering, and much of the suffering is going by unheeded. We can't afford to have people living in tents while other people are being given affordable housing," Arnone said.
David Altier, a former Lakewood resident, asked the board to practice the "golden rule" when considering those in need of social services and "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." He joined the other speakers in asking the freeholders what they can do to help.
"We are very passionate, we are very understanding," Little said. "We wish we had a solution for everyone's circumstances."
But, he explained, the county Board of Social Services is legally restrained under state law in terms of what benefits can be offered to those in need of assistance.
"They cannot arbitrarily change the qualifications," the freeholder director said, in response to comments from those in danger who collect "too much" under unemployment to qualify for more expansive assistance.
He defended the Social Services staff who came under some criticism by speakers, saying "they're dedicated to serving the people of Ocean County," while acknowledging the board is "very aware that the staff is really overwhelmed with the number of clients we're seeing."
The Board of Social Services will see funding increased more than $200,000 upon adoption of the 2012 county budget, to $19.7 million, to keep the department eligible for matching state and federal funds.
"It's the only major increase in our budget," Little said.
The freeholder director provided an itemized list of the millions of dollars the county annually spends on mental health care, job placement, food pantries, utility assistance, home-delivered meals, rental assistance and more while also directing speakers to Social Services' administrators in attendance to discuss individual situations.
"It's amazing how much money is spent to help the truly needy," Freeholder James Lacey said.
"We will continue to do our best to serve," Little said.