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Freeholders Award Contract for Youth Shelter

 

By Al Campbell

CREST HAVEN — After a unanimous freeholders’ vote to privatize the Cape May County Youth Shelter, Nov. 24, some shelter employees rose in disbelief; others sat stunned, seemingly in shock at what transpired.
The vote was no surprise to them. It will mean Camden-based Center for Family Services, Inc. will operate a five-bed shelter beginning on Feb. 1, 2010 for two years at a first-year cost of $340,000, $186 per day per bed. In year 2 of the contract the cost decreases to $320,000, $175 per day per bed.
It also means many of those employees may no longer work for the county.
The 14 shelter employees surmised the end for them earlier this year. While there is a possibility that the new shelter operator may hire some of them, there is no guarantee.
“There was never a commitment to fill all the jobs,” said County Administrator Stephen O’Connor.
O’Connor said Center for Family Services will be “hiring new people,” which means they will interview “all of the existing employees who are willing and interested in working for them.”
He added that the county received approval from the state Department of Personnel regarding its layoff plans for shelter employees. He also said that plan was finalized after discussion with the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Local 3596, which represents the affected workers.
Freeholders cited a tight 2010 budget, with anticipated revenue down $3 million to $5 million, and gave directions to department heads to trim expenses for the coming year.
The shelter took about $1.1 million annually to operate from the county budget. Proponents said that was under 1 percent of the total, and helped local children and families in times of crisis.
The general sentiment voiced at freeholder meetings by the public, which largely opposed privatizing the shelter, was “Yes, worry about money, but don’t save it by doing something to hurt our children.”
Shelter Education Coordinator Terence O’Neill, who spearheaded opposition to privatization, asked the freeholders’ indulgence, which they granted, to permit comment prior to their vote.
Next to speak was Rev. Thomas Meyers, priest in charge, St. Simeon’s By the Sea Episcopal Church, North Wildwood. He read a letter from Right Rev. George Councell, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Jersey, who wrote against privatization.
O’Neill then read a litany of support letters for the shelter from educators from nearly every school in the county. All cited the level of care given to children while at the shelter, and the need to keep its operation within local control.
At the conclusion, O’Neill asked, “Can I get an ‘amen’ on those letters of support?” A few were uttered as was a round of applause.
Eileen Fausey of Middle Township Taxpayers Association wondered why the board “dragged its feet” in the 1980s and 1990s when she championed a women’s shelter, the community college, and when she joined those asking for a change in Susan Negersmith’s death certificate to be ruled a murder to reopen the case. Why, she wondered was the board “acting quite swiftly to decrease service” at the shelter?
Fausey urged the board not to vote for privatization, and recalled the words of the late Freeholder Director William E. Sturm Jr., “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Of the small number of youths served at times in the shelter, Fausey asked, “Do we close a firehouse if a month goes by without a fire?”
When county officials inquired among peers for costs to operate their youth shelters, the numbers were convincing. Hudson and Passaic counties for example, with populations under 18 greater than all of Cape May County, 130,992 and 127,647 respectively, spend about $243,000 annually for their shelter needs. Such numbers were too appealing to pass up in times of budgetary downturn.
The dye was apparently cast in March, when the decision was made to move ahead with the idea of privatization.
As reported here Nov. 18, Superior Court Judge Kyran Connor wrote a May 12 letter to freeholders imploring them to retain the county-run shelter as it was, and not allow a private operator to take over the facility.
O’Connor said the county has a number of vacant positions, but will not know which could be filled by the shelter employees until mid to late December, when the county budget is drawn up for 2010.
“Depending on our insurance costs, we will see what the budget looks like to determine ow many vacant positions can be filled,” said O’Connor.
A hiring freeze remains in effect for new county workers, he said.
Vacant positions would be offered to any employees who will potentially be laid off, he said.
He cited some mechanics who went to Fare Free, and kept their same rate of pay.
“We made sure we could still use them as mechanics or heavy equipment operators or Fare Free buses,” said O’Connor.
Contact Campbell at (609) 886-8600 Ext 28 or at: al.c@cmcherald.com

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