Warren County's November elections will only feature one referendum as officials Wednesday bypassed a privatization question petitioned for by residents and approved a non-binding poll on the use of $8.24 million in bonds.
If approved, the money would go toward $4.24 million in capital projects at Warren County Technical School, with $1.69 million reimbursed by the state, and $4 million for public works environmental compliance projects.
The freeholders passed a resolution two years ago saying that any project that would increase bond debt had to be put on a public ballot.
Freeholder Edward Smith, who ran on that proposal, said the projects were necessary to carry out and the county would lose the state reimbursement if the measure did not pass.
“If it gets voted down, we would lose the grant money,” he said. “It’s [for] fixed assets so…something that’s going to be around for a long time.”
Officials warned that the same bonds could not be utilized on the operating funds like the Warren Haven nursing facility, which again was a topic of contention at Wednesday’s freeholders meeting.
At its onset, members of the Coalition to Save Warren Haven presented the board with 3,262 signatures asking for a public referendum on whether officials should need voter approval before privatizing or selling any county facility or service.
Freeholders stood in firm opposition to the proposal, saying that the expansive nature of the language would’ve excessively limited their ability to govern.
“I think you would be paralyzing this government entity with the broadness of this question,” said Director Edward Smith. “We would now cease our ability to respond to any financial crises that come forward.”
The petition, presented by coalition members as a way to preempt the sale of Warren Haven, had no mention of the nursing home.
Still, community members maintained that their opposition to be a potential sale had to be heeded.
“These voters seek a voice, all particularly regarding Warren Haven nursing home,” said petition presenter Kevin Aycock. “Consider this effort not only as a message from your constituents, but as a sacred right of our people.”
The freeholders said that even if the referendum carried in favor of voter input, the county would not be able to afford continuing operations at Warren Haven.
“You’re asking me to ask a question to put on the ballot that financially we do not have the ability to support,” said Smith.
County-wide public referendums are non-binding, and legal counsel for Warren said the board held no obligation to respond or accept the petition.
During the meeting, freeholders pressed forward in exploring sale options for the nursing home by hiring Archer & Greiner, P.C. of Haddonfield, New Jersey as their new legal counsel in the process.
They also denied rumors that they were already receiving bids on the property.
Freeholders also fielded questions about the Belvidere Nutrition Center, saying that they were working with local officials on setting up a remote site that would provide seniors access to transportation and meals, similarly to what is being proposed in Phillipsburg, New Jersey.
Officials also discussed having to find alternative ways to work around financial restrictions in the county, state and federal level.
“We are looking for ways to continue the services that have been offered here in Warren County, but perhaps done in different ways because we have to come up with the economies to balance the budget,” said Smith.