Freeholder Bill O’Dea, a resident of the west side of Jersey City, was named county freeholder chairman for the first time in his 14 years serving on the board during the Jan. 4 reorganization meeting.
The county freeholders are like the county’s version of a city council. They vote on policy and appropriations related to county operations, such as county roads and the county jail. The county is run by a paid county executive and various staffs.
The naming of O’Dea follows the tradition of elevating the vice chairman to the chairman’s post. Sworn in by Superior Court Judge Sheila Venable, O’Dea has always been seen as something of a maverick, a strong critic of the Hudson County government’s administration.
But as chairman, O’Dea will be working more closely over the next year with many of the people he previously criticized, a role he chuckled over during a recent interview about his change of status.
“I want a budget committee as proactive as possible.” – Bill O’Dea
A Jersey City councilman prior to that, O’Dea currently is the deputy executive director of the Elizabeth Development Company, which he says helps him in some areas in his role as freeholder.
Changing the way contracts are awarded
O’Dea has been particularly critical of the way professional service contracts have been awarded in the past, and has successfully lobbied over the last few years to make changes.
“I’d like to see improvement in this area,” he said. “We’ve made a lot of strikes in areas such as awarding architectural and engineering contracts by prequalifying the firms – then all we have to do is award the contract based on price. This is almost the same as bidding. I would like to expand this to other areas, including with the county’s autonomous agencies, such as the county college, the Improvement Authority, and the School of Technology.”
Sell off Kopper’s Koke site
O’Dea said he hopes to sell off the 100-acre Kopper’s Koke site in Kearny in the upcoming year, a sale that fell through when Gov. Christopher Christie killed funding for the Arc Tunnel to New York. A part of the site was supposed to serve as a staging area for construction of the tunnel.
“We’ve met the other day about it, and it seems several national companies are expressing interest in the site – including the Rockefeller group,” he said. “We’ve been asked to delay the return day on requests for interest from February to April 1, and I hope this will bring in something bigger and more job intensive.”
He said the construction of the new Route 7 Bridge and other roads and possibly proposed advances in Port Newark and Elizabeth may have made the site more attractive.
“There are not many sites that large with access to the water and are within three miles of Manhattan,” he said. “With the environmental cleanup work done, the site might attract more purchasers”
Court house replacement will be a long term project
O’Dea said replacing the old administration building that also holds some of the courts will take more than a year. But he said some of the work over the next year will make it easier for some future freeholder board to move ahead with the project. This will include property acquisition that will allow the county to extend Central Avenue in Jersey City through to Pavonia Avenue, would provide room for parking, and would allow a private developer to be able to develop a parcel of land in the area.
“We’ve put aside $99,000 for the Improvement Authority to do a study,” he said.
A parking deck constructed in the area would help alleviate a number of problems, including providing parking for jurors.
“Replacing the administration building is probably a 10-year project,” he said.
While the county is on the verge of settling some of its issues for medical services at the Hudson County Correctional Facility, a potentially bigger problem is looming over the jail, as the federal government is considering the construction of a North Jersey facility to hold immigration detainees. Hudson County did an addition to its jail with the belief that federal payments for these prisoners would help pay off the cost.
“We’ve saved money as a result already, but it is something we have to keep our eye on,” he said.
O’Dea said the freeholders will continue to look for a Hudson County hospital for treatment of prisoners. Currently, prisoners are taken to a hospital in East Orange.
Improvements to county parks will continue, including the expected breaking of ground on the new county golf course this spring. The county is also seeking a new office space for the prosecutor’s investigations office, with the hopes of clearing the old offices on Duncan Avenue for use as a golf clubhouse.
One of the things, O’Dea said, that he intends to do is raise the profile of freeholder committees, making them more active and more involved with the administration. While some committees are very active, others have been dormant, he said.
Perhaps the biggest challenge will be the budget, which falls under the new state 2 percent cap law.
“I want a budget committee as proactive as possible,” he said, “and I want them involved with the process so that they will have a say in the budget before it is introduced to the freeholders in April or May.”
Along with O’Dea, Jersey City Freeholder Eliu Rivera was voted in as vice chairman, and Hoboken Freeholder Anthony Romano was chosen as chairman pro tempore.