When Doreen DiDomenico took over as chair of the Hudson County Board of Chosen Freeholders in January 2009, things did not look hopeful. The world had plunged into the worst economic times since The Great Depression, and yet somehow, life had to go on, and the county, faced with serious challenges, had to continue to perform its duties.
As chair of the freeholders, DiDomenico had to oversee discussions of the nine-member freeholder board, assign committee duties, and generally keep order among a membership known for its lively and sometimes irreverent discussions.
“We hoped we could avoid layoffs. It was a good idea in theory, but not possible.” – Doreen DiDomenico
She was not without resources, of course, and relied on people like then-Freeholder Maurice Fitzgibbons, who helped her learn the fine art of running meetings, although as a freeholder she had already a good idea.
The problem was the strong personalities, all of whom at times could be overwhelming. But from the beginning, she was determined to keep order, and did, at times even pulling particularly strong-willed freeholders aside in private to make her point.
Budget was biggest issue
The biggest issue of her year as chair was the budget, and the freeholder board wrestled with a number of options to keep costs down, including the concept of furloughs – which would require some county workers to take off days unpaid.
“We hoped we could avoid layoffs,” she said. “It was a good idea in theory, but not possible.”
Part of it was union opposition, and part of it involved key positions that could not be replaced without costing more than was being saved.
“In the end, what we saved wasn’t worth it,” she said.
Yet the freeholders, she said, working side by side with the county executive, did manage to trim the budget, trying to get each department to cut 10 percent off its budget. This was not completely possible because some departments simply couldn’t cut that deeply and still provide the necessary services.
In looking back, DiDomenico sees herself as someone who opened up dialogue and allowed ideas to flow. She sees the resolution of the tennis court reconstruction in Bayonne as one of her successes, since it had been long delayed prior to her taking over as chair.
Open space funding was another area that seemed very successful over the last year, allowing for numerous projects to move ahead throughout the county that would not have had funding otherwise. Even work in the county parks moved ahead, including several key projects in Bayonne such as the new soccer fields that the county helped fund.
Her term as chair, she said, gave her a new appreciation for how people work, and gave her insight into just how hard freeholders work.
“When I was on the Board of Education, I didn’t see all the work that went on,” she said.
Under her watch, the freeholders were able to support commercial redevelopment in Bayonne by supporting state loans that allowed the new mall to move ahead on Route 440.
Some of the success stories during the last year surprised her, such as the move to make the new county office buildings environmentally friendly. Some of the freeholders pushed to get it done, and remarkably, the new County Plaza was able to accommodate things like new solar panels on the roof.
The fact that many county workers now have better facilities to work in was a direct result of the opening of County Plaza, one more success story she saw during her watch.
There are other things she saw started this year such as the county becoming designated as an urban recovery zone, and thus made eligible for federal stimulus funds, the fruition of which will come later.
During her term as chair, the county moved ahead with new security for the parks, installing cameras that will eventually reduce vandalism and provide other benefits in the future.
She said she would like to see more cooperative efforts with the state and others to help overcome some of the fiscal obstacles.
She also learned that most county workers she has seen work hard.
“County government is often a scapegoat,” she said. “People think workers are paid too much or they have no-show jobs. That’s not what I’ve seen. Nearly everybody I worked with worked hard.”