COUNTY — A meeting of the Union County Board of County Commissioners took a heated turn on Thursday when elected officials vehemently denied allegations of misappropriation made during the public-comment portion of the evening’s proceedings.
Garwood resident Bruce Paterson called the commission to task when he asked about $749,552.94 in CARES Act funds that the county paid out to a Washington-based consulting firm (MV Strategies LLC) between September 2020 and March 2021.
Mr. Paterson, who frequently raises financial questions at commission meetings, alleged that each commissioner received an individual payment of $83,000 as part of the arrangement with MV Strategies. His information stemmed from a list of CARES Act vendor payments obtained through an open public records request that, while lacking in detail, did point to a connection between the DC firm and the county.
Although County Manager Ed Oatman explained during Thursday night’s meeting that MV Strategies was contracted as part of the county’s Covid-19 response team, he did not provide any additional details as to the nature of the arrangement.
A county representative said Tuesday via email communication with Union County HAWK that MV Strategies, “played an integral part of our Covid operations. They registered our residents for testing and vaccines across all of Union County. They were hired specifically to implement a program that surveys our residents both remotely and through canvassing neighborhoods.”
The representative, Kelly Martin, director of public information for the county, went on to note that, “MV Strategies specifically helped boost Union County’s testing operations, and then later, vaccination numbers.”
“We have a few hard-to-reach communities, so we hired MV Strategies to further assist us in these efforts. They engaged in door-to-door operations as well as phone banking to reach the unvaccinated, educate them about the vaccines, register them for an appointment and bring in pop-up clinics to that area,” Ms. Martin said, noting that to date, the county has tested a total of 199,403 residents for Covid-19 and has vaccinated 136,473 individuals against the virus. The county also has held 78 food-distribution events that provided Union County residents with more than 15.1 million meals.
Although little information is available as to the exact nature of what MV Strategies (incorporated in 2019) does, Ms. Martin said the county would not have been able to achieve the level of recovery that it has without the firm’s assistance.
As to the matter of the alleged $83,000 payouts, Ms. Martin said, “The title of the account references Freeholder (now Commissioner) because this program was described as a Freeholder initiative for outreach. A total of $749,552.94 was paid out to MV Strategies in a series of 9 payments — divided by the total contract is the $83K. One-hundred percent of the cost was paid out of the CARES Act.”
Commissioner Chair Rebecca Williams called the comment a “slanderous attack.”
“I don’t want anyone leaving this meeting thinking that the commissioners received upwards of $750,000. I don’t know where that number — $83,000 each — came from, but we certainly did not get any money above and beyond the salaries that we are paid,” Ms. Williams said Thursday. “You may have seen the surprised looks on the faces of my colleagues when that accusation was made, but there is no way that we received that money. I have no idea where that comment came from, but I just want to reassure you all that it is absolutely not true.”
Mr. Paterson also asked the commission to explain an ordinance (designated 837-2022 on the agenda) that calls for the refunding of a $35,375,000 aggregate principal for outstanding bonds, but was informed by Chair Williams that the commission would defer its response until the next regular meeting, when the ordinance will be brought forward for a public hearing.
In other county news, the commissioners heard Thursday from 9-year-old Clark resident Lila Stebbins, who wrote a letter to Commissioner Kimberly Palmieri-Mouded to make some suggestions regarding the rehabilitation of the Clark Reservoir.
“The Clark Reservoir, as I’m sure you’re aware, is the largest body of water in Union County,” said County Parks and Recreation Director Ron Zuber. “Currently, we’re trying to clean it up. There is a lot of organic debris in there; trees that have fallen down, silt that is building up…so we’re trying to work on that. We did a lot of testing and we found that, surprisingly, that water, despite the fact that it’s bisected by the Garden State Parkway, is pretty clean from an environmental standpoint, but we still need to get that debris out of there. We hope to be able to do some recreational things there once the cleanup project is complete.”
Lila, who said she likes to visit the reservoir with her grandfather, said she would love to see a fishing pier and a community garden added to the space.
Commissioner Palmieri-Mouded commended Lila for her activism and suggested that students like her might make excellent community ambassadors for the county’s ongoing environmental project.