Streams

The Politics of North and South: How a State Senator Saved Vineland

Politics trumps policy in decision to close Woodbridge and Totowa developmental centers

Thursday, July 26, 2012

On paper, it was a no-brainer. The Vineland Developmental Center should be the next large institution closed as part of New Jersey’s strategy to move to community-based care for the developmentally disabled, state Human Resources Commissioner Jennifer Velez and her staff had decided.

Of the state’s seven developmental centers, Vineland had the highest percentage of residents who wanted to move to group homes and other community programs, Velez told Senate and Assembly committees in May 2011. In fact, 68 percent of Vineland’s 350 residents were ambulatory, and Vineland already had placements for 40 residents in group homes on site.

Furthermore, Vineland was the oldest of the seven institutions. Built in 1888, it would require $20 million in immediate capital projects just to maintain safety and be eligible to receive continued federal funding. And closing Vineland would not affect regional access to institutional care for the developmentally disabled because Woodbine was just 26 miles to the southeast and New Lisbon 60 miles to the north.

That’s why Alison Lozano, executive director of the New Jersey Council on Developmental Disabilities, was so shocked on Monday when the Task Force on the Closure of State Developmental Centers decided that Totowa and Woodbridge, the only two developmental centers in the populous northeastern urban counties where most of the state’s population lives, should close -- and that Vineland should remain open.

“I am surprised that Vineland is being kept open,” Lozano said. “I know that there was quite a bit of controversy about the economic impact of the closing on the Vineland area. They had already closed the smaller campus at Vineland, and were making provisions for residents to move into the community. I met a young lady Saturday who told me she was moving into a group home."

“From a philosophical point of view, it’s troubling that decisions about which institutions to keep open are being made for economic reasons. You don’t keep facilities open just to protect jobs. You make decisions about how to get people into the community so that they can live in the least restrictive setting … It’s a shame it appears to have been so very political.”

Lozano shouldn’t have been so surprised: Senator Jeff Van Drew (D-Cape May), who represents Vineland, had inserted consideration of the regional economic impact of institutional closures as a principal criteria in his legislation that created the task force, and he had the support of Republican Gov. Chris Christie to do so.

For Van Drew, Monday’s decision represented a major triumph, a reversal of state policy that would preserve 1,300 jobs in Cumberland County, which has the highest unemployment rate in the state.

“In the case of Vineland, Cumberland County and South Jersey, these jobs represent jobs that are higher than the per capita income in the area,” Van Drew said in an interview yesterday. “In other communities, it’s hard to get people to fill these jobs. Closing Vineland would have had a profoundly negative impact on businesses in the area. It would have meant more foreclosures and people who are unable to put food on the table and lose their health benefits.”

Van Drew praised Christie for his willingness to listen to his argument that closing Vineland would create a severe economic hardship.

The decision by Christie to back off on the Vineland closure came at the height of the alliance between the popular Republican governor and a coalition of South Jersey Democrats, including Van Drew, to pass a controversial pension and health benefits bill that split the Democratic Party and the labor movement.

Under the terms of Van Drew’s bill, Monday’s decision by the five-member Task Force on the Closure of State Developmental Centers is binding, as Gov. Christie and the Democratic legislative leadership knew when they put the task force together.

The story behind Van Drew’s triumph is a classic inside story of politics trumping policy, of shifting political alliances and regional power, of how legislators can effectively maneuver to protect local interests, and of how to write legislation and appoint a commission that will inexorably arrive at the preferred conclusion.

It is a decision that will have a profound effect on the provision of services for the developmentally disabled and their families in New Jersey for the next 10 to 15 years. It was a decision made primarily by political appointees without any representatives from New Jersey’s developmentally disabled community or from the state agency that will have to plan and carry out the closures.

In fact, the task force, which was charged with the impartial evaluation of the state’s developmental centers, was made up of Van Drew’s chief of staff, a Vineland Developmental Center employee, a former Christie counsel, a current Christie counsel, and a developmental disabilities expert from Pennsylvania.

Velez, who was appointed Commissioner of Human Services by Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine and kept on by Christie when he took office in January 2010, decided to recommend the closing of Vineland last year as the next step in a planned long-term reduction in the number and population of the state’s developmental centers.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1999 Olmstead decision, rejecting the right of the State of Georgia to enforce institutionalization of individuals with disabilities, had required states to provide community living arrangements in the least restrictive environment and suitable supports to individuals whose disabilities did not require institutionalized care. The ruling applied to developmentally disabled individuals with severe lifelong disabilities attributable to mental or physical impairments manifested before the age of 22.

In response, New Jersey, which ranks first in the nation in the percentage of developmentally disabled residents living in institutions, had adopted a “Path to Progress” in 2007 that called for a reduction in the census in the developmental centers from 2,987 in July of that year to 1,500 or less by July 2015. Implicit in that plan was the assumption that some of New Jersey’s developmental centers would close.

Velez made the recommendation to close Vineland to Christie, who had called publicly for increased funding for community care not only to reduce the institutional population, but also to provide more openings for developmentally disabled adults living at home, often with aging parents.

It is easy to understand Velez’s choice, Lozano said. The Hunterdon Developmental Center in Clinton, built in 1969, is the newest and largest, with 524 residents at the end of last year. “Green Brook is a specialized center for the elderly that looks like a nursing home in a community setting, not much different from what many of us will all land in one day,” Lozano said. Built in 1981, the Somerset County facility has just 88 residents.

New Lisbon in Burlington County, built in 1914, had 404 residents and the state’s only secure facility to house developmentally disabled residents, while Woodbine, the 1921 facility that housed 475 residents, doubles as the strategic center of Cape May County’s emergency management system and serves as a shelter during hurricanes and other natural disasters.

Woodbridge, established in 1965 in the heart of Middlesex, New Jersey’s second most populous county, houses 370 residents in 18 residential cottages, while the North Jersey Developmental Center at Totowa in northern Passaic County was built in 1928 and had 388 residents in late 2010.

While $20 million in work would have been required “just to bring the facility at Vineland up to standard so people could live there, all work to improve the facility stopped when the governor made the announcement it was going to be closed,” Lozano said. “That’s why this is so very astonishing.

“When you go on the Vineland campus, you’re met by large institutional-looking Victorian era buildings, the majority of which are boarded up. Then you continue on until you hit these low-slung 1950s-style institutional buildings at the back of the campus that need repair.”

When the Department of Human Services closed one of Vineland’s two campuses, Van Drew said he had asked if that meant Vineland was targeted for closure, and he had been assured that it was not. So when Christie announced in his 2011 State of the State speech that he wanted to close Vineland, “it was quite a shock to me and others in the community.”

Van Drew said he went to see Christie soon after the budget speech:
“His initial thing was ‘Jeff, we need to move more people into the community.’ I asked him to evaluate it in a fair and objective way, and to look at all seven institutions to make a decision on which one to close.”

Van Drew was making his case for Vineland at a tumultuous point in New Jersey politics, when the Democratic legislative majorities in the Senate and Assembly were bitterly divided over whether to pass legislation proposed by Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) that would require state and local government employees to pay more toward their pensions and health benefits and would impose a four-year ban on collective bargaining on health benefits.

The pension and health benefits bill was Christie’s top legislative priority. While most Democrats opposed the legislation, the bill would pass with the support of Sweeney, Van Drew and 15 other South Jersey Democrats aligned with South Jersey Democratic power broker George Norcross, Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex), and a handful of Essex Democrats aligned with Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, and Senator Brian Stack (D-Hudson). The breakaway group, which included Van Drew, would be dubbed the “Christiecrats.”

The controversial pension bill had already been approved when Van Drew’s measure setting up a 21-member task force to halt the planned Vineland closing passed both houses of the Legislature in a single day. Assembly Republicans gave Democrats the support they needed to pass the bill as an emergency measure, Van Drew noted. Stack was the principal cosponsor of Van Drew’s Vineland bill.

“The politics played out well in this case, “ said Daniel Douglas, director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, a research institute that focuses on public policy and economic issues affecting southern New Jersey. “We had a bipartisan effort to come up with a good public policy solution to a complex issue that saved 1,300 jobs.”

Douglas acknowledged the public perception that Van Drew’s support for the pension bill put him in Christie’s good graces. “I’m sure everyone involved will deny any linkage, but people who work together can find ways to work things out. The bottom line is that he scored a big win for his constituents.”

Christie used his conditional veto powers to modify the Van Drew bill to create a task force with just five members. “He wanted to make the board smaller and we did,” Van Drew said. “He wanted it to be a closure commission … Some people didn’t understand the powers it would have.”

The Task Force on the Closure of State Developmental Centers was required to consider five criteria in making its decision: (1) the number of residents in each facility ready to move into community placements; (2) the capacity of the surrounding community to provide the necessary services and support; (3) the operational needs of the Department of Human Services to accomplish the transition; (4) the economic impact on the community in which the developmental center is located if the center was to close; and (5) the projected repair and maintenance costs of each center.

The economic impact factor would clearly work in favor of Vineland because Cumberland County’s 13.5 percent unemployment rate is the highest in the state.

The requirement that the task force consider the capacity of the surrounding community to provide the necessary group homes and services was a somewhat questionable criteria because residents of the state’s institutions generally are drawn from all over the state and usually are moved into group homes in their home counties to be nearer to family, Lozano pointed out.

Notably missing from the list of criteria was the demographic issue of accessibility to institutionalized care for various regions and population centers that Velez had considered in selecting Vineland as the next institution to close.

“The state laid out the five factors we had to consider,” said Nancy Thaler, a former Pennsylvania state developmental disabilities official and current executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Disabilities Services, who was one of Christie’s three appointee to the panel.

Thaler, a Pennsylvania resident, was the only one of the five task force members with a developmentally disabled child.

Christie’s choice for chairman was Craig Domalewski, a Morris County lawyer who had served as a senior counsel in the Christie administration throughout 2010 and 2011 before moving back to private practice with Dughi, Hewitt and Domalewski, the firm where Christie had worked before becoming U.S. Attorney in 2001.

Christie also appointed Colin M. Newman, a current member of his Governor’s Counsel’s Office, to the task force.

Sweeney’s choice was Van Drew’s chief of staff, Allison Murphy, who could not be expected to be fully objective in her evaluation of Vineland’s value compared to other facilities. Oliver, who is the North Jersey half of the North Jersey/South Jersey power-sharing arrangement in the New Jersey Legislature engineered by Norcross, Sweeney and DiVincenzo, made an even more surprising choice when she chose Valessa Rocke Goehringer, a staff psychologist at the Vineland Developmental Center.

Asked whether the inclusion of both Murphy and Goehringer gave Vineland Developmental Center undue influence on a five-member commission that was supposed to consider the needs of the state as a whole, Van Drew answered, “No, the number three is more than the number two, and three had no interest in Vineland.”

Curiously missing from Christie’s appointees was Velez or a representative of the Department of Human Services, which had made the initial Vineland recommendation, and no one included a representative with a family member either in a New Jersey institution or group home, Lozano noted.

With Hunterdon, Green Brook, Woodbine and New Lisbon all occupying special niches and in less need of repair than the other three facilities, the decision quickly came down to choosing between Vineland, Woodbridge, and Totowa, all of which served a general developmentally disabled population and all of which had varying capital needs.

“The five factors were all weighed together,” Thaler said. “There was no ranking of facilities. There was a question about whether the recommendation should be to close two or three.”

She said the panel considered the capacity of the Department of Human Services to manage multiple closures, and concluded that two closures over five years was a reasonable number.

The two closures would reduce New Jersey’s developmental center census to approximately 1,700 by 2017 -- not far from the goal of 1,500 by July 12 set in the original 2007 “Path to Progress” goals.

Ironically, the plan would cut 2,600 jobs from the Totowa and Woodbridge institutions -- twice the 1,300 that would have been lost from Vineland if the original plan had gone through in June 2011, although the Department of Human Services would most likely have targeted a second developmental center for closure before 2015 in order to meet its goal.

The plan was approved by the task force 4-0 on Monday, with Christie’s former counsel, Christie’s current counsel, Van Drew’s chief of staff, and Thaler providing the yes votes. Goehringer, the Vineland Developmental Center representative, abstained, as Van Drew pointed out.

Velez had no comment on the decision to close Woodbridge and Totowa instead of Vineland.

“The Task Force on the Closure of state Developmental Centers is independent,” Nicole Brossoie, spokeswoman for the Department of Human Services, responded in an email. “The Department does not have membership on it. The group met yesterday to vote on recommendations for closure, but the report is not expected to be submitted to the Governor and Legislature until August 10.

“The Department will review the binding recommendations and implement them, accordingly, once they are formalized by the Task Force in its report to the Governor and Legislature,” Brossoie wrote.

Brossoie referred all questions to Domalewski, Christie’s task force chairman, who did not return a telephone request for an interview.

During the meeting Monday, Domalewski made it clear that his vote -- and the overall task force vote -- was based primarily upon the belief that South Jersey could not absorb the job loss that would be created by a Vineland closure as easily as the northern and central counties. Jobless rates are in double digits in Cumberland, Cape May, and Atlantic counties, while the unemployment rate has been about 8.5 percent in both Passaic and Middlesex

He also noted that the northern and central counties had a more developed network of groups willing to set up group homes and provide community services for the developmentally disabled -- although those groups could also have provided services for Vineland residents who originally came from those counties.

While the task force report will not be released for another week or two, it is clear that the task force bought Van Drew’s economic argument.

“The bottom line was there are multiple facilities that could be closed in New Jersey,” Van Drew said. “Let’s close the ones where we cause the least harm and he least pain. I’m not exaggerating there would be foreclosures [if Vineland closed)] We have no pharmaceutical industry, no manufacturing, the service industry is small, no high-tech industry. There’s not really a tourism industry.”

In fact, if there were only going to be two developmental centers in New Jersey, Van Drew said, the ones that should stay open should be Woodbine and Vineland -- both in his legislative district.

“This is an extremely significant decision for all of the working people in the district,” Van Drew concluded. “It’s something, I have to say, at the end of the day if you go to sleep at night and hope you made a difference, hopefully this is one of them."

While he’s a Democrat, Van Drew remains an effusive Christie fan.

When the governor convened a special session of the Legislature on July 2, only one Democrat applauded Christie’s demand for immediate passage of his income tax cut: Jeff Van Drew.

NJ Spotlight is an online news service providing insight and information on issues critical to New Jersey, with the aim of informing and engaging the state’s communities and businesses. Read more From New Jersey Spotlight.

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