When the Ocean County Board of Freeholders reorganizes on Wednesday, John P. Kelly will take over as freeholder director in the midst of one of the most challenging periods the county has faced in decades.
Already struggling with difficulties from a tough economy, the county now must rebuild from the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy — and do so in the face of many conflicting demands and interests.
"The storm has caused havoc," said Kelly, who will be sworn in as director for the third time in a ceremony that begins at 3:30 p.m. James Lacey will be sworn in as deputy director, while Gerry P. Little and John C. Bartlett will be sworn in after being re-elected to the all-Republican board. Freeholder Joseph Vicari continues in his seat as well.
"There's so much to be done," Kelly said, "and it needs to be done quickly."
Beach replenishment, cleaning the debris out of Barnegat Bay, restoring businesses and getting people back into their homes as quickly as possible are the top tasks. But accomplishing those, especially as the county tries to get back on its feet in time for the summer tourist season, will not be easy, Kelly acknowledged.
The biggest hurdle will be rebuilding the beaches, which are critical not only for economic reasons but for protecting homes and businesses both on the barrier islands and inshore.
Kelly said the federal government already has promised help. But so far a bill that would provide relief is mired in Congress as the House continues to fight over a number of amendments. The Senate passed the $60.4 billion package on Friday, but the Republican-controlled House has raised significant opposition to the aid package, and it's unclear whether the House will approve it before this congressional session ends on Thursday.
And there's the state-level battle started by Senate President Stephen Sweeney, who has co-sponsored state legislation that would prevent towns that charge beach fees from receiving federal beach replenishment funds. Sweeney has said in interviews that his goal is to force towns to share services and cut budgets and property taxes.
Kelly said Sweeney's attack on beach fees ignores the costs beach towns face in hosting thousands of tourists.
"The money charged in beach fees goes to maintenance, extra police and lifeguards," Kelly said. "Those fees have nothing to do with the cost of the sand."
In addition, Kelly said, forcing towns to forgo beach fees now will add stress to municipal budgets already facing a crisis due a loss of ratables from homes and businesses severely damaged or destroyed by Sandy.
"Towns this year are already devastated," Kelly said. "To take (beach fees) away from local municipalities will only add to the burden on the taxpayers."
On the flip side of the issue is the fight over beach access and shore protection in the form of dunes.
Private beach associations in several towns have refused to allow the Army Corps of Engineers access to do beach replenishment projects because they want to control who does or does not have access to the beaches. On Long Beach Island, homeowners have gone so far as to sue the town of Harvey Cedars for building 22-foot dunes — dunes that, ironically, saved many of the town's homes from devastation in Sandy.
The effectiveness of proper dunes was visible on the northern barrier island as well, where oceanfront homes in Seaside Park and South Seaside Park had far less damage than those farther north on the island, where dunes were much lower or nonexistent.
"The county can be a conduit between all of the agencies," Kelly said, in addressing the need to get all parties moving in the same direction on beach replenishment and shore protection. "We need to make sure proper dunes are constructed."
But restoring the beaches is critical to rebuilding, Kelly said, because the beaches are the key to tourism, which is Ocean County's biggest economic driver.
"The beach is what builds the Shore," Kelly said. "It is a boon to the statewide economy.
"And it's a part of the fabric of Ocean County," he said.
Kelly said just as critical is taking action to clean up Barnegat Bay. The debris Sandy dumped into the bay has been a topic at several freeholders' meetings in the last six weeks, but Kelly said it's time to stop talking about it and act, beginning with setting up a meeting with the Army Corps of Engineers, the state Department of Environmental Protection and others needed to get some the cleanup in motion.
Kelly said County Administrator Carl Block has been in touch with state officials and Kelly has met with County Engineer Frank Scarantino, but cleaning up the debris —which is believed to include pieces of houses, sunken boats, personal watercraft and much more — is going to be a task much larger than the county and municipalities are equipped to handle.
"It's a lot of work to do," Kelly said, "and agencies are overwhelmed with things that must be done as soon as possible. They can't all be done right away," but the county is trying to assure that the most critical issues are addressed as quickly as possible.
Now that utilities have been restored for the most part, other tasks will get more attention, because rebuilding the county includes getting residents back into their homes, Kelly said.
"Every year develops a personality of its own," Kelly said. "2013 already has one: rebuilding Ocean County."
"If we can get the county rebuilt this year, I'll feel like we've accomplished a great deal," Kelly said.
Kelly said getting residents back in their homes is every bit as important as getting the businesses rejuvenated.