Atlantic County could become one of the first counties in the state to set aside a portion of its contracts for veterans if a new proposal is approved.

Democratic Freeholders Colin Bell and Charles Garrett plan to introduce an ordinance that would call for awarding 5 percent of county contracts to businesses that are owned by veterans or would employ veterans to do the work.

The proposal is based on a state law approved in January and signed by Gov. Chris Christie that authorizes counties and municipalities to create Veteran Set-Aside programs. To qualify, a business must be at least 51 percent owned by a veteran, or veterans must perform at least 25 percent of the work on the county contract.

"This is a way for Atlantic County to give back to the men and women who have given so much for us," Bell said in a statement. "Veterans often have endured long interruptions in their civilian careers in order to serve our country. This program will help put them back on a level playing field by designating certain county contracts specifically for those businesses owned by veterans or who will employ veterans to perform the contract."

Garrett, a Vietnam veteran, said in a statement that, "I am especially concerned about the number unemployed and underemployed fellow veterans I have encountered in Atlantic County. The last thing our returning heroes should have to do is struggle to find work, and this program will help them find jobs by encouraging local businesses to hire veterans."

Bell said that the program, which does not create a quota but establishes a goal of 5 percent of contracts, would translate into $2 million annually for veteran-owned or employed businesses.

"And it's not additional spending," Bell said. "It's just designated spending."

Bell said that a similar ordinance was proposed in Essex County, but so far no other county has done so.

"I don't mind being on the cutting edge of this," Bell said. "Atlantic County can set an example for the rest of the state."

Republican Freeholder Chairman Frank Formica said that the board "is very supportive of assisting veterans, and certainly at the present time we're looking at the state law and seeing how it can be (implemented). But what we don't want to do is pass legislation that gives false hope."

The county legal department is studying the law and the proposed ordinance, Formica said.

"We're still in the exploratory phase," Formica said.

Contact Steven Lemongello:

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