A state task force recommended Monday that the Vineland Developmental Center remain open, ending fears that the facility’s closing would leave hundreds without work.
The Task Force on the Closure of State Developmental Centers instead recommended closing other centers in Woodbridge, Middlesex County, and Totowa, Bergen County.
State Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, who sponsored the legislation that created the task force, said the panel’s recommendation is binding on state government.
Van Drew said the determining factor for keeping the Vineland Developmental Center open was the “profound, negative impact” its closing would have on Cumberland County’s already bad economy. The task force also found that Cumberland County did not have all the community-based facilities, such as group homes, needed to handle the developmental center’s residents, he said.
“We did it, man,” Van Drew said of months of work by legislators and local and Cumberland County officials, and numerous protests by Developmental Center employees and supporters, to keep the facility open. “This is good news for the hundreds of women with developmental disabilities who call the center home, for the more than 1,000 employees of the facility and for the entire region.”
The Developmental Center has about 1,400 workers, 800 of whom are represented by the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME.
Mattie Harrell, an AFSCME vice president who represents union members in New Jersey and Delaware, said her office started getting calls from Vineland Developmental Center workers shortly after the task force issued its recommendation.
“It’s a good day for them because of the job situation in Cumberland County,” Harrell said. “That was the only thing standing that was keeping the area surviving.”
But Harrell also called the task force ruling “bittersweet,” saying she now has to work on trying to keep the centers in Woodbridge and Totowa open.
“I never give up on no one,” Harrell said.
Mayor Robert Romano called the task force recommendation “great news.”
“I’m sure it’s great news for our economy in Vineland,” he said. “I’m sure the employees are happy.”
Cumberland County Freeholder Director Carl Kirstein said Monday’s decision was good news not only for the center and its employees, but for other businesses who provide goods and services for the facility.
“I know that it had to take the process that it took,” Kirstein said. “It was a good process.”
The state proposed closing the Vineland Developmental Center early last year.
The Christie administration said doing so would save the state millions of dollars. Administration officials said Christie wanted to move developmental center residents out of those facilities and into community-based facilities.
However, the proposal caused widespread opposition from many of the Vineland Developmental Center’s 1,400 workers. Business and government leaders from throughout Cumberland County said the closing would only worsen the county’s unemployment rate and economy, which are among the worst in the state.
Families of many of the developmental center’s residents also opposed the plan. They said they were happy with the care being given at the center and that their loved ones might not adjust well to new living arrangements. Many of those family members spoke out against the proposed closed during a standing-room-only public hearing at City Hall.
The developmental center in Vineland houses about 300 women of varying ages and developmental disabilities. Some of the women have lived in the center for most of their lives.
The task force that was eventually formed to consider the proposed closing of developmental centers was charged to consider the number of developmental center residents who do not oppose being placed in a community setting; the ability of those communities to either provide or develop services and support; the ability of the Human Services Department to meet the needs of those individuals; the economic impact of a closing on the area; and projected repair and maintenance costs for the center.
Van Drew said there is still work to be done at the Vineland center in terms of needed capital improvements and leadership.
“We need to be on the cutting edge,” he said.
Van Drew also thanked Christie for his cooperation on the task force legislation and subsequent closing evaluation process.
“The governor has displayed tremendous leadership, integrity and fairness throughout this entire process,” he said.
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