Fair Lawn—Gov. Chris Christie’s pre-presidential road show, apparently designed to showcase the “new” Chris Christie, came to Fair Lawn last week. No one was called an idiot, nor was there any harsh language from the chair aimed at a mostly benign crowd.
Some of the 300 people in attendance expected to see fireworks related to the George Washington Bridge fiasco. Others expected heated argument when it came to the crisis over funding of retired public employee pensions. They were disappointed.
One person in the crowd mumbled more to himself that anyone in particular: “Who are you and what have you done with Chris Christie?”
Phyllis Schlossberg, a retired school child study team member, found that much of what the Governor had to say focused in on her areas of concern and expertise.
“He spent a lot of time responding to parents of young people with special needs,” she told the JLNJ. “There was no solution to what he had to say, but he seemed genuinely interested in hearing the parents’ concerns.”
Many of those present at the Fair Lawn Community Center were parents of special needs youngsters who are in out-of-state facilities, many in Pennsylvania. While New Jersey is responsible for the costs of these young people, they max out at 21 years old and the costs related to their training, education and support then fall on parents.
What was described as a major problem was the fact that so many of these developmentally disabled people have been in their out-of-state facilities for so many years that it has become home to them.
Others voiced concern regarding a rule that would force adult special needs individuals who are now cared for in day care settings to take jobs. One parent, Robyn Levine, pleaded with Christie not to put money ahead of the safety and needs of their children and young adults.
Levine’s 30-year-old daughter is developmentally disabled after a serious bout with disease. She is currently in an out-of-state facility and could be forced from what she considers a safe haven where she has been for 13 years. Another daughter of Levine’s, Courtney Carrelha, who lives in Glen Rock, implored Christie, saying: “You are supposed to protect her. She doesn’t have a voice. She was placed out-of-state because there was no place for her in New Jersey.”
Christie’s even and moderate tone seemed to soothe many in the audience who were there to discuss what to them was a more critical situation than traffic cones or pension deficits.
The Governor had hoped to focus on his plans to overhaul the pension system and health benefits plans afforded to state retirees. He also expected to discuss his almost $34 billion budget proposals.
Although he did address the crowd for about a half hour, the parents and families of the developmentally disabled basically took over the conversation. Interestingly, not one person in the audience asked a single question about the budget and only a handful asked about taxes.
Christie said he is asking the federal government for flexibility in its requirements for the developmentally disabled. “We’re attempting to make sure that we don’t end up with a one-size-fits-all situation in New Jersey.”
Another Bergen County parent said her daughter, 32 years old, has been waiting for special needs housing for the past 14 years. She asked for the flexibility to place children such as hers.
The Governor replied that with such limited housing available for those with special needs it is a difficult proposition, but that he was willing to look into those possibilities.
Christie was criticized by one speaker for issuing a veto of a bill that would have halted New Jersey’s “Return Home” program that would return more than 500 such disabled people to New Jersey from their out-of-state residential programs. Christie said the program was costly and he is working with legislators to develop a program that would permit some to remain in their current facilities. He said that people opposing his plan are, “Asking for a choice that places extraordinary expenses…” on New Jersey taxpayers.
While Christie seemed to be honestly interested in the problems faced by these families, he said he felt he was hemmed in and his options were narrowed by financial constraints.
There was one question relating to the new school standardized tests that have raised the ire of teachers, parents and students, as well. While students may opt out of the tests, the Governor asked parents to let their children take the test before permitting them to step aside for the next round.
Christie shifted the conversation to the budget and retirees pensions and health benefits saying that if the state did not “get relief” from the increasing debt and shortfall, the state would not be able to provide any of the items these families were requesting. He said there was a “finite amount of money” and people want more spent on developmental homes, work opportunities and other items.
He didn’t address the fact that he attempted to cut from the budget money that was supposed to go into the pension fund. Nor did he mention that pensioners have paid their share for their entire careers while working for the government.
Christie was not the first governor to raid the pension fund. During her term as governor, Christie Whitman inherited a pension fund so flush with cash and not doing anything, that she helped herself to the assets to balance her budget. Ensuing governors Jim McGreevey and Jon Corzine dipped their hands into the pension fund until it was tens of billions of dollars short. Christie continued the raid and then failed to live up to his agreement to begin putting billions back in.
In large measure because of this shortfall, and under Christie’s regime, the state’s credit rating has taken a hit eight times, causing increased costs for bonding and other state borrowing.
Following Christie’s departure, some of those in attendance commented that far more people would have attended had the venue been bigger. Some said that they knew of people who had registered online to attend but did not receive any response.
By Bob Nesoff