New Jerseyans Sound Off on How to Spend $6 Billion in Aid

New Jersey officials are asking residents how the state, historically known for cash crunches, should spend an unprecedented boon: $6 billion of federal aid.

During virtual hearings on Tuesday and Wednesday, Governor Phil Murphy called the relief funds a “once in a generation opportunity” as he and his administration asked community organizers and leaders to share how they would like the state’s share of the American Rescue Plan Act, which gives states and cities $350 billion in relief aid, doled out.

Murphy and lawmakers are planning to use about one-third of the funds for pressing purposes, according to Jennifer Sciortino, a spokesperson for New Jersey’s Treasury Department. Projects include $755 million for an eviction prevention program, $600 million for expanded special education services, and $450 million to strengthen emergency preparedness and infrastructure at level one trauma centers across the state, Sciortino said in an email. The state will also direct more than $180 million to its school and small business energy efficiency program.

Suggestions from residents and advocacy groups included pitches for improvements to HVAC systems, investments in public safety, expanded Internet infrastructure and funds for vaccine handling. The virtual attendees also suggested that front-line workers receive premium pay, and that the state use some of the money to revitalize restaurants and hotels that were impacted from the pandemic.

Others asked Murphy to help the state’s ailing transit provider. Doug O’Malley, state director of Environment New Jersey, called for $200 million to improve NJ Transit.

“We need to make sure that we’re not seeing buses and trains canceled for mechanical reasons, and that will be because we need to make that long-term investment in NJT,” O’Malley said at the hearing on Tuesday.

Donna Chiera, president of the American Federation of Teachers New Jersey, said the state needs to focus on getting people back to a traditional school setting and invest in infrastructure to improve ventilation, water supply, and making sure that windows are able to open and close.

Teachers and students “need to be back in buildings that are safe,” Chiera said Wednesday.

Franceline Ehret, New Jersey state director of the Communication Workers of America, whose union represents telecommunications and customer service workers, wants officials to use the funds to modernize facilities’ HVAC systems to make air ventilation cleaner for workers.

“While funds are available, it would seem the opportune time to upgrade the HVAC systems in the buildings that cannot handle a MERV 13 filter or greater and especially where windows do not open,” Ehret said.

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