Employment has started to recover in Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester Counties, U.S. Rep. Robert Andrews (D., N.J.) said yesterday - a sign, he hopes, that the economy is turning a corner and that the federal stimulus program has begun to take hold.
Andrews said the number of jobs in the three counties had grown to 605,000 by June, up from 599,600 in February though still far short of the 626,500 in January 2007. Growth from February to June was slightly less than 1 percent.
"I don't think anybody can claim that things are good," Andrews said in a conference call with reporters. "But there are signs that things are improving."
He tied South Jersey job growth to the early effects of the $787 billion federal stimulus package approved this year, though he said he did not have direct evidence that they were linked. He hoped for additional improvement once more of the money is put to use.
"We think that most of the punch of the recovery plan is still to come," he said.
Andrews said there is about $358 million of stimulus dollars targeted for Burlington, Camden and Gloucester Counties. The largest share, $116 million, is slated for transportation projects, including an $81 million plan to repave and rebuild I-295 in Camden and Gloucester Counties.
The project, which began last month, is expected to ramp up and then employ an average of 120 workers a day, a general contractor told The Inquirer last month.
An additional $47 million is going toward school districts to help avoid cuts.
Other projects include $25 million to help the ongoing environmental cleanup at the Welsbach & General Gas Mantle Superfund site in Camden.
The Camden Housing Authority will use $4.2 million to repave parking lots, repair elevators, and install more energy-efficient heaters and windows, according to data provided by Andrews' office. Burlington County put $200,000 toward hiring a consulting firm to come up with an energy-efficiency strategy.
At Camden County College, $4.8 million will go toward student financial aid.
Andrews could not say how much of the stimulus money in South Jersey had been spent. He said he expected it would be similar to the 20 percent of spending seen nationwide.
Some agencies still are trying to get a handle on how to allocate some of the resources, including "recovery zone bonds" that will allow counties to funnel low-cost loans to development projects.
Camden County, which has access to $42.6 million of such bonds, is undecided about its plans, according to the Andrews data.
In Gloucester County, which has access to about $25 million in bonds, Freeholder Director Stephen Sweeney said officials had received advice from county bond counsel Philip Norcross to determine what types of projects were eligible for the funding. The freeholders later this month expect to designate "recovery zones" where the financing could be applied.
"Our economic development office is trying to figure out what projects, if any, in Gloucester will qualify for this money in order to create a benefit to create jobs," Sweeney said.
He said officials would look for projects ready to move quickly.
Norcross' role in aiding the county in using these bonds was publicized yesterday in a chart provided by Andrews' office that itemized area stimulus projects.
Norcross is the brother of South Jersey Democratic political power George Norcross, a close Sweeney ally. Sweeney said, "Phil is not directing any money anywhere."
"It's our determination as a county" who ultimately gets funding, Sweeney said.
Philip Norcross said his law firm, Parker McKay, "is providing advice to the county and improvement authority in connection with the legal structuring of the bond stimulus financing program and has not been asked to provide any other advice" about the bonds.
In an e-mailed statement, Andrews' deputy chief of staff, Fran Tagmire, wrote that Philip Norcross' name "appears on the chart only because his firm provides legal counsel in this circumstance."
Andrews said stimulus spending had not gone faster because officials were trying to ensure that money is spent properly.
He played down talk of a second stimulus package.
"That's premature," Andrews said. "I want to see how this one works. I don't believe at this point that that would be justified."