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September 16, 2014

The state Department of Environmental Protection announced a $190 million settlement in its lawsuit with Occidental Chemical Corp. over the intentional dumping of deadly toxins into the Passaic River. Occidental is the legal successor to Diamond Shamrock, which was found guilty of dumping dioxin, a carcinogen, among other toxins, into the river over decades.

This settlement brings the state a total recovery of $355.4 million -- Occidental Chemical being the largest -- but environmentalists did not applaud the agreement. Only last year, noted Debbie Mans, executive director of the NY/NJ Baykeeper, the Christie administration estimated the total settlement would be $530 million. What’s more, Christie has issued language in his most recent budget that has all settlements above $50 million being shared 50/50 between the state DEP and the general operating fund. “Settlements to compensate the public for years of damage to the environment should not be used to plug gaps in the general fund,” said Mans in a statement.

“The settlement should be for a lot more money,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “This has gone on for 40 years and should be about the people impacted by the pollution, not for the budget." In announcing the settlement, the state attorney general’s office said that $50 million of this settlement or $67.4 million in total payments to the state would be used for natural resource restoration projects in and around the Newark Bay Complex.

In addition, Occidental agreed to pay “certain” costs associated with a $1.7 billion plan for the cleanup of the lower eight miles of the Passaic River, which has been proposed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Tittel voiced concern that the EPA wants to dredge and cap sediment that contains dioxins, PCBs, mercury, and other toxins, rather than completely remove it.

“The people who live along the Passaic River, especially in Newark, have been robbed of the use of their river,” said Tittle, who fears capping would not last generations. “Rivers should not be Superfund sites, they should be places where people can walk along the river bank or kayak.”

September 15, 2014

The United Way of New Jersey estimates that a family of four -- two adults, one infant, and one preschooler -- needs an income of $61,200 just to survive in this state.

A new report, called ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) and conducted by the United Way, estimated that was the income required to afford the five basic necessities -- housing, childcare, food, healthcare, and transportation -- a family of four would need. In 2012, the median family income in New Jersey was $69,667.

The budget calls for $1,245 for housing, $1,341 for childcare, $592 for food, $549 for transportation, $453 for healthcare, $456 for taxes, and $464 for miscellaneous.

Basic necessities increased 19 percent between 2007 and 2012, according to the survey.

A single adult is estimated to need $27,552 to live on a survival budget. The Household Survival Budget was estimated to vary across counties. The basic essentials were judged to be least expensive in Essex County -- $49,038 for a family of four, $23,209 for a single adult. They were estimated to be most expensive for a family of four in Hunterdon County at $73,120. For a single adult, Passaic County was judged the most expensive at $33,494.

September 12, 2014

The Girl Scouts Research Institute took a look at key issues facing the state of girls between 5 and 17 and ranked each state by key social, economic, and health issues. New Jersey ranked ninth in the country. New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Massachusetts, and Vermont ranked as the top five.

Predictably, New Jersey scored highest when it came to education and educational performance, ranking third. It scored less well when it came to emotional health and participation in extracurricular activities.

When it comes to emotional health, New Jersey ranked 14th. Eight percent of New Jersey’s girls need treatment for emotional, behavioral, or developmental issues. Six percent of them have experienced neighborhood violence. (Nationally, the figures were 9 percent and 11 percent, respectively.) As for extracurricular activities, 82 percent of girls participate -- both in New Jersey as well as nationally.

September 11, 2014

Two polls released this week -- from FDU PublicMind and the Stockton Polling Institute -- show Democratic U.S. Senator Cory Booker leading his Republican challenger, former U.S. Senate candidate Jeffrey Bell, by 13 percent.

The PublicMind poll showed Booker over Bell by 42 percent to 27 percent -- with 27 percent saying they are undecided. The Stockton poll had only 12 percent undecided.

September 10, 2014

Funding for the repair of New Jersey’s roads and bridges is highly dependent on tolls and user fees in comparison with other states, making up 32.8 percent of the transportation budget. That ranks it second in the country, according to the Tax Foundation, the Washington think tank. (Delaware was first.)

The national average is 8.3 percent.

New Jersey’s gas tax, however, somewhat rebalances the situation. It only pays for 12 percent of road repairs in New Jersey, while the national average is 27 percent. When gas taxes, tolls, user fees, and license taxes are combined, they pay for 58.5 percent of road repairs. This ranks New Jersey eighth in the country. The national average is 50.4 percent.

September 9, 2014

New Jerseyans filled 102,886,356 drug prescriptions at retail pharmacies last year, which works out to 2.6 percent of all prescriptions sold in the country and 11.6 per capita.

Known as the nation’s medicine cabinet, New Jersey ranked 11th in the country for prescriptions. The cost of the drugs totaled $7.835 billion -- ranking New Jersey eighth in the country in terms of expenditures.

Women filled more prescriptions than men -- 13.2 per year vs. 9.8. And as expected, the older you are the more prescriptions you fill. Those over 65 years of age averaged 26.6 prescriptions a year, while children averaged only 4.4 prescriptions a year.

September 8, 2014

New Jersey has seen a steady rise in obesity rates. Some 26.3 percent of adult New Jerseyans are now considered obese, according to a recent study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Trust for America’s Health. That’s up from 20.3 percent in 2004 and 12.3 percent in 1995. Nevertheless, the state has the 13th-lowest adult obesity rate in the nation.

More men are overweight than women -- 26.4 percent vs. 23 percent. And more blacks (34.5 percent) are overweight than Latinos (27.5 percent) or whites (24.4 percent).

The good news is the rate of childhood obesity in New Jersey has dropped, with the state ranking 50 of 51 for obesity of 10-17-year-olds, with 10 percent. The rate of obesity among high school students is 8.7 percent, ranking it 41st in the country. The bad news is that New Jersey ranks among the highest states when it comes to 2- to 4-year olds in low-income families, with a rate of 16.6 percent. That, however, is a drop from a high of 18.4 percent in 2009.

September 5, 2014

Our tomatoes and corn crops have yet to be exhausted, but it’s already time for fall farm festivals. About 347 farms offer agritourism, generating $18.4 million in revenue in 2012, ranking New Jersey ninth in the country.

With an early Labor Day, fall farm events are already beginning this week. Nine New Jersey counties are in the top 10th percentile in the country in terms of agritourism dollars, and Sussex County is 85th in the nation. There are many different types of events at New Jersey’s festivals, ranging from wine tastings; pumpkin, apple, and peach picking; hayrides; corn mazes; visits to cranberry bogs; petting zoos; and music. A list of fall events is available online.

September 4, 2014

On average, one child under the age of 15 years is struck by a car every day in the Garden State, according to the state Division of Highway Safety. There were 142 youth fatalities (those under the age of 19) during the 10-year period between 2003 and 2012.

With schools reopening this week and next, the state urges motorists to be aware of school zones, bus stops, and crosswalks. Students also need to be aware of crosswalks, crossing guards, and traffic signals.

September 3, 2014

New Jerseyans may think they live in a blue state with a liberal sensibility, but when it comes to women’s equality, they would be wrong, according to a recent analysis by Wallet Hub, a personal-financial-social network. In a ranking of all 50 states, New Jersey came in a dismal 34th when judged in terms of gender equality. To come up with the ranking, Wallet Hub looked at such issues as the pay gap between men and women, the number of executive positions held by women, how many hours each gender worked, the difference in life expectancy and educational attainment by the sexes, and how many women were represented in the political ranks.

What Wallet Hub came up with was that New Jersey ranked 36th for workplace environment; 33rd for education and health; and 25th for political empowerment.

Hawaii ranked first on the list, with New York ranking second and Maryland ranking third. Hawaii and New York ranked highly due to their workplace environments for women.

September 2, 2014

The expense of living in New Jersey applies to every income level, including low-income households. According to a recent report “Housing Spotlight: The Affordable Rental Housing Gap Persists” 44 percent of the state’s low-income renters spend more than half their income on rent and utility costs. Nationwide, the rate is a much-lower 35 percent.

A key factor is the severe housing shortage faced by low-income households. According to the report, there is a shortage of at least 201,286 homes for those who are living 30 percent below the median income of the state. The lower the income, the greater the deficit.

The report, based on U.S. Census American Survey numbers, was jointly released by the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey and the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

August 15, 2014

Be careful behind the wheel this Labor Day weekend. The state is cracking down on drunk drivers with a “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over” campaign, which will run from now through Labor Day.

The Division of Highway Traffic Safety has issued 195 grants of $5,000 each [link:http://nj.gov/oag/newsreleases14/pr20140813b.html|to enable towns to set up checkpoints] and saturation patrols between today and Labor Day. In addition, 300 other communities are expected to participate in the campaign unfunded.

Traditionally, Labor Day weekend sees the traffic fatalities of the entire year. In 2012, there were 147 traffic fatalities in New Jersey over Labor Day weekend.

As a point of comparison, on average there is a drunken-driving fatality every 51 minutes in New Jersey. On Labor Day weekend, that jumps to every 34 minutes, most of which occur at night.

This will be the second year of the crackdown. Last year, police made 1,365 arrests during the campaign. They also issued 5,610 citations for spending, 4,153 seatbelt violations, 3,563 violations for driving with a suspended license and 936 tickets for reckless driving. Nearly 1,800 fugitives were apprehended during the campaign.

Penalties for a first DWI arrest can include fines of up to $500, 30 days in jail, one-year driver’s license suspension and court costs. Successive DWI arrests carry stiffer penalties.

August 14, 2014

The AARP is sounding the alarm, warning that many New Jerseyans are facing a “perilous financial situation” as they approach retirement. Not only is the organization urging the state to honor public pension commitments, but it says other legislation is necessary to encourage more reliable retirement savings.

But it could be a little late for some who are soon-to-be retired. AARP cites [link:http://www.nirsonline.org/storage/nirs/documents/2014%20Scorecard/final_2014_scorecard.pdf| a survey by the National Institute on Retirement Security] which demonstrated that the danger is not limited to public pensions.

The average 401k balance in New Jersey is $29,000, according to the survey, and that number has not increased since 2000. Nationally, the typical working-age household has only $3,000 in retirement assets and even those households with people who have already retired only have $12,000 on average.

August 13, 2014

New Jerseyans spend $2,421 a year just to operate a car, according to a [link: http://www.bankrate.com/finance/auto/car-ownership-costs-by-state.aspx|study by Bankrate, an online financial site].

But it nothing to do with gas costs and is all about insurance.

At $1,244 a year, New Jerseyans have the second-highest average car-insurance costs, after Louisiana, which racks up an average cost of $1,277. In most states, drivers pay less than $1,000 a year in insurance. New Jersey also has the highest repair costs in the country, at $393 on average. When it comes to gasoline prices, New Jersey drivers pay an average of $783 a year – lower than all but New York, Washington, DC, Alaska and Pennsylvania.

August 12, 2014

Voters approve of Christie but when it comes to his agenda – not so much

Do New Jerseyans like Gov. Chris Christie’s personality more than his agenda? That could be the case, according to recent polls.

While a new [link:http://eagletonpoll.rutgers.edu/new-wp/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/release_08-12-14.pdf|Rutgers-Eagleton poll] shows Christie’s approval rating still higher than his disapprovals (52 percent vs. 41 percent), when those same voters were asked about whether they approved of his performance on specific issues, only his handling of Sandy gets a thumbs up (59 percent).

More respondents disapproved than approved of his handling of the economy (50 percent disapprove), taxes (57 percent disapprove), education and schools (47 percent disapprove), the state budget (46 percent disapprove) and the state pension fund crisis (53 percent disapprove.)

While just 34 percent disapprove of his handling of crime and drugs, only 48 percent approve and 18 percent said they didn’t know.

A [link:/assets/14/0811/2345|similar poll conducted by Quinnipiac University] asked New Jerseyans what they thought of Christie’s “No Pain, No Gain” solution to the pension crisis and his program for bail reform.

Bail reform is a big winner – maybe because both Republicans and Democrats support it. Respondents were 4 to 1 in agreement with Christie that suspects believed to be dangerous can be held without bail and those deemed not to be dangerous can be released without cash bail.

However, when asked about Christie’s pension solutions, 50 percent to 41 percent said they disagreed with his decision to reduce the amount paid into the pension fund. Indeed, a major of voters, including 46 percent of Republicans, said Christie should use a combination of increased taxes and reduced payments to solve the dilemma.

August 11, 2014

State legislators will have to consider whether they want to revisit the [link:http://nj.gov/governor/news/news/552014/approved/20140808b.html|11 bills Gov. Chris Christie vetoed] late Friday, some of which are dear to the Democrats’ hearts.

The bills that were vetoed included legislation that would prohibit the treatment or use of “fracking” waste in a New Jersey facility; repeal of the prohibition of sports betting in New Jersey casinos; call for an increase of $21 in energy assistance for qualified families; and create new standards for privatization contracts.

Christie outlined his objections to the bills in individual veto messages, attached to his release.

Three of the bills were conditionally vetoed, meaning that Christie advised the state Legislature to adopt different language and, if so, the bills would be approved.

August 8, 2014

On Aug. 10, 2004 — exactly 10 years ago this Sunday — Gov. James E. McGreevey signed the landmark New Jersey Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act.

Considered one of New Jersey’s most significant pieces of environmental legislation, [link:http://www.state.nj.us/njhighlands/actmaps/act/|the law] protects the sprawling environmentally-sensitive Highlands region, which covers some 860,000 acres stretching across seven counties and 88 municipalities. The area provides drinking water to more than half the state’s population.

The act split the region into a “preservation” area where development was to be strictly controlled and a “planning” area where more development could be permitted.

Considerable debate and — some believe — political deal-making went into determining how those lines were drawn. Critics also cried foul over the state’s lack of funds to compensate preservation area property owners who could no longer sell the development rights to their land, complaints which persist today.

After the law was signed, the [link: http://www.state.nj.us/njhighlands/news/brochures/fact_sheet_11x17.pdf| Highlands Council], a 15-member board of appointed officials, drafted a regional master plan -- a set of policies and rules managing growth and conservation in the area. Today, the council continues to oversee the process of “conformance,” or bringing local planning in line with the master plan.

As of last month, according to Highlands Council staff, 59 municipalities have submitted “petitions for conformance,” and 47 of those plans have been approved.

August 7, 2014

In the latest Quinnipiac University Poll, 46 percent of New Jersey residents polled said that Gov. Chris Christie should run for president.

Of course, the bad news for the governor’s possible White House aspirations, is that 49 percent said he should stay home in New Jersey.

And in a separate question, 55 percent said he would not make a good president, versus just 39 percent who think he would be.

Still, he fares well in his home state against other Republican names, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul. His polling numbers are not as strong, though, in a hypothetical general election against former Secretary of State and First Lady Hillary Clinton, where he is down by 8 points.

[link:http://www.quinnipiac.edu/news-and-events/quinnipiac-university-poll/new-jersey/release-detail?ReleaseID=2068|Quinnipiac University Poll]

August 6, 2014

The New Jersey Economic Development Authority announced last week that it has [link:http://www.njeda.com/web/Aspx_pg/Templates/LatestNews.aspx?topid=721&Doc_Id=2354&ParentDocID=681|awarded $35 million] to 700 Sandy-impacted businesses through the Stronger NJ Business Grant Program. The program offers small business owners grants and forgivable loans of up to $50,000 per affected location, up to a total of $250,000 to reimburse them for lost operating expenses, inventory, equipment and furnishings. The money can also be used for construction.

The announcement follows criticism from small business owners who [link:http://www.njspotlight.com/stories/14/04/07/at-small-business-roundtable-sandy-survivors-share-frustrations-anger/|complained back in April] that the grant application process was cumbersome and behind schedule. The EDA responded by reducing paperwork requirements and adding additional advisors to help business owners through the process.

Between the Stronger NJ Grant, Loan, and Neighborhood and Community Revitalization programs, the EDA says that a total of over $126 million has been approved so far to help businesses and communities impacted by Sandy.

August 5, 2014

The percentage of New Jersey babies who were being breastfed when they were 6 months old in 2011, according to an [link: http://www.cdc.gov/breastfeeding/pdf/2014breastfeedingreportcard.pdf|annual breastfeeding report card] by the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.

This represents a significant increase from the 2010 figures included in last year’s report, when the 6-month-old breastfeeding percentage stood at 47.4 percent. The change moved the state from being below the national average to being above average.

The state also saw increases in breastfeeding at 12 months, as well as the percentage of babies who were exclusively breastfed at 3 months and 6 months; and the percentage of babies who have ever been breastfed, which stands at 81.6 percent.

State Health Commissioner Mary E. O’Dowd has made breastfeeding a priority. In 2011, 10 maternity hospitals across the state received $10,000 each from the state to support the implementation of the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative, which encourages hospitals to promote and support breastfeeding. The state this year introduced [link: http://www.njspotlight.com/stories/14/06/09/more-nj-hospitals-encourage-breastfeeding-through-baby-friendly-initiative/|new hospital regulations] that further encourage the practice.

August 4, 2014

In 2013-14, there were 144 school districts in New Jersey made up of a single school, according to the Office of the State Auditor. The [link:http://www.njleg.state.nj.us/legislativepub/auditor/345813.pdf|report on school administrative spending] statewide found these districts spent $63.5 million combined on administration. Still, that was a small fraction of the $1.55 billion spent on school administration statewide. Ninety distrcits had either a superintendent or principal, and 18 with both a superintendent and principal.

August 1, 2014

Most New Jerseyans know that the state is the most densely populated in the nation -- despite the miles of open space in South Jersey and some protected areas. But they might be surprised to learn that New Jersey has an average of 1,196 people living within a square mile.

That compares to an average of 87 people per square mile nationally.

Rhode Island, physically much smaller than New Jersey with 1,034 square miles to New Jersey’s 7,354 square miles, has a similar, if smaller, density with 1,018 people living within each square mile. Massachusetts is the third-densest with 839 people each mile.

To no one’s surprise, Alaska is the least densely populated: one person per square mile. Wyoming is second with six.

July 31, 2014

Typically, New Jersey does pretty well on health rankings when only outcomes are considered. But a recent ranking by Wallethub, an online financial site, compared outcomes to costs and found that New Jersey ranked only 26th in the country for return on investment.

To determine health rankings, Wallethub looked at how a state stacked up in America’s Health Rankings and a state’s death rate as calculated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

New Jersey ranked 10th and ninth, respectively, by those ratings. It ranked 43rd, however, when it came to cost. The group used the average health insurance premium as a proxy for cost. That brought New Jersey down to 26th.

Top-ranked states were Minnesota, Utah, Kansas, Hawaii, and Iowa.

July 30, 2014

It was once considered a taboo, and for many families the need for mental healthcare or behavioral therapy for their children is tremendously stressful. But according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the website statehealthfacts.org maintained by the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation, mental healthcare is something a majority of New Jersey children access.

According to the National Survey of National Health, 57.6 percent of New Jersey children have sought mental healthcare for a variety of reason in the past 12 months.

This is a not a question of New Jersey high-income earners taking advantage of medical help if available. Nationally, the number is higher -- 61 percent. New Jersey is on the lower end of the scale, while states such as North Dakota (86.3 percent), Vermont (77.9 percent), Maine (77.8 percent), West Virginia (73.6 percent), and Kansas (72.2 percent) had the highest number of children 2-17 seeking mental healthcare in the previous 12 months. The statistics were for 2011.

July 29, 2014

Summer mosquitos are not just annoying -- they can make you quite sick. And there are no vaccines to prevent against infection. So the state Health Department is warning residents to take extra precautions to prevent infection by wearing insect repellent and clearing standing pools where mosquitos breed.

So far this year, New Jersey health officials have identified 20 cases of dengue and 12 cases of chikungunya, both mosquito-borne viruses.

The state’s Public Health Laboratories have found West Nile virus in mosquito pools in six counties (Bergen, Burlington, Camden, Hudson, Middlesex, and Union) although they have not identified humans with the disease. Last year, 12 residents were identified with West Nile virus. Symptoms include fever, muscle weakness, vomiting, and dizziness.

Chikungunya is a mosquito-borne virus that is typically found in the Caribbean. It is not transmitted person to person but if a mosquito bites a human with chikungunya, and then bites someone else, it can be transmitted that way. It is rarely fatal but the joint pain is severe and debilitating. Other symptoms include fever, headache, muscle pain, back pain, and rash.

Dengue is unusual in the United States but is common in Puerto Rico, Latin American countries, and Southeast Asia. Symptoms include include high fever, severe headache, and joint pain.

Early treatment is important in all these illnesses both to avoid lasting effects and medical complications.

July 28, 2014

New Jerseyans who think the crisis of undocumented children entering the country is a problem for southern border states should think again. Residents -- typically relatives -- accepted 1,504 unaccompanied minors since the beginning of this year. That gives New Jersey the seventh-largest population of undocumented children seeking asylum. Nationally, the total is 30,340.

Only Texas, New York, Florida, California, Virginia, and Maryland have accepted more children. Border states such as Arizona (186) and New Mexico (18) have taken in relatively few children, who typically are fleeing the crises in Honduras and other Central American countries.

According to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, unaccompanied children apprehended by immigration officials are initially held in ORR shelters until a sponsor can be found. A background check is conducted on all sponsors, usually relatives, and in some cases a home study is conducted.

The child is also given vaccinations and medical screenings before being released to a sponsor’s custody. The sponsor must agree to cooperate with all immigration proceedings. Once in New Jersey, these cases are considered by the Executive Office of Immigration Review, which has an office in Newark.

July 25, 2014

E-filing taxes has become the norm, not the exception, since New Jersey received 3.3 million electronic tax filings for 2013. That’s up 6.5 percent to 83 percent of taxpayers.

State Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff was pleased with the trend, noting that e-filed returns can be processed faster with fewer errors. Taxpayers are also likely to obtain tax refunds faster.

July 24, 2014

The two New Jersey police officers killed in the line of duty since July 13 were the first officer fatalities since 2012, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.

The first, Jersey City Police Officer Melvin Santiago, gained national attention after he was gunned down answering an armed-robbery call at a Walgreen’s July 13. The shooter had grabbed the gun from a security guard and announced to bystanders that he was “going to be famous” shortly before firing on the 23-year-old officer.

Just four days later, Waldwick Police Officer Christopher Goodell, 38, was killed in an unmarked police car when a tractor trailer rammed into him and pushed his car into a retaining wall on Route 17.

There have been 484 police officer fatalities in the state’s history.

July 23, 2014

Participation in high-school athletics has increased 11 percent since 2011, with a total of 285,020 students now competing in 32 sports, according to the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association. Last year alone saw an increase of 5.5 percent.

The sports with the largest number of athletes are outdoor track and field, with more than 37,000 participants; soccer, with more than 33,000 participants; and football with more than 26,000 participants.

The NJSIAA said that participation has increased in less traditional ways. There are now 197 female football players; three years ago there were only three high-school players in the sport.

Female athletes have also increased their participation in wresting, with 83 participants in last year’s winter season.

The NJSIAA is the eighth-largest interscholastic athletic association and offers more championship tournaments than any other state association. It has 428 accredited public and private schools and oversees the activities of about 25,000 coaches and 11,000 officials.

July 22, 2014

Auto thefts are down 32 percent this year, to 682 from May to May, with total motor vehicle thefts down to 763 from May 2013 to May 2014.

In addition to thefts of autos, there have been 32 stolen trucks and buses and 49 other vehicles stolen.

Summer is the most active time for auto thefts so things could change for 2014. However, overall crime has dropped 37.5 percent so far this year.

The typical auto thief is white and male, between the ages of 25 and 29. Unlike many other crimes, however, a substantial amount of auto theft is conducted by women. In the past, statistics show that between 20 percent and 23 percent of those arrested for auto theft are females.

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