Essex County Executive, Joe DiVincenzo, is once again looking to expand the Turtle Back Zoo. Not content with the $22 million that has been spent on the zoo since 2016, Joe D is looking for another $24 million to build a new amphitheater and a bear habitat expansion. I often read comments online decrying the use of “taxpayer dollars” to fund these lavish expansions. And while taxpayer dollars are indeed being used, it’s probably not the tax stream one might expect.
Since 2011, Essex County has contracted with the Federal Government to hold inmates in the Essex County Correctional Facility. This line item was budgeted for $35,650,000 in 2018 and brought in $45,065,914 in actual revenue for 2018. The budget line item increased to just over $43 million for 2019. It’s unclear how much of the recent zoo expansions were funded from this line item but this money is most assuredly being used for the zoo and other Essex County projects like the new park in Cedar Grove.
As a Verona resident, I have enjoyed the Turtle Back Zoo complex with my family. I have walked regularly in the Cedar Grove Park with my friends. I have brought my dog to the Hilltop Dog Park. As I enjoy these spaces, which are undoubtedly assets to our community I can’t help but think of the immigrant from Honduras who was arrested by, ICE for outstanding traffic warrants, awaiting deportation in the grimmest industrial site in Essex County. It puts one in mind of the Ursula K. LeGuinn story, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas about a utopia that is able to exist because they keep a child chained in a dungeon.
It’s past time for Essex County to end immigrant detention.