There Is No 'I' in Joe Derella

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Cumberland County Board of Chosen Freeholders Director Joe Derella. (Photo by Jeff Schwachter) 

An interview with the Cumberland County Freeholder Director who was recently named South Jerseyan of the Year. 

CUMBERLAND COUNTY, N.J. — Earlier this month, Joe Derella was named Public Sector South Jerseyan of the Year by the Walter Rand Institute for Public Affairs at Rutgers University Camden.

He made sure, however, that the press release included a photo of all seven members of the Cumberland County Board of Chosen Freeholders, not just a headshot of himself. 

Elected to the Freeholder Board in 2012, and re-elected in 2016, Derella proudly serves as its director, all the while insisting it’s all about the “team.”  

A father of two, Derella worked as a Health and Physical Education teacher for 10 years in the Millville school district, and coached for his kids’ sports teams. He got active in local politics on the Millville Board of Education not only because his children were in school at the time, but because he wanted to “give back.” 

It’s what his own mentors, sports coaches, and other inspirational figures—folks such as Tony Surace, Ed Salmon and Ed Andrews—did when he was growing up in Millville. “And they’re still mentors today,” he says.

We get shortchanged when it comes to state and federal resources.

“It’s just what you’re supposed to do as far as I’m concerned—give back,” says Derella, a lifelong resident of Millville.

On a rare “day off”—last Friday—Derella is dressed in a suit and tie, sipping an iced coffee and texting back and forth with his daughter, who graduates from college on Mother’s Day. He’s already attended an early-morning event at Cumberland County College and is waiting for a reporter to interview him about his recent recognition, as well as some of the major topics concerning Cumberland County. 

Prior to becoming a Freeholder, Derella had been a Millville Board of Education member for four years and was later elected to Millville’s City Commission, which he served on for almost 15 years, with a focus on the areas of revenue and finance. 

“And then I thought I could make a bigger contribution at the county level, so I decided ... to give” running for a Cumberland County Freeholder seat a chance.
Derella was born and raised in Millville. He says what he loves the most about Cumberland County is the people.

“Growing up here, there were a lot of wonderful individuals who made this community what it is, and they kind of set the stage, and were role models for me to want to give back,” he says. “I would say that our greatest resource here in Cumberland County is the people who live here and who have dedicated their lives to making it a better place.” 

Derella recognizes the landscape of Cumberland County as its second most ?powerful asset.

“We have a beautiful, scenic and gorgeous county,” he says. “Our nature is second to none and 42-percent of our county is preserved, which is very rare in today’s world and in the State of New Jersey.”

You’re not always going to be right, but I’d much rather be criticized for doing something than for doing nothing.

Right from the start of the interview, it’s obvious how much Derella loves where he works and lives. He begins to describe some of the South Jersey’s biggest assets and challenges as well as how the freeholders are taking them on. 

“We have a county that is not afraid to admit its shortfalls and its issues and go after them and try to make change,” he says. “Face the challenges and truly try to make a difference.”

So far, one of the biggest county-wide initiatives during Derella’s time as a freeholder has been in the education sector.

“We’ve been trying to bring a focus back on that,” says Derella, who manages an outpatient occupational facility full-time for NovaCare in Vineland when he’s not busy as a freeholder director.

“We all know that education does a lot of things for an individual and for a family,” he says. “Obviously, the better educated a community is, you decrease crime, you decrease poverty and you increase the potential for an individual and their families as far as their health and wellbeing. 

“Studies show that the more educated a family is, the better chance they have to stay together and remain to be a unit.”

Derella believes that in both life and work, it’s all about the “team.”

Over the past five years, Derella says he and his six fellow freeholders have already been making an impact with their work as a unit. 

“We’ve really made a tremendous push, as a team, to improve the opportunities for the residents of Cumberland County to achieve,” says Derella, “whether it’s formal education or going into some type of trade—some kind of educational opportunity that’s going to give them the chance to move forward in life.”

Derella sights the recent opening of the county’s first technical high school—the Cumberland County Technical Education Center (CCTEC)—as well as the expansion of Cumberland County College and its extensive opportunities, and the plethora of initiatives set forth via the county’s Office of Workforce Development, as ways he and his colleagues and other county leaders are expanding opportunities for county residents.

“We were the only county in the state not to have a technical high school, and now we do,” says Derella. 

One of the most important goals related to these newly developed opportunities are to “help displaced workers and get them back into the workforce.”

With the County College and CCTEC working in tandem, programs have been identified and developed that Derella says will not only benefit students, but also “help the existing businesses here—with certified production technicians” and similar certification tracks. 

Along with education-related initiatives, Derella points to the opportunities he and his fellow freeholders have helped to push by enabling the Cumberland County Improvement Authority (CCIA) to act in full ability of its mission statement, which, as Derella paraphrases, “is to help and aid in economic development.

And we have started to see the benefit of that over the past four years. 

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Cumberland County Freeholder Director Joe Derella being named the Public Sector South Jerseyan of the Year by the Walter Rand Institute for Public Affairs at Rutgers University Camden. Derella received the award at Scotland Run Golf Club Thursday evening May 4th. Pictured from left to right standing: Former Cumberland County Freeholder and Coach Tony Surace, Camden County Freeholder Jon Young, Cumberland County Deputy Freeholder Director Darlene Barber, Cumberland County Freeholder Carol Musso and Director Derella's mentor Dr. Edward Salmon, of Salmon Ventures. Seated from left to right, South Jerseyan of the Year Freeholder Director Joe Derella with his wife Susan and son Jake.

“They’ve basically contributed back to the county about $1.2 million, which helps us offset our budget in a variety of ways.”

A firm believer that it’s all about the team and not just the leader—perhaps a long-standing notion rooted in both his years working as a coach and as physical education teacher—Derella notes that “those are just two examples of what we’ve done that have already had major impacts during the first four, five years this team of freeholders has been together.”

While Derella explains that early education falls into the municipal arena and doesn’t necessarily factor into the freeholders’ scope, the freeholders’ focus is on the County College and technical high school, as well as adult-education opportunities.

“We are one of the only counties [in New Jersey] that has its technical high school, community college and their workforce development programs all in a one-mile radius and on the same campus, which creates a tremendous synergy not just for the residents here, but also for any new employer or any new business that wants to come to town.” 

Derella calls it a “mecca of opportunity” for employers to fill their hiring needs.

“Here, they can get what they need from our workforce, from finding workers to educating workforces, as well as sending their own employees there to get extra training or retraining. Throw the hospital in there, with Inspira, which has now become a teaching hospital, that only enhances that whole area even more.”

While Derella believes that the county’s elected municipal officials, volunteers and other leaders all are trying to expand opportunities within the county and improve it, there is one thing he hopes will change.

“For the lack of a better term, we get ‘shortchanged’ when it comes to … state and federal resources,” says Derella, noting a new study done by the Walter Rand Institute.

“The study basically spells it out,” says Derella, “that we don’t get our fair share when it comes to financial support from the state. 

“It’s very interesting,” adds Derella. “Our public transportation is very poor down here, we don’t have enough of it, especially with such a large rural area—we have a long commute. And the decision by [Governor Chris Christie] and the State Legislature to add 23 cents to the gas tax has a serious impact on the people here in Cumberland County. We’re one of the poorest counties in the state and then you add that tax on an area that has the lowest commute to work [due to high unemployment], plus we’re No. 1 in the State of New Jersey in agriculture. All the machinery and everything that needs to be running is being affected by that [tax].”

On the other hand, Derella is proud to point out the current “Road to Freedom” program at the Cumberland County Jail. 

“We are the only county in the country to get a $500,000 grant from the federal government to run [this] re-entry program,” says Derella. “The goal is to prevent recidivism, but what we want to do is stop repeat offenders [and] give them another opportunity and another reason to find a better way to improve their lives.

We are moving forward with it, working with Workforce Development, the Jail and other agencies to provide an opportunity for these inmates so that when they are released they potentially have retraining and hopefully have the ability to gain employment right away.”
Derella recalls something else he learned during his years involved in team sports. 

“You’re only as good as your weakest link,” he says. “So, we really need to identify some of these individuals who really need our help. In return it’s only going to make our community better.” 

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Derella says the freeholders are already looking for more funding options for the “Road to Freedom” program.

He also says, like every county in the country, Cumberland County is battling an opioid crisis. “We’re no different than any other county,” he says. “And we’ve been very aggressive through various non-profit opportunities to try and establish recovery coaches [and] try to establish a recovery center.”

Every community, says Derella, needs to be educated about recovery centers.

“A recovery center is not where an addict goes to detox,” he explains. “They’re going there because they are clean. They just need that support structure to ... help them get back onto the right path.”

While a lot of the positive things happening in Cumberland County are in motion and “quietly being done” by a lot of people and a lot of organizations, Derella says “some of it gets unnoticed.”

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He feels it’s any leader’s responsibility to face the challenges that lay ahead and make positive changes. 

“You’re not always going to be right, but I’d much rather be criticized for doing something than for doing nothing. I truly believe that everybody here in Cumberland County who’s in a position of leadership to make change truly has their heart in the right place and wants to make [the right] decisions.”

Derella believes there’s always hope. “It’s always there,” he says. “It’s our job to put things in place to try and encourage and show people that there is. And you do that through strong leadership—as a group and as a team—moving forward to make things happen. If you’re not working as a team, you’re really not going to accomplish anything. 

“That’s the one thing that we all know,” adds Derella. “And that’s what we’re all striving for. We do have a very cooperative freeholders board. We’ve got our [Republicans] and we’ve got our [Democrats], but when it comes to what’s right for the people we represent, it’s rare that we disagree."       

For Derella, the near-future of Cumberland County looks bright

“I don’t think we have really hit our greatest accomplishments yet,” he says, “but I think we’ve done a tremendous job securing the funds, and having a full-time technical high school. People said that was not going to happen, we had tried several times, but this freeholder board brought that to fruition and made it happen.” 


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