State budget fight could put Turtle Back Zoo project in jeopardy

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A feud between Gov. Phil Murphy and the state Legislature over the budget could put a multimillion-dollar project at the Turtle Back Zoo in jeopardy.

Part of the state budget includes $4 million to build an amphitheater at the West Orange zoo. The project is expected to cost $8 million.

Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo says it's his job to get funding for the county from state lawmakers.

“That's what you're supposed to do…Politics is a means of getting things done. You need to have relationships,” he says. “Is it pork? I don't consider it pork…I consider it a need. Something that needs to be done to improve this beautiful site.”

RELATED: Gov. Murphy still hasn’t said if he would sign a state budget 

The 500- to 1,000-seat amphitheater will allow the zoo to run more educational programs. Its location will allow animals to be safely brought out from their habitats to get up close and personal with students and visitors.

“This is about economic development. This is not just a county zoo, this is a state zoo. And when people travel throughout the country, they come here,” DiVincenzo says.

DiVincenzo, a four-term Democrat, says he approached the governor this spring about securing $3 million for the amphitheater project. He says he then asked State Senate President Steve Sweeney to add $1 million before the Legislature approved the budget.

The executive says that the amphitheater is a worthy cause, one worth fighting for.

“We have a Democrat that's in office…This county produces a large plurality of votes for anybody who runs statewide, especially a Democrat. So when he's making his decision, I hope he understands the needs of the people,” DiVincenzo says.

The additional money needed to build the amphitheater will come from the county, its capital budget and open space funding.

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