Before taking office in 2006, Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Englewood) spent more than 25 years in the public eye directing funerals for her local community at Vainieri Funeral Home, in North Bergen.
"As a woman in a business dominated by male funeral directors, I had to prove myself every step of the way, from the first death call to the cemetery," Huttle said. "When you're dealing with families and standing in the lobby for a viewing — many times speaking in front of 1,000 people — you become very visible in the community. That helped with my campaigning in Bergen County, because I had helped people at such a difficult time in their lives, so they remembered me even if I couldn't remember them."
While she tries not to get directly involved with legislation that specifically impacts the funeral industry, as a former president of the Hudson County Funeral Directors Association, Huttle has advocated for continuing credits for funeral directors and less regulation.
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"I remember when every other week new regulation was coming down from Consumer Affairs. One time they changed the itemization from signature of family member … to say signature of consumer," Huttle said. "I had to change all of my itemizations for one lousy word."
Huttle said her experience with overregulation has made her the "first one to advocate to loosen regulation or provide less burdensome regulation on small businesses" from her post in Trenton, which is why she supports a bill sponsored by Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-Whippany) that would allow home-based businesses to operate despite zoning restrictions.
"Coming from a small business has given me a different perspective," Huttle said. "When I see overregulated legislation on small businesses, I get it."
Though the company has more than doubled in size since her father founded it in 1949 and acquired two local funeral homes in 1983 and 1995, Huttle said, "the death industry, as a whole, has had a downward turn."
"Now people are living longer … and they're not spending as much money as they used to spend on funerals. It's expensive to die," Huttle said. "Years ago, we would do a Medicaid funeral and the family would pay the difference, but today more people are becoming Medicaid dependent and have less money for the funeral. They get $2,400 now … but that's nothing if you don't already have a cemetery plot. Sometimes, it's $2,000 just to open the grave."
Huttle said increased Medicaid reimbursements from the Affordable Care Act could help her company, but with more people opting for cremation and less buying "the $10,000 bronze casket," she's promoted prearrangement and after-care services to grow the business, noting it is "ideally located, with five senior citizen buildings behind us."
"Public service is not going to be there forever, and even though the area has changed dramatically, people are still going to come back to the funeral home that served their families in the past," Huttle said. "I just kind of have to be here."