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Atlantic City Council approves $55M bond ordinance

ATLANTIC CITY — City Council has approved borrowing millions to pay off pension and health care contributions that were deferred in 2015.

The city was urged by state officials in 2015 to delay $37.2 million in pension and health care contributions and now owes about $47 million with the added interest, officials said.

The ordinance, passed Wednesday by a 6-3 vote, authorizes the city to issue bonds for as much as $55 million to cover those payments.

The vote followed a lengthy discussion between council and 13 residents, all of whom spoke in opposition to the ordinance Wednesday night. Some asked officials to table it for further review, and several questioned who authorized the deferment, whether the city was obligated to pay the interest rate, and whether there were other options to pay it off.

“It just doesn’t feel right,” resident Carol Ruffu, also the president of the Chelsea Neighborhood Association, told council. “It feels like, instead of the state helping us get out of debt, we’re getting more and more debt, and we’re never going to catch up.”

As of Dec. 31, the city had more than $344 million in outstanding debt. These bonds would bring that figure to just under $400 million, officials said.

Timothy Cunningham, the state’s local government services director and the man in charge of the state takeover of the city, has explained to residents the option to bond for the deferred payments would prevent it from having to go into the general fund and would prevent residents’ taxes from going up.

These bond payments would be funded by the Investment Alternative Tax from casinos, which, under state takeover regulations, are redirected to be used in Atlantic City for debt service, he said.

Council was originally slated to vote on the ordinance at the Jan. 17 council meeting, but pulled it. Two public meetings were held afterward to discuss the issue before Wednesday’s final vote.

Councilman Jesse Kurtz said he would have liked to see a different solution to make the payments. He questioned whether the city would be obligated to pay back the payments’ interest if the deferment was at the suggestion of the state.

Kurtz said it “didn’t sit right” with him to agree with the ordinance without a formal statement from Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration authorizing it.

“When we’re short on money, the answer is to borrow money,” Kurtz said. “I don’t like that.”

But Council President Marty Small said that after the ordinance was pulled last month, city and state officials asked the Murphy administration for forgiveness on the payment and were told they had to pay it off.

Small said the city knew the day was coming to pay the deferred payments, and paying back the money is the city’s obligation. He said the city would be “putting the taxpayers in harm’s way” if they didn’t borrow to make the payments.

“It’s not us versus you,” Small said to the residents. “What affects you, affects us.”

Kurtz, along with Councilmen Moisse Delgado and Jeffree Fauntleroy II, voted against the measure. Small and Councilmen George Tibbitt, Chuen “Jimmy” Cheng, William Marsh, Kaleem Shabazz and Aaron Randolph voted for the ordinance.

Mayor Frank Gilliam previously said he would be opposed if council passed the ordinance.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Gilliam said the city needs to come up with “better ways to deal with our finances,” regardless of whether council passed the bond ordinance.

“We’re still $400 million in debt,” he said.

Balancing beach driving, wildlife in North Brigantine Natural Area

BRIGANTINE — As soon as you drive onto the beach from 14th Street, the world’s a different place.

The tightly packed, three-story homes are left behind. Instead there is just sand, water and sky. It’s one of the largest stretches of undeveloped barrier island beach left in New Jersey.

“You do get cut off at certain times,” said Andy Grossman, owner of Riptide Bait and Tackle here, as he drove his four-wheel-drive truck up the beach Tuesday just after high tide. The high-water mark reached to the base of the dunes, so vehicles that made it to the end would have had to wait for the tide to turn before driving back.

The almost two-mile long beach, part of the North Brigantine State Natural Area, has been owned by the state since 1967.

But in an agreement with the state, the city has overseen its human use, including selling permits for people to drive on the beach. The city permit also allows driving on beaches around the South End’s jetty and cove.

At the more isolated and less used North End, permit holders could fish, paint, surf, kayak or just relax with a cup of coffee.

Now all that has changed.

The state Department of Environmental Protection took over permitting for beach driving in the Natural Area as of Jan. 1, after telling the city it would do so about a year ago.

Under its rules, a limited number of state permits are being sold — $50 for New Jersey residents and $75 for nonresidents — and the Mobile Sport Fishing Permits are for fishing only. The state will limit access to the area to 75 permit holders per 24-hour period.

“We have not had any rational answer given to us about why they would prohibit certain activities that have taken place there for decades,” said Mayor Phil Guenther, of activities other than fishing.

The agreement with the city had expired, according to DEP spokesman Larry Hajna. And the state wants a higher level of protection for beach-nesting birds, such as the endangered piping plovers that are known to nest there.

“It is a designated Natural Area, and therefore a higher level of resource protection is necessary,” Hajna said.

Development pressure has increased dramatically since the 1960s on threatened and endangered species, said Christina “Kashi” Davis, an environmental specialist with the state’s Endangered and Nongame Species Program. That’s why the state is moving now to increase protections there, she said.

State data show four pairs of piping plover nested in the Natural Area in 2017, fledging nine chicks, according to Davis. But in the early 2000s, 17 pairs bred there, she said.

The city has closed the northern part of the Natural Area to vehicles during piping plover nesting season, at the request of the state, Guenther said.

The DEP plans to continue closing only the area north of the remains of an old Coast Guard station, unless piping plover begin nesting farther south, said Dave Jenkins, the DEP’s bureau chief in the ENSP.

But one thing that is changing is the date of closing, Davis said.

Previously it was timed from the hatching of the first piping plover to the time the last fledgling left the nest, she said. The closing will now last from May 15 to Sept. 15, which is a bit longer time to allow other birds to use the area undisturbed. That includes the threatened red knot on its lesser-known fall migration back to South America.

South Jersey is most familiar with the red knot’s spring migration north, when it stops on the Delaware bayshore in large numbers to feed on the eggs of horseshoe crabs. The fall migration, which can last through late December, is much more spread out in time, Davis said. Still, hundreds to thousands of the birds can be seen on some days at North Brigantine, she said.

While people can still access the area on foot, without need of a permit, anyone carrying equipment like a kayak or painting easel will find the two-mile trek a tough one, Guenther said.

The extreme North End is the only place to get a good view of Little Beach, a small, undeveloped barrier island about 500 yards across Brigantine Inlet from the North point and part of Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge.

According to the DEP, Brigantine North is part of the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island beach in the state, at 9.75 miles when added to Little Beach and Holgate, also part of Forsythe. Island Beach State Park is a similar size, at just under 10 miles, but unlike North Brigantine has a road built through much of it.

Guenther said the city was meeting with the DEP Thursday and hopes to either convince it to allow the city to take back oversight of the Natural Area, or at least allow people to do more than fish there.

There is also a public meeting with DEP officials set for 6 p.m. Tuesday at Brigantine North Middle School.

Another issue is public safety, the mayor said.

When the city had oversight of the area, city police patrolled the area regularly.

Now the patrolling is done by the state, and Guenther said he wants a better understanding of how the state will provide emergency services there.

Guenther also hopes to resolve a tricky situation involving permits.

To access North Brigantine by vehicle, people have to cross about 1,500 feet of city beach. That means they might also need a city permit, Guenther said.

“That’s one of the reasons we are meeting, to clarify whether state permit owners have to have a Brigantine permit,” Guenther said.

More than 3,000 people bought the city’s $180 annual permits last year, Guenther said. They are $90 for senior citizens over 60 and free for veterans.

Galloway man charged with aggravated arson released for treatment

GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — A township man who authorities say suffers from schizophrenia and was off his medication when he threw a makeshift Molotov cocktail at the police station in December was released Thursday pending trial but told to seek treatment.

Judge Benjamin Podolnick ordered Sean D. Shearer, 33, into his mother’s custody and then to report to an inpatient clinic by 5 p.m. Friday at a detention hearing Thursday at the Atlantic County Criminal Courthouse.

“I’m releasing you because I believe you need some help, and I believe in medication,” Podolnick said. “But, as you can imagine, this is a difficult decision for me because I have someone who has essentially thrown a petrol bomb at the Galloway Township Police Department and the persons there.

“It’s weighing very heavily on me, but I think what outweighs that attempt is your need to get treatment and medication,” he added.

Shearer was arrested by township police Feb. 10 after an investigation into the Dec. 12 incident by detectives from the township’s Criminal Investigation Division along with special agents from the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

At 6:34 p.m. Dec. 12, police said, a man was seen loitering in the front lobby of the Police Department at 300 E. Jimmie Leeds Road before pulling a glass container filled with a petroleum accelerant from his coat. He attempted to light the bottle’s contents and tossed the bottle in front of the entrance doors.

Although the Moltov cocktail did not light, police said, several people would have been put in a life-threatening situation if it had.

Before the hearing, Shearer’s attorney, Bruce Cassidy, said Shearer had been off his medication for several months before the incident, and Cassidy was going to request Shearer be remanded to the Carrier Clinic, Belle Mead, for inpatient treatment.

Assistant Prosecutor Sean Ruckenstein requested Shearer be held until trial due to the threat to the safety of the community and the Police Department.

“To say that the state is disturbed by this conduct is an understatement,” Ruckenstein said.

Shearer is charged with attempted aggravated arson and criminal mischief.

Library dedicates "Cubby's Corner" to a boy who loved to read

EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Mary Lancaster held back tears as she stood at the podium in the township’s branch of the Atlantic County Library and told the dozens of friends, family and patrons gathered about how much her son loved to read.

“He would have loved this,” she said Wednesday night. “This is the first library in Atlantic County to dedicate a little piece of heaven on earth.”

Her son, Michael “Cubby” Lancaster, 4, of Egg Harbor Township, died in 2016 from an accidental drowning. Almost two years after his death, the family and the library have worked together to make a space dedicated to his memory.

The area in the children’s section, dubbed Cubby’s Corner, will be for every child to discover a zeal for reading, she said, just like her son. Cubby would visit the library weekly for story time and was reading before he was 3 years old.

“We just hope it brings kids out to the library,” she said. “We want them to pick up a book and be able to read.”

A bench and shelves filled with books purchased with donations to the Atlantic County Library Foundation framed the corner. Friends and cousins of Cubby took books from a cart and placed them on the shelves “to give them closure for Cubby,” Lancaster said.

Vicki Branca, currently the supervising library assistant for the Mays Landing branch, conducted the story times that Cubby loved so much. She shared her memories of the voracious reader who would recite lines from his favorite movies.

“He has a smile that would go on for miles,” she said, adding he was very engaged and interested, and he stood out.

Before the plaque was presented to family members, a certificate from County Executive Dennis Levinson was presented to them by Freeholder John Risley. Freeholder Maureen Kern was also in attendance.

Lancaster spoke about the times she would spend reading to her son before bedtime. One book, “Owly” by Mike Thaler, stood out.

“He would say, ‘I love you as much as the sky is high and the ocean is deep,’ in his sleep,” Lancaster said, adding that Cubby would fall asleep reading and then wake up the next day to read some more.

CUBBY The obituary photo of Michael “Cubby” Lancaster, 4, who died in 2016. A space in the Egg Harbor Township’s branch of the Atlantic County Library Wednesday will be dedicated to his memory.