EHT taxes price mayor out of house

Egg Harbor Township Mayor James ‘Sonny’ McCullough lives in the pricey Seaview Harbor area of the township. The community of 92 homes holds roughly 2.5 percent of the township's tax ratables and officials have vowed to oppose the move.

Egg Harbor Township could lose its most affluent neighborhood and more than $100 million in ratables if Seaview Harbor residents are successful in a bid to secede.

The community of 92 homes, a third of them seasonal, rose on a marshy island just west of Longport in the 1950s. But while residents' addresses and drivers' licenses reflect a Longport address, the land itself is part of the township. When Longport broke away from the township in 1898, it left Seaview Harbor behind.

"We're a historical accident," said John Paul Doyle, an attorney hired by the SeaView Harbor Community Association. "This is what it's all about: People wanting to be part of the borough where they live."

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Those in favor of secession say they want to leave the township due to a lack of services, but municipal officials say they are fleeing a higher tax rate and that services are equal to any other resident.

Ed McGlinchey, the association's president, said the group already has the signatures of about 70 percent of property owners, more than the 60 percent the state requires to move forward. That petition will be filed early this week, he said, and will then be voted on first by the township and then Longport. The proposal will likely result in a lengthy legal battle, as township officials have vowed to oppose it.

While talk of secession is nothing new - residents have discussed it since the 1980s, and the most recent push began last year - Seaview Harbor is closer to secession than it has come in the past.

"We believe we're a better fit for Longport," McGlinchey said. "You can't even Google Sunset Boulevard in Egg Harbor Township. When you do, it kicks you back to Longport."

And Doyle, the association's attorney, has experience with secession. In 2009, he represented a few dozen homeowners in an isolated section of Toms River who were allowed to join Lavellette after a 3-year-long court battle. It was the first successful bid for secession in the state in decades.

"It's unlikely that Egg Harbor Township will say, 'That makes a lot of sense. Good luck and goodbye,'" Doyle said, to several dozen Longport and Seaview residents. They gathered at the Cafe Luciano after receiving letters from the association outlining the proposal.

Strathmere, another affluent beach community, tried in recent years to secede from Upper Township. Officials in the Cape May County municipality said Strathmere, which was attempting to join Sea Isle City, was too valuable to lose, and secession efforts that began in 2008 were mired in a lengthy legal battle. Strathmere ultimately remained in the township, although residents have continued to push for more services in exchange for their share of the tax burden.

The stakes are just as high for Egg Harbor Township.

"You'd have at least $100 million of property leaving the township," said Administrator Peter Miller. "Just that alone would shift the tax burden on everyone else that's remaining."

According to the Atlantic County Board of Taxation, that amount of property value would account for nearly 2.5 percent of the township's combined valuation of $4 billion. However, that figure does not reflect most of the appeals made in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

Miller said his efforts to reach out to the organizers of the petition were rebuffed, and township officials were not invited to Saturday's meeting. While the township has not performed a formal study of the potential effects, he said, they would be large.

"A lot would be involved with this," he said. "The township would oppose it."

If the secession proved successful, it could mean Egg Harbor Township's longtime mayor, James "Sonny" McCullough, would become a resident of Longport.

"I'm in an awkward position," McCullough said Saturday. "I'm mayor of the town and they're my neighbors and I care about them. I don't want to create an awkward position for my neighbors."

McGlinchey said the association didn't bother to ask McCullough to sign the petition, which made the rounds last fall.

"I wouldn't even want to insult Sonny by asking him," he said.

McCullough, who's lived in Seaview Harbor since 1974, put his home up for sale last year. At the time, he told The Press he could no longer afford his taxes, but on Saturday he said his situation is more complicated.

"It's a 6-bedroom home on the bay with a 70-foot dock," he said. "My wife spends half the year in a condo in Palm Beach, and my children and grandchildren have all moved away. It doesn't make a lot of sense for me to maintain a big home and pay $31,000 a year in taxes."

The tax incentives for Seaview Harbor residents to secede are clear: Township residents pay $2.80 per $100 of assessed value, compared with 32.9 cents in Longport.

Miller said he believes the state would kill the secession effort based on that alone. The law doesn't allow residents to switch municipalities because of lower taxes, he said.

"If that was the case, you could shop around for cheaper taxes," he said. "It'd be chaos."

Those in favor of secession say they're leaving because of a lack of services, not taxes.

Doyle said most township services, from the municipal court to the library, are 8 to 12 miles or about a half-hour away.

"If you're sick and need emergent first responders or if you have some trouble, someone's in the house that shouldn't be there, they have to drive the same half-hour," he said.

Miller's rebuttal: The township has long had a shared-services agreement with Longport in which the borough's police and fire departments respond to Seaview Harbor while the township's responders are en route. Doyle, however, said it would be simpler for Longport to take over the responsibility.

Longport Mayor Nick Russo, who attended Saturday's meeting, said he hasn't taken a position yet. If the measure isn't approved by Egg Harbor Township, or if it dies in the courts, Longport may never have to decide, he said.

"The prudent thing is to listen and see what they have to say," he said.

Since Seaview's letters were sent out to most of Longport's residents, Russo said many have come to him with questions and concerns. A lot of them have to do with the financial consequences, such as unseen infrastructure costs of bulkheads and roads.

"Are there expenses we're not aware of that we'd have to assume?" He asked at the meeting.

McGlinchey said the roads are "in good shape," although he added that he couldn't speak to the condition of bulkheads. The community's private water utility, meanwhile, is in the process of being sold to Aqua America.

Doyle said annexing Seaview Harbor would have little impact on Longport's resources, since it would represent about 6 percent of Longport's $1.8 billion ratable base and the addition of about 100 new voters.

"You are a small town," he told the audience, largely made up of Longport residents. "We'd be an even smaller part of your town."

Miller said he believes Longport could be liable for $4 million to $5 million worth of municipal bonds the township has issued for infrastructure improvements. For instance, the township installed Seaview Harbor's sewer system in the 1990s.

"The bonds were issued on the entire community's ratable base," he said. "That would be their proportionate share of the outstanding debt."

Miller also said it's disingenuous for Seaview Harbor to claim it hasn't been equally represented by the township.

"The mayor has been on the governing body for 29 years, 25 of them as mayor," Miller said. "You can't get more represented than that.

"And what makes them think Longport would want them in the first place?" He added. "They didn't want you in 1898 - what makes you think they'll want you now?"

Contact Wallace McKelvey:


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