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Pay raises for Atlantic City public workers not a sure thing

ATLANTIC CITY — Raises for city workers, announced during a press conference by city officials Wednesday, are not a done deal, according to the state officials who oversee the city’s finances.

State and city officials are still working on the 2019 budget and would not commit to the raises being part of the proposed budget, said Department of Community Affairs spokeswoman Lisa M. Ryan.

“The city’s budget will determine what can and can’t be done,” Ryan said. “We will consider the proposal to increase the pay of city workers and determine if it can fit within the city’s budget, enable the city to address other community needs and not result in a property-tax increase for Atlantic City residents.”

The Mayor’s Office has not responded to a request for comment on the proposal.

During a press conference Wednesday at City Hall, City Council President Marty Small Sr. said the 2019 municipal budget will include a recently identified revenue source that would allow nearly every city employee to receive an annual stipend over the next three years totaling $3,000 or $5,000. In addition to the annual stipends, Small said the minimum annual salary for all city employees would be raised to $25,000.

Small said that over the course of several months, he discussed the proposal one on one with Business Administrator Jason Holt (a state employee), the state’s fiscal monitor Rick Richardella, Division of Local Government Services Assistant Division Director Cynthia Lindsay (former Atlantic City comptroller), DCA Deputy Commissioner Rob Long and, “as recently as two weeks ago” Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, who is also head of the DCA.

“I let them know what council wanted to do and how we would get there,” Small said during the press conference. “The state just said, ‘Yes, the employees deserve a raise’ and we have to use this (revenue) against the 2019 budget to see where we fall.”

On Thursday, Small said the proposal was not set in stone, but added he believed it was achievable.

“This is the first plan ever submitted to address the workers’ situation,” he said. “I’m going to do what I can to make sure this proposal gets in the budget.”

Ryan said both the state and the city have a mutual goal of keeping Atlantic City fiscally healthy.

“But foremost, the state is concerned with the city’s residents and keeping property taxes stable so there isn’t a return to the skyrocketing taxes of the past,” Ryan said Thursday.

Small said he stands behind DCA’s comment on controlling municipal taxes for city property owners “1,000 percent.”

“Nobody has been more adamant to keep takes flat, or lower, than me,” Small said Thursday. “Taxpayers come first.”

Municipal budgets are not typically finalized until February or March.

While it was unclear from Wednesday’s press conference how the financial arrangements Small discussed could work, Ryan said the state asked the city to negotiate with its banking institutions for more favorable terms and conditions and higher fixed-rate returns on its available cash balances.

Small said an interest-bearing account held by the city with TD Bank had been paying the city $153,000 annually at a rate of 1.85 percent. The city, he said, negotiated with the bank for the account to pay that amount each month at an interest rate of 2.25 percent.

“The numbers the council president is referring to are a reflection of anticipated returns into the city’s budget based on the improved terms and conditions that were negotiated,” said Ryan.

A representative from TD Bank declined to comment on the account changes.

2 injured, 1 missing in Sea Isle City fire

SEA ISLE CITY — Authorities searched Thursday for a woman missing after a large fire reduced a half-million-dollar home to a smoldering pile of debris, injuring two people.

The Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office described the unaccounted-for person as an elderly woman. Two residents were taken to area hospitals. Authorities did not provide identities for the injured or the missing woman.

As of Thursday night, officials had not identified the cause of the fire.

About 11:30 a.m., authorities received multiple 911 calls reporting flames and heavy smoke from a house on 54th Street between Landis and Pleasure avenues, police Chief Thomas McQuillen said.

Three side-by-side duplexes with a total of six units were damaged by the fire and smoke. Fire crews worked quickly to protect neighboring homes on the block.

Photos: Sea Isle City fire severely damages 3 duplex homes

Diana Boyle, 70, said neighbors called her asking whether she heard a loud explosion-like sound Thursday morning.

“I didn’t hear anything, but I saw the fire at the house. I couldn’t believe the flames and black smoke,” she said.

The home, built in 1987, is owned by Christopher Corso and Joseph Corso Jr., according to tax records. Attempts to reach the owners of the home were unsuccessful. A neighbor said the residents lived in the home year-round.

Boyle watched from her home in the 100 block of 54th Street as fire crews from Sea Isle, Ocean City, Avalon, Ocean View and Strathmere fought flames the next block up, which were spreading to the immediate neighboring homes.

“I’ve never seen something like this before,” she said.

Smoke from the fire could be seen in parts of Ocean City and as far north as Longport. Large, black clouds could be seen from the Garden State Parkway approaching the city.

Dozens of people in the area of 54th Street and Landis Avenue watched from street corners as the typically quiet town was flooded with emergency personnel.

Jack Darby, who lives across the street on the other side of Landis Avenue, said he spotted the fire and said flames were “spitting out.” He said at the time he was still worried about his house due to the wind and the potential for the fire to travel.

But by 3 p.m., the flames and heavy smoke had dissipated, while crews continued to douse hot spots and work on fire suppression.

“Once the scene is deemed safe by firefighters, it will turn into an investigation,” McQuillen said.

The Cape May County fire marshal, state fire marshal and Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office will assist in the investigation.

Staff Writers Colt Shaw and Amanda Auble contributed to this report.

LAUREN CARROLL / staff writer  

The Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office described the unaccounted-for person in Thursday’s Sea Isle City fire as an elderly woman. Two residents were taken to area hospitals. Authorities did not provide identities for the injured or the missing woman.

Oakcrest alumna shares ocean research with classrooms across country

Although Alix Leszczynski has always loved the ocean, spending many summer days growing up in Ocean City, the 2011 Oakcrest High School graduate had never been on a boat.

That was until this fall, when she served as a communications fellow aboard the ocean research vessel Nautilus for a monthlong trip in the Pacific Ocean.

“I’m not really well traveled. I’d never touched the Pacific Ocean until I was back off of the ship, so everything I saw was totally new to me,” said Leszczynski, a science interpreter for the Franklin Institute. “Just looking out off the ship and seeing nothing but water was one of the things that was so incredible and did not get old, any day.”

Leszczynski, 25, of Philadelphia, was selected this year by the Ocean Education Trust, led by the same explorer who found the remains of the Titanic, Robert Ballard, to travel aboard the Nautilus as researchers used remote control submarines to explore the deep sea ecosystem. Her main job was to bring what researchers were seeing to classrooms across the country via live chats.

“My goal as an educator and a scientist is always to bring science and bring exciting things to as many people as possible,” said Leszczynski.

Her Oakcrest High School AP biology teacher Michael Czapczynski said that as a student, Leszczynski had a clear passion for science.

“The girl loves slugs and snails and all types of mollusks and cephalopods,” said Czapczynski, who now works at Cedar Creek High School in Egg Harbor City.

He said Leszczynski was always curious and never satisfied with just the first answer.

“That’s something that’s hard to pull out in people, and that’s always really awesome to find,” Czapczynski said. “They don’t stop at the ‘what’ type questions, they want to know the ‘why,’ the ‘how’ type questions.”

On Sept. 12, Leszczynski boarded a flight from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, then a connecting flight to Honolulu, where she boarded the ship.

“We left port Sept. 15 and got back Oct. 3,” she said. “It was everything I could have dreamed of and more, and it was an amazing experience.”

Although she said she was “terribly seasick for the first three days,” she eventually got her sea legs and was able to enjoy the remainder of the trip.

Over the 18 days, Leszczynski conducted 43 Google Hangout chats with classrooms across the country, including her mom’s class at the Hess Educational Complex in Hamilton Township.

The trip, which included 48 scientists, engineers, professional mariners, educators and students, was part of the broader 2018 Nautilus Expedition exploring the Eastern Pacific Ocean, surveying unexplored regions from British Columbia, Canada, along the West Coast of the United States and west to the Hawaiian Islands.

“These corals that we were seeing, some of the communities were estimated to be thousands of years old,” Leszczynski said, her voice filled with excitement.

She said she was so eager to learn aboard the ship that some of the crew members would conduct courses for the other fellows.

“This ship functions like a teaching hospital as all the roles on the ship have fellow opportunities,” she said. “You dive right in and get to learn all this hands-on stuff.”

Larry Dubinski, president and CEO of the Franklin Institute, said Leszczynski’s position aboard the Nautilus was important for the museum and for science education in general.

“Not only was this an incredible learning opportunity for Alix, but it also became a unique science experience for the larger community, bringing real-life science exploration into classrooms across the region, and to our various audiences, both online and at the institute,” Dubinski said in a statement.

Now that she is back on land, Leszczynski is working to develop a curriculum from her experience that will be used as a free resource from the Ocean Education Trust. She is also going to pursue a graduate degree in marine sciences.

Edward Lea / Staff Photographer  

Council President Marty Small speak during a Press conference about 2019 Atlantic City budget Wednesday Nov 28, 2018. Press of Atlantic City / Edward Lea Staff Photographer

EHT man charged in hammer murder rejects plea deal, heads to trial

MAYS LANDING — The Egg Harbor Township man charged with beating his girlfriend to death with a hammer last year rejected a plea deal Thursday, making the decision to take his case to trial.

Lashaun Smith, 37, is charged with murder and weapons offenses in the death of his 28-year-old girlfriend, Sarah Phillips, on Nov. 3, 2017, in their Zion Road home while their four children were there.

Smith was offered a 40-year prison sentence, subject to the No Early Release Act, in exchange for a guilty plea, said Smith’s public defender, Stephen Funk.

Funk declined to comment after the hearing.

Superior Court Judge Bernard E. DeLury Jr. explained to Smith that if he is convicted of the first-degree murder charge, “it is a virtual certainty that you will be committed to state prison.”

“Do you also understand that even though you don’t face an extended term here that the maximum that you could face if convicted of murder is the term of your natural life?” DeLury asked.

“Yes,” Smith replied as he stood shackled with his hands folded in front of him.

Jury selection is scheduled to begin 9 a.m. Jan. 22 in Atlantic County Superior Court.

At Smith’s last appearance earlier this month, Funk and First Assistant Prosecutor Cary Shill, who represents the state in the matter, conferenced with DeLury about statements Smith made to police the night Phillips was killed.

The “admissibility of the defendant’s out-of-court statements to police” was decided, DeLury said at the last appearance. However, the decision was not announced in open court.

“It was me,” Smith told police dispatch at 5:04 a.m. after they asked him what had caused Phillips to bleed, according to the affidavit of probable cause.

Police found Phillips’ body in the back bedroom with blunt force trauma to her head, according to the affidavit.

After going to the emergency room for treatment, he was taken to the Prosecutor’s Office, where he confessed, according to the document, “that he hit Phillips in the head with a hammer because she had been seeing another man and he didn’t want to share her.”

Smith was indicted Dec. 5, 2017, on murder and weapons charges, and pleaded not guilty during a post-indictment arraignment later that month. At that appearance, Judge John Rauh ordered no contact with Smith’s children, who are in the custody of Phillips’ mother, Paula Modelle.

“I just want to see justice served,” Modelle said outside the courtroom. “I just want to see justice for my daughter.”

Smith is currently housed in the Atlantic County jail.

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