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Issue of nonprofit hospitals payments to municipalities still unsettled in state

When people have a medical emergency, those fortunate enough to have a hospital conveniently within the same community can save valuable minutes in travel time when trying to receive help.

But, hospitals take a toll on municipal roads with vehicles coming in and out, and they need to be covered by police and fire departments.

For years, this state has struggled with how much should property tax exemptions be for nonprofit hospitals with on-site for-profit medical providers.

In January 2016, former Gov. Chris Christie rejected proposes legislation that would have required hospitals to pay community service fees, but since 2015, 41 of the state’s nonprofit hospitals have had their tax-exempt status challenged, said Neil Eicher, vice president of government relations and policy at the New Jersey Hospitals Association.

“We need legislation, not litigation, to provide a fair, statewide solution that allows municipalities and hospitals to move forward together on their common concerns for the health of their communities,” Eicher said.

There are Hospital Community Service Contribution bills in the state Assembly and the state Senate, but they remain in committees, Eicher said.

“There was a hearing in the Assembly State and Local Government Committee in the spring, but the bill was heard for discussion only. It has not yet made it to the full Assembly or Senate for a vote,” Eicher said.

With less than two months left to the end of the current legislative session, it looks unlikely that these bills will be voted on by both chambers of the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy before the end of the session Jan. 14.

A spokesman for Assembly Speaker Craig J. Coughlin, who is one of prime sponsors of the Assembly bill, said the speaker would unequivocally reintroduce the Assembly bill next year if Murphy does not receive the chance to sign the current bill.

While legislators work to resolve the issue, some South Jersey hospitals and municipalities have come to agreements so that the local governments are receiving some money now.

The situation is different between AtlantiCare, a member of Geisinger, and Galloway Township and Atlantic City. AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center has campuses in each community.

“The litigation between Galloway Township and ARMC has been dismissed as the parties settled the matter resulting in annual payment in lieu of taxes to Galloway Township,” said Jennifer Tornetta, an AtlantiCare spokeswoman.

Chris Johansen, the township administrator, said his municipality and the medical center came up with a 10-year agreement in 2017 under which the hospital paid $320,000 in the first year and $347,000 in the 10th year.

“With respect to the city of Atlantic City, the matter is pending, but is stayed by agreement as the parties await proposed legislation to resolve issues,” Tornetta said.

AtlantiCare spends 11 percent of its operating budget on community benefit services, Tornetta said. This exceeds the statewide average for healthcare organizations/hospitals, she said.

“AtlantiCare provided more than $155 million in community benefit in the last two fiscal years. This number includes the costs to provide charity care and nonreimbursed Medicaid,” Tornetta said.

During the past two years, Shore Medical Center in Somers Point has contributed more than $500,000 directly to the city as well as to services that support the city, said Brian Cahill, Shore Medical Center spokesman.

Hackensack Meridian Health Southern Ocean Medical Center doesn’t make voluntary contributions to Manahawkin, but it pays more than $820,000 in real estate taxes on other properties such as the Medical Arts Plaza and nonhospital, vacant land in Stafford Township, said Anne Green, spokeswoman for Southern Ocean Medical Center.

Vineland recently filed a lawsuit challenging its own tax assessor’s determination that Inspira Medical Center Vineland is eligible for a property tax exemption, and the lawsuit is ongoing, said Paul B. Simon, spokesman for Inspira Vineland.

Inspira is one of the largest taxpayers in Vineland, and currently pays the city $251,183 in property taxes annually, Simon said. Last year, Inspira Health devoted more than $83 million to community benefit-driven programs among the departments at Inspira campuses, according to the annual report, he said.

“Inspira continues its focus to expand community benefit-driven programs among every service and program in the network, these efforts include advocacy, outreach, education and research, contributions to economic development and supportive and subsidized services,” Simon said.

Atlantic City's success rests on its youth

ATLANTIC CITY — Before Jim Johnson released his report on revitalizing Atlantic City, school officials were already trying to create pathways to success for students here.

From fighting chronic absenteeism to creating career and technical education opportunities and avenues to college, city officials know that for Atlantic City to prosper, the nearly 10,000 youth in the city need adequate opportunities both inside the classroom, through access to advanced courses and programming, and outside, through athletics, after-school activities, internships and other workforce training.

“We’re not sitting on our hands and crying the blues. We’re out there, and we’re making changes,” longtime school board member John Devlin said.

The Atlantic City School District serves 6,855 students across 11 schools, according to the latest available state data. The high school, home to more than 1,800 students, is also the sending district for Ventnor, Margate and Brigantine — Longport students can attend either Atlantic City or Ocean City high school.

The district faces its fair share of problems: staggering chronic absenteeism; an 81% graduation rate; standardized test scores below the state average; and a markedly high number of incidents of violence, vandalism and bullying.

They are also fighting declining enrollment due in part to children moving out of district. More city children are also choosing county vocational school, private schools or School Choice programs where they have access to various academic and athletic opportunities.

Since the Atlantic City transition report was released in 2018, the district has undergone a needs assessment for its youth that measured the level of 40 internal and external assets in about 800 of the city’s children. Examples of assets are positive support from families, neighborhoods and schools; empowerment in community; clear boundaries at home, in school and in the neighborhood; positive role models; constructive and creative activities; positive values; continued learning; social skills; and positive identity.

“Thousands of studies have confirmed that young people with higher levels of assets are mentally and physically healthier, safer, more caring, more productive, and more involved and contributing to society than are youth with lower levels of assets. They do better in school, and they are more prepared for college and career options after high school,” according to the report.

The report said only about half of the young people in Atlantic City have substantial internal and external assets to make positive life choices and prepare for a productive future, showing room for improvement.

One of the areas being improved is after-school and summer programs, which the report said are critical to curbing at-risk behavior among youth.

Johnson Report

The assets within the high school are plenty — a teen center run by AtlantiCare, career and technical education classes, sports, clubs and newly renovated facilities. However, there are fewer opportunities for the K-8 schools, where after-school sports programs were cut several years ago due to budget constraints.

The Atlantic City Police Athletic League, the Boys and Girls Club and several other youth organizations help fill in the gaps, but the transition report notes that more investment should be made through the city, grants and the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority.

Devlin said the school board is working to bring on coaches and employees who will enhance opportunities for students, including more competitive athletic programs.

This year, the Atlantic City School District debuted a campaign to fight chronic absenteeism, created a dual-enrollment program with Atlantic Cape Community College, expanded opportunities to partner with other colleges for dual-enrollment and a new high school principal, LaQuetta Small.

Small, who turned around the absenteeism rate at the Pennsylvania Avenue School, said she is bringing a new level of accountability to the high school.

“We all play a part in getting the students to understand that coming to school, it is important. You matter. It’s significant that you’re here. And if students don’t feel connected, then they’re not going to come,” she said.

GALLERY: Atlantic City High School Pep Rally

Resorts casino owner, unions bankrolling Atlantic City government change

ATLANTIC CITY — Businessman Morris Bailey is putting his money where his mouth is when it comes to his vision on how best to move the city forward.

The owner of Resorts Casino Hotel has contributed more than $126,000 toward an effort to change Atlantic City’s form of government, according to filings with the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission.

The contributions are to a political action committee called Atlantic City Residents for Good Government, which has raised more than $150,000 to move the city from a mayor-council format to a council-manager style.

Bailey did not respond to an attempt to contact him at his New York City business office. The businessman grew up in Atlantic City during its heyday before casino gaming and believes the seaside resort can be great again with the right leadership, according to Resorts CEO/President Mark Giannantonio, who also supports the change.

Besides Bailey’s significant contributions to the PAC, unions with ties to Atlantic City and South Jersey have also donated. The bricklayers and allied crafts, plumbers and pipefitters, painters, roofers, electrical workers, elevator construction, casino workers and building trades unions have all contributed, according to the ELEC report.

Iron Workers Local 399, the union for which Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Salem, Gloucester, Cumberland, serves as general vice president, donated $5,000 shortly after the petition was announced in June.

The unions that have donated also have another tie to Atlantic City: the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority executive board.

Representatives, members or officers of the bricklayers and allied crafts (Richard Tolson), electrical workers (Edward Gant) and building trades (William Mullen) all sit on the CRDA board, as does Giannantonio.

The PAC started with nearly $43,000 as an opening balance that was transferred from an unknown prior campaign. According to the Oct. 15 state filing, Atlantic City Residents for Good Government has spent more than $163,000 for consulting, mailers and get-out-the-vote efforts.

The PAC is collecting signatures for a petition to force a ballot referendum through which Atlantic City residents will decide whether the municipal government should change. The proposed change would cut the number of council members from nine to five while eliminating a directly elected mayor. Instead, a mayor would be selected annually from among the five at-large council members and a city manager would serve as the chief executive.

Under the 2016 legislation that gave the state direct oversight of the city’s finances, the Department of Community Affairs can treat successful referendum efforts in Atlantic City as advisory, and the state agency can reject a ballot decision regardless of the electorate’s choice.

Former state Sen. Ray Lesniak, Unite Here Local 54 President Bob McDevitt, Bailey and Giannantonio have all worked, in some capacity, to support the petition. Atlantic City Residents for Good Government’s petition effort is built on the premise that the current style of representation has allowed too many elected officials to further their own self-interests at the expense of the city and its residents.

Opponents of the proposal contend the petition effort amounts to little more than a coup attempt by powerful outsiders who want to exert their influence over one of the state’s largest economic engines.

McDevitt, who has spearheaded the effort, said the group has obtained enough valid signatures and will submit the petition in the coming weeks. In response to the criticism facing the petition effort, McDevitt said opponents have a “vested interest in maintaining the status quo.”

“The only people that are (against this) are those who are part of the cartel,” he said.

GALLERY: Holy Spirit vs. Atlantic City Thanksgiving game

Absecon man lends a hand in hurricane-devastated Bahamas

ABSECON — After watching the coverage of such destructive hurricanes as Maria and Harvey in 2017 and Michael last year, Paul Dempsey decided he needed to help after Hurricane Dorian struck the Bahamas in September.

From Nov. 3 to 16, Dempsey worked putting a school back together with the volunteer-powered disaster relief organization known as All Hands and Hearts, based in Massachusetts.

Dempsey did everything from picking up debris, chopping up potatoes and onions, building shelves and dealing with sheet rock and insulation.

“I just felt like giving back,” said Dempsey, who added Hurricane Dorian happened when he was thinking about this. “It just seemed to be a coincidence, me wanting to give back, and this happening at that time. I said, ‘I can do this. I can definitely do this.’”

After doing research, Dempsey discovered the All Hands and Hearts organization online. A month passed between Dempsey coming up with the idea and being in Marsh Harbour, a town in the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas.

“The idea was that I could make a contribution not just by cleaning up debris and doing that kind of stuff, but also my photography would inspire people to do similar things and do something for other people” said Dempsey, who said Abaco Island residents told him most people don’t realize how bad the hurricane was.

Dempsey used to teach in the Galloway Township school district, so the idea of fixing up a school appealed to him.

“That made sense to me. You have all these people. They don’t have anything to do. They can’t even fix up their houses,” Dempsey said. “Send the kids to school. ... It becomes a community center. It becomes a central place to hand out aid to people. That whole concept appealed to me.”

On Marsh Harbour, Dempsey was with a group of 45 people ranging in age from age 18 to 72, including blacks, whites, Asians, straight, gay, people from Ireland, England, Germany, France, Australian, Canada and all over America.

“Everybody was there to help,” said Dempsey, who added people were told to sit down if they started to wear out. “No one was asked to do a job beyond their physical capabilities.”

No one in Dempsey’s group complained. Everybody knew they would be a little uncomfortable because 45 people were sleeping in one room.

The Catholic School that Dempsey worked on had a big field alongside of it that was full of debris, so a person could always pick up debris.

As a comparison, Hurricane Sandy had 90 mph winds, 14-foot storm surge, and it lasted for a day in one spot, Dempsey said. Hurricane Dorian had 220 mph winds, a 23-foot storm surge and parked itself over the island for three days, he said

“You could go around and see buildings where the waterline was on the second floor. It really devastated this island,” Dempsey said. “There was not an area where you wouldn’t find houses that were seriously damaged.”

Dempsey was off on Sundays, so he hired a woman to drive him around so he could shoot pictures. In one place, where there was once a two-story restaurant, there was not even debris, just a concrete slab.

“That kind of devastation there, it’s hard to wrap your head around. I thought it would be really bad, but when I got there, I said, ‘I can’t believe this,’” Dempsey said. He added that even if someone’s house survived, their job was gone. “There were no banks, no ATMs. There was one store open and one bar open.”

None of the cars would have passed inspection with busted-out windows and missing doors. One night, he saw a car with a flashlight taped to it for lights.

“You go down there because you want to help somebody, but it helped me,” said Dempsey, who said residents randomly thanked him. “It makes you feel good to know that you are helping people. ... There is something special about anonymous giving. People who will benefit from what I did and what the group did, we are not going to meet them, but that’s OK.”