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Community rebuilds trust, security after Millville coach's murder

MILLVILLE — Millville Midget Football League coach JT Burks said when his Thunderbolts team found out they would be going to the league’s Super Bowl last year, 7-year-old player Joseph Jones Jr. visited his father’s grave to share the news.

“Everybody rallied around that,” Burks said. “Kids were really excited. Everybody wanted to try to win the Super Bowl for coach Joe.”

Joseph’s father, Millville Midget Football League coach Joseph “JoJo” Jones Sr., was shot and killed one year ago Friday.

Since then, the case continues to be tried in court and the football community continues to try to rebuild a sense of trust and safety on the field.

“My initial thought was sadness, anger and frustration because I felt as though it was supposed to be like a safe haven for kids,” said Burks, 34, who has coached in the league for five years. “I felt personally that I failed to protect them as far as preserving them from the negativity.”

Jones, 37, was shot in the parking lot of Lakeside Middle School as coaches, parents and athletes, including his son, were leaving after football practice.

Officials conducted a two-month investigation into what they called a targeted attack. Six people were indicted in February and charged in his murder and subsequent cover-up.

One suspect, Hakeem Smith, 23, pleaded guilty Monday to hindering apprehension and conspiracy in exchange for probation and 364 days in jail, Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae said.

Smith, who was not charged with murder, will be sentenced in mid-September. The other defendants await court appearances later that month.

In the meantime, Burks has worked to rebuild a team that was shaken by the incident.

In 2018, his team, which consists of kids ages 5 to 7, had 40 players. After Jones’ murder, only 25 came regularly.

“A lot of the parents didn’t feel safe, especially at my age group with them being 5, 6 and 7,” he said. “They’re still a lot of people’s babies in their eyes.”

It also affected their performance on the field.

“We started out the season tough,” Burks said. “We started out with a losing record. It was hard to rebuild chemistry and have practice time.”

In response, Burks said the league and leaders from the city and county worked together to improve safety, including adding more security cameras in the area and having police make more appearances at their practices and games.

“I think just from us having a good group of coaches and having a good organization that has a lot of stability and structure, I think that was easy to give everybody a sense of comfort to ease all their anxiety and frustration and how the city stood behind us, too,” he said. “I think that gave everybody reassurance.”

Shera Gill, 33, of Vineland, takes photos for the league. She made a video last year that turned the phrase “turning tragedy into triumph” into a rallying cry in the community.

“Those kids have overcome everything thrown at them,” Gill said. “Sports is very important, to me, in youth. It teaches you a lot of lessons; it teaches you to continue; it teaches you that things don’t always go your way.”

Burks said a local church offered free counseling, and he and other leaders continued to act as mentors for kids.

The team was also given the chance to go to a Philadelphia Eagles game last August after the NFL team donated tickets. Webb-McRae was present as they boarded six school buses and headed to the game.

“The community came together to support the kids by letting them know it’s OK to grieve (while providing access to counseling) and how to get back up and press on,” Webb-McRae said in a statement at the time.

It was tough, but Burks and others in the community didn’t give up.

“Seeing the strength of the kids, how they were able to continue to move on and persevere, seeing how the community ran together and stuck together as far as the organization, that kept me motivated,” he said.

The team turned its record around in October and won enough games to make it to the Super Bowl in November. They didn’t win the game, but Burks said it meant a lot for the team and Jones’ legacy.

Burks said he remembered Jones for his discipline and ability to teach kids the game with sayings such as, “We’re Thunderbolts, we never give up” and “On the field, we’re brothers.”

“When I first got the head coaching job years back, he was the first person who pulled me aside and said, ‘You have to remember that these kids will follow you wherever you lead them, so make sure you’re comfortable with who you are as far as a coach,’” Burks said. “Believe in your system, and kids will follow you wherever you go.”

Burks said the team has increased again to 38 players, including Jones’ two nephews and his son, who has returned for another season.

Next year, Jones Jr. will have a bigger role on the team, starting on both offense and defense.

“I’m looking forward to try to repeat our success from last year,” Burks said. “And hopefully bring some closure to it by hopefully capping it off with a Super Bowl.”

Staff Writer Colt Shaw contributed to this report.

Cumberland County officials cut ribbon on ROW mobile outreach bus

BRIDGETON — Cumberland County residents may spot a purple bus with two hands reaching for each other rolling through their streets starting this month.

Law enforcement and public health officials Thursday afternoon cut the ribbon on the county’s Recovery on Wheels, or ROW, a mobile unit that aims to bring resources for addiction help to people who need it.

“The mission of Recovery on Wheels is to go to where the people who need the services are, and to provide compassionate, nonjudgmental interventions in real time,” said Melissa Niles, director of the county’s Human Services Department. “ROW seeks to address addiction as a public health issue that deserves a public health response.”

Niles’ department, as well as the county Prosecutor’s Office, Sheriff’s Office and Health Department, collaborated with partners like Inspira Health Center to make it happen.

While national statistics show fatal overdoses are in decline, most of South Jersey is going in the opposite direction, including Cumberland County.

In 2017, there were 169 drug-related deaths in Atlantic County, 59 in Cape May County and 75 in Cumberland County, state Health Department data show. Last year, those deaths spiked in Atlantic and Cumberland counties, rising to 190 and 113, respectively. Cape May County dropped to 47.

The bus, retired early from the county Office of Aging for the project, will offer peer recovery coaches, education on the overdose-reversal drug naloxone, information on and referrals to social services, needle disposal, hepatitis A vaccinations and health screenings, among other services, officials said.

A mobile unit is important, Niles said, because it’s a proactive way to seek out people who need help, instead of the other way around.

“Often, when a person is ready to seek substance-use treatment, the window of opportunity is open for a brief period of time,” she said. “Historically, people do not know where to go or how to access substance-use disorder services when they need it.”

Or, if they do know, they’re told to call back day after day, she said, and often “that window of opportunity has closed as they’re no longer interested, or they’re dead.”

Cumberland is the third county in South Jersey to adopt a mobile unit to help residents struggling with addiction through a partnership between law enforcement and social services.

Both Atlantic and Cape May counties have vehicles, called Hope One, run by the Sheriff’s Office and Prosecutor’s Office, respectively. Staff set up at designated places in their county, from bus terminals to coffee shops to shopping centers, to help spread resources.

Since starting the program last August, Atlantic County’s Hope One van has referred 352 clients into treatment, trained 253 people to use naloxone, giving a free kit to each trainee, and provided 54 people with the identification needed to get into treatment, county Sheriff Eric Scheffler said.

Cape May County’s program has trained people to use and provided Narcan to 172 since fall 2018 and referred people to recovery services while helping veterans and the homeless, according to data provided by county Prosecutor Jeffrey Sutherland.

Cumberland County Sheriff Robert A. Austino said his office will take care of the maintenance, fuel and storage of the bus, as well as help dispose of drugs that are collected and provide temporary identification to get people into treatment.

County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae said the partnership makes fiscal sense.

“When mental health issues and drug abuse issues go untreated, we all as taxpayers pay a premium,” she said. “Because it’s three times as costly to deal with it through the criminal justice system and through law enforcement.”

And, she said, “it’s just the right thing to do.”

Atlantic City Fire Department tests new firefighters

ATLANTIC CITY — Steven Cordero, 30, of Atlantic City, wore a 40-pound vest as he dragged a fire hose through two traffic cones. He then unscrewed the metal cap of a hydrant, all part of his practice run-through of the Fire Department’s agility test course set up Monday inside the Convention Center.

After a class of firefighters retired in early April, the number of firefighters in the city has dropped below 180, which Atlantic County Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez ruled in 2017 was the minimum needed to maintain safety in the city.

The Atlantic City Fire Department is in the process of hiring new firefighters to meet this number, but exactly how many and when they will start on the job is still being determined.

There are currently 173 firefighters in the city of about 39,000 year-round residents and thousands of visitors.

The city and state say they are committed to hiring enough firefighters to bring the total number to 185, said Lisa Ryan, spokeswoman for the state Department of Community Affairs, which has unilateral authority over personnel decisions in the city under the 2016 takeover law.

But it could be more. Fire Chief Scott Evans said he has requested to hire about 25 new firefighters to bring the department’s total closer to 200 through a SAFER, or Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, grant application to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“Having a rotation of firefighters is good for the department. It’s good for morale. It’s good to get new, young firefighters on the job. It means that the city will have more firefighters,” Evans said. “The fire protection in the city increases.”

City and state officials have not heard from FEMA as of Wednesday about the status of the grant application.

The state prevented the department from applying for the grant in May 2018, citing fiscal responsibility, since the grants cover only a percentage of the cost of new hires — 75% for two years and 35% in the third year — and the municipality is responsible for the remainder each year.

The grant also doesn’t cover health care and pension obligations.

Firefighter applications were open to New Jersey residents in early May. The documents stated that preference would be given first to those who live in the city, then the county and then the state.

“It’s important for the Atlantic City residents to have an opportunity to get good-paying jobs, good jobs with benefits,” Evans said.

There were 512 people who submitted their applications and $25 exam fee, 152 of which were city residents.

“City residents know this community better than anyone,” Evans said. “They understand the streets. They know directions. They know the buildings.”

While 343 applicants passed the written exam, only city residents were scheduled to take the physical agility test.

Residents were given sole access to the practice sessions held since July 24, Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Cordero was one of the 113 city residents who passed the written exam and were scheduled to take the agility test Wednesday.

During his practice run Monday, he tried to shave off seconds on a tricky obstacle, the stairs. Carrying a 50-pound medical bag, he ran up and down the wooden bridge 12 times total.

“I’m just trying to dig deep,” he said, catching his breath. “That’s why you practice. You already know where everything is at. That’s when you really just start digging deep. It’s just mental.”

John Varallo Jr., president of Local 198 of the firefighters union, said that although this helps address manpower problems — the department has lost more than 100 firefighters since 2010 — he still has concerns about how the test will be scored and, without civil service in the city, what appeals process there will be to ensure fair practices that protect applicants.

“I’m excited that there’s a possibility of new firefighters coming on the job, but I’m also worried about a spoils-type system that would show favoritism or nepotism,” Varallo said.

Evans said the physical agility test, which was conducted through a contract with the New Jersey Career Fire Chiefs Association, is mirrored to be as close to the Civil Service test as possible.

After the agility test, the department, city and state will assemble a panel that will include the Evans and the state fire marshal, among other city and state officials, to interview the candidates who pass.

“We are confident the hiring process is thorough and fair and look forward to having a new group of firefighters soon join the ranks of the Atlantic City Fire Department to serve city residents, businesses and visitors,” Ryan said.

Sitting legs spread on the floor of the convention center, Cordero said he knew he wanted to be a firefighter after a fire broke out years ago near where he lives on Providence Avenue.

While he couldn’t get a good look at the fire itself, he said he heard firefighters yelling commands to each other.

“Just hearing them talk and asking for one another and working together,” he said. “That’s when I knew that this could really be a job for me.”

Opinions mixed on plan to move Atlantic City BOE into Boardwalk Hall

ATLANTIC CITY — Community leaders touted the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority’s $12.6 million plan to renovate office space for the city’s Board of Education, while a parent and real estate professionals Thursday called it a poor use of money that will harm businesses downtown.

CRDA held a public hearing Thursday on its proposal to renovate 25,000 square feet of space at Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall for the school board to occupy rent-free, allowing it to move from its current rental location where it pays $650,000 a year.

The project would use $10.5 million in luxury tax funds and $2.1 million from the school district.

It’s a way of using luxury tax funds to help the schools, while improving portions of the hall left vacant for decades, said CRDA Director of Project Implementation Thomas J. Meehan, who acted as hearing officer.

Under state law, the luxury tax on resort hotel rooms, ticket and alcohol sales can only be used at Boardwalk Hall and the Atlantic City Convention Center for debt payments, construction and maintenance.

The school board would leave the building it’s been in since 2005 at 1300 Atlantic Ave., across from the county building and city library.

Charles Goodman of the NAACP said the project will save the school district money it can put into programs for kids.

“It will last past all of our lifetimes, probably,” Goodman said. “It’s one plus the CRDA will have on its report card, because there’s not many.”

The move would hurt smaller businesses downtown and undermine existing leases and property values there, the real estate brokers said.

“Everything in the area gets pushed down,” commercial real estate broker Josh Levin said. “You are also planning to move the CRDA. ... It’s not going to be just the school district — other organizations are going to pull out (of downtown), too.”

CRDA also is looking to spend an additional $8 million to renovate other parts of the building for its own offices, freeing up its building on Pennsylvania Avenue for sale. But that proposal has not come up at a meeting yet.

Levin said the CRDA should do an economic impact study, including data on what the board would have to pay in utilities and other costs at Boardwalk Hall, to get an idea of the true impact of the plan.

The real estate professionals pointed out the savings likely would be much less than $650,000 a year, as the board would still have to pay for utilities, janitorial and maintenance, which are included in the current rent. They estimated those costs at $150,000 to $250,000 a year.

Frank Barbera, who said his family has lived in the city for more than 100 years, said CRDA was using flawed numbers.

“You are not telling us what the CAM (common  area maintenance) charge is going to be for the Board of Education. They are not getting free utilities,” Barbera said.

He said there is probably more than 65,000 square feet of office space in Boardwalk Hall.

“Who’s next?” he asked.

Superintendent Barry Caldwell said the board will leave its current 18,000 square feet at the CitiCenter building whether the plan goes through or not.

School board President Pat Bailey said she has been hearing complaints from parents for years about how much the board spends on rent.

“We have got to go, y’all,” she said.

Sixty to 65 employees work in the district offices, Caldwell said, but meetings and training sessions are held there that often need to accommodate about 82 employees at a time.

The school board has not provided a list of employees who work in the board offices and what they do. The Press submitted an Open Public Records Act request for the information July 23.

The CRDA board gave preliminary approval of project eligibility to the plan at its meeting last month, but the vote was split. Several CRDA board members have said they needed more information, and two voted against it, saying it fell outside the CRDA’s mission of promoting the city and its tourism and business environment.

Meehan will give his recommendation to the board for consideration, and it may vote on the plan at its next meeting, 2 p.m Aug. 20 at 15 S. Pennsylvania Ave.

Atlantic City resident Pleasure Blackwell, whose children attend city schools, said she opposed the plan because the money would be better spent improving the condition of the schools.

“When our children have mold in school ... that’s the first thing you guys should have tackled,” Blackwell said. “We are low-income, working parents. Most of us are single. We are trying to provide for our children and make sure they have a safe, clean environment in school. Yet you guys are funding meeting space our children will not be utilizing.”

Goodman agreed with her about addressing problems in school buildings but called the renovation a win-win for everyone, since it allows use of luxury funds to help the schools.