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Atlantic City Mayor Small says success in first 100 days all part of plan

ATLANTIC CITY — Even before being sworn in as the city’s 41st mayor in the fall, Marty Small Sr. had a vision for his hometown and for himself.

After spending 16 years as a member of City Council, including four as council president, the 45-year-old Small was confident he had the experience, knowledge and relationships to make those goals a reality.

In an interview on the eve of his first 100 days in office — Small became mayor Oct. 3 after his predecessor, Frank Gilliam Jr., abruptly resigned following a guilty plea to wire fraud in federal court earlier in the day — the Atlantic City native was candid about his past, present and future.

“It’s no secret of my long road, dealing with adversity, the ups and downs, to finally sit in this seat,” Small said Friday afternoon from his office on the seventh floor of City Hall. “But I didn’t get here, put my feet up, look at my house from the window and say, ‘I made it, this is it.’ No. I came in with a plan, and we’re going to execute that plan.”

Small is not exaggerating about the challenges he had to overcome to become mayor, a position he sought for more than a decade.

From twice being acquitted of election fraud to coming up short multiple times while running for mayor to having to dissociate himself from his “Party Marty” persona, Small said the obstacles that long prevented him from realizing his dream also helped shape who he is today.

“He’s dedicated himself to the craft of governing,” said 3rd Ward Councilman Kaleem Shabazz. “He’s not perfect, none of us are, and he wouldn’t say he is. But I see a maturity and steady progress in him. He’s grown into the role.”

Shabazz pointed to the people Small has surrounded himself with since taking office as evidence of prudent decision-making, such as retired Superior Court Judge Steven Perskie, who was named the mayor’s special adviser on policy, and Atlantic County Freeholder Ernest Coursey, the mayor’s chief of staff.

One of Small’s first actions as mayor was to implement a “zero tolerance” policy on Atlantic Avenue, something that was widely regarded as a necessary and long overdue step toward improving public safety.

The mayor also has started an Employee of the Month program and a monthly “night out” for city workers, instituted an open-door policy for the Mayor’s Office by removing the security buzzer installed under prior administrations and partnered with Atlantic Cape Community College to start ongoing training for municipal employees.

Small also said a new department that focuses on recreation, youth and senior services will be created soon, and a Business Advisory Council will be formed this year.

All of that is on top of what Small describes as his “primary focus”: the city’s taxpayers. The mayor said his “goal is to have a tax decrease” in 2020, but he would not be disappointed with a flat tax rate either, considering the ongoing property reevaluation that makes projecting future city revenues nearly impossible.

“He’s done just about everything you’d want a chief executive to do in 100 days,” Shabazz said. “He’s laid out a vision, he’s focused on reducing the cost of government and he’s improved morale in City Hall. At this point, what he’s been able to do is very commendable.”

Small still has work to do to convince some in town he is the right man for the job. Despite the support he received from the Atlantic City Democratic Committee in October, Chairwoman Gwen Callaway Lewis declined to comment on whether the party was satisfied with Small’s leadership or whether he would get its support in June’s primary election.

Nonetheless, Small is undeterred and steadfast in his belief that Atlantic City will continue to prosper with him at the helm.

Marty Small greets his hometown as mayor

ATLANTIC CITY — Marty Small was greeted by cheers and applause as he took the podium as interim mayor in Council Chambers Friday afternoon with his family around him.

“I don’t feel any pressure at all,” Small said. “The residents of Atlantic City want to see a direction. ... I’m here to stabilize the ship.”

Once a vocal and hostile critic of the state takeover, Small also has learned that Trenton’s resources are a positive for the city.

With state oversight certain to last until November 2021, and possibly beyond, Small said he has learned to foster positive relationships with the city’s overseers.

“Mayor Small has brought a high level of enthusiasm and passion to his service as mayor, which we appreciate and commend,” said Lisa Ryan, spokeswoman for the state Department of Community Affairs, the agency with direct oversight of Atlantic City. “He has also continued to collaborate with (the) DCA to achieve positive outcomes with the city’s finances and operations. We recognize how deeply he cares about his hometown and its success, and we look forward to a productive relationship in 2020.”

With only a small window of opportunity guaranteed — his current term will expire at the end of 2020 — Small said he is determined to get as much done as possible while, hopefully, instilling a long-term ethos in City Hall that strives to be accountable even after he is gone.

After all, Small’s passion for Atlantic City is only exceeded by his loyalty to his family, and he desperately wants to leave his hometown better than he found it.

“I’ve always been a promoter of Atlantic City,” Small said. “Now it’s my job to put Atlantic City in the best possible position to move forward. The residents of Atlantic City deserve someone with passion to serve and a willingness to run as hard as they can. I’m prepared for the challenge.”

GALLERY: Atlantic City Mayor Marty Small through the years

special report
The Atlantic County Veterans Cemetery is expanding this year

ESTELL MANOR — Atlantic County military veterans who prefer to have their remains buried with their fellow soldiers will have more options available to them, beginning this year.

Construction started in December on the second phase of a 20-acre expansion of the Atlantic County Veterans Cemetery, located within the county park in this city south of Mays Landing.

A one-acre expansion that was completed in 2014 was added to the already existing eight-acre cemetery, but the county is spending $2.9 million on the current expansion, said Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson.

“The cemetery has become extremely popular. It is beautifully landscaped,” said Levinson, who added veterans have changed their burial plans to be put there. “There will be no waiting list to get into the veterans cemetery.”

The veterans cemetery is the final resting place for Atlantic County veterans and their spouses. There are currently 5,454 individuals interred in the cemetery with an average of 230 burials annually.

Veterans who served in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War now range in age from 60 to 100. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 12,963 veterans live in Atlantic County out of 265,429 residents.

The Atlantic County Veterans Museum is located in the historic Daniel Estell House adjacent to the veterans cemetery.

“The whole area is a tribute to our fighting men and women who served,” Levinson said.

Currently, trees are being cleared where a road will be created, but the bulk of the work will take place in the spring through the fall.

The expansion includes the construction of a columbarium that will hold up to 900 urns, the installation of two flag poles, drainage and irrigation systems and Americans with Disabilities Act accessible parking.

Purple Heart Drive will be split to maintain a recreation area with a designated paved pedestrian-bicycle path to improve the safety of those biking, jogging and walking. The project also includes the building of new bathrooms.

The veterans cemetery started with four acres in 1985. The current expansion started to be discussed as early as 2005, said Atlantic County Administrator Gerald DelRosso.

The cemetery was filling fast while the permitting process was moving slowly, said Eric Husta, the county’s division director of parks and recreation.

“I do know that it (the plans) went back and forth multiple times between agencies. Every time a set of plans were looked at, there were more questions to make sure the county was transparent,” said Husta, who added wetlands and soil conservation were among other concerns that had to be addressed.

The cemetery expansion plans were created internally by officials in the county’s parks and budget offices, DelRosso said.

When bids for the project were sent out originally, they returned extremely high, so changes were made to bring the cost of the project down, DelRosso said.

In 2014, a one-acre expansion was done by the county’s public works and parks departments, DelRosso said.

“It was extremely labor intensive,” said DelRosso, who added even the one-acre addition involved cutting down trees and clearing land.

Cemetery expansion construction will be completed this fall with the possible exceptions of the roadway and the bathrooms, DelRosso said.

The cost of the burial for veterans and their spouses is paid with state and federal money.

“This should have been done sooner,” DelRosso said. “I think it’s wonderful for the veterans.”

GALLERY: Veterans Day around South Jersey

Murphy to lay out 2020 agenda in speech before lawmakers

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy will lay out his agenda for the year as he delivers his second State of the State address before a joint-session of the Democrat-led Legislature on Tuesday.

The Democrat, who is a self-styled progressive and former Wall Street executive, took office in 2018 succeeding Chris Christie. The two could hardly be more different on a number of issues.

Murphy spent the past two years undoing many policies enacted by his Republican predecessor, signing — instead of vetoing — gun control legislation, a phased-in $15 minimum wage and tax hikes to pay for transit and education.

Despite Democratic control of the governor’s mansion and the Legislature, Murphy and Senate President Steve Sweeney have clashed prominently, leading to the delay in enacting one of the first-term governor’s policy proposals: a tax hike on incomes over $1 million.

Sweeney opposes such an increase, arguing that the 2017 federal tax overhaul changed the picture in New Jersey by capping property tax deductions at $10,000 in a state where the average bill is nearly $9,000.

Murphy has given no indication that he’ll walk away from his push for the tax hike. He says it’s needed to finance the state’s obligations, such as public pension and retiree benefits as well as education. The top rate currently is 8.97%. Murphy had previously proposed boosting it to 10.75%.

Republicans balk at the proposal, arguing that it would lead to residents fleeing the state.

Legislative leaders and Murphy do agree, however, on legalizing recreational marijuana, which will be on the ballot in November for voters to decide. But if voters approve the question, Murphy and lawmakers would still have to come together on legislation to regulate the new industry. New Jersey would become the 12th state with legalized recreational marijuana for adults.

Egg Harbor City to sell water, sewer without referendum

EGG HARBOR CITY — The city is the first to qualify under a new state law to sell its water and wastewater utility without a public referendum.

The goal is to more quickly lower water costs and increase ratables, while freeing the city from $40 million in infrastructure repair and replacement costs over the next 20 years, said City Engineer Ryan McGowan.

“It’s a very valuable asset — we would rather keep it for sure,” Mayor Lisa Jiampetti said of a $7 million water plant that opened in 2013, and its deep Pinelands wells.

It’s also one of just two water systems in the region that adds fluoride to its water for better dental health for kids. The other is the Atlantic City Municipal Utilities Authority.

But much of the infrastructure is old, city officials said.

“We have a lot of infrastructure problems,” Jiampetti said, “at least four water main breaks past year, and every time we have to bond for it. It’s quite pricey.”

The nail in the coffin to keeping the utility was another new state law, the Water Quality Accountability Act, which took effect last year and required the utility to put aside $377,000 a year for system maintenance, she said.

Single-family homeowners were hit with $160 in extra annual fees to meet that state mandate.

“Basically what that did was boost everyone’s quarterly water bills,” Jiampetti said.

The city hopes to lower residents water bills by selling to a larger entity that can spread out the cost of operating the system to more customers. The city system has just 1,200 customers, but is capable of serving many more.

The Water Infrastructure Protection Act, passed in 2015, provided for the sale of public water utilities under “emergent conditions,” McGowan said.

“It allows you to value the system differently,” McGowan said, and potentially get more money when it is sold by allowing the Board of Public Utilities to approve companies’ recouping a higher cost.

Three companies are interested in purchasing the city water utility, city officials said. The city will soon receive requests for proposal, McGowan said. The companies are New Jersey American, Aqua and the Carlyle Group/VICO Infrastructure Co. partnership.

The first two are existing water companies, while the third is a partnership that announced last year it had formed to invest in U.S. water infrastructure. The Carlyle Group is a global investment firm with $222 billion in assets, according to the company.

“We will select (a purchaser) on the basis of which will provide the best service and be most qualified,” McGowan said.

Then the city will negotiate a purchase price. If a price cannot be agreed on, the city will then go to the second company on the list, he said, until a good deal is reached.

In 2014, the city opened a new water treatment plant, funded by a $7 million federal financing package made up of both grants and loans.

“It was a very expensive endeavor but a very good investment,” Jiampetti said.

But the city owes more than $6 million on it. The city hopes to wipe out the utility’s debt with the sale, and have extra money for future expenses.

“We will also get the tax ratable,” Jiampetti said, to help the small city with its budget.

In early 2018, council unanimously authorized McGowan to prepare plans and specs for the sale of the Egg Harbor City Water and Sewer Utility.

Last February, McGowan suggested the city met two of five possible emergent conditions, which would allow it to proceed with the sale without referendum. He said there was a lack of historical investment and maintenance of the system, and a lack of financial ability for the utility system to meet current and future needs.

“Most of the system was built pre-1910 and in the 1930s,” McGowan said at the time. “You would have to replace 42% of the water system and 45% of the sewer system. That would amount to a $40 million outlay or $2 million a year for 20 years. It would double your current utility budget.”

The council passed a resolution for a declaration of emergent conditions, paving the way for the sale without referendum.

GALLERY: Cedar Creek vs. Oakcrest boys, girls swimming

Craig Matthews / Staff Photographer  

Gov. Phil Murphy spoke at the NJEA Convention inside of Atlantic City Convention Center on Friday. Nov. 8, 2019 Craig Matthews / Staff Photographer