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Public-safety
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Residents want more police on the streets. Here is what Atlantic City is doing.

ATLANTIC CITY — Sharon Aloi remembers years ago when she saw more patrol cars parked in the city, including one near her property in Lower Chelsea.

“It made me feel good when it was there because people aren’t going to be breaking into cars and they’re going to think twice about breaking into a house on that street,” said Aloi, who doesn’t think that kind of crime is taking place in her neighborhood now but worries about other areas of the city.

Edward Lea / Staff Photographer  

‘It made me feel good when it was there because people aren’t going to be breaking into cars and they’re going to think twice about breaking into a house on that street,” said Sharon Aloi, referring to the police patrol car that used to be parked in her Lower Chelsea neighborhood.

Residents and former police agree that making people feel safer in Atlantic City needs to start on the streets.

The need to foster a better sense of safety and improve police and community relations was stressed in a report released last year by Jim Johnson, special counsel to Gov. Phil Murphy.

The plan, which aims to strengthen the city’s government and community partnerships, says residents want more done to provide a law-enforcement presence that is “visually reassuring.”

In light of that, the department plans to hire more officers and reposition the ones they already have through a new community policing initiative set to start early this summer.

“Just having that police presence I think keeps a lot of the people away,” said Ian Pullman, manager of Wood’s Loan Office in the 1700 block of Atlantic Avenue. He said police had recently been coming inside the pawn shop and signing a sign-in sheet, aiding what he sees as a decrease in loitering and drug dealing outside.

Michael Mason, an Atlantic City police officer for 25 years who retired in 2017, once made it a point to park his patrol car outside this local business, which rests in an area he called an “open-air drug market.”

VERNON OGRODNEK / For The Press  

Michael Mason, an Atlantic City police officer for 25 years who retired in 2017, once made it a point to park his patrol car outside Wood’s Loan Office at Atlantic and Indiana avenues, which rests in an area he called an ‘open-air drug market.’

He said people loitering outside Wood’s would leave when his car was around but would return when he had to leave for a call.

In 1994, The Casino Reinvestment Development Authority introduced the “cop next door” program, a $5 million program that offered officers 35 marked police cars for them to take home along with low-interest mortgages as incentives for them to stay in the city.

At the time, about 25% of the city’s 400-member police force lived in the city. Under New Jersey law, cities may not impose residency requirements on police officers to force them to live where they work.

Now, Atlantic City has about 252 officers for a year-round population of about 39,000, plus millions of seasonal visitors who stay in the resort each year.

YearViolent Crime Rate per 1,000Nonviolent Crime Rate per 1,000Murder
199038.1372.614
198934.5397.815
199138.0366.715
199234.1325.68
199335.4279.011
199428.0227.69
199526.5263.815
199624.3263.111
199722.1255.612
199818.5219.914
199916.8221.55
200013.4172.511
200115.5163.97
200218.5137.45
200315.5134.55
200417.5125.85
200519.0121.69
200620.4112.318
200722.296.67
200816.973.811
200921.383.011
201020.789.811
201117.580.313
201217.975.618
201317.774.73
201413.773.96
201515.975.67
201612.558.812

Retired Officer Connie Hackney, who grew up in the city and still lives there, said he was one of the last officers in the program to have a patrol car parked in his driveway in Chelsea Heights.

“The cars gave exposure,” said Hackney, who served in the department from 1998 to 2017. “You have police cars in your neighborhood, it gives a little image. It helps a little safetywise.”

While marked police cars provide visibility, residents call for even more of a return to basic policing, urging that officers “walk the beat” and patrol on foot.

“Perception is reality,” Pullman said. “Just being able to see one police officer, more often than not, walking the beat, that gives the impression that things are safe.”

Mason and Hackney both said that when there were more police, they had more time for face-to-face interactions with the community.

Hackney rode a bike he kept on his patrol car around neighborhoods when he had the time. It was something he took pride in.

But with less manpower and a city under a tight budget, this downtime got shorter and shorter.

“You got to get to these calls because your boy might be in trouble, your girl might be in trouble,” Hackney said. “If you do nothing else in patrol, you get to that call.”

In 2018, police were called 8.5% more than the prior year, for a total of 109,536 calls.

The Casino Reinvestment Development Authority agreed in March to provide $1.5 million a year for five years for the Atlantic City Police Department to hire 15 officers. These officers will replace veteran officers, who in turn will be assigned to the city’s six wards in pairs, along with three officers who will be assigned to addressing vagrancy and homelessness in the Tourism District, said White.

Boxing helps Atlantic City's youth stay on right path

ATLANTIC CITY — Shamirah Howard, 26, is trying to keep her young son on the right path, which is part of what led her to bring Lyfe Watson, 9, to the boxing gym on the third floor of the Atlantic City Police Athletic League on a recent Thursday evening.

“They will be more proactively engaging in the community — both residential and business communities,” police Chief Henry White said in March. “They will be getting problems solved. We are going to take veteran officers who know the terrain of the city and know how government operates.”

The initiative is based on a 2015 neighborhood policing plan implemented in New York.

New York police assigned two specially trained “neighborhood coordinating officers” in each sector. NCOs answered calls part of their shifts but served primarily as community contacts and monitored neighborhood crime trends.

CRDA Executive Director Matt Doherty said the plan aims to address quality-of-life issues. Along with stationing police in neighborhoods, they plan to reach out to organizations that work with people in need of social services to include them in policing.

CRDA currently invests $3 million a year into the Police Department and contracts 45 Class 2 officers, Doherty said.

“I think you’ll start seeing a difference this summer. It may take another full year to get everything up and running, but I think you’ll start seeing the impact,” he said.

Longtime resident Victor Jenkins, who lives on Ocean Avenue, wants to see an officer walking on his street, especially during the night and early morning hours.

“The approach has to be presence and persistence of presence,” Jenkins said. “That’s the way to solve the problem.”

PHOTOS: Atlantic City promotes police officers

Education
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Could Sweeney's plan for consolidation increase school board candidacy?

New Jersey is known for many things, among them the hundreds of cities, towns and boroughs that make up the most densely populated state in the nation.

But despite the nearly 9 million residents who live in the Garden State — and the $15 billion in tax revenue that school districts collect each year — school boards struggle to find enough candidates.

“Volunteering is an essential part of community life, always has been in every way, from the people who volunteer as firefighters and EMTs, to serving on planning boards, and most importantly of all is to serve in the school district,” said Weymouth Township school board member Henry Goldsmith.

Goldsmith said school board members serve a dual role.

“Schools take an enormous portion of the local tax burden in every community, and the school board is responsible for making sure that the costs are controlled and that the residents receive the best possible value for their money,” he said.

Could a plan unveiled last summer by state Senate President Steve Sweeney to consolidate a third of the state’s 590 school districts into K-12 districts help increase participation? Experts believe it could, even though that isn’t the intended consequence.

Last summer, Sweeney unveiled his Path To Progress plan, which he said will help bring New Jersey out of fiscal turmoil and included a recommendation to consolidate school districts.

Statewide, more than 270 districts would be eliminated under Sweeney’s plan. In South Jersey, almost 80% of the school districts would be affected.

At a recent town hall event in Atlantic City, Sweeney said his plan wasn’t to close buildings but to create economies of scale, fewer administrators and streamlined curriculum.

Brigid Callahan Harrison, professor of political science and law at Montclair State University, said consolidated school districts will not create any large-scale changes in the operation of schools but will cut down administrative costs and create a larger number of involved constituents in local school boards.

“It would seem to me that with fewer school boards, just the fact that there would be fewer slots would mean that those seats may be increasingly contested or at least filled because you’re drawing from a greater constituency who are interested in K-12 education,” Harrison said.

The lack of candidates has been a consistent trend over the years, with the New Jersey School Boards Association reporting about 1.5 candidates per open seat over the past two decades.

“We are concerned about the low rate of school board candidacy,” said Frank Belluscio, spokesman for the NJSBA.

Belluscio said the NJSBA would prefer a September deadline for candidates instead of the end of July.

Somers Point school board President Staci DiMattia-Endicott said she isn’t sure whether it was the filing deadline or a lack of information that caused no candidates to file petitions to run for the five open seats on the school board there last summer. She said it was an anomaly for Somers Point, where the average family spends 7% of its income on school taxes.

In the end, several candidates launched write-in campaigns to fill the open positions.

Somers Point’s situation was unusual, but not unheard of. Last November, in The Press of Atlantic City coverage area, 21 of the 82 school board races were contested. In 17 of the area races, there weren’t enough candidates for the number of open seats.

Harrison said it’s not uncommon for school board elections throughout the country to be uncontested, with the exception of major cities or places where curricular issues or union negotiations have been politicized.

People may not have an interest in running for school boards because they do not understand the important work school board members do, DiMattia-Endicott said.

“I think school board members, regardless of what district, work very hard, have a number of different challenges that they face. There’s lots of work that’s getting done,” she said of the volunteers, who do not receive compensation.

The stakes are high, too. School district budgets can reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars. This year, taxpayers funded nearly $15 billion of the cost of education through property taxes, and the state spent an additional $15 billion on education.

Michael Hayes, assistant professor of public policy at Rutgers University–Camden, agreed that Sweeney’s plan would increase school board participation, in theory. Hayes, who grew up in Maryland, noted there is much more competition for school boards in his home state, where school districts are split by county lines.

He said New Jersey residents’ love of home rule is simply out of habit.

“Even if it makes fiscal sense, even if consolidation would actually save them money, people actually prefer status quo,” Hayes said. “And that status quo is we have nearly 600 school districts in New Jersey.”

Hayes said that, just by looking at the impact of the school funding reform law, federal tax code changes capping property-tax deductions and an outmigration of residents, the state is heading toward consolidation.

“For New Jersey, it needs to be at least on the table. The state has so many fiscal challenges ahead of it,” he said. “It’s going to be really interesting to see how it’s going to play out.”


Cape_may
Wildwood Crest sees alcohol sales as key to saving downtown

WILDWOOD CREST — It’s not about the money, Mayor Don Cabrera said about an effort to bring a liquor license to his town. It’s about keeping businesses in Wildwood Crest.

Standing at Cardinal Road and New Jersey Avenue, in the heart of the borough’s retail district, Cabrera points out a series of vacant properties. Some will soon reopen for the summer. Others have large “Available” signs in their windows.

Cabrera believes allowing a restaurant to serve beer and wine could be part of a renaissance, bringing tourists and fresh investment to the retail area. Otherwise, he sees a possibility his municipality could become a bedroom community, where residents and visitors stay the night but leave town for dinner and entertainment.

As mayor, Cabrera can’t bring a liquor license to Wildwood Crest. The move would need the voters’ support in a referendum before the proposal could move forward, he said.

In fact, he said, voters would have to move to get the proposal on the ballot. He said it would require 212 signatures from registered voters to proceed. Cabrera has invited residents to speak out about the proposal at Borough Hall meetings. The next one is set for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at 6101 Pacific Ave.

Andrew Cyhan, owner of Homestyle To Go take out and catering at 6107 New Jersey Ave., plans to be there, hoping for more details on the proposal.

“I’m on the fence about it,” he said. If it helps the business district, he said, it could be a positive step. But he believes the borough could already be doing more for local businesses and fears if the license ends up going to a large hotel on the beachfront, it would only end up helping whoever gets the license.

Cabrera said the borough could use its zoning laws to limit the license to the downtown. But the move, if approved, could still bring alcohol sales to Crest hotels. Under state law, a motel or hotel with more than 100 rooms would automatically be eligible for a license if the municipality allowed them. There are six in the borough that meet the criteria, Cabrera said.

On social media, opinions seem divided between those who fear losing some of what makes Wildwood Crest special and others who believe it to be an important part of keeping a restaurant scene alive in a community.

Cabrera said he has heard complaints from people who fear the proposal. But he said he has also heard from restaurant owners who say they cannot stay in business without being able to serve. One resident suggested it’s easy enough to cross the border to get alcohol, so the Crest doesn’t need a license.

That could be said about any service or product, Cabrera said. Residents could look to Wildwood for lunch, for a real estate agent or an attorney.

“The next thing you know, we have no businesses,” he said.

Bringing a successful restaurant to New Jersey Avenue as an anchor could lead to a new retail store next to it, and a coffee shop next to that, Cabrera argued. With renewed interest in the downtown, he said, the borough could invest in infrastructure like bump-out curbs for pedestrians and clear the way for café-style outside dining on the sidewalks.

Standing in front of his business as he gets ready for the season, Cyhan said the borough could already be taking some of those steps, with or without a liquor license.

At Crest Hardware, owner Tony Leonetti described the move as long overdue. A city commissioner in neighboring Wildwood, he said Wildwood Crest should join other beach communities.

Wildwood Crest has been a dry town for close to 80 years, one of a few towns in Cape May County where alcohol cannot be sold. For Ocean City, the ban on alcohol sales was part of the original city charter. In 2012, voters there shot down a proposal to allow diners to bring their own wine or beer to restaurants by a margin close to 2-1. This year, West Cape May left that exclusive club, auctioning its first liquor license for $480,000, a big number in a town with a $2.6 million budget this year.

But for Cabrera, that revenue boost would not be the most important element. He said he did not want to sound arrogant, but Wildwood Crest is in great financial shape.

“It would be nice, but it’s not needed,” he said of the boost to municipal revenue. “It’s more of an economic development movement.”

He said the 1940 referendum to make the Crest dry was motivated by a worry about a third license coming to town, in addition to the two already there. For most summer visitors, he said, the distinction between Wildwood, North Wildwood, Wildwood Crest and the Diamond Beach section of Lower Township is unclear. The municipalities share the same island, but each has its own government and its own rules. Even some locals are confused by the Crest Tavern, which is over the border in Lower Township and has its own license.

Borough officials say the local police, the Tourism Development Commission and other organizations are reviewing the idea.


Matthew Strabuk / For The Press  

On April 13th, the Ocean City Doo Dah Parade was held despite the grey sky and slight drizzle.


Edward Lea / Staff Photo 

During a town hall meeting at Stockton University’s Atlantic City campus this month, state Senate President Steve Sweeney addressed school consolidation, teacher benefits and the state’s deficit.


Provided  

Tim Mancuso, second from left, is honored at the South Jersey Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association banquet this month. Mancuso has stepped down as coach at Atlantic City High School. Pictured, from left: son Mac Mancuso, Tim Mancuso, son Chris Mancuso, former Egg Harbor Township High School coach Mike Caiazza.