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Lines, some delays signal strong turnout at Iowa caucuses

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Lines of people snaked out the door and down the block waiting to enter an Iowa caucus site Monday, among the early signs of strong turnout as Democrats began choosing a nominee to take on President Donald Trump.

The start of a caucus in downtown Iowa City had to be delayed by more than an hour as hundreds of people were still waiting to check in or register to vote. Inside the Englert Theatre near the University of Iowa, 500 first-floor seats were mostly full and organizers were opening an additional 200 seats in the balcony.

In Polk County, Iowa’s largest county and home to the capital city, Des Moines, Democratic county party chairman Sean Bagniewski said the party had printed tens of thousands of extra voter registration forms but some precincts were running out.

“We’re making copies and deliveries to get them covered, but this caucus is gonna be the big one,” Bagniewski tweeted. He also said a caucus site in central Des Moines reported 1,080 participants, more than double the 440 who turned out in that precinct in 2016.

It was too soon to tell what final turnout numbers will be, though some party officials and campaigns were expecting far more people to participate than four years ago, due to Democrats’ enthusiasm to replace Trump.

About 170,000 turned out in 2016. The high-water mark for the contest was the 2008 Iowa Democratic caucuses, when nearly 240,000 participated and Barack Obama defeated Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley.

Caucusgoers reported packed rooms in other locations. More than 500 people crowded into a room at the University of Iowa Athletics Hall of Fame in Iowa City to caucus, with many sitting on the floor. Around 400 people were at a high school cafeteria in Des Moines. In Davenport, 130 gathered at a middle school gymnasium.

In Iowa City, cheers erupted in the packed theater after precinct organizer Lois Cox announced that the last people in line had finally made it inside the building. “We’ll start momentarily!” she said.

Among those attending Monday night’s caucuses were some newcomers to Democratic politics.

Norman and Lenora Iverson, both 86, voted Democratic for the first time. Lenora Iverson said they’ve voted Republican “forever,” but they joined with their daughter in caucusing for Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who was viable at the caucus at Hoover High School in north Des Moines.

Why did they switch parties?

“We don’t like Trump,” said Norman, a retired electrical engineer. “We don’t want him to be president anymore. We’ve had enough of him.”

Avalon residents to save $1.6 million on flood insurance in 2020

AVALON — Local property owners will notice a drop in their flood insurance premiums this year.

The borough has jumped from Class 5 to Class 3 status in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Community Rating System, which evaluates a municipality’s flood mitigation practices and adjusts its flood insurance rates accordingly. The lower the class rating, the greater the discount.

Avalon earned points for developing watershed management and floodplain management plans. Using a 10-class scale, each move toward Class 1 corresponds to a 5 percentage-point reduction in premiums. Avalon’s Class 3 status translates to a 35% reduction.

“This two-level increase by the borough of Avalon in this program is extremely significant and a true reflection on the borough’s best flood mitigation practices, recognized on the national level,” Mayor Martin Pagliughi said.

Of the more than 1,700 municipalities that participate in the CRS program, Avalon joins Sea Isle City as the only two in the state and 13 in the country to achieve a Class 3 rating. CRS classes are based on 18 creditable activities, organized under public information, mapping and regulations, flood damage reduction and flood preparedness.

The result will save Avalon residents a total of $1.6 million in insurance premiums in 2020, said Scott Wahl, the town’s business administrator and public information officer.

“The property owners are thrilled that Avalon has been able to achieve this rating,” Wahl said. “They certainly recognize the financial benefits of a much larger discount on flood insurance, but they also know that resiliency is not a once-in-a-while discussion, it’s an everyday discussion, and the town is reasonably protected in the event of a major storm event.”

The CRS is part of the National Flood Insurance Program. Implemented in 1990, the CRS was developed by FEMA to encourage communities to reduce and mitigate their flood risk, using reduced flood insurance premiums as incentives.

“Flood mitigation is not a once a year but an everyday practice among our employees, professionals and volunteers,” said Pagliughi. “The CRS program has recognized the borough’s level of excellence in making our community more resilient and protected from future storm events and sea level rise.”

Towns along the Jersey Shore have been able to pool their collective resources to obtain a higher class rating.

The New Jersey Coastal Coalition, which a majority of shore towns in Atlantic and Cape May counties are a part of, including Avalon, hosts monthly workshops to talk about common issues.

“That’s the key to the coalition, the interchange of ideas. ... They’ve (Avalon) been talking about going to a level 3 rating for a few years. ... Going from a 5 to 3 would be pretty much unprecedented,” said Tom Quirk, executive director of the Coastal Coalition.

Something in the Air podcast: Tom Quirk, New Jersey Coastal Coalition

Tom Quirk, Executive Director of the New Jersey Coastal Coalition, kicks off the first non weather roundup interview of "Something in the Air" podcast. Tom talks about how Hurricane Sandy inspired the "Coalition", what Jersey communities are in on this, how they're helping to lower your flood insurance rates and what the future holds. 

The coalition was formed in response to Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Francis Bruton, an engineer with Mott MacDonald, said some towns may drop down a class in the CRS on May 1, 2023, but not Avalon. Towns in South Jersey received points in the aftermath of Sandy for new advisory base flood elevation mapping, based on the 1% annual chance flood event, according to FEMA.

“The borough was awarded a prorated amount of ABFE credit since the borough regulates to the elevations indicated on the preliminary maps. ... When these points expire, the borough will still be within the range of a Class 3,” Bruton said.

Press Meteorologist Joe Martucci's 7-Day Forecast

Atlantic City casinos execs say increased air service would make 'big difference'

ATLANTIC CITY — Besides safer and cleaner surroundings, add easier and broader access to the wish list of things the city’s top casino executives want for the seaside resort.

Several of Atlantic City’s top casino executives said increasing visitation and convention business through more convenient and reliable transportation options, specifically air travel, is an important component for the resort to thrive. They spoke during a recent panel hosted by the Greater Atlantic City Chamber.

Increasing air travel to Atlantic City International Airport from a wider range of markets was cited as a necessary catalyst to spur visitation, which started to decline when nearby jurisdictions opened casinos.

Atlantic City once welcomed in excess of 35 million visitors annually. That figure has dropped to an estimated 22 million recently, according to industry data.

“I think, if we had air service, it would make a big difference,” said Steve Callender, president of the Casino Association of New Jersey and senior vice president of Eastern regional operations for Tropicana Atlantic City’s parent company, Eldorado Resorts.

Callender said there have been commitments between the industry and Spirit Airlines, the lone commercial carrier at Atlantic City International, to get air passengers from locations such as Boston and Chicago, but “we need Atlanta, we need Charlotte.”

“We need places where people don’t have to fly to go to a casino now,” he said. “We have an opportunity to grow this market because we have enough rooms now (with the 2018 openings of Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City and Ocean Casino Resort). ... So, if we can get some flights in here and do some more conventions, I think we could probably get there.”

In 2018, Meet AC, the marketing and sales branch of the Atlantic City Convention Center, reported a total of 238 meetings and conventions booked, some as far out as 2022. It was the organization’s fourth consecutive year of increased convention and meetings bookings.

Conventions and industry meetings help the casino hotels with occupancy during the midweek and off season.

But, with primary feeder markets such as Philadelphia and New York both expanding their own casino options, convincing potential visitors to bypass closer casinos is becoming a harder sell.

Marcus Glover, president and COO of Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, said convenience, or rather the lack thereof, “is really what crippled this market and took it from a $5 (billion) market to right around a $3 billion market.” He added that while diversifying the city’s non-gaming amenities was a key component to overcoming those losses, the “convenience factor is equally critical, in my opinion.”

“It’s really hard to grow the market if you don’t have a convenient means for people to get here,” Glover said.

The Atlantic City airport is operated by the South Jersey Transportation Authority, although discussions are taking place in Trenton to possibly place the airport under the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey.

According to data from SJTA, the total number of passengers on both scheduled commercial and chartered flights decreased 2.6% in 2019 compared with the year before. In 2018, total passengers at Atlantic City International increased 5.7% after a drop in 2017, when air passenger totals decreased by 8.7%.

Mark Giannantonio, president and CEO of Resorts Casino Hotel, said he likes the idea of the Port Authority operating Atlantic City International, since it already operates five others, including Newark Liberty, LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy International.

“When you think about what could happen here ... the idea is, through excess, to maneuver some of that traffic down without doing much of anything at ACY, and bring in aviation maintenance and those kinds of things,” he said. “That, coupled with our efforts where we can engage these airlines, I think would be a catalyst to bring some air service our way.”

Increasing air service to Atlantic City has been talked about for years. Commercial airlines, including Delta, United and Air Canada, have offered service in the past, but they ultimately left after lackluster results or when operating state subsidies expired.

Anthony Marino, a local analyst and former deputy director for the New Jersey Expressway Authority, the precursor to the SJTA, questioned what level of commitment the casinos would make toward increasing public transportation options to Atlantic City.

“I’ve been around for 40 years and I’ve heard many promises by casino executives, but I’ve seen many of those promises go unfulfilled,” said Marino, who sat in on meetings with former casino executives about the very topic during his time at NJEA. “If they really want air service and they really want rail service, are they prepared to sit behind closed doors with the current political leadership of the area and hammer out how they’re going to help, rather than undermine air service by continuing to run their own charter airlines into town?”

Glover, during the executive forum, said SJTA Executive Director Stephen Dougherty has addressed the casino association about efforts to increase air service, but he acknowledged getting a financial commitment from the casinos could be difficult.

“I think they’re trying,” Glover said of SJTA. “The tough thing is, the airlines come in and they want us, on top of overspending already, to underwrite or guarantee flights. And for all of us, we can help out some, but that’s a tough proposition to overcome.”

LAUREN CARROLL / Multimedia Reorter  

Mark Giannantonio, president and CEO of Resorts Casino, accepts the 2019 Hugh Center Excellence in Civic Engagement Award during the Hughes Center Honors ceremony Thursday night (Nov. 14, 2019)

Counties prep for primary vote-by-mail deluge and for help with costs

MAYS LANDING — The Atlantic County Clerk’s Office will mail out at least 17,000 vote-by-mail ballots for the June 2 primary election — about 10 times what it would have mailed before changes in state law unleashed a deluge of the paper ballots.

The law requires vote-by-mail ballots automatically be sent to anyone who requested one since 2016, unless the voter opts out of receiving them.

For the primary in 2018, the last one before the law changed, 1,755 were sent out, Deputy County Clerk Michael Sommers said.

That’s a big difference in printing and postage costs, which the state is supposed to cover since its law mandated counties to spend more.

In just the 2019 general election, the law cost the Atlantic County Clerk’s Office an additional $77,000, mostly for printing and postage, according to a complaint filed by the New Jersey Association of Counties.

It cost the Cape May County Clerk’s Office an additional $21,556 and the Cumberland County Clerk’s Office an extra $23,150.

That doesn’t include the extra costs incurred by the other offices involved in elections. In Atlantic County, they are the Board of Elections and the Superintendent of Elections.

County clerk’s offices are tasked in the law with applying for reimbursement for all cost to the county or other unit of government related to the vote-by-mail expansion, after the Legislature and Gov. Phil Murphy recently made $5 million available statewide to cover the costs of implementing it in 2018 and 2019.

New Jersey Association of Counties Executive Director John Donnadio said Monday his group, which successfully sued to force the state to pay the extra costs, believes $5 million will cover those costs for the first two years.

For 2020 onward, “we have to fight for an appropriation every year to deal with the ongoing costs,” Donnadio said.

The Legislature passed a law just a couple of months before the 2018 General Election requiring everyone who requested a vote-by-mail ballot in 2016 to continue getting them unless they oped out.

It allocated no funding when the law first went into effect.

There was little time for public education, and the new law caused mass confusion at the polls. People showed up to vote who had been sent ballots in the mail, and had to fill out paper provisional ballots, which then had to be checked against returned vote-by-mail ballots.

In 2019 the Legislature voted to amend the law to require anyone who requested a vote-by-mail ballot in 2017 and 2018 and forward to continue getting them. This time it allocated $2 million to help counties pay the costs, but never released the funds.

The law was then challenged by Donnadio’s group to the New Jersey Council on Local Mandates.

The council ruled in favor of NJAC last November, just after the election, calling the law an unfunded mandate and voiding it. So the Legislature passed a new law, allocating another $3 million, for a total of $5 million, and Gov. Murphy signed it last month.

In the 2018 primary, when 1,755 vote-by-mail ballots were sent out in Atlantic County, 1,322 were filled out and returned; and in 2019, the first primary under the 2018 expansion rules, 10,306 were sent out and 2,461 were filled out and returned.

If the same percentage are used to cast votes this year, the clerk’s office will send out 17,011 and get 4,062 votes cast.

Cape May County Clerk Rita Fulginiti said her office will send out more than 7,600 vote-by-mail ballots for the 2020 primary, compared with 5,529 (1,659 returned completed) in 2019 and 1,068 (822 returned completed) in 2018.

“I’m waiting for the Division of Elections to put it together and send it to clerks,” said Fulginiti of instruction about how to apply for reimbursement. “We haven’t seen it.”

Her office may work with the Cape May County Board of Elections on the application, she said. Cape May County does not have a Superintendent of Elections Office.

“We are not sure if we will do it as a county or individual offices,” Fulginiti said, “That’s why we’re waiting for the guidelines. These things take a little while.”

Craig Matthews / Staff Photographer  

Marcus Glover, president and chief operating officer for Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa has a few words at the event. The Boys and Girls Club of Atlantic City opened its new educational center, which was completed due, in part, to a $500,000 donation from Borgata in October. July 15, 2019 (Craig Matthews / Staff Photographer)