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Wildwood mayor 'disappointed beyond words' after Murphy vetoes Boardwalk bill

WILDWOOD — Mayor Ernie Troiano said Saturday he was “disappointed beyond words” by a veto by Gov. Phil Murphy of a bill that would have given the city $60 million over the next 15 years for improvements to the Boardwalk.

The measure called for $4 million a year to go to the Greater Wildwoods Tourism Improvement and Development Authority.

In a statement Friday, Murphy called the mandates in the bill unconstitutional and unenforceable.

The veto marks the latest move in the battle between the governor and the Legislature over funding for South Jersey projects.

The 92-year-old Boardwalk is in need of major repairs to its infrastructure, Troiano said, and locals can’t afford to shoulder the cost alone.

“We send tons and tons of money to Trenton and get very little in return,” he said. “It’s not like we’re asking them to generate more money for us, but it’s money that we create and we send to them. And we’d like to keep some of it.”

Wildwood sought funding from the state for Boardwalk work earlier this year. The City Commission in January approved a master plan that called for $64.5 million for reconstruction of a wooden way it said was “failing in many respects.” Targeted areas for overhaul were between Oak and 26th avenues, Montgomery and Schellenger avenues, and Cresse and Burk avenues.

All infrastructure, including fiber optics, sanitary sewer and water piping, would be replaced and upgraded, the plan states. The Boardwalk would be rebuilt with a concrete understructure and hardwood decking.

The city administrator met with the executive director of the Assembly majority office in December to discuss the plan.

Work was to begin in the fall if the money was available.

Murphy said the state Constitution prohibits the Legislature from creating liabilities in future fiscal years without voter approval, as well as creating a debt that binds the state to appropriate funds in future fiscal years.

In addition, the 2019 fiscal year ended June 30 at midnight, and the Legislature did not include the appropriation for the 2020 budget, according to the statement. Lastly, the budget only appropriates money to the authority for Boardwalk improvements if proceeds received from the sale of state-owned property exceed the amount anticipated, for which there is no guarantee.

Wildwood isn’t the only South Jersey entity feeling the sting of the governor’s pen. In July, the state Treasury released a list of $235 million in spending items to be held in reserve, funded only if revenues and savings outperform Murphy’s expectations. On that list was $4.6 million in state aid that would allow Stockton University to begin the second phase of its Atlantic City project.

“I am furious at Gov. Murphy’s shortsightedness on this issue,” said state Sen. Bob Andrzejczak, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, one of the Boardwalk bill’s sponsors. “The Wildwoods attract over 9 million annual visitors, resulting in over $1.5 billion in visitor spending, and the Boardwalk is a prime attraction for those visitors.”

The appropriation outlined in the bill “was a drop in the bucket” compared to the millions of dollars the area sends back to Trenton, he said in a news release, calling the destination one of the state’s top tourism-related economic generators.

Assemblymen Bruce Land and Matt Milam, both D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, who also sponsored the bill, said the legislation “sends the absolute wrong message to the residents of South Jersey” and that there needs to be more support for small businesses “not shutting the door in their face.”

PHOTOS from the Tri the Wildwoods Triathlon

News
Basketball tournament gives A.C. community a safe place to enjoy Saturday night

ATLANTIC CITY — Deshawn Ward and his buddies observed kids shooting hoops on a Venice Park basketball court earlier this summer and imagined a basketball tournament under the lights.

Ward and his friends admittedly never envisioned what culminated Saturday night.

The championship games of the Stay Hungry Sports Stop the Violence Basketball Tournament were played before crowds that stood four and five deep around the William J. Porter III court at 1900 Columbus Ave. Children climbed to the top of playground equipment to watch the action. There wasn’t a parking spot to be had for blocks.

“A lot of people don’t see what goes on in the inner city of Atlantic City,” said Ward, who was born in the city and still lives here. “A lot of people are coming together and just enjoying themselves. It’s just amazing. This thing blew up so fast.”

It blew up fast because of the quality play and because it gave city residents a safe, positive place to go on a summer Saturday night.

Ward, 26, formed the Stay Hungry Sports company and organized the tournament. He and the rest of the organizers are in their mid-20s to early 30s. They include entrepreneurs and school teachers.

Atlantic City High School girls basketball coach Jason Lantz helped Ward organize the event and constantly videoed the action with his phone.

“There’s no violence. There (are) no issues,” he said of the atmosphere.

The five-week tournament featured some of South Jersey’s most accomplished former high school and college players.

Frank Turner, who plays professionally in Europe and sparked Atlantic City High School to a 2005 state championship, played for the winning team and was the MVP.

Turner’s teammates included St. Augustine Prep career scoring leader Isaiah Morton and Michael Holloway, who played for Fairleigh Dickinson University in the NCAA Tournament in March.

“The atmosphere here, you can’t explain,” Turner, 31, said. “It’s huge for the kids coming up to see that all of us are still here. The guys that are running it are a tight-knit group of guys. They come from love. Now everybody in the community is coming together, and they’re embracing it. It’s an event for the city.”

Summer playground games are at the core of basketball’s soul.

For years, cities around the country have held prestigious outdoor tournaments in July and August.

The most famous event currently is the Dyckman Basketball Tournament in New York City. Ward used that tournament as inspiration for his event.

Venice Park was the place to be in Atlantic City on Saturday night. The court is named after the deceased Porter, who played a prominent role in Atlantic City youth basketball.

Teams paid an entry fee, and the championship team won $4,000. The night was like a basketball carnival.

There was a bounce castle and face painting.

There was a long line for the chicken platters, hamburgers and popcorn at the snack stand.

Rap music played throughout the games.

Kashawn McKinley, a former Pleasantville High School player, walked the court with a microphone during the games and provided a running commentary on the action.

“Put your hand down,” McKinley chided one player who pleaded with a referee for a foul call. “What are you looking for? Don’t you know it’s the playoffs? Don’t you want that (champion)ship.”

The games began at 5:45 p.m. Once the lights popped on, the action seemed to get even more intense.

One contest was especially spirited. A team consisting of former Atlantic City High School standouts Jahleem Montague, Dayshawn Reynolds, Isaiah Graves and Lamar Thomas played a team led by 2005 Atlantic City standout Derrick Williams and former Holy Spirit great Junior Saintel.

Thomas dove on the cement for a loose ball. Montague took a charge. The crowd reacted with each made and missed shot. The fans were anything but shy.

“You can hear everything,” Morton said of the crowd. “If your jump shot is off, it’s going to be known out there.”

Ward hopes to expand the event next summer. Plenty of kids came up to Ward during the event and told him they couldn’t wait until they got older and could play under the lights.

“After four weeks for kids to feel like that is crazy,” Ward said. “It’s only going to get bigger and better.”

GALLERY: Stay Hungry Sports Stop the Violence Basketball Tournament in A.C.

VERNON OGRODNEK / For The Press 

Atlantic City High School girls basketball coach Jason Lantz shouts instructions to his tournament team.


Education
Greater Egg calls for 'cease' on ACIT expansion

Local and vocational school leaders are at odds again over planned growth at Atlantic County Institute of Technology, which draws enrollment and funding from its sending districts.

On Monday, the Greater Egg Harbor Regional High School District’s board unanimously supported a resolution calling for ACIT to “immediately cease” plans to expand until a comprehensive review of the local impact was completed, including local schools’ input.

“Our district has sought to open a dialogue regarding enrollment at the vocational school with no success,” Greater Egg Superintendent John Keenan said Friday.

For ACIT Superintendent Phil Guenther, the vocational school is simply following its core mission: to address the workforce needs of Atlantic County.

“We are sensitive to the concerns expressed in this resolution and to input from all our sending districts,” Guenther wrote in a written response to the media. “The view that our district is having an adverse financial impact on other school districts in the county fails to consider our unique mission. ... The proposed expansion plans are in complete alignment with Atlantic County’s Economic Development Strategy and Action Plan.”

The fight over enrollment between ACIT and Greater Egg has gone on for several years. In June 2018, Guenther and ACIT business administrator Lisa Mooney attended a school board meeting at Greater Egg to talk about the issues, but there has been no resolution or discussion since, Keenan said last week.

At that meeting, Guenther said ACIT would continue to increase enrollment.

The vocational district plans to apply for a 75% matching grant from the state, approved by state voters in the November election, specifically for career and technical education expansion. Guenther said that through the grant, ACIT plans to add programs for aviation maintenance, autobody repair, diesel technology, welding, and heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration.

The school also plans to expand courses in construction grades, culinary arts, medical and dental, and health, science and medicine.

The expansion would add about 400 more students to ACIT’s current enrollment of 1,706, requiring an additional cafeteria, gymnasium, classroom space and outdoor space.

Guenther said that it is more cost-efficient to house the career and technical programs in one facility because they are equipment-intensive.

“There is strong demand for the career and technical education programs that we offer as evidenced by the number of students that we are forced to turn away each year,” he wrote.

Drawing students from throughout the county, ACIT’s largest number of students come from the Greater Egg district — Mullica, Galloway and Hamilton townships and Egg Harbor City — and its sending district, Port Republic, at 459.

Atlantic City and its sending districts — Margate, Ventnor and Brigantine — send 393 students, and Pleasantville and its sending district, Absecon, send 383 students.

For Keenan, the argument is not only about money — although the district spent more than $4 million last year to send students to ACIT — it’s also about programming and fairness.

“We support the need for vocational programs in our county, yet ninth, 10th and 11th graders are not permitted to enroll in the vocational program,” Keenan said, pointing to ACIT’s admissions process, which only accepts incoming ninth graders.

Greater Egg argues that ACIT has never discussed plans for enrollment with sending districts or backed up its plans with data on need or financial impact on such expansion.

Guenther said he made a presentation about the proposed expansion to all of the superintendents in Atlantic County at an April meeting and provided each superintendent with a copy of the presentation to share with their boards.

Greater Egg’s resolution states that Atlantic County itself has been suffering from a population decline over the last decade, and noted that the state bond referendum for the career and technical education expansion failed in Atlantic County.

“We are very proud of our vocational school district in the county. They offer exceptional programs,” Keenan said. “We seek to cooperate with their vocational school district board and manage enrollments that are more fair and in line with other district goals.”


News
Legal battle brewing between Atlantic City, Hansen Foundation over sober living home

ATLANTIC CITY — Officials are considering taking legal action against a sober living home that has not complied with an order to vacate a residential house in the Chelsea neighborhood.

Serenity House, a sober living facility operated by the Hansen Foundation on Tallahassee Avenue, never received a certificate of occupancy before moving residents in June 1, according to city officials.

The city issued an order to vacate the property, but the 501©(3) organization has not complied.

Left with little other course of action, officials suggested the issue may need to be decided by a court.

Dale Finch, director of the city’s licensing and inspections department, told members of City Council during last week’s public meeting that the city will “probably be in some litigation moving forward.”

In 2018, Atlantic City passed an ordinance prohibiting sober living facilities from operating within 660 linear feet of one another.

The ordinance was passed with the blessing of the state Department of Community Affairs and is the only one of its kind in the state, according to Sixth Ward Councilman Jesse Kurtz.

Concerns over the clustering of sober living homes and that method’s effectiveness for those seeking help in the facilities raises concerns, Kurtz said.

But, more to the point, Kurtz said Serenity House is in violation of the city’s ordinance and needs to comply with the law.

“We’re (the residents and Kurtz) of the mindset that it’s time for the city to go to the courts and compel the Hansen Foundation to vacate,” Kurtz said the day after the City Council meeting.

Jennifer Hansen, co-founder of the Hansen Foundation, said she believed the ordinance to be unlawful because it violated the federal Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Keith Davis, attorney for the Hansen Foundation, said his client does not want to take the issue to court and would prefer to reach an amicable solution with the city.

“We are continuing to work with the city in an attempt to cooperate with them to resolve this dispute,” Davis said in a voicemail Thursday.

The Hansen Foundation operates sober living facilities throughout South Jersey as well as the Enlightened Cafe in Ventnor.

Several residents expressed their concerns with the sober living homes during the council meeting, including Mukesh Gheewala, who has lived on Tallahassee Avenue for nearly three decades. Gheewala implored the governing body to be proactive and use its authority to help the residents.

“I am not against anybody, but you cannot make my life miserable,” Gheewala said. “I am the citizen. I am the taxpayer. ... I don’t want them in (the) neighborhood.”

Council President Marty Small Sr. said officials were aware of the situation and hoped to provide an update at the next council meeting.

“We hear you loud and clear,” Small said. “Allow us to do the work and get it done on your behalf.”

Those who live in Serenity House, both in its current location and at previous locations in the city, said that without the sober living home, they would have no where to go.

“If there wasn’t Serenity House, I would be back on the streets, I would be back homeless, if I even made it that long. Or I’d just be dead,” Haylee LaTour, a 22-year-old resident, told The Press in July.