WOODBINE — A loud cheer erupted from the borough’s municipal hall Wednesday morning following a naturalization ceremony for 19 new U.S. citizens.
EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Northfield developer Bandi Property Group made a $650,000 offer on the vacant Inn of the Dove that was accepted Wednesday, prior to an on-site auction.
Once considered a “cheater’s hideaway,” the decrepit motel is now an empty eyesore on the Black Horse Pike where squatters are rumored to live. Two interested buyers toured the property, walking past tall grass and rooms filled with dirty clothes and bugs.
But Michael Burns, co-owner of Bandi Property Group, sees potential in the rundown property.
His bid on the former motel was accepted by seller Irma Investments before the 2 p.m. auction Wednesday even officially began, AC Auctions Realty owner Robert Salvato told a few visibly disappointed potential buyers standing in the building’s parking lot.
The South Jersey-based real estate developer wants to turn the 40 hotel units into apartments. The area is not zoned for apartments, though, according to the township, so the plans would require a variance.
Burns said his firm, which buys and rehabs distressed properties across New Jersey, will conduct environmental and structural inspections at the site before finalizing a settlement.
“It’s an eyesore right now,” Burns said. “But we pride ourselves on renovating properties like this.”
The property on the Black Horse Pike is assessed at $1.1 million, township records show. Fire officials closed the inn in February 2018, citing a faulty fire alarm system and $8,000 owed in fines and penalties to the township.
Before it closed, police in 2017 responded to more than 50 calls relating to warrant arrests, domestic violence, assaults and other incidents, police records show. Two guests sued the owners that year, alleging they suffered “severe bed bug infestations” and injuries from slipping in a jetted bathtub.
Its unpleasant history did not stop at least one local developer from stopping by the auction, though.
Matt Portnoy, owner of Matt Portnoy & Sons junkyard in Egg Harbor Township, showed up to Wednesday’s public sale hoping to make an offer before quickly learning the seller had already accepted an offer.
Portnoy recently purchased land less than a mile away for $100,000, real estate records show, and said he’s opening a storage facility there. As for his Black Horse Pike neighbor, he thinks the Inn of the Dove is beyond repair and envisioned demolishing it.
“This place is ready for the wrecking ball,” he said, facing the motel.
The Inn of the Dove opened in the mid-1980s, said township Administrator Peter Miller, when casino gambling was beginning to draw more tourists to nearby Atlantic City. It operated for decades with no complaints, he said.
At its height, the motel was a “cheater’s hideaway” complete with hot tubs and “pornographic televisions,” former Mayor James “Sonny” McCullough has said.
But Miller said the inn went downhill around the 2008 recession as fewer visitors spent money in Atlantic City. A number of motels along the pike closed in the coming years, while others started attracting fewer families and couples and instead became havens for crime.
“After the economy went bad, things started to go,” Miller said. “A lot of our motels started suffering, and quite a few went out of business from lack of customers.”
There are eight remaining eyesore motels in West Atlantic City, which the township has been hoping to demolish for years as part of a redevelopment plan. Officials last year applied for a $2.4 million Federal Emergency Management Agency grant to tear down four of them: the Destiny Inn, Bay Point Inn, Hi Ho Motel and Budget Motel.
AC Auction Realty was also hired by the owners of Atlantic City’s Bayview Inn to sell the Route 40 property at a public sale Wednesday. But the motel, where an alligator was found during a 2017 drug raid, has a demolition order on it and the auction was called off at the request of the city, said auctioneer Salvato.
Atlantic City Licensing and Inspections Director Dale Finch said the crumbling and graffiti-covered inn could be torn down in the coming days — a long-awaited demolition that will cost $240,000 and be funded by the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority.
“We’re going to proceed with demolition,” Finch said. “Now we’re trying to get the documents for the demolition permit and getting various utilities shut off. ... It’s coming down.”
GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Twins Marina and Mariam Eskander were 11 years old when they and their mother, Manar, moved to South Jersey from a busy city in Egypt.
“It was scary quiet,” 18-year-old Marina remembered.
“To me, it was so cool because I love the green open areas,” said Manar, 43, of Egg Harbor Township.
Eight years later, on Wednesday, the family became U.S. citizens. The Eskanders were among 28 people from 20 countries across four continents gathered inside the Campus Center at Stockton University in Galloway Township to take the oath of citizenship.
WOODBINE — A loud cheer erupted from the borough’s municipal hall Wednesday morning following a naturalization ceremony for 19 new U.S. citizens.
“Do you remember the first day you came to this country?” asked Ya-Mei Chen, director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Mount Laurel Field Office.
Chen recalled the plane ride into Detroit, her two suitcases and the box that contained her rice cooker. She remembered the customs officer asking her whether there was any rice inside the cooker, and she laughed. And Chen remembers the flat plains visible from the airplane window as she took another flight into Ohio, a much different scene from the mountains of Taiwan where she grew up.
Chen recalled her first trip to McDonald’s, the confusion as she stared up at the menu board, and her anxiety as the cashier and the other customers stared at her, waiting for her to order.
“That’s the challenges we face every day,” Chen told the candidates for citizenship. “It doesn’t matter what we face, we make it work.”
Each year, 1 million immigrants become U.S. citizens and 10,000 of them are in South Jersey, said Keith Dorr of the USCIS Mount Laurel office.
Each candidate for naturalization has a different background and a different story of how they came to apply for citizenship.
Ramon Rivera, 45, came to Hammonton from Mexico 28 years ago.
“My uncle, he was living in Florida,” Rivera said. “He moved to Hammonton for the blueberries.”
In 1991, Rivera followed suit and stayed. He said Wednesday that becoming a U.S. citizen was the “biggest dream” of his life.
“This country is the best in the world. It gave me two beautiful daughters. My wife is from Puerto Rico,” Rivera said, smiling and holding a tiny U.S. flag between his hands. “I feel so happy.”
For the Eskander twins, both freshmen at Stockton, growing up in the U.S. made them feel like U.S. citizens already. They decided to apply for citizenship because they were eager to have the same rights and privileges as their native-born friends, such as voting and traveling.
PLEASANTVILLE — Although Pedro F. Garcia has lived in Pleasantville since the 1980s, Tuesday marks his first Fourth of July as an American citizen.
Mariam is already politically active. She is studying political science and campaigned for U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, D-2nd, during the election in November even though she couldn’t yet vote.
Marina is studying biology and hopes to go to medical school after Stockton, although she is unsure what type of doctor she would become.
Manar said she made it a point to become a part of her community early on.
“I wanted to get really involved in the society and not be a stranger,” she said, noting she has fully embraced U.S. traditions and holidays, especially Thanksgiving.
On Wednesday, she was happy to make it official.
“I’m really happy and comfortable. It feels comfortable,” Manar said.
WEST WILDWOOD — Property owners here would be getting something New Jerseyans fantasize about — a property-tax decrease — if not for the $271,566 a year they must pay to police Chief Jackie Ferentz and her lawyer as a result of a lawsuit.
School taxes for borough residents have been going down for the past few years because of falling enrollments in a district that does not operate schools but sends its tiny number of children to neighboring schools on a tuition basis.
Last year, school taxes went down about 7 cents per $100 of assessed value, and this year they will go down about 6 cents per $100, said school Business Administrator and Board Secretary Judson “Jud” Moore.
WEST WILDWOOD — The borough commission voted Wednesday to hire Mayor Christopher Fox’s 22-year-old daughter Nicole Fox as a full-time police officer, in a surprise resolution that was not on the agenda.
But the municipal budget has gone up two years in a row to pay installments on a $1.7 million judgment, eating up that potential tax cut.
“We are losing out on that because that’s paying for the judgment, in theory,” said Concerned Taxpayers of West Wildwood Treasurer Susan Czwalina.
“Our tax rate drops, theirs increases — the net effect to the taxpayer is pretty much the same,” said Moore. “But I told them, our well is going to run dry here.”
Last year, all aspects of the general property-tax bill — county, library, open space and school — dropped for residents of West Wildwood. Only the municipal rate increased.
WEST WILDWOOD — Residents are demanding the return of the Friday night Borough Commission meeting, a decades-old tradition that allowed the maximum number of homeowners to attend — including second homeowners.
Mayor Christopher Fox, who lives with Ferentz, has said what matters is that the overall tax rate has stayed stable. When the budget was introduced last week, he and the two other commissioners couldn’t even answer questions about the total amount of the 2019 municipal budget.
Fox did not return a call for comment, nor did borough Administrator Christopher Ridings.
According to the budget document, the total to be raised by tax levy for municipal purposes is $2.28 million this year, compared with $2.12 million last year.
So the borough must raise an additional $160,000 from property owners.
The overall budget is $2.87 million for 2019, compared with $2.69 million in 2018.
And that’s after a wage freeze for some workers who will work a four-day, 36-hour week instead of a five-day, 40-hour work week.
WEST WILDWOOD — A former Class II officer in the borough claims in a lawsuit he was fired from his job for writing tickets to political allies of Mayor Christopher Fox and he was directed to target residents who may not vote for the mayor in future elections.
Moore said the school district had extra money in surplus because of falling enrollment. While there were 60 students in the district four years ago, now there are only about 30, he said.
“We are going to probably do something (to lower school taxes again) next year, but it may not be to this magnitude,” said Moore.
He said the borough should control its budget, too, to give the taxpayers a break.
Payments of $5,000 a month to Ferentz started last year and will continue for many years — there are a total of 200 scheduled, while her lawyer is receiving about $18,000 a month for 42 months.
However, members of the Concerned Taxpayers said Ferentz could call in the payments early, forcing the borough to pay it all at once.
Last year, when the payments to Ferentz started, some workers were furloughed one day a week to save money toward paying the judgment.
WEST WILDWOOD — The borough must pay a $1.76 million judgment to police Chief Jacquelyn Ferentz in her whistleblower lawsuit against the borough, a big number in a municipality with about 600 year-round residents and an annual budget of about $2.5 million.
The borough is also appealing the decision of its insurer not to pay the $1.7 million judgment to Ferentz. The Joint Insurance Fund refused to pay, saying the borough had not adequately defended itself in the lawsuit.
The added cost is only slightly mitigated by $3 million in increased ratables in town, expected to raise a bit more than $30,000 more for the municipality based on the 2018 municipal tax rate of $1.018 per $100 of assessed value.
The municipality has not calculated a new municipal tax rate for this year’s budget, said Borough Clerk Donna Frederick.
Residents have also complained about the commissioners recently changing the day and time of borough meetings from Friday evenings, when many out-of-town homeowners could be there, to Wednesdays at 3 p.m.
And at the last public meeting, residents were aghast when the commissioners voted to hire the mayor’s daughter, Nicole Fox, as a full-time police officer reporting to Ferentz.
A public hearing on the budget will be held at 3 p.m. June 5 at Borough Hall.
PLEASANTVILLE — Two principals on special assignment, two deans of students and the district’s director of curriculum are among the positions the Pleasantville School District is proposing to cut to balance its budget this year.
During a lengthy meeting Tuesday, the Board of Education approved an $88.3 million budget for next year that included a 2% increase in the school tax levy and the reduction of 11 positions, but not before receiving a verbal lashing from residents over the cuts and $1.3 million in legal fees paid out last year.
“You don’t do what’s right. You have personal vendettas and you go after people and that’s why we have these lawsuits,” said Juanita Hyman, of Egg Harbor Township.
Business Administrator Elisha Thompkins said the cuts are necessary to balance the budget. He said it doesn’t happen by magic.
“I look at all the costs,” he said. “If you left everything the same, there are no savings.”
He said 70 percent of the budget is made up of fixed costs.
“That’s before you even get to a classroom with supplies,” he said. “You have numbers. You have to figure out how to make them fit. The reality is this is what it is.”
Board member Jerome Page questioned the cuts as well.
“This budget scares me because it shows me someone is giving up on this district,” Page said. “This budget is moving for failure, this district is moving for failure.”
Page told board President Carla Thomas he had no confidence in her and asked her to step down.
“Because you’re not leading this board. We need a leader, we don’t need an organization,” Page said.
Thomas said she didn’t come to the meeting Tuesday to debate with Page.
“I came here tonight to pass a budget and to take care of business in the regular board meeting,” Thomas said.
Despite the voiced concern, the budget passed unanimously by all six members who attended. Board members Hassan Callaway, Cassandra Clements and Sharnell Morgan were not present.
After a lengthy closed-door session, the board reconvened but did not take action on personnel items including the 11 positions being reduced and several staff transfers. Those items are being postponed until the May 14 meeting, Thompkins said.
Prior to the meeting, Superintendent Clarence Alston told The Press that Atlantic County Executive Superintendent Robert Bumpus ordered the district to eliminate positions that are unrecognized, such as dean of students and principals on special assignment.
“To do that, it required us to implement seniority protocol where everyone had to be placed in a position that was recognized,” Alston said. “It’s been a bumping process that has for the most part impacted all of these (positions). That’s kind of where we are.”
Bumpus was unavailable for comment Wednesday.
Alston said there may be some savings, but none of that will be realized until all retirees are accounted for. He said the reductions were prompted by budgetary needs.
In total, the salaries of those 11 positions amount to more than $800,000, not including the costs of pension and health benefits, but many of the people who hold those positions were reassigned elsewhere, among them athletic director Stephen Townsend, who is classified as a principal on special assignment.
Under this plan, Townsend would be moved to serve as principal of the Middle School of Pleasantville. The middle school’s current principal, Rayna Hendricks, would be moved to the high school as an assistant principal.
Alston couldn’t say how or if the district would fill the role of athletic director in the future. Townsend’s position as athletic director was in jeopardy last year when the board considered moving him to a different assignment, but an outpouring of support from the district saved him.
“We are actually going to have to work out what to do to make sure the program doesn’t suffer,” Alston said. “That’s a challenge we’re going to have to work out.”
Under the proposal, the second principal on special assignment, Nanette Stuart, is being moved to the South Main Street School as principal. The reduction in force eliminates the positions for two deans of students, Angelika Sims and Aaron Washington. Washington would be reassigned as a teacher in the middle school.
The position of director of curriculum and instruction is also part of the eight-position reduction in force, and the current director, Noelle Jacquelin, is not listed for reassignment.
Karen Brooks, a preschool teacher, and three long-term substitutes, Stephen Phifer, Asia Rehder and Rebekah Rosenberg, are also part of the reduction in force and were not reassigned.
Kelli Best, the district coordinator of guidance, who earns $111,000, was on the reduction-in-force list Tuesday morning, but by the meeting that evening, her name was removed.
“We need to know why,” Page said.
State monitor Constance Bauer agreed it needed to be clarified whether the budget being approved Tuesday night included Best’s salary.