ATLANTIC CITY — The Casino Reinvestment Development Authority adopted its 2019 operating budget Tuesday with increased investments for the city.
ATLANTIC CITY — The state is set to invest more than $1 million to ensure recommendations contained in its report on returning local government to city officials are properly implemented.
The Casino Reinvestment Development Authority approved an intergovernmental agreement with the state Department of Community Affairs to fund the Atlantic City Project Office.
Funding for the three-year deal, which ends Dec. 31, 2021, is not to exceed $450,000 annually, for a total of $1.35 million. The money will be used for salary and health benefits for the staff.
The creation of the Project Office was among a list of recommendations found in the state’s transition report, published in September, which outlined Gov. Phil Murphy’s preferred path for Atlantic City to regain sovereignty following the 2016 takeover of city government.
According to the report, which was co-authored by Special Counsel Jim Johnson, the intent of the Project Office is to facilitate and coordinate the recommendations.
DCA Deputy Commissioner Rob Long said the Atlantic City Project Office will manage “all the aspects of the Jim Johnson report.”
“So everything that’s outlined in the report, (the Project Office) will be tasked with making sure that we follow up and execute on it,” said Long.
“The Project Office would develop an implementation plan and oversee in some cases and act as a liaison in others the day-to-day work of working groups,” which include health, safety, education, vocational, economic planning and development, youth services and government accountability committees, according to the report.
The Atlantic City Project Office is the third unelected body generated by the Johnson report, joining the Atlantic City Executive Council and the Atlantic City Coordinating Council, which Murphy created via executive order earlier this month.
CRDA Executive Board Chairman Robert Mulcahy said the CRDA-approved funding would be used to staff the newly created Project Office, which will be located in City Hall.
“We’ll have a memorandum of understanding with DCA, and it relieves us of the potential of dealing with additional personnel and all the things that go with it,” said Mulcahy. “So I think that worked out very well.”
Mayor Frank Gilliam Jr., whose elected position affords him a seat on the CRDA board, said the Project Office “creates a cohesiveness that we really haven’t had.”
ATLANTIC CITY — The Casino Reinvestment Development Authority adopted its 2019 operating budget Tuesday with increased investments for the city.
“In some cases, you’ll have some state partners working on a particular perspective and then another partner working on another perspective,” he said. “So it allows all the partners to coexist and have one directive so we can move forward and hopefully get these processes done quicker.”
Long said the Project Office would be accountable to Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, who is also DCA commissioner and chairs the other two newly created councils.
Third Ward Councilman Kaleem Shabazz said Johnson’s report has been “well received” by City Council and the Mayor’s Office.
“We believe in what (Johnson) has said,” said Shabazz. “But I think the important part is how you implement it. And this is an implementation tool that’s very important and, I think, critical to the development of Atlantic City.”
EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Judah Aspenberg walked into the dining room, banging on a toy drum with two sticks clenched in his hands, smiling wide for his parents.
Judah looks like every other energized, healthy 3-year-old boy, but small signs point to the contrary.
As he made his way around the house with relative ease, his left leg sometimes buckled in weakness. While he’s able to lift, throw and hold onto things, his left arm stays tucked into his side at the elbow.
Judah’s muscle weakness and partial paralysis are results from contracting acute flaccid myelitis, a rare but serious illness baffling doctors and scientists as more cases crop up across the United States and experts continue to search for a cause.
An illness that mimics some polio and West Nile virus symptoms, such as paralysis, is affecting children in 22 states, including New Jersey.
“He does look great compared to what it could have been, but there are moments that it hits me when I see the reality,” said his mom, Misty Aspenberg.
So far this year, 273 confirmed or suspected cases of AFM in 29 states have been reported, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 106 cases, mostly children, have been confirmed.
There have been five confirmed cases in New Jersey this year with seven more under investigation, according to the state Department of Health.
Experts don’t know what causes AFM, which affects the nervous system and spinal cord with polio-like symptoms, including weakness or paralysis in one or more limbs. It has been found in vaccinated and unvaccinated children alike, it is not contagious and treatment is limited.
AFM was far from the minds of Misty and Rich Aspenberg when Judah and their two older daughters, 5 and 7 years old, came down with some runny noses toward the end of September. While the girls got better, Judah developed a fever, glassy eyes and lethargy.
Was it a cold? Had it turned into a sinus infection, they wondered.
While Misty attended a wedding in North Jersey that weekend, Rich noticed the symptoms getting worse.
“We were talking and Facetiming the whole day. I was thinking about it at the wedding and found a link about viral meningitis,” Misty said. “I told Rich, I might be crazy, but bring him to the ER.”
The family didn’t know that their son would not return home for six weeks.
“I was coming from the wedding and down the parkway, thinking the worst things,” Misty said.
Judah was ultimately transferred to the pediatric unit at Cooper University Hospital in Camden, where doctors performed scans of his head, took blood samples and did a lumbar puncture, or spinal tap.
What was happening to their son remained a mystery as he started to vomit and develop extreme pain.
“Into the second week, an infectious disease doctor did a thorough exam and she said that something else wasn’t right,” Rich said. “While we were waiting, my brother’s wife sent us an article about AFM, and we thought, that sounds right.”
After additional scans, doctors confirmed the diagnosis. Judah improved while in the hospital and was sent to Weisman Children’s Rehabilitation Hospital in Marlton, Burlington County, where doctors were hopeful he would continue to recover.
“In the first week we were there, he had a neck brace on to help support his head and was walking with a walker,” Misty said. “I was sobbing taking video of him. His knees were buckling, but he was walking.”
National experts say many patients have regained mobility through physical therapy, with some undergoing nerve transplants. In more serious cases, patients remain hospitalized and continue to have muscle weakness or paralysis.
So far there have been no deaths among AFM patients reported to the CDC in 2018, officials said, though several parents in the United States have challenged that with claims their children died from AFM.
“There was a moment there when we thought we might lose him,” Misty said.
Through it all, Rich, a youth pastor, said friends, family — especially his parents, who live across the street — and the community were there to support them.
“People dropped off wood for our wood-burning stove, they made us food, gave us gift cards, created GoFundMe accounts,” Rich said. “As hard of a roller coaster as it was, our church family was always there, and I saw God’s faithfulness through people.”
The road to recovery remains long. Misty and Rich said they’re still looking for more answers, and preparing for the possibility that Judah will need a nerve transplant to regain full mobility, but they are already seeing their son return to his old self.
He has physical and occupational therapy each twice a week at Weisman Children’s Outpatient Rehabilitation Center in Northfield.
At a recent therapy session, Judah was instructed to walk up a blue ramp and throw a beanbag into a basketball hoop.
“I can do it myself,” he said, brushing off physical therapist Wendy Witzel, who was spotting him from the side.
He got up to the top of the ramp and paused, looked around at Witzel, his mom and his two sisters, who were nearby coloring.
“I’m gonna slam dunk,” he said, before throwing the bag through the hoop and bringing his hand down on the rim amid some cheers from his fans.
EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Andrew Parker III is the first African American ever elected to Township Committee here — at least in the past 100 years, which is as far back as he could research through the local historical society, he said.
He’s a teacher in Atlantic City, a union member and a member of the NAACP Pleasantville/Mainland branch, with photos of Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama on his living room walls.
And he’s a fiscally conservative Republican.
“We know, and let’s be honest, as elected officials, the more we keep government out of people’s business, the better life will be,” said Parker, 41. “Nothing runs efficiently if we let government run it.”
HAMILTON TOWNSHIP — Township Committee candidate Kari Spodofora has filed a petition for a recount after losing her bid for one of two open seats by just 17 votes of 9,630 cast.
He admires King and Obama for their leadership and manner of conducting themselves, he said, even if he didn’t always agree with Obama.
In his dining room is a framed tribute to Abraham Lincoln, a Republican.
Parker is one of the new faces of diversity among local elected officials. They not only represent minority groups of all kinds, but they also break stereotypes about party membership.
He wants to focus on bringing more ratables to the township, especially by getting new businesses into the Harbor Square and former Pathmark properties off the Black Horse Pike. That’s the best way to put a dent in property taxes, he said, of which about 70 percent are local school taxes.
MAYS LANDING — Republican Brian L. Smith appeared to have defeated Democrat Ric Brozosky by 13 votes in Northfield’s Ward 1 council race, after mail-in and provisional ballots were counted Thursday night at the Atlantic County Board of Elections.
“The single worst thing we (African Americans) do is give the Democrat Party what we once gave the Republican Party” — almost total loyalty — Parker said. “It makes them take us for granted. We are the only group in the country that votes as a block 90 to 95 percent of the time.”
Longtime Egg Harbor Township Mayor James J. “Sonny” McCullough, a Republican, said he has known Parker most of his life and encouraged him to run.
“I coached him as a young athlete. I can’t tell you how pleased I was (the night he was elected),” said McCullough, who is retiring after more than 30 years in elected office. “I believe he’s a game changer. People will recognize the Republican Party is open to everybody. Absolutely we’re inclusive. We want everyone to join ... people who believe in the Republican philosophy of open government, smaller government.”
A bill to legalize marijuana will be discussed and possibly voted on Monday morning by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee.
Parker, whose wife, Neysha, was born in Puerto Rico and is a teacher in the Camden School District, said he was an independent through college. When he moved back to the township, where he grew up, he tried attending a Democrat Party meeting. But the fit wasn’t right, he said.
“I always had conservative values. I never spend money I don’t have,” said Parker. “I tell people, examine your lives. How do you live your life? I would never tell anyone to join the Republican Party. It’s a personal decision.”
He joined the local Republicans, a party that dominates elected office here, and has spent the past eight years on the Zoning Board while coaching sports and volunteering in the community.
It annoys him when people accuse him of selling out just because he joined the Republicans, he said.
“I belong to the NAACP, the Prince Hall Masons, I mentor with a group Brother 2 Brother, teach in Atlantic City,” he said. “What do you mean I sold out? I’m doing all this work in the community.”
An impressive 96,369 votes were cast in this year’s midterm election in Atlantic County, according to certified election results.
Women on both sides of the aisle
This year’s election saw three women, all Democrats, attempt but fail to unseat three incumbent Republicans on the Atlantic County Board of Chosen Freeholders.
One of those GOP incumbents was also a woman, Freeholder board Vice Chairwoman Maureen Kern. She had been a Somers Point school board member and councilwoman before running for freeholder and winning in 2016. At the time, the Republican was the first woman elected to the freeholder board in years.
And in September 2016, the Atlantic County Republican Committee selected Hamilton Township Deputy Mayor Amy Gatto to finish out the term of Freeholder-at-large Will Pauls after he resigned.
After two female Democratic contenders won in 2017, the board is now made up of four women and five men.
“Women are definitely breaking the ground in both parties,” said Kern. And both parties are looking for the next generation of women to step up to run, she said.
“I try to mentor younger women and show them a good representation of women in politics and as a leader,” Kern said of her work with the New Day Family Success Center’s South Jersey’s Girls Empowerment Camp and All In Together: Women Leading Change.
She’s also active with the Atlantic County Federation of Republican Women, which meets regularly and helps raise money for candidates to run.
Her own political career evolved from volunteering to local elections to the freeholder board.
“It was almost like every seven years there were opportunities and I had the feeling I could add something to the next level,” said Kern.
But she said she noticed this time when campaigning it was more challenging to keep the focus on county issues.
“The toughest thing was to be able to constantly bring it back ... to stay focused on what our responsibilities are, how we are able to affect you and help you, within what we can do as freeholders,” said Kern.
Instead, people seemed to want to focus on national issues, and to be more likely to vote for local candidates based on national party preferences.
Local and county elected positions focus on bread-and-butter services, not large ideological issues, she said.
“Once elected, you are (working) for everybody,” said Kern.