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How the New Jersey budget deal will affect South Jersey

Gov. Phil Murphy signed a $37.4 billion budget Sunday night, ending a month-long standoff with Democratic legislators and avoiding a state shutdown that would have closed some parks and beaches around the state during the peak summer season.

But questions remain as to whether the budget, and the ac-companying bills that were passed with it, will be good for Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties.

A tax on shore rentals, floated by Senate President Steve Sweeney last week, was not part of the budget deal, much to the relief of officials and second-home owners in Atlantic and Cape May counties. It also did not raise the sales tax just two years after it was decreased as part of a deal to raise the gas tax.

It did, however, raise taxes on individuals making $5 million a year — they’ll pay 10.75 percent instead of 8.97 percent — and companies making more than $1 million a year, which will be hit with an extra surcharge for four years.

There are also new taxes on services such as Uber and Airbnb, and on the liquid nicotine used in vaping.

The taxes on millionaires and businesses will raise about $705 million in new revenue for the year, which will pay for upgrades to NJ Transit and additional school aid.

That’s where the Atlantic, Cape May, and Cumberland counties come in.

Under the new school-funding formula passed by the state Legislature and expected to be signed by Murphy as part of a broader budget deal, many schools in Atlantic County will gain funding while schools in Cape May and Cumberland County will lose funding.

According to previous projections released by lawmakers, Absecon would see the greatest percentage increase in Atlantic County, just more than 80 percent, according to previous press reports. Atlantic City and Hammonton also would see large aid increases, of 19 percent and 17 percent, respectively.

Egg Harbor Township also would get about a five percent increase, according to previous reports.

Wealthier areas with smaller populations, such as Margate, Longport and Linwood, will lose aid.

State Sen. Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, who voted for the new formula but against the overall state budget, said he couldn’t refuse the changes even though he doesn’t see it as a long-term fix.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” he said. “With the county receiving additional aid, it’s an overall win for working families.”

But the new formula will result in a loss of some aid almost across the board in Cape May and Cumberland counties, according to previous estimates.

State Sen. Jeff Van Drew, who represents all of Cape May County and part of Cumberland County, voted against the new formula and the overall budget, saying it was bad for schools in the area.

“There has to be winners and winners in school funding, not winners and losers,” he said Monday. “A lot of the school districts here will be profoundly hurt.”

The tax increases from the budget will include about $242 million for upgrades to NJ Transit, but it is unclear whether Atlantic, Cape May, or Cumberland counties will see any of that money.

Brown said $120 million will go to fill a budget gap, while $25 million will go to the Bergen-Hudson rail, leaving less than $100 million for the rest of the projects.

NJ Transit will decide where the rest of the money goes, Brown said.

Van Drew said Monday he hopes the area gets funding, but is not encouraged based on the fact the area has not seen much of the revenue generated from the gas tax increase in 2016.

“I haven’t been overly happy with the 23-cent gas tax so far,” Van Drew said. “We’ll have to see what happens with this funding.”

The Associated Press  

MURPHY New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy speaks during a news conference announcing a budget deal between him and Democratic legislative leaders, Saturday, June 30, 2018, in Trenton, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Tourists and hurricanes — we're ready for you

ATLANTIC CITY — If Hurricane Sandy happened again now, the new and rebuilt dunes and beaches along the New Jersey ocean coast would lose sand but protect the structures and infrastructure behind them, said Stewart Farrell, executive director of Stockton’s Coastal Research Center.

While beaches are ready, there is more work to be done on erosion hot spots, he acknowledged. Some say those pockets of lost sand are restricting activities on their favorite beaches.

Farrell was part of a panel of experts delivering the Jersey Shore Beach Report recently at Stockton University’s Carnegie Center.

All on the panel said the beaches are ready for both the tourism season and the hurricane season.

“Since Hurricane Sandy, the work has been nonstop,” said David Rosenblatt, assistant commissioner for construction and engineering at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

Only the Wildwoods in our region is yet to start its post-Sandy beach-replenishment project, which will borrow sand from the large Wildwood beaches and move it to the heavily eroded North Wildwood beaches, said Keith Watson, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project manager out of the Philadelphia office.

But Teri O’Connor, of NJ Beach Yoga, who runs classes on the John F. Kennedy Boulevard beach in Sea Isle City, said she has sometimes not been able to hold her Full Moon Yoga classes on the beach. There is little beach in places, especially during full moons when tides are higher, she said.

“We had replenishment (after Hurricane Sandy) and the beach was great. This winter on 10 blocks in the center of Sea Isle the beach has gotten significantly smaller,” O’Connor said. “Last week, for full moon yoga on the beach ... we had to move to the park.”

Participants can’t watch the moon rise over the ocean from the park, she said.

The day before, the city had to cancel turtle races for kids because the water was up to the dunes, she said.

“It’s definitely having an impact on activities going on,” O’Connor said.

While people in Margate and some other towns have complained about having to hike over high new dunes and larger beaches, the sheer size is what protects the structures behind them, Farrell said.

Rosenblatt said people get attached to their particular beaches and resist changes to them. He predicted those who are unhappy now will see the advantages over time and get used to the changes.

Beach towns can no longer allow pedestrian access to the beach at grade, Farrell said, adding all towns provide special access for the disabled at select locations.

Areas with lower dunes and smaller beaches suffered much more damage in Hurricane Sandy, Farrell said.

Watson said Army Corps dunes constructed before the storm protected homes during Sandy in Harvey Cedars, Surf City and Brant Beach on Long Beach Island. But neighboring North Beach, Loveladies and Holgate, which didn’t have the built dunes, were devastated.

“If you leave a weak spot, waves will find it,” Farrell said.

Margate Mayor Michael Becker said the comments he has gotten about the beaches from residents and visitors since Memorial Day have been mostly positive, although concerns remain about limited handicapped access and difficulty walking over some crossovers.

An Army Corps project to fix drainage problems is almost half done, with two outfall pipes now taking street drainage out to sea.

“We are waiting for time to prove the drainage system is better. We’ve had a lot of complaints about the size of the pipes, which are 48 inches,” Becker said. “We asked (the Corps) if they could downsize the remaining three, but I think it fell on deaf ears.”

But he said the streets that drain to the two functioning outfall pipes are “completely dry — absolutely.”

Margate beaches are changed from the ones people have known for so long, Becker said.

“But once you get over the dune to the ocean side, it looks exactly the same as Margate looked historically,” Becker said. “It certainly does no good for the business community of Margate for people to complain.”

The center’s New Jersey Beach Profile Network does twice-annual beach surveys in 106 locations, measuring sand from the dune, across the beach and offshore into 16 feet of water, Farrell said. It has been doing surveys since its inception in 1985.

Center data showed 45 to 70 percent of sand lost off from beaches had come back onto the beach face by about a year after Hurricane Sandy.

And towns that already had a project agreement with the Army Corps had 100 percent of their costs for further rebuilding covered by the federal government, Watson said.

N.J. bill would cap Medicaid ER visits at $140 for non-emergencies

If a Medicaid patient comes into an emergency room with what turns out to be a minor or nonemergency case, New Jersey hospitals will see a standard $140 reimbursement payment for that health care if a new bill becomes law.

Legislators who crafted the bill, which now awaits Gov. Phil Murphy’s signature, said the goal is to save the state and taxpayers money by capping payments to hospitals for these “low-acuity” cases, but some provider organizations and hospital experts fear it will do more harm than good.

“Our biggest concern is that hospitals will be penalized for treating patients who have nowhere else to go,” said Neil Eicher, vice president of government relations and policy at the New Jersey Hospital Association.

The bill, which passed the Assembly and Senate on June 21 with support and opposition within both political parties, applies specifically to Medicaid patients in the fee-for-service program.

About 1.8 million residents get coverage through Medicaid, according to state reports, and patients in the fee-for-service managed-care program account for about 5 percent of that population.

The state Office of Legislative Services estimated their collective outpatient health care services amounted to nearly $206 million in fiscal year 2017, but the amount that is related to emergency department visits is unknown.

Sponsor Assemblyman Louis Greenwald, D-Camden, Burlington, said the bill was designed not to punish hospitals and providers or to deter Medicaid patients from seeking health care, but to more effectively pay for Medicaid services overall.

“Let’s say a patient’s test results reveal a high-level ER case. (Hospital providers) will get paid whatever those charges come to be,” he said.

“Now let’s say a patient presents in the ER Monday morning with a jammed finger they got playing flag football that Saturday and it’s now swelled. They can’t get in with their primary care provider or don’t have one, so they go into the hospital. The goal is to restrain those costs for that case.”

A June 26 fiscal analysis determined the bill would decrease state expenses but could not estimate to what degree.

If passed, the law would require the commissioner of the state Department of Human Services to create and publish a list of medical conditions defined as “low-acuity,” or nonemergency.

Greenwald said this is one part of a bigger plan to improve New Jersey’s health care system and encourage people to use primary care providers and urgent care centers for nonemergencies in order to free up emergency departments for true emergencies.

Since New Jersey hospitals are required by law to treat patients regardless of health coverage status or level of medical case, Eicher said the financial burden would fall on hospitals whose doctors and nurses spend time and resources testing patients for what could turn out to be nonemergency cases.

Ray Castro, director of health policy at the New Jersey Policy Perspective, a left-leaning advocacy and policy group, said while the right intent is there, the bill doesn’t solve a more complex problem in that if people can’t access a Medicaid health provider, they will continue to go to the ER for most cases.

“A lack of access to Medicaid providers has been a longstanding complaint in New Jersey,” he said in a statement.

Other experts from provider advocacy organizations said they were concerned the law would cause patients to second guess whether their symptoms were appropriate for an emergency room visit, or a primary care physician.

“As much as we don’t think patients should be in the emergency department for primary care, they should come if they have nowhere else to go or are unsure,” Eicher said. “We don’t want them to think we’re unwelcoming. At the end of the day, we’ll always treat them and take the financial hit.”

Matthew Strabuk / For The Press  

FARRELL Stewart Farrell, director of Stockton University’s Coastal Research Center, talks about rain drainage sensors that can produce data on flooding. On May 2nd 2018, at Longport Borough Hall, at a meeting of the Coastal Coalition.