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clowe-pressofac / Claire Lowe / Staff Writer  

Parent and Family Association advisory board member Barbara Kosty greets families as they enter the sports complex at Stockton University. Kosty is a mother of one Osprey grad and one senior, graduating this year.

Deer can take big bite out of farm stand season

Jessica Liepe, 21, of Hamilton Township

HAMILTON TOWNSHIP — The Liepe Farms Stand on Cologne Avenue got a late start this year, thanks to weather and deer.

"Our season usually opens late July. This year was the beginning of August. That's how hard the deer hit us," Jessica Liepe, 21, who works at the stand most days — except on Thursday when she takes the family's produce to farmers markets.

"The deer annihilated everything," Jessica said. "We have 100 to 200 per night in the fields."

The family grows almost all of what it sells on just 80 of its 1,200 acres here, where it has been farming since 1863. It has an agricultural permit to shoot the deer. But that would be another big job for an already overtaxed family that runs the farm on its own, she said.

"It's just me, my dad, and my sister — my other sister works for the township and my brother for the Forest Fire Service," Jessica said. "I pick and my other sister picks. We weed everything."

Liepe Farms grows and sells all kinds peppers, melons, eggplant, potatoes and sweet potatoes, and is best known for its tomatoes and sweet corn, Jessica said. Its latest season crops are sweet potatoes and pumpkins.

But just growing produce isn't enough today. The farm has expanded into raising about 800 pigs, a dozen cows and a food recycling operation. It picks up food scraps from food stores, some casinos and other businesses, heats it in special trucks and feeds it to the pigs, she said.

They also have to irrigate almost every day in really hot weather.

"The sun is so hot," Jessica said. "My dad says summer was never like this."

Her season of intense work will end in mid- to late October.

"My Pop-Pop is open later, he has fall crops," Jessica said of her grandfather Arnold Liepe, 88, who has his own farm stand nearby on Leipzig Avenue.

Many Liepe regulars are also customers of Arnold's farm stand, she said.

Fred Elentrio, of Brigantine, drives quite a way to buy produce at Liepe's, he said.

"I like that it's family-owned and operated, and love the tomatoes and corn," Elentrio said. 

Carol Tomasello only drives from Mays Landing, but the former teacher has been going there "forever," she said. She taught most of the Liepe kids in various grades, she said.

Jessica said the farm stand gets repeat visitors from as far away as Connecticut and Florida, who return when they are in the area.

"I'm seventh generation. I love it to an extent, minus the hectic parts like things that go on with the deer," Jessica said of farming and running the farm stand.

Her favorite part is building relationships with regular customers, many of whom have been coming to the stand longer than she has been alive.

"They see me grow, and I see them growing older," Jessica said. 

"I'm a regular. I knew all these kids when they were tiny," said Marianne Garabedian, of Blue Heron Pines in Galloway Township, as she shopped recently. "When I had change I would give it to the kids."

Garabedian said many of her neighbors wait eagerly for Liepe's to open every year.

"They are wonderful people, they really know their customers," Garabedian said. "I come to get my caprese salad every day."

The stand also sells peaches, nectarines and apples, but only grows some tree fruit. It mainly sells fruit grown by Joe Nichols in Franklinville.

Jessica had a break from farm work when she played high school and college softball, she said.

"Dad gave us the option of sports or working the farm," Jessica said. "My sister played for Stockton and I played one season at Rowan College at Gloucester County.  Now my focus is school — I'm going to Atlantic Cape Community College studying liberal arts."

Living on a farm with lots of outbuildings and plenty of space came in handy, she said. When she was a kid, her dad lowered the floor in the potato barn next to the farm stand, and installed a softball batting cage. He put in a basketball court for another sister.

It's a potato barn because it stays so cool all the time, she said. 

"And here's a tip. Always keep dirt on potatoes," Jessica said. Wash them right before use. "They store better that way."

She is hopeful the farm stand opens next year.

"It's up to Mother Nature, weather and the deer," she said.

Edward Lea / Staff photographer  

The Cedar Creek Pirates take to the field Friday for their game against Willingboro at Cedar Creek High School during the opening weekend of the high school football season.

Edward Lea  

Cedar Creek’s cheerleaders celebrate during the game against Willingboro.

Should the state broaden how luxury taxes are used in Atlantic City?

ATLANTIC CITY — While floating a plan to spend $10.5 million in luxury tax revenue to renovate parts of Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall for the Board of Education, supporters called it a way to use the heavily restricted funds to help city residents.

Under state law, the almost $40 million a year collected in luxury taxes can only be used for marketing, debt service, maintenance and construction at Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall and the Atlantic City Convention Center.

Debate over the BOE project, which was shelved due to lack of support from the board, brought up a question — is it time to consider broadening how the taxes on resort hotel rooms, alcohol and ticket sales can be used?

The Department of Community Affairs, which oversees the state takeover of Atlantic City, has expressed interest in expanding use of the taxes, but stressed it would take state legislation.

“DCA is open to being part of any discussion around a more expansive use of the luxury tax in order to address the modern day challenges that Atlantic City faces,” wrote Department of Community Affairs spokeswoman Lisa Ryan in an email response to questions. “If raised, it is likely an issue that involves many stakeholders. That said, we are not aware of any legislation having been proposed.”

Casino Reinvestment Development Authority Executive Director Matt Doherty declined to comment for this article.

Some CRDA board members, however, caution legislative changes shouldn’t happen without first establishing goals and priorities for CRDA spending, which they say remain murky.

“I want to see a clear set of what our priorities are organizationally — what our vision is and what we hope to accomplish,” said CRDA board member Howard Kyle, chief of staff in Atlantic County. “Then we can make a plan and get it done.”

The state determines the CRDA’s focus, and officials have instructed it to work to improve life in the resort for residents as outlined in the 2018 Atlantic City transition report from Special Counsel Jim Johnson.

That report called for the agency to fund programs to address a broad array of social, educational, governmental and cultural deficits to help those who live in the resort.

At the same time, CRDA’s largest ongoing funding source cannot be used for that mission. Instead, the CRDA’s general fund must be used for projects like community police officers and expansion of the AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center — both funded this year.

The luxury tax is the CRDA’s only revenue stream that is currently replenishing itself, Doherty has said when discussing the agency budget.

The general fund balance, now at about $70 million, is dwindling as its former main source of revenue, the Investment Alternative Tax, has been diverted to pay down city debt.

The CRDA mission is the successful revitalization of Atlantic City for the benefit of both residents and the wider community, Kyle said. But he said the organization has not yet defined how to best meet that mission, under the Murphy Administration’s focus on recommendations of the Johnson Report.

Without that plan, “everything is a one-off,” Kyle said. “Someone comes in with an idea that sounds great, we say ‘Let’s do it.’ It’s why nothing congeals into an economic whole with some kind of power behind it.”

Kyle was one of many board members who balked at the Board of Education proposal for Boardwalk Hall.

Board member Ed Gant, a former union electrician and labor leader, agreed the CRDA hasn’t made its priorities clear enough, and said he has additional concerns about changing the rules for luxury taxes.

“I worked in those buildings as an electrician. Boardwalk Hall is 90 years old,” Gant said, and so extremely expensive to maintain. “I think we have to be very conservative when we talk about deleting anything there to take care of those buildings.”

Luxury tax revenue, which came in at about $37 million last year and is expected to top $38.5 million this year, is spent every year on debt service, marketing and other expenses related to running the two buildings. There is also $25 million in a reserve fund, according to Doherty and the agency’s financial statements.

Kyle said luxury tax revenues flow when the economy is good, but downturns are inevitable.

“Luxury tax revenue is subject to fluctuation and economic cycles,” Kyle said. “In a recession they are going to go down. We have ‘x’ amount of dollars today but that doesn’t mean it’s always going to happen. You have got to plan for the bad times.”

CRDA has not done enough analysis on what the Convention Center and Boardwalk Hall structures will need over the next 10-20 years, Kyle and Gant said.

“When you are dealing with a building that is 90 years old you can’t predict costs. You can’t have enough in reserves for what goes on,” Gant said. “If you get to $100 million, I’d say all right. Over that number let’s spend it. Let’s go.”

Luxury tax funds ideally are spent in a way that generates more business for the city, Kyle said.

“If you fund an event that’s going to bring in 100,000 people over the course of 2 to 3 days, they come in and eat, drink, stay in hotels,” Kyle said. “You recover funds through the luxury taxes they pay. It becomes self replenishing.”

“If you fund the Board of Education offices, it doesn’t replenish itself,” he said.

There are signs board members are struggling with what the Murphy Administration’s focus on community means for the future of Atlantic City.

“Really what we need is ratables,” Gant said. If we get ratables, it solves all the problems,” citing the Borai market-rate rental housing project that opened last year.

“We’ve moved away from the basic concept that makes the most sense,” Gant said. “If we are going to make it a subsidized city in every aspect, people should acknowledge that. Or we can go back to a redevelopment agency that is proactive in bringing people here.”

Towns allowed to leave schools out of PILOT payments. A proposed law would change that.

Before city commissioners in Millville last week voted down a 15-year extension on a tax agreement with the New Jersey Motorsports Park developers, some residents expressed concern about the impact on school taxes.

The dissenters argued that the extension would, among other things, cost the school district thousands of dollars in revenue greatly needed by the already struggling urban district.

Because there is no state mandate requiring payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreements to include local school districts, often times the schools are left out of receiving any funding. The issue is so wide-reaching in New Jersey that there is legislation in the Senate to require municipalities to share a portion of the revenue from PILOTs with schools.

State Sen. Troy Singleton, D- Burlington, said he decided to sponsor the bill after a 2010 state comptroller report noted that New Jersey’s municipal tax abatement program was pulling critical funding away from school districts and leaving taxpayers to pick up the costs.

“In some cases, the result is schools’ increased reliance on state aid. This bill seeks to change that,” Singleton said. “However, our main motivation in introducing this legislation is seeking property tax relief for New Jersey homeowners, who pay the highest property taxes in the nation. School taxes are the largest component of our property tax bill, and by requiring a portion of tax abatement to go to the school district to reduce the tax levy, we can reduce the overall property tax burden.”

Millville’s PILOT agreement with Motorsports Park goes back to 2007 and is based on the improvements at the track, so the school district does receive some tax revenue — $28,572 in 2018 — from the land, valued at just over $3 million.

The city received $107,501 between the PILOT — $63,884 — and the land taxes.

The school district’s tax levy makes up 25% of a Millville taxpayer’s annual tax bill. Of its $3.44 tax rate for 2019, 86.7 cents goes toward the school district for every $100 of assessed value. If the city split the PILOT with the school-based proportionately on its tax rate, the school would receive an additional $16,000, equal to about 1/10 of a cent impact on the tax rate.

The school district lost about $800,000 in state aid in 2017-18 and has seen aid remain relatively flat over the last two funding cycles. Because she joined the district this summer, interim Superintendent Shelly Schneider declined to comment on the effect of extending the pilot.

Singleton said schools across New Jersey are seeing their tax bases artificially suppressed and causing taxpayers to make up a greater share of the load for funding schools.

“Property taxes and affordability are significant problems in New Jersey. So, any way that we as lawmakers can find avenues for property tax reform, we should pursue them. Again, we chose to address this through legislation based on the state comptroller’s recommendation. However, this concept isn’t a new one. Three states (Michigan, North Dakota and Ohio) require that school boards be notified and afforded an opportunity to comment whenever tax abatements are being considered. Additionally, four states provide that a portion of the collected PILOTs go to school districts,” Singleton said.

Every town in New Jersey handles PILOT agreements differently. The Press of Atlantic City reached out to superintendents in many area school districts to comment and some declined, while others did not respond.

Atlantic City’s PILOT agreement with the casinos, one of the most widely discussed and broadest impacting agreements in the region, did not include a specific provision for how much money the municipality would share with the schools, but did require some portion of the payments to go toward the public education system there. This year, Atlantic City School District received $45 million from the casino PILOT, which generated a total of $152.6 million.

In Galloway Township, Mayor Tony Coppola said his township uses PILOT agreements as a means to draw in business and increase economic activity, but they try to consider the impact on school enrollment and share when necessary.

“It’s expensive and obstructive to do development projects in New Jersey. We provide these incentives to businesses to lure them here, get them to set up shop. Once they’re in, they’re in, they’re operating, they’re a business,” Coppola said. “We’re supposed to be doing these to lessen the burden to our taxpayers.”

In Egg Harbor Township, the township has PILOT agreements with two affordable housing developments required by the state, as well as the Atlantic County Economic Alliance for the aviation park and the Atlantic County Utilities Authority

“To make them affordable we have to control property taxes,” Egg Harbor Township Administrator Peter Miller said of the housing.

Miller said because there is no mandate to share with the school district, the township does not. He said that, either way, residents still benefit from lower taxes due to PILOTs.

“The person writing the check, it’s the same impact on them,” he said.

Miller and Coppola both said the impact of PILOTs on schools is not large because of how taxes are collected and dispersed. Miller said municipalities collect all taxes and are statutorily obligated to pay out a school district 100 percent of the tax levy it sets, even if a municipality collects only 90 percent of the total taxes.

“Also, if we have tax appeals and property owners are successful on tax appeals, and we have to refund money or reduce their assessment, we can’t go back to the school district and say ‘we lost 20 million in ratables this year,’” Miller said. “There are things like that where a municipality has to always make sure a school district stays whole.”

Coppola cautioned that towns should not use the PILOT funding to finance line items that are going to last longer than the agreement. He said money from PILOT agreements is best used for capital projects.

“So when that revenue stream expires, were not stuck with a big hole in the budget,” he said.