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Somers Point opens long-awaited bay marina

SOMERS POINT — It’s been a long process, but on Wednesday, city officials were finally able to cut the ribbon on the docks of a new marina they hope will be an economic beacon for the city.

“With the help of the state, the grants and the hard work of the City Council, what we have today is this beautiful dock and building that will be able to be used for many years to come and for many people to come and visit what we have here in Somers Point,” Mayor Jack Glasser said.

The new dock is on the bay front at Higbee Avenue, next to the city’s municipal park beach and down the road from the recently renovated Gateway Theater.

Somers Point used a $1.45 million National Boating Infrastructure grant to build the marina and a $550,000 grant from the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation to fund the dredging and general marina construction.

Glasser said city officials first applied for grants to build the marina in 2003. The proposals received a second wind in 2015, with help from city planner grant writer Jim Rutala.

Last September, the City Council approved a contract with Wickberg Marina Contracting Inc. of Belford, Monmouth County, for the dredging and Walters Marine Construction of Ocean View.

The new marina features 20 transient boat slips and additional slips for larger tour boats and emergency vessels.

Glasser said the recent docking of the Duke O’ Fluke fishing tour boat has helped attract sea bass to the channel.

Bobby Graham, of Beesley’s Point, was hired as the dock master. Graham was the dock master of the neighboring Harbour Cove Marina for 31 years. The new marina has significantly fewer slips than the one Graham previously managed, but he and city officials say the location and proximity to Somers Point’s historic bay-front district will keep the marina busy during the season.

Graham said he was contracted to work seasonally, from May 15 to Sept. 15, with flexibility for the shoulder seasons.

“The marina provides an additional waterfront amenity to our exciting Bay Front Historic District that entices visitors to stop, enjoy and explore everything that Somers Point has to officer,” city Economic Development Advisory Commission Chair Greg Sykora said in a statement.

“I’m a kid who grew up down here when there was nothing on the beach,” Glasser said.

The crowd of locals who live and grew up in Somers Point recalled there being a diving board and small pier.

“There was nothing down here, we just dove off the end of the pier for fun. ... But we still got stuck in the mud,” he said.

The marina is open for docking, but officials say future amenities will include electricity, water and pump-out facilities for boaters.

“People think it’s a short distance from a place like Atlantic City to Cape May,” said Glasser, “but it’s not. ... Our marina will be a nice stop along the way.”

“We anticipate that this is going to drive another economic engine here, it’s going to drive business here.” said Somers Point City Council President Sean McGuigan.

“There are many people to thank,” said Glasser, “for allowing us to do this and making this another piece we can be proud of in Somers Point”.

Who should be responsible for Jersey shore boardwalks?

ATLANTIC CITY — For nearly 30 years, Bob Pantalena has spent several hours a day walking up and down the Boardwalk. The 77-year-old retired state parole officer said the world-famous boards could use some attention.

“I’m on the Boardwalk probably three, four hours a day,” he said. “So, like me, I’m an old man and you see all my blemishes, I can see the blemishes on the Boardwalk.”

Pantalena said the city’s Beach and Boardwalk Division of the Department of Public Works does a good job with its limited resources of staying on top of repairs and maintenance, but added that with all the money the state takes from Atlantic City in the form of luxury taxes, room and parking fees, more could be done to assist the municipal workers.

“I think it should be a shared responsibility,” he said. “The state benefits from Atlantic City, ... so maybe a portion of the (taxes and fees) should find its way to the Boardwalk.”

The question of who should ultimately be responsible for the costly, and constant, maintenance of boardwalks throughout the state is a logical one after Gov. Phil Murphy recently vetoed a bill that would have guaranteed $60 million over 15 years to the Greater Wildwoods Tourism Improvement and Development Authority for the city’s main tourist attraction. Wildwood Mayor Ernie Troiano said he was “disappointed beyond words” over the governor’s veto because locals could not afford to shoulder the cost alone.

“We send tons and tons of money to Trenton and get very little in return,” Troiano 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.”

Murphy’s veto means officials in Wildwood must go back to the drawing board. In Atlantic City, the issue of Boardwalk repairs, maintenance and, possibly, replacement, is an ongoing issue.

The Atlantic City Boardwalk, which opened in 1870, “absolutely” needs attention, said Council President Marty Small Sr.

“I think, big picture, the whole Boardwalk, except maybe the new section (that spans the northern-most area of Absecon Island around to Gardner’s Basin), needs to be redone,” he said.

Small rides his bicycle on the Boardwalk several times a week and said he sees loose boards and hears them rattling under the tires. He noted that the city has faced multiple trip-and-fall lawsuits in recent years as a result of the Boardwalk’s deteriorating condition.

“It’s something that needs to be taken into serious consideration,” Small said. “Obviously, things can be done but we don’t have a magic wand to say ‘kabam, the Boardwalk is fixed.’ That’s a long-term project and it’s going to take a lot of planning. I mean, in this case, it’s an Atlantic City street and we need all the help that we can get.”

Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, D-Atlantic, who voted in favor of the Wildwood bonding bill because of the tourism revenue the Boardwalk generates for the state, suggested that the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, which has ultimate oversight of the Atlantic City Boardwalk because it falls within the agency’s designated Tourism District, could help the municipality with costs.

He said that a dedicated trust fund, similar to the state’s mechanism for road repairs, could be set up for the boardwalks along the New Jersey shore and maybe that would get more support.

But, Mazzeo said there was no perfect solution for funding boardwalk repairs and maintenance because lawmakers who represent people from other areas of the state are hesitant to commit public funds to local, seasonal attractions.

State Sen. Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, said the state has a role to play in the upkeep of boardwalks, but, ultimately, the responsibility is on the municipality.

“Atlantic County families, along with the state, depend upon the tourism dollars generated in Atlantic City, which is why having a partnership that ensures we have a clean and safe Boardwalk, holds absentee landlords accountable to keep their properties up to code, and provides proper services for the homeless so they aren’t living under the Boardwalk, will go a long way to replace run-down dollar stores with higher end, family-friendly shops, leading to increased city revenue, which can be used to help repair the Boardwalk without raising taxes on local working families,” Brown said.

Dorian hits US Virgin Islands as Category 1 hurricane

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Dorian became a Category 1 hurricane Wednesday as it struck the U.S. Virgin Islands, with forecasters saying it could grow to Category 3 status as it nears the U.S. mainland as early as the weekend.

The British Virgin Islands and the Puerto Rican islands of Vieques and Culebra were also in Dorian’s path, the first major test of emergency preparedness for the U.S. territory since the 2017 devastation of Hurricane Maria, though the main island appeared to have been spared the brunt of the storm.

“Good news seems to be that the storm may be heading east, hopefully it will bypass the island, but there are folks who are still recovering from Maria,” said Bert Lopez, president of the Hispanic Association Atlantic County.

Lopez has family, including his father and aunt, who live in Lares, Puerto Rico, and have begun storm preparation.

Lopez said while some areas of Puerto Rico rebuilt after Hurricane Maria, many homes and properties are damaged — covered with tarps and boarded up.

As for his family, which lives about an hour and a half west and inland of San Juan, Lopez said he has been calling and making sure they have a plan if there is limited electricity or severe storm damage.

“We will keep watching the news and keeping our fingers crossed everything goes fine,” Lopez said.

If Dorian does hit Puerto Rico, Lopez said, he plans to contact the connections he made two years ago in organizing relief efforts after Maria.

“Obviously, the big issue was getting supplies to the island and there were a number of folks locally and with the state who were involved to raise monetary donations and supplies to get shipments together,” he said.

“New Jersey is home to the third-largest Puerto Rican population in the nation, and as we approach the two-year anniversaries of both Hurricane Maria and Irma that devastated Puerto Rico with damages totaling nearly $100 billion, many impacted survivors are still struggling because foreign insurance companies are paying pennies on the dollar,” said U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, D-2nd.

“Dorian brings uncertainty, and, for those of us who experienced the storms of 2017, uncomfortable memories,” said British Virgin Islands Gov. Augustus Jaspert. “Take heart.”

Dorian prompted President Donald Trump to declare a state of emergency Tuesday night and order federal assistance for local authorities.

At 5 p.m., Dorian was 45 miles northwest of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The U.S. National Hurricane Center said it had maximum sustained winds of 80 mph while moving northwest at 14 mph.

The Hurricane Center said the storm could grow into a dangerous Category 3 storm as it pushes northwest in the general direction of Florida.

Dennis Feltgen, a National Hurricane Center meteorologist in Miami, said Dorian may grow in size and could land anywhere from South Florida to South Carolina on Sunday or Monday.

”This will be a large storm approaching the Southeast,” he said.

People in Florida were starting to get ready for a possible Labor Day strike, with county governments along Florida’s east-central coast distributing sandbags and many residents rushing to warehouse retailers to load up on water, canned food and emergency supplies.

”All Floridians on the East Coast should have 7 days of supplies, prepare their homes & follow the track closely,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said in a tweet.

A hurricane watch and tropical storm warning was in effect for Puerto Rico, with Dorian expected to dump 4 to 6 inches of rain with isolated amounts of 8 inches in the eastern part of the island.

However, Puerto Rico seemed to be spared any heavy wind and rain, a huge relief to many on an island where blue tarps still cover some 30,000 homes nearly two years after Hurricane Maria. The island’s 3.2 million inhabitants also depend on an unstable power grid that remains prone to outages since it was destroyed by Maria, a Category 4 storm.

New Jersey state Sen. Bob Andrzejczak and Assemblymen Bruce Land and Matt Milam, all D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, said Puerto Ricans also face a deadline in a few weeks, after which they could lose all rights to collect from insurance companies.

“Our hearts went out to the victims of Hurricane Maria and Irma, and we are proud to lend our voice in support of Puerto Rico still mired in a difficult time,” the legislators said in a written statement Wednesday.

Ramonita Torres, a thin, stooped, 74-year-old woman lives by herself in the impoverished, flood-prone neighborhood of Las Monjas in the capital of San Juan. She was still trying to rebuild the home she nearly lost after Maria but was not able to secure the pieces of zinc that now serve as her roof.

”There’s no money for that,” she said, shaking her head.

A reported 990 customers were without power across Puerto Rico by late Wednesday afternoon, according to Ángel Figueroa, president of a union that represents power workers.

Police said an 80-year-old man in the northern town of Bayamón died on Wednesday after he fell trying to climb up to his roof to clear it of debris ahead of the storm.

In the U.S. Virgin Islands, which also is still struggling to recover from hurricanes Irma and Maria, officials were reporting power outages as driving rains and heavy wind hit.

“Winds have picked up significantly. We’re starting to get some of those heavier gusts,” the governor’s spokesman, Richard Motta, said in a telephone interview.

Dorian earlier had been projected to brush the western part of Puerto Rico and the change in the storm’s course caught many off guard in the tiny island of Vieques just east of Puerto Rico, a popular tourist destination that now lies in Dorian’s path.

”I’m in shock,” Vilma Santana said.

Earlier, Trump sent a tweet assuring islanders that “FEMA and all others are ready, and will do a great job.”

He added a jab at Puerto Rican officials who have accused the government of a slow and inadequate response to Hurricane Maria: “When they do, let them know it, and give them a big Thank You — Not like last time. That includes from the incompetent Mayor of San Juan!”

The mayor, Carmen Yulín Cruz, tweeted that Trump needs to “calm down get out of the way and make way for those of us who are actually doing the work on the ground,” adding that maybe he “will understand this time around THIS IS NOT ABOUT HIM; THIS IS NOT ABOUT POLITICS; THIS IS ABOUT SAVING LIVES.”

Dorian earlier caused power outages and downed trees in Barbados and St. Lucia.

Although top government officials in Puerto Rico said they were prepared for the storm and had sufficient equipment, a couple of mayors, including those in the western region, said they did not have enough generators or shelters that were properly set up.

The island’s transportation secretary acknowledged that crews are still rebuilding roads damaged or blocked by Maria, including more than 1,000 that remain blocked by that storm’s landslides.

Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vázquez said public schools and government offices would remain closed through at least Thursday.

”We learned our lesson quite well after Maria,” Vázquez said. “We are going to be much better prepared.”

In the U.S. Virgin Islands, Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. closed schools and government offices and said he would implement a curfew until Thursday, adding that officials have opened shelters and prepared sandbags in all three islands.

”The main threat in this storm is the water,” he said in a conference call early Wednesday. “We still have a lot of vulnerable people in the territory.”

Press of Atlantic City Staff Writers Michelle Brunetti Post and Lauren Carroll contributed to this report.

NJ gas tax to stay at 41.4 cents per gallon this year

TRENTON — New Jersey’s current tax rate on gasoline will remain stable for this fiscal year at 41.4 cents per gallon, the State Treasurer announced Wednesday.

The diesel tax will remain at 48.4 cents per gallon, Treasurer Elizabeth Maher Muoio said. Fiscal year 2020 ends next June 30.

“We’re pleased that fuel consumption levels, coupled with our realistic projections last year, have allowed us to avoid an increase in the gas tax rate for this year,” Muoio said.

State law requires the tax to raise about $2 billion a year for eight years, to support the state’s Transportation Trust Fund program and improvements to the state’s roadways and bridges. Since the 2016 law was enacted, the state has distributed a total of $4.34 billion for local, county and state projects, including NJ Transit, according to the treasurer.

Gasoline consumption in New Jersey has continued a multi-year decline, and is expected to go down another 3% this year, the state has estimated. But last year’s 4.3-cent increase that went into effect Oct. 1 helped boost FY 2019 revenue enough to avoid the need for an increase this year. That fiscal year ended June 30.

The state missed the FY 2019 Highway Fuels Revenue Target of $2.073 billion by just $33.4 million, a significantly smaller gap than the previous two-year shortfall of $125.2 million.

The treasury estimates the new FY 2020 Highway Fuels Revenue Target of $1.981 billion can be achieved with the current tax rate.

As a result, the 26.9 cent Petroleum Products Gross Receipts (PPGR) tax rate will remain stable for the coming year. When combined with the motor fuels tax, the total gas tax rate will remain unchanged at 41.4 cents per gallon and the total diesel tax rate will remain unchanged at 48.4 cents per gallon.

Last year’s 4.3-cent rate increase was needed to make up for a combined revenue shortfall of $125.2 million over both FY 2017 and FY 2018, according to the treasurer.