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Atlantic City police build trust, understanding by speaking residents' languages

Meet the officers of Atlantic City’s Neighborhood Coordination Unit

ATLANTIC CITY — At Boom Food Market on Ventnor Avenue on Wednesday afternoon, Police Officer Autumn Mason stood with Margarita Rivera, a cashier at the store, and had a conversation with her in Spanish.

“There are times that you might not have the right word and I’ll switch to English, but people are pretty understanding of that and so appreciative that you’re even trying to talk to them in their language,” Mason said.

That conversation was one small instance of something that’s going on all over the city each day — police officers who speak 22 languages across the department are communicating with the residents they serve in their native languages, whether it’s during traffic stops, calls for service, the filing of reports, or even just navigating City Hall.

In a city where there are more than two dozen languages spoken in the school system alone, it’s a skill that officers use to navigate cultural differences and build trust.

The store, which sells produce and pantry staples labeled in English and Spanish, is a hub for the 5th Ward community made up primarily of Spanish and Middle Eastern language speakers, where Mason serves in the Neighborhood Coordination Unit, a community policing effort that puts two officers on the beat in each political ward.

“We see everybody like family,” Rivera said, explaining that it’s helpful when officers can communicate in other languages, because it cuts down on confusion and, sometimes, fear in residents. “They keep everybody safe.”

Mason’s partner, Officer Syed Shah, speaks three other languages besides English — Urdu, Punjabi and Pushto — languages spoken in Pakistan, India and Afghanistan, respectively.

“We’ve been teaching each other things,” Mason said. “He has me saying things in Urdu, and he’s been saying things in Spanish and people are so happy with it.”

Shah learned to speak English as a student at Richmond Avenue School, he explained, after coming to the U.S. more than 30 years ago. It was his fourth language.

Across the schools in the resort, students speak more than two dozen languages, according to the superintendent’s office. Those languages range from Albanian, Arabic and Bengali, to Creole, Portuguese and Vietnamese, and many more.

“But it’s not just about speaking the language,” Shah said. “It’s understanding the culture.”

Two years ago, Shah stopped a car that was going the wrong way down a one-way street, he said. The man got out of the car and started walking toward Shah. His backup instinctively put his hand on his service weapon. But Shah realized what was going on and diffused the situation.

“Back home, when you get pulled over by a cop, you have to get out and walk toward a cop,” he said. “It’s just a cultural difference, and you have to realize that.”

Residents can be intimidated by police, but when they’re able to communicate in their first language, it can build trust during a high-stress situation, said Officer Jimmy Rodriguez of the accident investigations section.

“Hispanic people are generally a very family oriented people,” Rodriguez, who speaks Spanish fluently, said. “And even if they don’t know you and you’re speaking Spanish — their language — they put that wall down, and they tend to communicate with you directly because you’re speaking their language to them.”

At Food 4 Less on Atlantic Avenue, owner Muhammad Zia smiled when Shah walked in the door, and he began speaking to him quickly in Urdu as the pair shook hands.

“It’s so important,” Zia said. “The major thing is they understand our culture. They understand us.”

Knowing and being able to use other languages is another tool for officers to use on the job, Rodriguez said. But the community also needs to know that they can always request a translator, or an officer can call a language line if there’s no one available that can meet their needs.

“The community should know that just because you don’t speak English, that doesn’t say that you don’t get police services,” Rodriguez said. “You should be able to call for help and have the police department or someone help you out in our language if you need it. We’ll do the best we can.”

Thompson wins LPGA

GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Lexi Thompson made her pro debut at the ShopRite LPGA Classic as a 15-year-old in 2010.

She arrived at Seaview Hotel and Golf Cub then in a NASCAR-style race car.

On Sunday, she had another unforgettable moment at Seaview. Thompson won the $1.75 million ShopRite Classic.

“There’s a lot of great memories,” she said, “not only 2010 but now 2019.”

Thompson, 24, shot a 4-under-par 67 on Seaview’s Bay Course to finish with the 54-hole total of 12-under 201. That was a shot better than runner-up Jeongeun Lee6 of South Korea. Fans packed the 18th hole grandstand at Seaview to watch Sunday’s final round. Many of them were rooting for Thompson.

“To see that amount of people out here supporting women’s golf and just supporting the game in general,” Thompson said, “us players, we really want to see that. The more people the better. I really thrive off people cheering and just feeling good.”

For complete coverage of the final round, see B1 and B16 and for more photos online, go to

— Michael McGarry

Surfers paddle out for memorial to Sea Isle City native killed in Ethiopian Airlines crash

SEA ISLE CITY — Whether it was low or high tide, Matt Vecere would ride the waves off the city’s beaches for hours on end as a kid.

“His first surf ... was probably at 10 years old,” said childhood friend Ted DelFranco, of Egg Harbor Township. “It would be like six inches of waves, and Matt’s out. ... He’d surf literally every day.”

So fittingly, the sandy shores of Sea Isle were where Vecere, one of 147 people killed in an Ethiopian Airlines crash in March, was remembered by friends and relatives.

Hundreds watched from the 40th Street beach as dozens paddled into the Atlantic Ocean holding flowers during a memorial for the 43-year-old, who dedicated part of his life to helping children in Haiti.

Surfers carried their boards into the ocean and paddled into the cold waters for about 10 minutes.

“It was Matt’s actions that will serve as his true legacy,” Mayor Lenny Desiderio told a large crowd at Excursion Park ahead of the paddling ceremony. “He obviously touched so many people in so many ways, from Sea Isle City to California to Haiti to Africa.”

Vecere grew up in Sea Isle, working at a breakfast and lunch restaurant his parents owned called Steak Out on Landis Avenue near 40th Street only a block from where the memorial was held.

That’s where Mike Stearne, 45, met Vecere as a teenager. The two also surfed together.

“Matt was always funny and didn’t take himself too seriously. ... Even in really busy, high-stress situations, he would be-level headed,” Stearne said.

Friends say Vecere was always compassionate. When his father, Thomas, died in 2000, then-24-year-old Vecere organized a surfing contest to benefit the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Vecere graduated from Ocean City High School and studied ocean engineering at Florida Institute of Technology. He returned to New Jersey to attend Stockton University before becoming editor of the surfing publication Northeast Surf News for about five years, said friend John DiGenni.

“We were best friends. ... This is where we surfed all the time. On this street,” DiGenni said before he would put on a wet suit and head into the water.

In 2005, Vecere moved to California and worked in the surfing industry.

After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Vecere found another calling and became active in relief efforts. He continued that work up until his death, traveling between Haiti and his home on the West Coast often.

His mother, Donna, in a statement released in March, said her son had been in Haiti two weeks prior to the crash and that he had been in Africa for the U.N. Environment Assembly.

Standing before a crowd on the windy Saturday in Sea Isle, Elaine Browers, president of Sustainable Orphanages for Haiti Youth, said she was contacted by Vecere after she started an online fundraising page to raise money to build an orphanage for children in Croix-des-Bouquets, Haiti.

Her fundraising efforts weren’t successful, she said through tears, until Vecere got involved in sharing the page and creating an accompanying video.

“I was having so much trouble raising money for these children. ... (I) was raising a few dollars here and there,” Browers said. “Now ... we are finishing the school. We’re able to feed the children. ... I want to thank Matt.”

Atlantic City's budget will suffer if the casino industry thrives this year

ATLANTIC CITY — Just when it seems the seaside resort is poised to get its fiscal house in order, an obscure provision buried within the casino PILOT law is going to deliver yet another setback.

If Atlantic City’s casinos eclipse $3 billion in total gaming revenue this year, which they are projected to do, the resort would receive about $4 million to $5 million less from the industry in 2020. That’s because of a crediting mechanism built into the 2016 legislation.

The city would lose about $14 million to $15 million in investment alternative tax funds (IATs), according to Department of Community Affairs spokesperson Lisa Ryan, but that loss would be offset by the gain of about $10 million in additional PILOT funds the city would get.

The 10-year PILOT, or payment in lieu of tax, bill was intended to stabilize Atlantic City’s finances by temporarily eliminating the volatility of costly tax appeals from the casinos and providing a predictable revenue stream for the city, the county and the school district based on annual gaming revenue.

However, the DCA — the agency with direct fiscal oversight of Atlantic City following the 2016 takeover — noted in a budget document that even if PILOT payments were to increase because gaming revenue reached the next fiscal benchmark, the city would experience a net loss because of a crediting concept in the law that holds casino tax payments at 2015 levels.

The credit will be paid for with money from IATs that the city is statutorily obligated to use for municipal debt service.

In 2018, Atlantic City received nearly $9.7 million in IAT funds. The 2019 municipal budget, which has not been formally adopted, anticipates more than $13.8 million from IAT funds.

If the casino industry meets the $3 billion gaming revenue threshold outlined in the PILOT, Atlantic City will not receive any IAT funds in 2020 or 2021.

“We are aware of the IAT issue and working with the city, particularly its finance staff, to adapt to its near and long-term impact on the city’s finances, which, as it stands now, is negative in the short-term, but positive 2022 and beyond,” Ryan said.

PILOT bill sponsor Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, D-Atlantic, said Golden Nugget Atlantic City and Resorts Casino Hotel would not sign on to the voluntary PILOT without the credit provision in the bill responsible for the two-year moratorium on IAT payments to the city.

He said the PILOT law did its job, stabilizing Atlantic City government and finances.

“We wouldn’t have seen the turnaround with $3 billion in revenue without it,” Mazzeo said. “But I have always said it isn’t perfect. We have a hiccup here, but in 2022 and on the money will be restored.”

He said he is open for discussion about fixing it legislatively.

State Senator Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, said he will work on amending legislation.

“We should always strive to be fair and do better, which is why I am working with my colleagues to close this tax loophole to make sure families and local businesses are not stuck paying the tab,” Brown said.

Council President Marty Small Sr. said he was aware of the provision in the PILOT legislation and it was one of the reasons he testified last year to the State Legislature about Atlantic City being able to recoup a percentage of sports betting tax revenues.

Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation in October that host municipalities of sports betting facilities would receive 1.25% of taxes from sports wagering revenue, but Atlantic City was bypassed in favor of the funds going to the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority.

Small said the city has “begged” Trenton for luxury, room and parking fees in the past, which are all revenue streams that most municipalities keep yet Atlantic City does not and contributes to the resort’s fiscal shortfalls.

“It’s a shame that we are not reaping the benefits of activities in the city,” Small said.

”Something has to change. People can’t keep saying that they care about the financial well-being of Atlantic City and then, when we come up with new ideas, they shut it down.”

Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson had opposed the PILOT in favor of a bankruptcy route for the city.

The county sued the state after the PILOT bill passed to get the 13.5% of PILOT funds it had been promised by then-Gov. Chris Christie. The state had wanted the county to receive just 10.4%.

“We tried to explain to (city officials) at the time the PILOT was not in their best interest,” said Levinson. “They believed the governor (Christie).”

The county’s share will not be affected by the credit provision.

At-large Councilman George Tibbitt had not heard about this “poison pill” provision in the law before, and said city attorneys are looking into it and will report back to council.

If Atlantic City is indeed going to lose $14 million under the law, “the Senate and Assembly need to amend that,” he said.

Sixth Ward Councilman Jesse Kurtz said he wanted to see “some type of subsequent state action with money attached to it to prevent us from taking two steps back in regards to our fiscal health.”

Just last year the state was assuring council that IAT payments would continue, according to Tibbitt.

Kurtz said not only was he surprised to learn about the little-known provision in the PILOT law, but that he felt it “ran counter to the recent state involvement and the spirit of that involvement in our finances.”

”As the municipal finances are being stabilized and the tax rate stabilized, the one huge issue that we have as a city is our debt burden and our inability to bond money for capital improvements,” he said. “Reducing the IATs to the city at a time like this is going to have a very negative impact because the purpose of diverting IATs in the first place was to deal with the overwhelming debt burden and put us in a position to accomplish capital improvements.”

The Mayor’s Office did not return request for comment.

The PILOT law outlines tiers for total gaming revenue generated by the casino industry and resulting payments in lieu of taxes. In 2018, the casino industry reported $2.86 billion in revenue and the PILOT responsibility was $132.6 million.

The city received $70.2 million of that total, while Atlantic County was paid $15.6 million and the Atlantic City school district was given $44.2 million.

Two new casino properties and legalized sports betting created additional gaming revenue streams in the second half of 2018.

With a full year of nine operational casino properties and sports wagering revenue, the industry is on pace to eclipse the $3 billion threshold in the PILOT bill.

The resulting PILOT amount for 2019 is estimated to be roughly $152.6 million.

Atlantic County would receive approximately 13.5%, and the Atlantic City school district would be paid about 33% based on last year’s calculation, although the school system payment is subject to change.

From 2022 to 2026, the final years of the PILOT, the crediting mechanism lapses and Atlantic City would again receive its portion of IAT funds. According to the DCA budget document, the city would receive annual IAT funding of $39.6 million during those years.

Staff Writer Michelle Brunetti Post contributed to this report.