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DOT shares plan to ease flooding on Route 40, one of AC's main evacuation routes

EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — The road elevation of a one-mile stretch of Black Horse Pike looks like a kiddie roller coaster.

It rises, then falls, then rises again, ever so slightly, according to Department of Transportation blueprints.

On Tuesday, the state agency shared details of its $27.5 million plan to lift the rest of that section of the pike to the same height to ease flooding, as dozens of people packed inside the West Atlantic City firehouse listened on.

“All those low points that are catching water, they’re all going to be brought up to the same elevation,” said Steve Arbiz of WSP USA, the design consultant hired by the state.

About eight times a year, officials said, one of the main evacuation routes out of Atlantic City floods, halting traffic and shutting businesses along a portion of the low-lying Route 40 causeway. The new plan, they say, will reduce flood events to twice a year.

The project aims to lift Route 40 from Naples Avenue to Bayport Drive by 2½ feet, including sidewalks. State officials say construction will begin in 2022 and be complete by 2025.

“When we raise it, we want to raise it for good,” Arbiz said. “It’s complicated to build, but in the end, it’s going to look like the same road.”

The project will also address drainage issues, which contribute to the slow retreat of flood water from the pike.

A new outfall pipe will be installed on Venice Avenue, where residents say the current infrastructure is not well maintained and clogs easily. The new tube will be six inches wider and will include a flap that stops water from spewing back out during severe flooding.

New storm drains will be installed along the road too, the state said.

Previous plans for Route 40 tried to address these problems but were unsuccessful. A controversial $6.4 million DOT project completed in 1999 to install three pipes on the road didn’t fix drainage issues, residents at the time complained.

Egg Harbor Township Mayor Paul Hodson said officials should also consider a pump station in West Atlantic City, citing ones that have been installed at Fishermen’s Park in Atlantic City.

“Hopefully (the DOT) got the message that there is a drainage and water issue,” Hodson said. “Hopefully they can cure the problem.”

Raising a road is an expensive and complicated feat, and has only been taken on in New Jersey in a few places.

But it’s desperately needed, said Tim Rooney, a West Atlantic City resident who said he deals with road flooding at least monthly. When there’s a full moon and high tide, he sometimes cannot drive in or out of his street. He plans ahead.

“What I do is I stage my car,” Rooney said. “I park on the area they are going to raise. ... This (project) should help.”

To raise the road, first, crews on the pike need to excavate three feet of soil below the current pavement and replace it with lightweight fill and fresh pavement. The current soil is too soft to build on top of and would sink otherwise, Arbiz said.

In Cape May County, a similar project on a smaller stretch of Sea Isle Boulevard in Sea Isle City has taken years to complete. There, the road was being lifted by four feet, but there are fewer developments along the construction site.

“It’s a complicated construction method,” Arbiz said.

Some raised concerns about the impact the work could have on businesses and traffic during the summer.

The DOT said the two westbound lanes will remain open throughout construction, but eastbound traffic could be reduced to one lane at times.

“The intention is to get the contractor in and out of here as fast as possible. ... It’s challenging. They’re going to need to get a lot of folks out there,” Arbiz said.

Pleasantville school board wants to meet with county over staff cuts

PLEASANTVILLE — For the first time since the school board reorganized in January, board members came together in agreement that cutting 11 positions would hurt the district’s students.

“This is sincere,” Board President Carla Thomas said, tearing up. “It’s coming from my heart. And we all need to work as a team.”

Last week, the board approved an $88.3 million budget for 2019-20 with a 2% increase in the school tax levy. The budget was reliant on the elimination of 11 school positions worth more than $900,000 in salaries, but the board decided Tuesday it will hold off until meeting with the county executive superintendent to discuss a new plan.

Pleasantville Superintendent Clarence Alston said at the meeting that the district has submitted another proposal that would be less disruptive but did not elaborate. The announcement came after two lengthy executive sessions.

“We’re now going to make a change in the direction that we’re going, and it’s not the direction the state wants us to go,” board member Jerome Page said.

He said they are going to change the culture in Pleasantville schools.

“This is a start, where all the board members come together and say, ‘Let us demonstrate to the state that we can handle our business in Pleasantville school district,’” Page said.

Alston told The Press last week the district was required by County Executive Superintendent Robert Bumpus to eliminate positions that are unrecognized, such as dean of students and principals on special assignment, to get its budget approved.

Michael Yaple, spokesman for the Department of Education, which oversees the offices of the executive county superintendent, said the department is not forcing the district to take specific action regarding staff, “but rather we discussed with local school officials issues such as unrecognized job titles, administrative spending caps, legal costs and high administrative costs.”

At 3 p.m. Tuesday, Alston sent an email to Bumpus with a new proposal “that we thought would be less disruptive” and received a response an hour later. He did not read the email exchange in its entirety but summarized that Bumpus indicated the district could not make changes to its budget that were not discussed at the public hearing last week.

“We’re requesting to have a meeting with the county superintendent because his email is what’s stopping us to move forward,” board member Sharnell Morgan said. “We need to let him know that his decision is not what we find suitable for our schools and our children.”

Yaple was not immediately available for response Wednesday.

“This is the first time we came together as a board, and to make a hasty decision at the last moment wouldn’t benefit our district,” said board member Richard Norris.

Since four new members joined the school board after the November election, board meetings have been filled with tension and fights over procedures, policy and personality.

In February, the Department of Education threatened the district with a second fiscal monitor and possibly a state takeover if it did not begin to get along.

Last meeting, Page asked Thomas to step down as board president and said he lacked faith in her. By Tuesday, they had both agreed to set aside their differences.

“I’m going to take back what I said. I’m going to support you. This is what we need to do, come together,” Page told Thomas.

Thomas said it was unfair that Pleasantville was the last district in the county to get its budget approved by the county and said the state fiscal monitor, Constance Bauer, should have helped get the budget passed sooner.

“Please be patient. If we have to fight, we’re going to fight together as a board,” Thomas said. “And we need to fight together as a district.”

During last week’s public hearing on the budget, the board heard from staff members and residents upset about district spending, including on legal fees, and the proposed cuts that included the district’s athletic director Stephen Townsend and Nanette Stuart, both of whom are classified as principals on special assignment. The reduction in force would have also eliminated the positions for two deans of students and the position of director of curriculum and instruction.

This week’s meeting started with more of the same. Joyce Mollineaux, of Atlantic City and secretary for the state NAACP, told the board to think more about the children and less about themselves.

“This has been going on for some time at this board,” she said. “We are, across this county, are looking at you. Everybody is looking at you. It’s time to stop it.”

Steve Young of the Atlantic City chapter of the National Action Network read aloud the attorney fees the district has been paying, including the $463,484 spent to date in the 2018-19 school budget. Young said he obtained the information through an Open Public Records Act request.

“There’s a serious issue when it comes to the budget,” Young told the board.

In other business, the school board approved a $200,000 settlement with William “Speedy” Marsh, the district’s former facilities coordinator, who was allowed to resign after his position was eliminated during a reduction in force approved by the school board in the fall.

Coast Guard shares tips to keep kayakers safe this boating season

ATLANTIC CITY — Taylor Smith knows how much fun it is to be out on the water. During the summer, he likes to climb into his kayak with his dog and his fiancee and go for a paddle to grab a bite to eat, he said.

But, as the commanding officer of the Atlantic City U.S. Coast Guard Station, he also knows how dangerous kayaking can be.

“I love it,” said Smith, of Brigantine. “But you just have to be aware of what you’re doing.”

While kayaking is popular across Absecon Island, it can also be dangerous. Tides, currents and wakes from motorized boats can knock a paddler off course or cause them to go overboard. When the Coast Guard spots an adrift kayak in the water, they treat it like a missing-person case, investigating to figure out whether a paddler is in the water or the boat came untied from a dock. With the summer boating season starting in a couple short weeks, officials are trying to get the word out to recreational boaters about how to stay safe.

“Our first and foremost concern is personal safety and the safety of those on the water,” Smith said. “So when we come upon an adrift kayak that is unmanned or unoccupied, we’re first going to think, ‘Is there a person that was with this kayak?’”

As she steered a boat Tuesday morning around Absecon Inlet, which is filled with recreational boaters, professional mariners, tours and vacationers during the summer, Petty Officer Brisaed Mejia said that, while on patrol, you can see stranded kayaks and inner tubes from time to time.

“After a while, you get more comfortable with going out there and doing search patterns and responding to cases,” she said. “But I would say that my first couple times, I was very, very nervous. You feel the adrenaline really get to you.”

Smith, who has been kayaking on and off for 15 years, said that typically, kayakers who have gone overboard are found quickly.

Just last week, a kayaker was rescued 1½ miles away from the resort after his boat capsized after being in the water for less than a half hour.

A relative was watching from the shore, and the Coast Guard responded to his call for help. The man suffered a laceration on his head, but he was wearing his life jacket.

When a relative or friend can call in with the location of a kayaker, responders can affect a quick rescue, Smith said. However, if they don’t see a paddler with an adrift boat, they start a search.

Smith said they generally start a drifting search pattern, which moves with the tides and currents. They’re usually able to find the person quickly that way, he said.

During a search, they use their 29-foot response boat, as well as helicopters from the air station in Egg Harbor Township, he said.

Labeling the kayak and registering can save time and resources during a search, Smith said. Kayakers can fill out a label, which can be found at any Coast Guard Auxiliary, with their name and phone number as well as a secondary contact so the Coast Guard can try to get in touch with the owner.

“When we do call you, hopefully we’re able to reach you and possibly return your equipment if it simply just went adrift and got away from you, but you’re safe,” he said. “Otherwise, if we can’t get a hold of you, we’re going to use that as another piece of information to start a search.”

Knowing the environment is key for kayakers, he said, taking into consideration the currents, tides and weather.

“Absecon Inlet is a particularly challenging area for kayakers, but also a very popular area for kayakers and other boating traffic,” Smith said. “Being in such close proximity to the ocean, we have extremely strong currents that come through, which can easily take a kayaker by surprise and may not be as visible to them when they’re on calm waters.”

Kayaking is a popular summer sport on Absecon Island. In Margate, Robin Scott, owner of Ray Scott’s Dock, said she rents out her kayaks dozens of times each season.

The back door of her shop leads to a dock on the Intracoastal Waterway, where kayakers and boaters fill the water on hot, sunny days.

Kayaking can be dangerous, she said, when boaters don’t yield to each other or cause wakes that knock riders off their kayak.

“It’s just like the road, but there are no lines and no lights out there,” she said.

Last year, she said, she heard about a kayaker who got sick while he was out on a paddle. He made it back to a dock but didn’t tie up the boat properly and it floated away, triggering a missing-person search.

“Everybody takes it seriously because you don’t know if they’re stuck out there or got run over,” she said, looking out at the water.

However, when kayakers can navigate the water safely, it’s an experience unlike any other, she said.

“You’ll forget about everything,” Scott said. “You will be inundated with nature, and it’s just amazing.”

PHOTOS from 2019 Coast Guard Community Festival in Cape May

West Wildwood mayor fined $24,900 by state for ethics violations

WEST WILDWOOD — Mayor Christopher Fox has been hit with about $25,000 in fines by the state Local Finance Board — the most ever levied against an elected official — for multiple ethics violations.

The alleged violations are related to actions he took as mayor that benefited police Chief Jacqueline Ferentz, with whom he lives. They were also related to actions he took to benefit his daughter Nicole Fox, who was hired as a police officer in West Wildwood at last month’s meeting, to the dismay of many residents in attendance.

Fox did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“We’re happy to see it wasn’t just a slap on the wrist,” said Susan Czwalina, treasurer of the Concerned Taxpayers of West Wildwood.

She said the group was not happy with the way a lawsuit brought by Ferentz against the borough was handled by Fox and the other commissioners.

“(The fine) is nothing compared to a $1.7 million judgment,” Czwalina said of the jury award to Ferentz in a case that alleged mistreatment by a former mayor. “But it’s something.”

The tiny borough has a budget of about $2.9 million a year. It has agreed to pay Ferentz $5,000 a month for 200 months, and her lawyer about $18,000 a month for 42 months.

To accommodate the payments, it furloughed workers last year and has frozen salaries this year and next. It also has increased taxes, which have been somewhat offset by a decrease in school taxes, but taxpayers would have received a tax cut if not for the judgment.

The borough’s insurance company refused to pay the judgment, alleging the borough failed to put on an adequate defense in the case.

Fox was notified of the fines in an April 11 letter from Melanie R. Walter, chairwoman of the Local Finance Board, according to a copy of the letter provided by the state Department of Community Affairs.

The letter said Fox could request an administrative hearing if he wanted to contest the fines.

Added to the letter were 21 pages of descriptions of the alleged ethics violations.

Some of the violations were related to his failure to disclose all income he receives on state-required financial disclosure statements and actions he took as mayor of West Wildwood to enter into a shared-services agreement with neighboring Wildwood, where he is employed as business administrator.

The board said Fox violated state ethics laws when he voted in favor of designating himself director of public safety, with oversight of the Police Department, 10 days before the borough reinstated Ferentz as a police officer and about a month before she was named chief.

Fox also allegedly violated the law when he gave Ferentz back pay and pension credit for a time in which she did not serve in the Police Department; and voted in favor of a 33 percent increase in Ferentz’s salary from $67,000 to $101,000, from 2015 to 2017.

Fox, a retired police officer, receives a police pension and salaries as West Wildwood mayor and Wildwood administrator.

The investigation of Fox was opened in August, according to the documents.

West Wildwood

The fine for each violation is within the prescribed $100-$500 statutory range, said DCA spokeswoman Lisa Ryan.

The state could not previously release information on the investigation or fines, said Ryan, because board regulations require 30 days to pass after a determination before cases can be discussed.

“The file is now public,” said Ryan.

DIANE D’AMICO/Staff Writer///  

thomas Carla Thomas, Pleasantville Board of Education