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Towns anticipate deep COVID-19 revenue losses in coming months

Financial losses from the COVID-19 pandemic have hit municipalities that rely on construction, parking and other fees hardest so far, but mayors from small towns to big cities anticipate losses will deepen for everyone in the coming months.

“We lost $3 million in total revenue during the pandemic (March 16 to reopening in late May) — $1 million in parking utility alone,” said Bloomfield, Essex County, Mayor Mike Venezia during a New Jersey State League of Municipalities online presentation Tuesday. “What concerns me most (going forward) is the ability of residents to pay property taxes.”

Towns are bracing for revenue losses when third- and fourth-quarter property taxes are due Aug. 1 and Nov. 1, respectively.

More than 1.2 million New Jerseyans have filed for unemployment benefits during the pandemic, and it remains unclear how many of them will be able to return to work this year as businesses reopen under limited capacity rules.

Casinos and indoor dining, for example, can reopen July 2 but must do so at just 25% capacity, Gov. Phil Murphy ordered Monday.

“The third quarter is really what we are looking at (as a potential problem),” said Bridgeton Mayor Al Kelly. Second-quarter tax payments, due May 1 and extended to June in many places, came in stronger than anticipated for Bridgeton and for most towns.

Escrow payments had been made to cover second-quarter payments before the shutdown put people out of work, said Clinton Township, Hunterdon County, Mayor Janice Kovach, who is NJLM 1st vice president. As time goes on, those escrows will be depleted and people who lost jobs during the crisis may not be able to make payments to replenish them, she said.

That’s why municipalities need financial help from the federal and state governments to make up current and future revenue losses from the COVID-19 epidemic, the mayors stressed.

“The governor is hoping to bond $5 billion (with the help of the federal government), with an additional $9 billion from the federal government as a loan, for a total of $14 billion,” said NJLM President James J. Perry Sr., a committeeman in Hardwick, Warren County.

Of that, $4 billion would be given to municipalities that need assistance, Perry said.

Without help, municipalities may be forced into higher debt, the officials warned.

State law requires municipalities to collect not only municipal taxes, but also school and county taxes. Towns must pay the school districts and counties on time, regardless of whether there is a drop in property tax payments, Perry said.

“One of the things the league has been asking for in the past is some kind of bill to take that away from us so we’re only collecting for municipalities. ... for schools to collect their own taxes so we’re not on the hook for school taxes,” Perry said. “If we don’t get income coming in, we don’t have money to pay school taxes ... we have to bond to pay school taxes.”

“In Bloomfield that’s 63% of what we collect,” Venezia said of the percentage of property taxes that must be passed along to other entities. That’s about average for the state.

“The collection rate dropped to 95% (from the typical 98%), and that was a loss of $800,000 last quarter,” Venezia said.

“We will have to look at layoffs or furloughs, lay off 5% of the workforce,” Venezia said. “This is a dramatic loss beyond anyone’s control and must be addressed.”

Kelly said poorer cities like Bridgeton need special help as their residents simply cannot pay more in property taxes.

“The federal government has to step in and help towns in New Jersey, especially towns such as mine that are financially challenged,” Kelly said. “We do not have the revenue and tax base to make up for deficits.”

Panelists said most towns are already running a bare-bones workforce and cannot cut further.

“The largest part of our budget is police and fire,” Kelly said, adding the city is looking at every position to see what is and isn’t required. “There is no opportunity for us to cut back there. They are needed now more than ever.”

NJLM Assistant Executive Director Mike Cerra said the 2008 recession, Superstorm Sandy, interest arbitration caps and budget caps have pushed municipalities to cut costs.

“Municipal governments are lean and efficient already,” Cerra said. “There hasn’t been regrowth from all those cuts.”

Kelly said shared service agreements, of which Bridgeton has 30, are important to containing costs, and the mayors all agreed they will become even more important going into the future.

Find out what has kept this Wildwood jeweler in business for 70 years

WILDWOOD — Milton Sumner Brown landed at Normandy and fought his way across Europe during World War II.

When he opened his jewelry store here, he framed one of his Purple Hearts on the back wall.

Michael Brown’s father died more than a decade ago, but the son still speaks of the father in the present tense. Milton and Sylvia Brown came to Wildwood in 1950, opening M.S. Brown Jewelers at 3310 Pacific Ave., close to the current location at 3304 Pacific.

The store, which on its website calls itself “the oldest jewelry store in New Jersey,” has survived, even as Wildwood and its Pacific Avenue downtown has changed and changed again. It has survived an ill-conceived attempt to make the downtown a pedestrian-only mall and the subsequent process of tearing up that work years later as traffic returned.

On Sunday, Father’s Day, the store celebrated its 70th anniversary in business, Brown said.

To make it this far, M.S. Brown has had to overcome many challenges — and more await. Brown is resolute.

Sitting in the back of his store, he is careful not to sound denigrating when discussing Wildwood’s downtown. But the issues are obvious. For block after block, Pacific Avenue has almost as many closed businesses as open ones. At one end of his block are multiple vacant or closed buildings, one with lively scenes painted on the plywood over the windows.

At the other end of the block stands Byrne Plaza, the site of a farm market and multiple events each summer, a partnership of public money and private donations that saw the demolition of a long-vacant nightclub and the transformation of the property into a welcoming space.

Nearby are diners, a long-running bookstore and other businesses. Brown said the Byrne Plaza project has brought new life into the neighborhood.

“It’s a beautifully constructed park,” he said.

But he credits the success of his business to something else.

“A lot of our survival has to do with our reputation, which is impeccable,” he said. “My father started it. I maintained it. My daughter will maintain it. That’s why we’re still here.”

Milton Brown was originally from Massachusetts, the son of a shoemaker. He became a master watchmaker before starting the business in Wildwood. It became successful enough that he took in his brother as a partner. They opened a Boardwalk location. In 1972, the two stores separated.

“My father took the avenue and my uncle took the Boardwalk,” Brown said. “Urban renewal came to town, and that was the reason for the split. My uncle didn’t want to be a part of the rebuilding of downtown.”

Michael Brown was born at Burdette Tomlin Hospital, now called Cape Regional Medical Center. He started at the family business when he was 15, before leaving to get a business degree.

He also became a master watchmaker, one of a dwindling number of independent watchmakers in the country. And in 1984, he bought his father’s business.

It was “right before they demolished the street, to make way for the pedestrian mall,” he said. He survived that challenge.

Now, the business is determined to survive the latest challenge, as stores reopen their doors after being closed by executive order because of COVID-19.

During the closure, the store began to concentrate on online sales and sales through Facebook Live, during which they used contests, sales and other promotions to draw customers. Brown also posted a video of himself dismantling, cleaning and repairing a high-end watch, giving customers an inside look at the painstaking process.

“A business has to change,” Brown said.

Still, the store keeps one foot in the past. On a recent weekday morning, customers came in with watches for repair and looking for a diamond ring. Brown went over the options and what they would cost, and spent time explaining the benefits and drawbacks of each.

Brown said his daughter, Jessica Brown, also has become a gem expert and a master jeweler. The store also has a master engraver on staff for trophies and other work.

Being versatile has helped. The popularity of wrist watches has fallen with the rise of the smart phone, and many who do wear a watch buy one for $40 or less and get a new one rather than replace the battery. But there remains a market for high-end watches, Brown said.

“I do everything from simple battery changes to Rolexes and quality watches above Rolexes.” he said. “I was taught the old-fashioned way.”

That includes tearing the watch down completely and cleaning and maintaining each tiny piece during a repair.

After a lifetime in the store, Brown said he can still be surprised.

He told a story about a man who came in to buy a ring on a rainy day years ago. They made a deal, Brown said. Then the man asked about a young couple who was looking at half-karat diamond engagement rings, even though they could not afford one.

As Brown tells the story, the man asked of the young man, “Do you love this lady?” The young man said yes. He asked the woman if she loved the man and received the same answer.

“He bought the ring for them,” Brown said. He would not give the couple his name, saying instead they should just call him Robin Hood. Brown said the couple bought a thank-you card at a neighboring shop for him to deliver to the mystery man. It was addressed to “Robin Hood.”

Outdoor amusement parks, Boardwalk rides to reopen July 2

Boardwalk rides, water and amusement parks will be allowed to reopen just in time for the busy Fourth of July weekend.

The parks will be allowed to reopen July 2, Gov. Phil Murphy said during his daily news conference Tuesday.

The announcement came one day after the governor announced casinos would be allowed to open on the same date.

“With next week’s July Fourth holiday weekend rapidly approaching and with families rightfully looking for ways to enjoy their time off together, we wanted to make it known that, yes, the rides will be in operation,” Murphy said. “But, moreover, we want everyone to enjoy their time together responsibly.”

While guidance for operations will be forthcoming, Murphy said employees and customers should anticipate that park capacity will be kept at 50% and face coverings will be required, as well as social distancing and heightened hygiene.

“We are working hard to redefine family fun this summer and are further expanding our commitment to safety and cleanliness starting with our Safe Play Promise,” said Will and Jack Morey, partners of Morey’s Piers and Water Parks in Wildwood in a prepared statement. “Upon reviewing operating guidance from the State of New Jersey, we will be releasing additional information pertaining to our Safe Play Promise, hours of operation, and operating procedures. ... We will be operating under new “normal for now” guidelines and standards, therefore, a visit to the piers will be different this summer.”

When employees enter Steel Pier they will have their temperature taken and hand sanitizing stations will be located around the pier, said Anthony Catanoso, president and owner.

“The learning curve is going to come, when we open the gates. They said it’s the new normal, I say it’s the new abnormal,” Catanoso said. “It’s going to be a whole new dynamic, a whole different dynamic. We’re excited.”

The reopening of amusement parks falls under the State 2 of the state’s reopening plan.

“Our member amusement parks — and all merchants on the Boardwalk — are prepared to open safely with hygiene and social distancing protocols in place. We urge all visitors to follow all local, state and CDC guidelines when visiting Boardwalk shops, restaurants and amusement facilities. That includes wearing a mask, maintaining 6 feet from people not in your family and frequently washing your hands,” said Wes Kazmarck, president of the Ocean City Boardwalk Merchants Association in a prepared statement.

Playgrounds will also be allowed to reopen July 2, Murphy said, adding officials plan to give a timeline of the reopening of indoor recreation Wednesday.

“The only reason we are comfortable making these announcements this week is because social distancing and everything else you’re doing, folks, is actually working,” Murphy said. “Social distancing is the only thing that has allowed us to crush the curve — I would add face coverings to that — over the past three months and what has allowed us to catch up with a virus that has no vaccine and no proven therapeutic.”

GALLERY: Look back at the Ocean City Boardwalk

GALLERY: Look back at the Ocean City Boardwalk

Fauci: Next few weeks critical to tamping down virus spikes

WASHINGTON — The next few weeks are critical to tamping down a disturbing coronavirus surge, Dr. Anthony Fauci told Congress on Tuesday — issuing a plea for people to avoid crowds and wear masks just hours before mask-shunning President Donald Trump was set to hold a campaign rally in one hot spot.

Fauci and other top health officials also said they have not been asked to slow down virus testing, in contrast to Trump’s claim last weekend that he had ordered fewer tests be performed because they were uncovering too many infections. Trump said earlier Tuesday he wasn’t kidding when he made that remark.

“We will be doing more testing,” Fauci, infectious disease chief at the National Institutes of Health, pledged to a House committee conducting oversight of the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic.

As for the anxiously awaited vaccine, Fauci said he believes “it will be when and not if” it arrives, and he’s “cautiously optimistic” that some vaccine could be available at the end of the year.

More than a dozen vaccine candidates are in various stages of testing around the globe, and the U.S. next month is poised to begin the largest study — in 30,000 people — to get the needed proof that one really works. Meanwhile, countries, including the U.S. under a program called “Operation Warp Speed,” are beginning to stockpile millions of doses of different shots, in hopes at least some will prove usable.

Health officials assured lawmakers Tuesday that there won’t be shortcuts on safety.

“We absolutely must maintain regulatory independence and make the right decision for the American people based on the science and the data,” said Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn.

The leading public health officials spent more than five hours testifying before the committee at a fraught moment, with coronavirus cases rising in about half the states and political polarization competing for attention with public health recommendations.

Fauci told lawmakers he understands the pent-up desire to get back to normal as the U.S. begins emerging from months of stay-at-home orders and business shutdowns. But that has “to be a gradual step-by-step process and not throwing caution to the wind,” he said.

“Plan A, don’t go in a crowd. Plan B, if you do, make sure you wear a mask,” Fauci said.

Troubling surges worsened Tuesday in several states, with Arizona, Texas and Nevada setting single-day records for new coronavirus cases, and some governors saying they’ll consider reinstating restrictions or delaying plans to ease up in order to help slow the spread of the virus.

Arizona, where Trump was headed for a rally at a Phoenix megachurch, reported a new daily record of nearly 3,600 additional coronavirus infections Tuesday. Arizona emerged as a COVID-19 hot spot after Republican Gov. Doug Ducey lifted his stay-home orders in mid-May. Last week he allowed cities and counties to require masks in public places and many have done so.

Texas surpassed 5,000 new cases for a single day for the first time — just days after it eclipsed 4,000 new cases for the first time — as America’s largest pediatric hospital began taking adult patients to free up bed space in Houston. The infection rate in Texas has doubled since late May. And Nevada surpassed a record one-day increase for the fourth time in the past eight days. Other states also were experiencing worrisome surges, including Louisiana, Utah and South Carolina.

Another worrisome trend: an increase in infections among young adults. Fauci said while COVID-19 tends to be less severe in younger people, some of them do get very sick and even die. And younger people also may be more likely to show no symptoms yet still spread the virus.

If people say, “’I’m young, I’m healthy, who cares’ — you should care, not only for yourself but for the impact you might have” on sickening someone more vulnerable, Fauci said.

About 2.3 million Americans have been infected and some 120,000 have died, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

Republican Rep. David McKinley of West Virginia asked if Fauci regretted that the American public wasn’t urged sooner to wear face masks, and then interrupted before the visibly annoyed scientist finished answering.

Fauci said he didn’t regret the change in recommendations. Early in the pandemic there was a “paucity of equipment” for health workers “who put themselves daily in harm’s way” and “we did not want to divert” those scarce supplies, he said.

Scientists eventually recommended the general public use cloth masks, after they better understood that people with no symptoms could be spreading the virus — even though they don’t offer as much protection as the sophisticated masks reserved for health workers and aren’t a substitute for staying 6 feet away from other people.

Trump, meanwhile, doubled down on testing claims that have public health experts appalled, tweeting Tuesday:

“Cases are going up in the U.S. because we are testing far more than any other country, and ever expanding. With smaller testing we would show fewer cases! “

Less testing in fact means more infections going undetected. The U.S. was slow in ramping up and currently is testing about 500,000 people a day. Many experts say to control the spread of the virus, it should be testing 900,000 or more.

Brett Giroir, a Health and Human Services assistant secretary, told lawmakers Tuesday the next step is testing patient samples in large batches to stretch limited supplies, which would expand U.S. screening between fivefold and tenfold.

Instead of testing each person individually, health workers would pool samples from 50, 100 or more people from the same office or school, for example. A negative result would clear everyone, while a positive would require each person to be individually re-tested.

And Dr. Robert Redfield, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, added that it’s now recommended for workers in nursing homes — hard-hit by the virus — to be tested weekly.

Democrats blasted Trump for confusing the public with erroneous statements — from testing to masks to unproven treatments — and ignoring the public health experts’ advice.

“It costs lives,” Rep. Kathy Castor of Florida said of Trump’s false claims. She urged the public health specialists to do more to counter the president: “We really expect you to be more outspoken.”

Pushed on whether schools should reopen in August and September, Redfield insisted that will vary not just by state but by school district, depending on how many infections are in a particular area.

“Many jurisdictions will be reopening schools,” and CDC will soon issue some guidelines to help, he said.

Fauci noted that schools should tailor their decisions to local conditions, saying some might need few restrictions and others more. He offered the same advice to colleges, saying they should assume some students will get infected and that there must be ways to keep them and their classmates safe.