Causeway Bridge, LBI Beaches Dominated 2016 SandPapersTop Stories Included Police Shooting, Surf Tragedies
Ben Franklin wrote, “Nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”
The first installment of the Top 20 News Stories of 2016, as reported in the pages of The SandPaper last week, ended with a discussion of Len Connors’ death and career as mayor and state legislator. Well, Connors hated taxes and he spent much of his career in Trenton opposing tax increases and their cousin, unfunded mandates. So it is fitting that the second and final installment of the Top 20 News Stories of 2016 list starts with a look at taxes. Because after all, Franklin could have finished his famous sentence with the words, “especially in New Jersey.”
No. 10: 23-cents per gallon gas tax increase. If Connors was still alive and serving in the New Jersey Senate, you can easily imagine him launching a one-man, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” type of filibuster against the gas tax increase. After all, his son Christopher, who now represents Southern Ocean County in the Senate, along with Assembly members DiAnne Gove and Brian Rumpf in the Ninth Legislative District, fought it tooth-and-nail. They claimed their constituents would end up paying for roads and mass transit in North Jersey. The October increase from 14.5 to 37.5 cents per gallon was huge – the Garden State jumped from having the second lowest fuel tax among U.S. states to having the sixth highest!
But it was far from the only tax increase many Southern Ocean County residents saw in 2016, with the county, many municipalities and school districts taking a bigger bite out of taxpayers’ wallets. Most increases were small, but they add up. The taxpayers of Barnegat Township took the worst local hit last year, seeing their municipal purpose tax rate go up 7.2 cents of $100 of assessed value. Yep, pennies add up – the owner of the average, $237,548, house in Barnegat had a tax hike of $171.
Interestingly, although Garden Staters continually moan about taxes, they often increase them themselves. Voters in Harvey Cedars, by a 96-87 vote, approved a one-cent open space tax rate in November, meaning the owner of an average home, which is assessed at $1 million in the affluent Island community, will shell out an extra $100 year. Beach Haven voters nixed a Green Acres tax by a 254-230 vote. But Barnegat voters – yes, Barnegat voters, even though they had been hit hard earlier in the year – voted 5,267 to 4,687 to continue to pay for a 4th of July fireworks show estimated to cost taxpayers $30,000 to $35,000. The gas tax increase may have been higher on this list but, well, in New Jersey you just expect tax increases.
No. 9: Most school referendums pass muster. The biggest chunk of a New Jersey homeowner’s tax bill usually doesn’t come from municipal, county or library taxes but from school districts (the municipality collects and disburses all property taxes). Yet, just as above, voters often approve raising taxes on themselves when it comes to their schools. Four Southern Ocean County districts had referendums in 2016; three passed. First up was Eagleswood, where, in March, voters approved not one but two referendum questions totaling $4,393,010 by counts of 220-126 and 196-149. Interestingly, the exact same questions had failed in September 2015. The average taxpayer in Eagleswood will see their school taxes increase by $209 a year, owing to the vote. Tuckerton was next, where, in September, voters considered a $3.3 million primary school referendum that would increase the taxes of the owner of an average home by $68 a year. The referendum passed, 206 to 185. The action moved to Stafford Township in December, where voters overwhelmingly approved a $10.1 million referendum question by a 1,227 to 606 count. Now, the Stafford vote won’t increase the amount of money taxpayers will have to shell out to support the town’s elementary schools. That’s because a previous debt schedule will soon close out and the new debt will simply replace it. On the other hand, taxpayers won’t get the rather substantial break they would have received if the district hadn’t gone further into debt.
The one school district that saw a referendum fail was Pinelands Regional. It had asked voters to approve three questions totaling $53.6 million on Nov. 8. All three failed. Two, though, were very close and even the third was within striking distance, so the Pinelands Regional School Board decided to try again; voters will consider the exact same three questions on Tuesday, Jan. 24. “These issues (addressed in the referendum questions) are not going away,” said Interim Superintendent Maryann Banks, “and must be addressed for the safety and security of our students, teachers and communities.”
No. 8: Many changes in police stations and town halls. A ton of familiar faces went missing in Southern Ocean County’s police stations and municipal buildings in 2016. Detective Robert Burnaford replaced the retiring Thomas Preiser as chief of police in Harvey Cedars in March. Burnaford, at 33, became the youngest chief in Ocean County. Capt. Thomas Dellane moved up to replace another retiree, Chief Joseph Giberson, in Stafford later in the spring. In November Capt. Richard Dugan was appointed as acting police chief in Barnegat Township. It wasn’t a matter of replacing a retiring chief. Chief Arthur Drexler had been suspended with pay on July 25 and without pay on Aug. 19. Nobody – not Mayor John Novak, Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office spokesman Al Della Fave, nobody could or would comment on Drexler’s suspension at the time.
Let’s move on to town halls. In June, longtime Stafford Township Clerk Bernadette Park retired, to be replaced by Kimberly Hodsdon. At the end of September, Gail Bott retired from her 25-year job as Stafford Municipal Alliance director. In December Beach Haven lost Borough Manager Richard Crane, Public Works Superintendent George Gilbert and Land Use Board Secretary Mary Pence to retirement. Municipal Clerk Sherry Mason has been appointed acting borough manager, while Deputy Municipal Clerk Kristy Davis will take over Pence’s position. Chris Carson is the new superintendent of public works. We’re probably missing somebody but, hey, out of sight, out of mind.
No. 7: A big election year. Politics, thanks mostly to Donald Trump, dominated the national news in 2016. Politics were a lot more predictable in Southern Ocean County. Not surprisingly, Trump and the GOP had no problem winning votes in the Republican-dominated Ocean County. He crushed Hillary Clinton in O.C., and other Republicans such as Southern Ocean County’s two Congressmen, Frank LoBiondo and Tom MacArthur, Freeholders Virginia “Ginny” Haines and John P. “Jack” Kelly, and Ocean County Sheriff Michael Mastronardy easily beat back their challengers. There were some interesting local races, though. Eric Svelling sought a seat on the Barnegat Light Council and came close to earning one, losing by only 31 votes to incumbent Scott Sharpless. It looked on election night that first-time contender Dan Allen would join re-elected incumbents Nancy Taggart Davis and Charles Maschal on the Beach Haven Council, beating out Tom Lynch, who also ran for council in 2014, by seven votes. But once absentee ballots were added to the mix, Lynch overtook Allen to be elected. The Barnegat Township Committee remained 5-0 Republican despite a large tax increase. Long Beach Township incumbents Joseph H. Mancini, Ralph H. Bayard and Joseph P. Lattanzi defeated challengers Thomas Beaty, Danielle R.W. Hagler, Gregory Kopenhaver and Donald S. Myers in a hard fought board of commissioners race. Mancini and Lattanzi won handily, but Bayard barely edged out Meyers by 33 votes.
Finally, Republican Bobbi Jo Crea thrashed incumbent Democratic Mayor Gene Kobryn in Little Egg Harbor, returning the five-member committee to GOP control. It had been a nasty political year in LEH, dominated by charges of corruption and mismanagement from both sides. Democrat Deputy Mayor David Schlick, for example, had claimed Republican Committeeman John Kehm had received a favorable assessment after his house was destroyed by Superstorm Sandy and rebuilt. Kehm and Committeeman Ray Gormley had brought in an outside attorney to investigate Business Administrator Garrett Loesch’s signing off on former Mayor Art Midgley’s decision to give a bonus to a former public works superintendent without involving the entire committee for a vote. There was also a controversy involving Police Chief Richard Buzby receiving a stipend for cell phone usage while serving as emergency management coordinator. As The SandPaper reported, “Ultimately Kehm, Loesch and Buzby did not face official consequences besides the public humiliation of having their reputations questioned. Voters may have seen Crea as a welcome change outside the fray.”
No. 6: Police involved shooting in Little Egg Harbor. Police involved shootings may have been the second biggest news story, behind the ascent of Donald Trump, at the national level last year. Southern Ocean County was not exempt. On July 16 a member of the Ocean County Regional SWAT Team shot and killed Patrick Fennell, 57, of Sycamore Drive in Little Egg Harbor. Around 7 p.m. that evening Fennell’s wife made a 911 call reporting her husband was behaving in a strange manner. He had been in the basement of their home, where weapons were stored, and she had heard gunfire. Township police responded to the scene and Fennell exited his home and ran into a wooded area. The responding officers reported Fennell was holding a handgun so the SWAT team was called in. At about 10:30 SWAT team officers confronted Fennell and he was hit with multiple rounds and pronounced dead at the scene. A handgun was recovered at the scene. What made the case especially interesting was that Fennell was a retired New York City Police detective lieutenant. The incident was investigated by the state Attorney General’s Shooting Response Team as required by attorney general directives.
Another Little Egg Harbor man, Lenardo Caro, 24, was arrested in August, charged with being involved in a notorious shootout on the Atlantic City Expressway that left at least four males injured and one killed. The afternoon shootout, which occurred on Aug. 29, stretched for miles. Caro was charged with unlawful possession of a weapon, possession of an assault weapon, possession of a defaced weapon and employing a juvenile in a crime.
No. 5: The ocean is nothing to mess with. The Atlantic Ocean is more dangerous than the Atlantic City Expressway. Shootings get a lot of attention, but rip currents are just as lethal. On June 19 at 1:22 a.m. a young women who had been caught in a rip current at an unguarded beach on LBI the previous morning passed away at the age of 24 at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center in Philadelphia. The woman, swimming with her boyfriend on the 24th Street beach in the Spray Beach neighborhood of Long Beach Township, had been knocked over by a wave and pulled under water at about 11 a.m. on June 18. The boyfriend was able to pull her out of the water but not before she had been submerged too long. The Long Beach Township Police Department, the Long Beach Township Beach Patrol, the Beach Haven First Aid Squad and the Beach Haven Volunteer Fire Co. responded to the scene and the woman was transported to Manahawkin’s Southern Ocean Medical Center, and then airlifted to Penn. Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office spokesman Al Della Fave said at the time that an autopsy would likely rule the cause of death as asphyxiation by drowning.
It was the second death in or near LBI’s surf in a matter of two weeks. On June 5, a 55-year-old man died after assisting swimmers in distress off of 46th Street in Brant Beach. A call came into Long Beach Township police at 4:41 p.m. reporting five people in the ocean, including three kids in distress. A subsequent call said all five had reached land safely, but when an officer responded to the scene, an individual was performing CPR on the man, who had collapsed on the beach after helping rescue the kids, one of which was his 15-year-old son. The Beach Haven First Aid Squad also responded, to no avail. The cause of the man’s death could not be determined pending an autopsy.
No. 4: Long Beach Island school situation still not resolved. Good Lord, how long is this going to go on?! “The discussion whether to have one or two schools in the Long Beach Island Consolidated School District continued throughout the year and, as in 2014, reached no conclusion,” read part of last year’s version of the Top 20 News Stories of the Year article. “Maybe, just maybe, that decision will be made in 2016, but hold your breath at your own risk.” Truer words were never written – despite crowded meetings and numerous letters to The SandPaper editor, the situation is no closer to being resolved. It would take far too long to lay out all the twists and turns of this story that occurred in 2016 and, besides, they’ll all be repeated this year.
No. 3: Surflight remains shuttered. The Beach Haven landmark remained closed for a second summer in 2016. Oh, Surflight fans got excited a couple of times last year. In February, a new group, LBI Theatre Inc., announced it was working with Beach Haven Borough and Long Beach Township to save Surflight. It proposed those two municipalities (originally all the municipalities on LBI, but with Beach Haven and the township footing most of the bill) buy Surflight and rent it out to the group, which would operate the theater and via its rent, pay off the bonds the municipalities would have to issue to purchase the 450-seat theater. That plan, though, slowed down, so much so that in September a spokesperson for LBI Theatre Inc. addressed the Beach Haven Council, saying, “I have been watching the discussions of the Beach Haven Council, by way of the minutes, and I’ve been surprised that there have been no public discussions about the Surflight Theatre.” The spokeswoman said immediate action was needed. “TD Bank owns the theater property. TD Bank wants to sell the property. And we understand that TD Bank wants to sell the property by year’s end.”
Well, the year ended and TD Bank still owns the property. In November, the SandPaper reported that a Massachusetts impresario, Bill Hanney, who had already rescued two historic theaters in New England, was interested in buying Surflight. But again, TD Bank still owns the property. The problem is that TD Bank is apparently holding out for its asking price of $2.9 million. LBI Theatre Inc. thought the bank would settle for $2.1 million. Hanney saved those previously mentioned theaters in Rhode Island and Massachusetts by waiting to purchase them with a lowball figure. Unless TD Bank reevaluates the Surflight situation soon, there’s a good chance the landmark will sit empty yet another summer. Hundreds of thousands of dollars of repairs would have to be made to reopen the theater and, of course, a cast and crew would have to be hired and the rights for shows obtained for a 2017 season – and the clock is ticking. Perhaps if a TD Bank representative would walk the streets of Beach Haven and take note of all its empty storefronts, the bank might realize $2.9 million is simply asking too much.
No. 2: Causeway work. Keeping up with the ever-changing traffic patterns on the Causeway connecting LBI to the mainland was a never-ending and thankless job in 2016. The Causeway project isn’t expected to be completed until 2020. The big news of 2016? The “new bridge” was opened to traffic well before the Memorial Day weekend, thanks to a burst of activity in April and early May. A few months earlier, that had looked like a pipe dream and it would have been easy to bet against it being ready for the busy holiday weekend. But then again, did you dare to bet on Trump being elected, and the Cubs winning the World Series? It was that kind of year!
No. 1: Beach replenishment. Enough said. There were at least, by this reporter’s count, 44 articles and letters to the editor in The SandPaper regarding the massive beach replenishment project that moved up and down the shore of LBI over the course of 2016. The project, most people would agree, was absolutely necessary to protect citizens and property of Long Beach Island from storms like Sandy. But the complaining never stopped. Some letter writers were almost in tears over losing their ocean view. Others went nuts over losing access to their beach for a couple of precious summer weeks, and wondered aloud why the work couldn’t be done in the off-season. (Hmmm, could it be weather-related?) The majority, though, screamed that seniors couldn’t possibly walk over the new, high dunes to visit the beach. On and on it went.
This summary of the Top 10 News Stories of 2016 started with a quote from Benjamin Franklin. It is only fitting to end with a quote from another great American, Abraham Lincoln, who borrowed the 15th century monk and poet John Lydgate’s words and said, “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.”