The City of Brigantine Beach Mayor Philip J. Guenther emphasized in his State of the City Address on February 1 that the revaluation of city real estate properties later this year will ensure that all residents’ real estate taxes are fair and accurate.
City Council on February 1 awarded a $549,000 contract to Vital Communications of Trenton to conduct the island-wide revaluation, which Guenther said is scheduled to be completed by December of this year. The contract was approximately $200,000 below the estimated cost of the project.
The mayor said appeals of the previous revaluation conducted in 2004 have cost the city some $1.7 million in real estate tax revenues in the 2011 year
In addition, state aid to Brigantine has dropped from $1,026,000 in 2005 to $696,000 today while schools felt the loss of $916,000 in state aid from 2009 to 2011.
“No doubt the loss of significant revenues has made it more challenging to balance essential municipal services against the tax dollars of our hard-working residents,” Guenther said. “But despite tax appeals, state budget cuts, the high unemployment level and the stubborn recession, the economic crisis did not significantly diminish our ability to provide quality municipal services.”
“Thankfully, we were not forced into layoffs of police, fire or other essential personnel like so many other municipalities because of budget shortfalls,” he continued.
“The fact that we were able to continue to grow and flourish in the face of the dismal economic climate is a tribute to the hard work and dedication of every segment of our community including government, schools, business leaders, community organizations and dedicated volunteer citizens,” he said.
Guenther said credit is due to City Council for helping Brigantine to remain a vibrant and successful community by taking a conservative approach to the budgeting process. He said City Council closely monitors how each and every city dollar is spent, eliminated unnecessary programs and waste and duplicative employee work assignments and schedules.
“Moreover, at my request, City Council instituted a hiring freeze in the past which helped control new hires in all departments,” he said. He added that he is asking City Council to continue the hiring freeze this year as the city develops a budget that addresses the impact of the lost revenue from tax appeals, reduced state aid, and the state’s 2 percent budget cap.
In almost every department, according to Guenther, the number of employees has been reduced over the past three years. However, he said, because of the work ethic and professionalism of Brigantine’s municipal workers, the city has been able to reduce the staff levels without affecting program efficiency, compromising safety or neglecting infrastructure maintenance and improvements.
The school board, the mayor said, has also worked diligently to reduce costs at both the elementary and middle schools while ensuring that the school system and its award -winning programs are not compromised in the least way.
Enrollments have stabilized, but previous falling enrollments and the state’s mandate to cap property tax increases at 2 percent have driven decisions to reduce the number of full-time and certified teaching staff from 123 to 81 over the past eight years, he said.
“This number equates to a decline of 28 percent of the district’s total teaching staff and has resulted in taxpayer savings of well over $2 million,” Guenther added.
In addition, the City and the public schools continued to share services for custodial and grounds maintenance as well as snow removal. In total, the school district has 11 shared service agreements for insurance funds, technological infrastructure consortiums, related health services and contract and purchasing coops.
For the second year, Guenther said, the district also entered into a one-of-a-kind contract for shared services with the Atlantic County Special Services District to offer special needs programs on Brigantine’s campus with tuition students from other districts. The aggregate savings for this program is well over $200,000.
Also noteworthy, he said, is the fact that the school district has completed all 21 projects in the second and last phase of the construction cycle, which is projected to extend the operational life of Brigantine schools for 20 years.
“While other districts are tearing down old schools to make way for new ones, Brigantine is renovating for operating efficiency and dollar savings,” the mayor said.
He added that the alternative energy projects of solar and wind energy that were included in the plan were installed last year. He said this project will enable city schools to generate their own power, resulting in a savings of $140,000 per year.
In addition, the school district was also approved for and will receive 40 percent debt service aid for a recovery from the state for approximately $800,000 of the eligible costs of the completed project.”
“Fiscal responsibility and controlling property taxes have always been a priority of City Council,” Guenther said. “The recently-completed Brigantine Beach Community Center is an example of our innovative and responsible approach to financing what I believe is one of the finest multi – purpose facilities in the entire State of New Jersey, and was by far our city’s most notable accomplishment in the past year.”
As a result of a $1.9 million grant from the Atlantic County Open Space Program as well as a $600,000 grant from the state Green Acres Program and a $300,000 Homeland Security grant, the city was able to cover the entire $2.7 million purchase price for the tract, he said. He added that anticipated proceeds from the sale of the former Civic Center and the old library site will offset a major portion of the renovation project.
Guenther added that retrofitting the building was covered under a $7.6 million bond issue approved by Council. Debt service requirements will present only a minimal impact to taxpayers as the obligation is phased in as old debt is retired.
Another milestone for Brigantine, he said, was the opening last summer of the CVS pharmacy at the Brigantine Circle. He said the $5 million facility, which is complimentary to existing architecture in the city, provides an excellent first impression at the gateway to the city. He said the city is appreciative of the $50,000 contribution CVS made voluntarily for the drainage project at the Lighthouse Circle even though it was not required.
Guenther said another significant accomplishment of City Council was the completion of the beach replenishment project at the North End by the Army Corps of Engineers.
“It was a massive reclamation project to repair damage caused by Nor’easters over the past several years,” he said. “We owe a debut of gratitude to Congressman Frank
LoBiondo for helping to obtain a total of $5 million for this much-needed project.”
The city, he said, is continuing to look for a permanent solution to the beach erosion problem in the North End and will be seeking a meeting with the Army Corps of Engineers. He said it is the city’s feeling that a better strategy than dredging sand or dumping sand would be a series of jetties made of rocks or concrete or both substances in the North End area.
Guenther pointed out that while the city has much to be proud of in the way of accomplishments in 2011, Brigantine is still facing uncertain times because of the crash of the housing and credit markets.
He said this problem has had a dramatic effect on the real estate market and the overall level of business activity. He said because of this economic uncertainty many individuals have decided to forego or delay retirement plans because of dwindling retirement accounts. Some of these plans, he said, included purchasing a vacation home at the seashore, exacerbating the city’s real estate market problems.
“In 2011 we continued to be persistent in exploring new ideas, strategies and innovative and creative ways to protect the dollars of our residents while providing the necessary resources to maintain a viable and progressive community,” Guenther said. “As a result of that strong commitment to austerity measures, despite these challenging economic times, we have a stable tax rate while maintaining our services at a steady pace.”
The mayor said the city’s municipal employees who work around the clock to provide the services the city needs to function at the highest level of efficiency play a key role in the city’s progress.
“These skilled and experienced workers deserve our thanks and appreciation for their outstanding work in keeping our city safe, secure and viable,” he said.
Also, he said, deserving of the city’s thanks are Brigantine elementary and middle schools for the outstanding work they do in providing a top notch educational experience for Brigantine students that is among the best in New Jersey.
The mayor pointed out that Dr. Robert Previti, the superintendent of Brigantine schools, will be retiring at the end of the school year after 18 years of service.
“Dr. Previti deserves our thanks and appreciation for his untiring work in providing our students with a solid academic foundation while focusing on the development of the whole child by emphasizing and nurturing multiple intelligences and character development,” he said. “He has also raised the bar for teachers and students and inspired them to achieve excellence.”
“We thank Dr. Previti and wish him a long and healthy retirement,” he said.
Also deserving of thanks, Guenther said, are the schools’ dedicated teachers, administrative staff, parents and school board “for their outstanding work in making our schools successful.”
Guenther commended the members of the city’s police and fire departments and the staff of the Public Works Department for their excellent work. He said it was noteworthy that these dedicated public servants were able to maintain the quality of service despite having to take on additional tasks with fewer personnel in almost every category. He also commended Police Chief John Stone, Fire Chief John Frugoli and Public Works Superintendent Ernie Purdy for their excellent leadership of the departments.
Guenther also cited Emergency Management Coordinator Lt. Jim Bennett and his staff and Beach Patrol Chief Joe Guenther and the members of the beach patrol for their outstanding work.
The Community Education and Recreation Department staff, he said, conducted 71 classes for some 728 persons and scheduled 356 activities for 2,254 participants last year. In addition, it organized 14 trips for 556 travelers and scheduled 16 performances in its year-round concert series.
Additionally, he said, CER’s staff was able to take on supervisory and administrative responsibilities at the Brigantine Beach Community Center without bringing on any additional full-time help.
“Director Jim Mogan and his staff deserve our thanks for their outstanding work in providing our community with such a multitude of excellent activities for our residents and visitors to enjoy,” Gunther said.
Although it had a respectable level of business in 2011, the Links, like other golf courses around the country, had fewer rounds of golf played as golfers cutback on leisure spending because of the recession, the mayor said. He said revenues fell from $1.3 million in 2010 to $1.1 million last year.
Despite the decline in revenues, he said the Links avoided tapping into its surplus account by adopting a number of cost-cutting measures, including cutbacks in staffing levels.
At the beginning of his address, the mayor singled out the members of the military from Brigantine for special thanks.
“While the city reflects on its accomplishments in the past year, it should begin by thanking the special men and women from our community who willingly put themselves in harm’s way in service to our country,” he said.
“Thirty brave men and women with ties to Brigantine are presently serving our country in the military and have earned our admiration, support and gratitude for their heroic efforts in protecting our liberty and ensuring our nation’s security,” he said.
He also thanked the city’s many volunteer citizens who help enhance the quality of life in Brigantine by serving on boards, committees and clubs, and running sports and recreation programs, and assisting with activities for seniors, those with disabilities and others in need.
For instance, he said, Ron Powell, a former Marine, serves at the city’s volunteer Deputy Emergency Management Coordinator. He said Powell aids the city in developing plans, and assessing damage after storms by using his extensive background in utility construction.
Recently, Guenther said, Herman Lang, a veteran school administrator and member of the Brigantine School Board for over 20 years, passed away.
“Herman was a selfless advocate for children and education and a dedicated member of the Board of Education,” he said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Rose and his family and we thank them for supporting Herman’s efforts to improve the quality of education in Brigantine.”
Also, deserving of the city’s thanks, he said, was the True Spirit Coalition led by Linda Simpson, which made the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays memorable for needy families. He said volunteers of the coalition delivered food and gift items to the needy. He also thanked those who donated items for the drives.
Also, Guenther said, on New Year’s Day thousands of people raced into the ocean in front of the Sea Wall in the annual Polar Bear Plunge to raise close to $50,000 for Fisher House, a national foundation that provides temporary housing for families of wounded veterans as they recover and rehabilitate from their injuries.
“John Hand and Augie Peltonan, along with every Brigantine civic organization joined forces to make this effort an enormous success,” Guenther said.
He said a debt of gratitude was also owed to the volunteers who provide shuttle bus service for Brigantine’s valued seniors. Under Tom Shanley’s direction, the volunteer driver and dispatchers donated over 750 hours of their time and drove over 6000 miles.
Guenther said the Clean Communities Committee deserves the city’s gratitude for organizing beach and citywide cleanup campaigns during the past year. He said the Girl Scouts also deserve thanks for their campaign for donations to purchase Girl Scout cookies for our service men and women stationed overseas.
“Brigantine is truly a generous community as hundreds of individuals give freely of their time, talent and treasure to help others,” he said. “On behalf of our city, I offer my heartfelt thanks to all of the volunteers who are helping make our city a strong, vibrant and compassionate community.”
The mayor said many of the projects completed in the city last year could not have commenced without the leadership of former city manager Jim Barber ”who did an outstanding job in his dual roles as city manager and public safety director.”
“We thank Jim for his many years of service to our community and wish him a long and healthy retirement,” Guenther said. He said that thanks also were due to Ellie Derrickson who performed admirably as acting manager from last August when Jim Barber retired until January when new City Manager Jennifer Blumenthal began work.
The mayor said the hiring of Blumenthal was “in my opinion the best example of council working together in a productive and non-partisan manner during 2011.”
“With over 50 applicants, Jennifer Blumenthal was the unanimous choice of City Council to fill our city manager position,” he said. “We’re confident that she will ensure that our city services continue at a high level of efficiency and effectiveness under her watch.”
The mayor also thanked Ken Schaffer for his service to the community for the time that he served as Fourth Ward councilman, and he congratulated Rick DeLucry on his election and welcomed him to City Council as the new representative of the Fourth Ward.
Guenther said the city has reason to be optimistic that the regional economy will begin to rebound after five difficult years.
For instance, he said, Atlantic City’s casinos posted a monthly revenue increase in December, and the new Revel Casino will be bringing new gamblers into the resort when it opens later this year.
Another positive development, he added, was the takeover of the Trump Marina hotel and casino by Golden Nugget and the plan of Hard Rock International to break ground for its new smaller, or boutique, casino this year.
Also, he said, 2012 marks the initial year of Governor Christie’s Atlantic City Rescue Plan, which includes state supervision of safety, cleanliness and planning in the casino and Boardwalk areas. The state also has adopted a number of reforms aimed at making Atlantic City more visitor-friendly. These included putting the Casino Redevelopment Commission in charge of revitalizing the resort in areas such as street safety and maintenance.
In addition, the new casino-financed Atlantic City Alliance is committing $30 million a year to promote Atlantic City on a worldwide basis.
“All of these events make us optimistic that tourism will pick up, casino revenues will increase and more jobs and business opportunities will be created for our residents,” the mayor said.
Brigantine also is working on ways to bring more vacationers to the island and spur economic development on the island through the city’s Business and Commercial Development Committee, Guenther said.
He said the city will continue to work to enhance the gateway to Brigantine through the proposed acquisition of the former Gulf gas station using grant funds from the county open space program, the state’s Blue Acres and Green Acres programs.
With the present economic climate, he said, the city has seen some deterioration of various private properties with a few of them reaching a state where they should be demolished. In some cases, he said, the city has not been able to get the cooperation of the owners, leaving the city no choice but to demolish the structure and lien the property. He added that he will ask Council to include funds for demolition into his year’s budget so that the integrity of the neighborhoods where the eyesores are located can be maintained.
Guenther said the state mandate to cap property tax increases at 2 percent seems a prudent way to help control some municipal costs, but it cannot solve all fiscal issues. He said other costs such as labor union contracts that are currently in effect are beyond the city’s control.
“However, going forward we know that through the efforts of Gov. Christie that there are limits on arbitration awards and that the contracts settled in the future will reflect the economic conditions that all residents and homeowners face,” he said. “This new reality does not diminish the service of our dedicated employees. It motivates all of us to find ways to sustain their efforts in the future.”
The mayor said the proposed budget for 2012-2013 meets all the legal requirements.
“I’m sure it will be scrutinized carefully to gauge the impact on our programs, personnel, and most importantly our taxpayers,” he said. “The budget will undoubtedly present challenges as revenues decreased sharply as a result of tax appeals and loss of state aid, and other costs such as contractual pay increases, employee benefits, and operational expenses have all increased.”
“Over the next several weeks, Council will work closely with our professionals to find creative solutions to our budget dilemmas,” Guenther said. “Hopefully, as Homer stated ‘adversity has the effect of eliciting talents, which in prosperous circumstances would have lain dormant.’”