Joseph F. Berenato
1-cent town tax hike
HAMMONTON—At the May 23 meeting of town council, Mayor Stephen DiDonato announced that the 2022 municipal budget would represent a one-cent increase to taxpayers.
DiDonato cited rising costs to the town as the reason for the increase.
“Everybody knows that, in the line item for gas, I think last year we had $86,000 for gasoline and diesel and this year we’re budgeting $175,000—so that’s $109,000 more,” DiDonato said.
Town Business Administrator Frank Zuber noted other increases, including health insurance costs, which increased by $265,000.
“We also had the ACUA [Atlantic County Utilities Authority] contract that was increasing. Pension costs went up; for PRS, it went up $28,000 and for PFRS it was an increase of $39,900. Also, our business and workmen’s comp insurance went up $9,682—so there were increases throughout the budget,” Zuber said.
Councilman William Olivo commented further.
“Those are numbers we have no control over,” Olivo said.
DiDonato confirmed that assessment, and continued.
“This is a one-penny increase on the tax rate. For the average person, you’re probably talking about $7 to $10 per year,” DiDonato said.
During discussion, Councilman Steven Furgione said that there would be no increase in the utility for water and sewer.
“It should also be noted that we’re currently carrying a $400,000 deficit in utility spending because of uncollected fees during COVID which we’re hoping to reconcile at the end of this year, that we’re able to float,” Furgione said.
Zuber said that the moratorium for water and sewer payments ended in March, and Furgione continued.
“The plan is that that money comes back to us at the end of this year,” Furgione said.
Councilman Edward Wuillermin inquired further.
“So, we’re still self-liquidating there?” he said.
Furgione responded in the negative.
“We are not self-liquidating. Until we get that money, we’re not self-liquidating on the utility side,” Furgione said.
The town’s auditor, Leon Costello of Ford-Scott & Associates, was present to explain the budgetary procedure, which began with Resolution No. 068-2022, Self Examination of Budget.
“Two out of every three years, you do your own exam of the budget, between Rob [Robert Scharle, Hammonton’s Chief Financial Officer] and myself. You qualify for it; your house is in order, so we’re allowed to do that. The state will not look at this budget; once we’re done with it, we’re done with it, and off you go. That’s what that resolution is for,” Costello said.
Wuillermin made a motion to accept the resolution. Councilman Thomas Gribbin seconded the motion, which passed unanimously.
Council then heard the introduction of Ordinance No. 015-2022 – COLA Ordinance Establish CAP Bank.
According to the language of the ordinance, Local Government Cap Law provides that, “in the preparation of its annual budget, a municipality shall limit any increase in said budget up to 2.5 percent unless authorized by ordinance to increase it to 3.5 percent over the previous year’s final appropriations, subject to certain exceptions.”
“In the CY 2022 budget year, the final appropriations of the Town of Hammonton shall, in accordance with this ordinance and N.J.S.A. 40A: 4-45.14, be increased by 3.5 percent, amounting to $374,506.54, and that the CY 2022 municipal budget for the Town of Hammonton be approved and adopted in accordance with this ordinance,” the ordinance states.
Costello said that this ordinance was necessary to introduce the budget.
“The amount of money that it provides will bring you up to the spending cap. You’re well within the levy cap; there’s two different caps you have to comply with, and the levy cap’s not an issue. The spending cap, this brings you right to the maximum of that cap,” Costello said.
The ordinance passed introduction.
Following that, council entertained Resolution No. 069-2022 – Introduce 2022 Municipal Budget.
“This is the formal introduction of the budget, even though you’ve been working on this for months,” Costello said.
The summary of the general section of the budget is as follows:
Current fund: municipal purposes within caps, $11,345,148.22; municipal purposes excluded from caps, $2,686,498.95; reserve for uncollected taxes, $1,162,247.44. Total general appropriations, $15,193,894.61. Less: anticipated revenues, $5,202,313.37. Amount to be raised by taxation, $9,991,581.24.
“Your fund balance is in better shape than it was last year. Your financial factors are all good. It provides for everything that you’ve had and, as was mentioned, the increases in health insurance, utilities and general contractual obligations. With all that being said, it’s still just a one-cent tax increase. Every $139,000 is a penny, so that’s all that this is really taking out of the taxpayer’s pocket: that one cent worth of all those costs we talked about going up,” Costello said.
The budget will be published in the June 1, 2022 edition of The Gazette. A hearing on the budget and tax resolution will be held at town hall on June 20 at 7 p.m., according to the ordinance, at which “time and place objections to said budget and tax resolution of the Town of Hammonton for the year 2022 may be presented by taxpayers or other interested persons.”
“We’ll be here to field any questions you have,” Costello said.
The resolution was adopted unanimously.
In other business, several members of Hammonton and the surrounding community addressed council during the second public portion regarding the potential for a skate park and related activities.
The first was Bill Keller of Egg Harbor City.
“I’m a skateboarder. I’m a parent of young skateboarders, and I’m here as a representative of the Hammonton skateboarding community,” Keller said.
Keller said that, over the past several months, skateboarders have been attending meetings of the Hammonton Parks and Recreation Commission advocating for a skate park.
“So far, the board has been receptive to the idea and will continue to push for a proper skate park in Hammonton, but we’re all in agreement that this will be an ongoing effort that will take some time,” Keller said.
In the meantime, Keller said, they would like to hold “pop-up skate nights” that would require permission from the town to bring obstacles. This, he said, would provide a safe place for local skateboarders.
“We have a set of rules and a boilerplate waiver of liability we’d require participants to read and sign,” Keller said.
Keller provided pictures and dimensions of said obstacles for council’s perusal.
“We’re thinking the 11th Street park basketball court would be a good place to start, but we’re certainly open to other ideas, especially if there’s something closer to downtown to make it easier for the kids to get to,” Keller said.
Keller said that it was their hope to hold their first event on National Go Skateboarding Day, which is June 21.
“We’re hoping you can take some time to review what we’ve provided and let us know if this is something we can provide for the community,” Keller said.
Wuillermin asked whether the skateboarders were organized as a formal club.
“No. We’re not a non-profit or anything, at this point in time,” Keller said.
Wuillermin inquired further.
“You don’t carry a certificate of insurance or anything like that for your members? How do you determine who the members are?” Wuillermin said.
“Whoever shows up and would like to participate,” Keller said.
“How does that protect the town in case of any liability issues?” Wuillermin said.
Keller said that such topics had previously been discussed with the Parks and Recreation Commission.
“Our understanding is most skate parks’ signage is ‘skate at your own risk,’ because it’s inherent—in some states it’s actually deemed a hazardous sport, which means that just by skateboarding you are responsible for your own safety,” Keller said.
Olivo asked as to the town’s responsibility in such a situation, and Town Solicitor Michael Malinsky replied.
“It doesn’t matter. If someone gets injured—even if it’s skate at your own risk—if you allow them and someone gets hurt, they’re going to sue you—the town—as well as the organizers. Again, that’s why we need to make sure they have insurance in place and we have an indemnification and hold harmless agreement,” Malinsky said.
Keller’s 10-year-old son, Will Keller, then took to the microphone.
“Hammonton is only a few minutes away, so I skate with Hammonton skateboarders. Even though I live in Mullica, I still go there a lot. If we wanted to play basketball, we could go to a basketball court in Hammonton; same with soccer, baseball, football, really any sport except skateboarding. If you let us have a skate night, skaters from all over Hammonton would come to have a safe place to skate instead of having to drive 30 to 40 minutes away—or having to skate in the street,” he said.
DiDonato outlined the requirements for using any of the town’s recreation facilities.
“We need an insurance policy and a use-of-facilities, even to use any of the parks,” DiDonato said.
Next to speak was Jasmine Kienzle, who lives in town.
“If we were an organized club, then we wouldn’t have an issue coming to do a skate night?” Kienzle said.
DiDonato clarified his answer, noting that being an organized club would have no bearing on the matter.
“For the use of facilities, to use the parks, we need a use-of-facilities form and an insurance policy ... in the state of New Jersey, if we allow you to use any of our facilities—we condone it, we approve it—we take the liability for it without that paperwork,” DiDonato said.
Kienzle said that she has lived in Hammonton for approximately seven years. Previously, she lived in several different communities throughout the country; each, she said, had a skate park.
“We moved here, and it’s kind of a different scenario with the way people look at recreation. My son, I drop him off at back alleys a lot. Just last week—or the week before—he had the cops called on him three times; he’s just skateboarding,” Kienzle said.
This, Kienzle said, is “a genuine problem.”
“There’s a large group of kids—more than just what’s here. We pack our cars; we drive them all over the place. It’s not just skateboarders; you’re talking about bikers, skateboarders, rollerbladers—it’s a pretty big thing that they’re doing, and it’s very, very positive,” Kienzle said.
Kienzle said that she has no desire to see her children and others on the streets.
“It’s too much, and we genuinely need your help. If this is just one night—that these kids can have a place that’s safe, and I’m not dropping them off at a back alley all the time—we need it. We really, genuinely need it,” Kienzle said.
DiDonato said that he agreed and understood her situation.
“You also have to understand that, unfortunately, when we take these seats, we have a responsibility for 15,000 residents—and we have to try to keep everyone safe, and the risk minimized to the most that we can,” DiDonato said.
Kienzle asked what the town was doing to keep the children safe, and Wuillermin asked a similar question of her.
“As a parent, why are you allowing your kids with a skateboard to be in a street where that could be a dangerous situation?” Wuillermin said.
“Where else would you like them to go?” she said.
“I don’t know. You bought them the skateboard. You determine that, but it can’t be with our liability,” he said.
Malinsky spoke to the possibility of a skate night.
“If they want to have an event on June 21 with the equipment—you guys want to set up the ramps—you can do it just like anybody else can. Everyone has to fill out a use-of-facilities form and have the appropriate insurance, and execute the appropriate hold harmless and indemnification agreement. That’s similar to any other group; we’re not treating any group differently. Just fill out the use-of-facilities form,” Malinsky said.
Bill Keller again approached the microphone, and likened the situation to use of bicycle paths in town.
“You provide them with the bike paths, and they are permitted to use the bike paths, correct? Any one of them could sue you at any moment in time,” Keller said.
DiDonato said that streets are a different situation.
“There’s cars. There’s pedestrians. It’s a little different situation, but parks? It’s not,” DiDonato said.
Kienzle asked regarding procedure when individuals use the basketball courts.
“What insurance do they have when they go on to that basketball court to use it?” Kienzle said.
Malinsky said that the difference is that they were asking to hold an organized event.
“You’re asking to have a skate night. You’re asking to put your own equipment on our property—ramps and stuff of that nature—which changes the circumstances a little bit. You’re asking to have a group of people—or advertise, or have people come on June 21—you want to start it once a week; I’m assuming you’re going to be bringing people there for this event, or to set up your ramps and everything else. We need something in place, just like any other organization,” Malinsky said.
Dan Bachalis, of Hammonton, approached the microphone, noting that he is a member of the Hammonton Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee.
“I’d like to suggest that, perhaps, we can work with the folks on some possible solutions—maybe thinking a little bit outside the box—so that we don’t spend the rest of our evening here being a little testy,” Bachalis said.
April Martin, of Mullica Twp., also addressed council on the topic.
“I’m a parent of a skateboarder. He was just accepted in the Honor Society. He’s an outstanding child, and an outstanding student. Skateboarding has only made him better. He’s pushed himself to limits I have never seen a child really get. He practices day in and day out,” Martin said.
Martin said that she works in the insurance industry.
“I feel that that’s just a talking point. I understand the insurance aspect of it, but that’s a conversation that probably should have been had, open and discussed. We are here, pleading with you as parents for help. We understand that there’s setbacks, hurdles and things we need to overcome in order to bring skateboarding to our community,” Martin said.
Martin said that, in her experience, ownership of a skate ramp can increase homeowners’ insurance.
“If you own a skateboard ramp, and you say ‘yes,’ you’re now looking at policy premiums that exceed $2,000 or $3,000 for a simple home insurance policy. This isn’t an option even for us homeowners, even if you have the means and the ability to build a skate park at your property on your driveway. You can’t have other friends come over with your children and enjoy the sport together because of the liability,” Martin said.
Martin said that other municipalities like Brick Twp. and Atlantic City have skate parks, and that her son was actively petitioning Mullica Twp. regarding skate facilities. DiDonato asked about progress in that regard.
“I know you’re a resident of Mullica Twp. How are you making out with them?” DiDonato said.
“We have the complete support of the rec committee. Insurance isn’t something that they’re really concerned about,” Martin said.
DiDonato inquired further.
“Did they provide an area where you can do this pop-up?” DiDonato said.
Martin responded in the affirmative.
“They discussed an area in the recs field where they would have to clear. They’ve discussed another type of sporting area that they would expand to,” Martin said.
DiDonato said that skate parks are “very expensive, and very costly to maintain.”
“Most of the areas you’re talking about, the county has open space, and they have open space money, and they have recreational money in the millions—where Hammonton has a $100,000 budget for recreation. We have a $15 million budget; Atlantic County has a $225 million budget, so they charge recreational money. That’s why Ocean County has all the parks you’re speaking of, because the county is doing them,” DiDonato said.
Martin asked how to get council’s help to get Atlantic County “on board,” and DiDonato replied.
“This council, I’m sure, would support that, but you have to start with the county—and the county exec, Denny Levinson. He could help,” DiDonato said.
Martin said that she would contact Levinson.
“He’s my old history teacher,” Martin said.
“There you go; then you’ve got an in, because that’s who you need. You need somebody that has the money available. We can’t just say we’re going to spend $1 million here for a skate park. We want to. Believe me, we want to, but there’s so many needs that we have to focus on in this small community,” DiDonato said.
DiDonato promised help if the county was willing to be involved.
“I’ll tell you what Hammonton’ll do. We will absolutely get you a location for this if you can get the money out of the county to build it ... We have property that you can build that on, but we don’t have the wherewithal to provide the property and build it,” DiDonato said.
Martin asked if insurance would be an issue in that case, and DiDonato replied.
“The insurance would come under the county. It would be on our property—it would be located in the town of Hammonton—but it would be a county park,” DiDonato said.
Councilman Sam Rodio commented on the matter.
“We can’t get the county to help us do a ditch. Good luck,” Rodio said.
Joe Kalucki, of Folsom, addressed council next.
“We can skate a ditch,” he said.
Kalucki said that he assumed that no member of council is an expert on skateboarding and skate parks, and acknowledged that none of the community members in attendance were experts in civics.
“That’s why we’re here tonight, to try to help. I think that’s what’s frustrating with the younger kids; they see, basically, a lot of why we can’t, and not how we can. That’s what I want to see more of,” Kalucki said.
Kalucki said that he had no wish to discourage the younger members in attendance from going to future council meetings.
“I really don’t. I don’t want to discourage them from politics. I don’t want them to be the kid that leaves their hometown because they weren’t happy that it doesn’t have all the things that they need. I think there is a solution here, and we want to be positive and work together and figure out what that is,” Kalucki said.
Kalucki said that he understood that the group of skateboarders would need their own insurance, but noted the nature of the activity worked against itself in that regard.
“Skateboarding is not as cohesive as a lot of the mainstream sports. Baseball has Little League; soccer has, I’m sure, some federation. Skateboarding doesn’t have that because there aren’t any teams; there aren’t any coaches. Trying to figure that landscape out is super hard, but if there’s a solution out there, we’ll try and find it,” Kalucki said.
Kalucki added that there is currently a petition with more than 300 signatures.
“Over half are from Hammonton residents; that’s still ongoing, so this is an issue that people in Hammonton care about. Just something to think about come November,” Kalucki said.
The last to speak on the matter was Jennifer Huntoon of Hammonton. Huntoon said that her son and his friends were among the skateboarders in question.
“I wanted to thank you for your time, and also, thanks to those kids who come to these meetings. Oh my God; can you imagine? These kids sitting here for two hours; the patience. I hope that you guys—when they come to these meetings—keep in mind that they’re here. They’re seeing our government in action, so I don’t want them to be discouraged. I’m glad that you’re open to listening, and I hope we get this moving forward,” Huntoon said.
At the top of the meeting, council heard a presentation by State Senator Jean Stanfield (R-8) and Assemblyman Michael Torrissi (R-8). Stanfield said that they were visiting each town in their legislative district.
“You’re our first stop, and for good reason, too. I started coming to Hammonton a few years ago, and I love this town. It’s amazing. The people are amazing; everybody knows each other. It’s such a sense of community. I always feel welcome here,” Stanfield said.
Stanfield explained the purpose of their visit.
“During the pandemic, there were so many times that constituents called us, from Hammonton and many other places, thousands of people that needed help with unemployment and other services, and we were able to help the town with some things that needed to be done through New Jersey Transit and DEP [New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection] and some other sources. We’re always here to be a resource for you, and that’s the message that we bring tonight. We’re here to help. Anything we can do for any of the people in the community that are having a problem with a state agency and you need somebody to intervene, we’re happy to help,” Stanfield said.
Stanfield said that being able to help constituents is “what makes the job worthwhile.”
“It’s not just passing bills in Trenton; it’s really helping people, and we’d be very happy to do that,” Stanfield said.
Stanfield then yielded the floor to Torrissi, who said that their office is “very onboard with what’s going on in the state.”
“I will say that we have not only the governor’s ear, I think, but Jean winning in our district accomplished a lot,” Torrissi said.
One issue on which they are focusing, Torrissi said, is drainage.
“I’ve gotten so many calls from residents; we can only handle state roads. We can’t do county roads. I believe, Mr. [Robert] Vettese, we had the DOT [Department of Transportation] contact you about flushing. There was a pipe that was crushed that we’re looking into, some other stuff,” Torrissi said.
Torrissi said that he had been in contact with DiDonato regarding the fence along the railroad tracks.
“We reached out to New Jersey Transit and the DOT as late as April 27. They said they’re going to fix whatever fencing they can. I asked them to replace all the fencing with black fencing. They said they don’t have the money for that; that has to go through the complete budget, which we’re going to ask for—we’re asking for everything for Hammonton,” Torrissi said.
DiDonato expressed his gratitude.
“Thank you. We deserve it,” he said.
“They’re going to fix the fencing and, from what I understand, a couple of the ‘Do Not Cross Tracks’ signs, they felt, were outdated; they said they were going to replace them as well,” Torrissi said.
Torrissi also said that representatives from the governor’s office wanted to set up a meeting.
“If Hammonton’s not getting what they need, they want to set up a meeting to cover the Route 54, 30, 206 drainage issues, New Jersey Transit, DOT. If we can get a hit list of any item in Hammonton that you feel we are not getting attention from the state, now’s the time to do it. We have their ear,” Torrissi said.
Council also heard a presentation by, Mingui Garcia, the owner of Tacos al Carbon, who appeared regarding the renewal of their license.
“It’s 24 years that Tacos al Carbon has been on the corner of Peach and Egg Harbor Road. Again, I come here to present transparency of what we do. We get inspected. We get insured. Fire suppression, fire permits, everything that’s needed for the business to continue to run in a safe manner, and continue to be on our corner. I just come to petition for my permit, my license,” Garcia said.
DiDonato asked if the operation would continue in the same manner as it had in the previous year, and Garcia said that it would.
DiDonato noted that Tacos al Carbon is the only food truck in the downtown area.
“When we adjusted the ordinance four or five years ago, we did this and grandfathered this food truck in because of the longevity; at the time I think it was approximately 20 years, if I remember right,” DiDonato said.
Garcia confirmed that assessment.
Councilman William Olivo made a motion to approve Tacos al Carbon’s license for an additional 12 months. Councilman Jonathan Oliva seconded the motion, which carried unanimously.
The next meeting of town council is scheduled for June 20 at 7 p.m.