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  • Writer's pictureJoseph F. Berenato

‘Incident’ with water supply

Furgione: Bacteria found; ‘no defects in our water supply’


Hammonton Town Hall

HAMMONTON—An “incident” with the town’s water supply in October of 2022 has required a public notice to be sent to all users of town water, Councilman Steven Furgione said at the February 27 meeting of town council.


“On October 4, we had our routine testing of five locations throughout the town for bacteria. We were notified on October 5—the next day—that three of the five tests had bacteria in it; not E. Coli, but bacteria,” Furgione said.


Furgione said that new tests were ordered immediately.


“On October 6, we had 12 tests: three for the sites that had bacteria, three for sites upstream—meaning, if the water line’s orientation is north to south, it would be three north of the sites—and three south of the sites downstream, and we also tested our wells; our raw samples,” Furgione said.


The 12 tests, Furgione said, all came back negative.


“All results were sent to the state. It was determined internally—we did a Level 1 Assessment—there were no defects in our water supply. We thought the issue was over at that point in time, since the test results came back negative after the first three came back positive,” Furgione said.


Furgione said that the town’s water department received a letter in January from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) that the certification to the Level 1 Assessment was not complete.


“Therefore, a public notice has to be issued,” Furgione said.


Furgione said that the notice would be mailed to all of the town’s water users by the beginning of the week of March 6. Residents may also read the notice by visiting https://townofhammonton.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/Final-Notice-about-Drinking-Water.pdf


Furgione said that the public notice is a “very standard formatted notice.”


“It has to have specific things in it. It’s got a lot of bark, really no bite, but I didn’t want to hide from it. I wanted to come out here and say it to everyone that, if you are a water user, you will receive a public notice regarding what happened,” Furgione said.


Furgione reiterated that the test results were sent to the state and the Level 1 Assessment was completed.


“The signature certification did not get sent back to the DEP; that’s what triggered this notice,” Furgione said.


Councilman Thomas Gribbin asked for clarification.


“But for the failure to notify the DEP, we would not be sending this notice out?” Gribbin said.


Furgione answered in the affirmative.


“We are required to do a Level 1 Assessment; that Level 1 Assessment was complete. The state received the results of the Level 1 Assessment showing what had transpired—three positive and then 12 negative—but the certification form that certifies our Level 1 Assessment was not complete,” Furgione said.


Mayor Stephen DiDonato commented further.


“We passed all the tests. We’re notifying people that, basically, we have employee error here.

Simple. An employee didn’t do his or her job—and that won’t happen again, because something will be put in the file. Simple. The employee screwed up, so I apologize to the town of Hammonton on behalf of said employee, and I apologize to this council that they have to go through this because of said employee that didn’t do his or her job,” DiDonato said.


During the Water and Sewer Committee report, Furgione said that it was time for the town to renew its contract with Water Remediation Technology (WRT), which he said is the firm that “services the media powder and our filters on Wells 4, 5 and 7.”


“It was a 10-year agreement; that’s how long those filters have been in place; this will be for a new 10-year agreement. We already have the money budgeted; the price is $211,936, and it gets subject to a CPI [consumer price index] adjustment yearly,” Furgione said.


Furgione made a motion to renew the contract, which Councilman Edward Wuillermin seconded.


Furgione gave more details about the contract.


“The price of $211,936 gets us 425 million gallons. The way that it’s handled internally is that we make sure we use 425 million out of those wells. Anything we need above and beyond the 425 we don’t draw from those wells, because you pay for it; we draw from our other two wells,” Furgione said.


Wuillermin inquired further.


“This is for the removal of the radium, right? So people understand that?” Wuillermin said.

Furgione affirmed Wuillermin’s assertion.


“Yes, Mr. Wuillermin. It’s for the removal of the radium in those wells with those filters, yes,” Furgione said.


The motion passed unanimously.


In other business, Town Solicitor Michael Malinsky had two action items under his report.


Malinsky asked for a resolution seeking approval of the settlement of the Traditions at Blueberry Ridge v. Town of Hammonton litigation, pursuant to the material terms discussed in council’s closed session, as well as authorization for the mayor to execute the final settlement agreement for Malinsky to execute the final consent order, subject to review of each of the final forms by the solicitor and mayor.


Gribbin made the motion, which Councilwoman Renee Rodio seconded. The motion was approved unanimously.


Malinsky also sought a resolution to approve the agreement of sale between Wells Fargo Bank and the town of Hammonton for the acquisition of the bank building and parking lot at 236 Bellevue Ave., Lot 1 of Block 2815, for the purchase price of $675,000.


This resolution did not appear on the agenda for the meeting as released by the town of Hammonton on February 24. The agenda, under Solicitor’s Report, read as follows: “Discuss possible acquisition of Wells Fargo Bank Located 236 Bellevue Avenue Hammonton.”


Wuillermin made the motion, which Councilman Jonathan Oliva seconded.


During discussion of the motion, Furgione asked DiDonato for clarification.


“The plan here would be to purchase this building using state grant dollars so the taxpayers aren’t burdened with this?” Furgione said.


DiDonato replied.


“We’re hoping to use some, it could be federal or state grant dollars, and it’ll fund 100 percent of the purchase price of $675,000. Then, the town could go out to RFP, RFQ for its highest and best use of this building, whatever’s out there,” DiDonato said.


DiDonato said that, currently, the town of Hammonton receives approximately $6,000 in tax revenue for the property.


“Anything over $500 a month in rental fee from that building, without a mortgage, would be a win/win for the town of Hammonton. We’d have to do a quadruple-net lease, so the tenant would be responsible for any improvements to the building or any fit-out. They’d be responsible for insurance and repairs of that building. We probably could also do an in lieu of taxes; I don’t know. I’d have to see about that. Probably not, right? Probably not. I’m reaching a little bit,” DiDonato said.


Malinsky commented further.


“Not only would they be responsible for taxes or anything of that nature, they’d be responsible for everything on the property: all maintenance, all costs, utilities, water, sewer. The town wouldn’t be responsible for anything. All we’d do is sit back and collect rent,” Malinsky said.


DiDonato continued, noting that a key factor for the deal is the property’s parking lot.

“It has a large parking lot behind what used to be Varga’s Drugs, now it’s still Varga’s—Bellevue, Varga’s, Bellevue Drugs—so there probably could be almost 40 to 50 parking spots in there if you redid; the ATM’s going to come out, right? The drive-thru is going to come out, so you can reline that parking lot, which is critical to the downtown to its success,” DiDonato said.


Oliva inquired about the parking lot.


“It’s the entire parking lot; the entire parking lot comes with the acquisition?” Oliva said.


DiDonato replied that Oliva’s assertion was correct.


“The entire parking lot comes with the acquisition, plus the building—plus the beautiful town Christmas tree,” DiDonato said.


Wuillermin commented further.


“And a rather substantial safe, if you get a tenant that needs to have a big safe,” Wuillermin said.


Furgione sought to explain to town residents why the town would be eligible for grants related to the purchase, and DiDonato responded.


“We’ve had tremendous success getting grants from the state and federal government, and we have a lot of friends,” DiDonato said.


Furgione clarified the matter.


“The building is eligible because of the historic nature,” Furgione said.

DiDonato replied.


“Possibly. Possibly. Possibly. I don’t want to say that’s the only reason. Until our grant is finalized, I’d really not rather give up the funding source of this. I think it’s very critical. We are in our early days of finalizing everything,” DiDonato said.


DiDonato said that the town will not acquire the building without the grant.


“We are paying a $10,000 deposit to sign this contract that is non-refundable,” DiDonato said.

Malinsky offered a correction.


“It is refundable if we were to cancel under the title, section or the inspection period. It’s not refundable if we were to breach the contract and not go forward with the closing. Then, that’s when we would lose only the $10,000 deposit, so the most the town would ever be on the line for is $10,000,” Malinsky said.


DiDonato continued.


“I feel so strongly about this building, that—the last two years of this term, my salary is $12,000. If we don’t bring this deal to fruition, and this grant to fruition, I’ll forego the salary those last two years, and that’ll cover the $10,000—with a 20 percent return to the taxpayer.


That’s how strongly I feel about this deal and its importance into our downtown—and our entire town,” DiDonato said.


DiDonato said that Hammonton regularly attracts an “enormous amount” of visitors.


“Hammonton is on a roll. We are so hot still, it’s amazing. In an economy that interest rates are increasing and other towns are finding it hard, we have to continue to take the bull by the horns, and this is another step in a positive direction that will leave a legacy—and a positive cash flow for this town—for a number of years,” DiDonato said.


Wuillermin said that the bank building is a key element in the downtown area.


“I don’t think we can leave it to the vagaries of the marketplace to determine its ultimate use. I think we step up and take a role, and we, as a town, can help determine the ultimate fate of the building,” Wuillermin said.


DiDonato noted two individuals who were instrumental in the deal.


“I want to thank [former] Councilman [William] Olivo, who started working on this, along with town advocate Jim Donio, back in—correct me if I’m wrong—it was last fall, or summer into fall?” DiDonato said.


Olivo, who was in attendance—as was Donio—replied that it began in September of 2022.

DiDonato continued.


“Tremendous work on this, and I think it’s something we have to finish off,” DiDonato said.


The motion was approved unanimously.


Olivo, now the chairman of the Hammonton Planning Board, thanked the members of council during the second public comment portion of the meeting.


“This thing did start somewhere in the fall when we said, ‘We can’t lose that building because it’s a focal point for our town.’ But thank you very, very much. This is the second time, ironically, I’m on the outside looking in when a big project is being completed—because the first time was when this building was built, and now that building up the road is going to be a great asset for us,” Olivo said.


Also during the second public comment portion, resident Carmen Bartolone, of 701 N. Third St., said that he and several associates have a company called High Maintenance Cannabis Company LLC.


“We know you guys opted out of cannabis sales two years ago because there weren’t any regulations or anything like that, and you didn’t want outsiders coming into town,” Bartolone said.


Bartolone said that, because of regulations that have been implemented by the Cannabis Regulatory Commission (CRC) and the steady growth in community support, he felt that now was the time for council to revisit their decision, and read from a request for consideration of approval for opening a cannabis micro-dispensary in the town of Hammonton. Before he continued, Bartolone clarified the definition of a micro-dispensary.


“We can only have 10 employees, not counting ourselves. We can occupy no more than 2,500 square feet, and we can sell no more than 1,000 pounds of usable cannabis products per month, which the town will receive two percent of the total sales each month,” Bartolone said.

Bartolone provided estimates of the financial impact.


“If the dispensary meets the monthly sales of 1,000 pounds, that would result in an estimate of $120,000 in revenue per month that the town would receive. In another aspect, that’s 1,000 pounds. A hundred pounds would give the town in the neighborhood of $5,000 a month in revenue,” Bartolone said.


Bartolone presented statewide numbers to support that assertion, saying that, for the first week of January of 2023, total statewide sales resulted in an estimated $30 million.

“The state sold—in flower alone—$11.2 million in sales, vape products did $6 million, infused edibles did $5.75 million in sales, concentrates did $1.75 million in sales and other generic products did $4 million in sales,” Bartolone said.


Bartolone said that recreational sales were more than $100 million in the third quarter of 2022.


“By the end of year 2025, sales are estimated to be $3 billion,” Bartolone said.


Bartolone said that his company has identified six possible locations and has further narrowed that down to two or three that the state would allow.


“One of them is the old Pet Valu, next to Planet Fitness. There’s another one on 54, near where the old 54 Fitness was. I think, possibly, the old Toni’s Custard just came available; that also would meet the zoning requirements,” Bartolone said.


Bartolone described the state’s location requirements.


“It can’t be within 1,000 feet of any school, any church or anything like that. It needs a certain amount of parking, and those three locations meet all those requirements. There’s absolutely nothing in the downtown area that would meet a state requirement because every retail location—I already checked—is within 1,000 feet of a church or a school,” Bartolone said.


Bartolone reminded council that 64 percent of Hammonton residents voted in favor of legalizing recreational cannabis.


“The majority of the town is in favor of it,” Bartolone said.


Bartolone said that he and his associates have been involved with an accelerator course through Cognitive Harmony Technologies to assist them in obtaining the proper state licensure, a process which he described as “extremely difficult.”


“But, we’re very, very close to presenting our application to the state now. That’s why we’re here today. We’ve done all our due diligence looking for locations, and we really want to bring something like this to town because we all pay taxes here—we know how it is—and we know what kind of revenue it could definitely benefit the town,” Bartolone said.


Bartolone acknowledged concerns about such a business in Hammonton, and said that he has personally researched and “staked out” dispensaries in Williamstown and Vineland.


“I sat out there; I have photos on my phone: People in line, single-file, waiting, buy their products and leave. Nobody hangs around; there’s nothing like that,” Bartolone said.


Bartolone said that usage of cannabis products through any means is expressly prohibited at dispensaries.


“It’s all state laws,” Bartolone said.


The cannabis industry, Bartolone said, is “extremely regulated.”


“We have a humongous security plan that has to pass through the CRC. The dispensary needs to be inspected. It has an armed guard on duty all times during open hours. People have to come in, check in with a photo ID, purchase and exit,” Bartolone said.


Bartolone said that a letter of approval and support from the town would “greatly accelerate and assist in us obtaining our state license.”


“We believe that the tax revenue generated by this business venture will greatly benefit Hammonton and the residents through additional funds for schools, law enforcement, community improvement programs and, potentially, lowering property taxes,” Bartolone said.

Bartolone also said that the use of cannabis for diseases, chronic illness and pain relief has been “very beneficial.”


“A dispensary would provide access to patients in need who may not be able to access their medicine somewhere else. Of course, this isn’t going to be a medical dispensary, but they can still help there,” Bartolone said.


Bartolone said that, with the town’s approval and support, a micro-dispensary could potentially open by the end of the summer.


“We would definitely secure a location if you give us support, and we want to thank you for at least letting us come here and present this to you. We’re very passionate about it. We know it’ll be successful,” Bartolone said.


DiDonato thanked Bartolone for the presentation and commented on the process.


“A committee will have to be formed to talk about it and see what they want to do moving forward,” DiDonato said.


The next meeting of town council will be March 27 at 7 p.m.


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