We at Cape Issues are continually seeking community input in order to help create a broad-based vision for Cape May County’s future. If you have ideas, please submit them to Cape Issues. You can do so through the Herald by sending an email to: email@example.com, or as a letter to the editor of the Herald, or as a Spout Off. Your ideas will continue to be shared with the broader Cape May County community.
I have been living in Cape May County year round for a decade, and have been a year-round weekender for a half century. The issues we face in this county are not new and basically we have done a lot of talking and little or no action. I am not an expert by any means but, like many, I have a few ideas I’d like to share.
TAXES: I don’t think we can see meaningful change until we change the way we collect taxes and fees. Currently, the main source of tax revenue is on our property and homes. There are many examples to explain the high taxes that are causing people to leave the county.
We need reform to spread the tax burden and make home ownership more affordable. My experience has been that when the property tax exceeds 1 percent of a home’s market value, you start a slow process that causes people to move out of those communities.
Our budgets are out of line with reality.
Governments in Cape May County take too much of the economic pie. The taxpayer is asked to pay for a “free” zoo, a police academy and a failed Bridge Commission and more.
These and other costs should be borne by those who receive the benefits. Also, government’s job is not to create jobs but provide the environment to attract private industry to create jobs. The rule should be that if a “needed” expense can be successfully bid in the private sector, then government should not be creating jobs to perform that work.
We don’t want to see a government employee with a high salary, full benefits and a pension cutting grass. We also need to look at what are the responsibilities of county government and what is the responsibility of the local government.
In too many cases county government is doing work that should be covered by local budgets. Why should a road that starts and stops within the same jurisdiction be a “County Road”? Take Beach Avenue in Cape May. The total cost of ownership is covered by the county, yet Cape May gets to collect parking revenue to keep its property taxes lower at the expense of county taxpayers.
The other problem we have is that about 60 percent to 70 percent of the taxpayers can’t vote. This allows politicians to create enough jobs to get the votes to keep them in office. I would say that each employee is worth about 5 votes (family members).
I think it is time that government give up its power and put together meaningful change for the taxpayers. So here is my 10 year “Build It and They Will Come” plan.
INFRASTRUCTURE: You can’t get there from here. We need to improve our road access in and out of the county. If we start today it will take 10 years to complete Rte. 55. I propose a two-phase approach. Phase 1; build 55 from the GSP to a full interchange by the Woodbine Airport Industrial Park. This will create the opportunity to develop this area and attract business. A road to the GSP will open the access from areas north and west. There are a lot of people within a 45-minute drive and businesses need a plentiful work force. We are close to getting the natural gas pipeline through Upper Township to the power plant. This will supply a cheap fuel source for manufacturing and homes. If there is a waste-treatment plant in the area, we need to expand the capacity; if it doesn’t exist, build it and they will come. Phase 2 will be to expand Rte. 55 down to Woodbine interchange. This will complete the main parts to start the economic expansion in Northern Cape May County. In Southern Cape May county, it will be harder to kick start the economy.
The construction sector will grow as the county expands. Modular homes are growing in acceptance by buyers and building inspectors. Most if not all of the modular homes are constructed in Pennsylvania and shipped into New Jersey adding 8 to 10 thousand dollars or more to the cost of the home. So why don’t we build the homes in New Jersey? I propose the County and the State put together an economic package to attract a modular home builder to the Cape May County Airport Industrial Park. The package should include tax breaks and tax free for the sale of homes that meet low income requirements. We also need to show that we have a qualified workforce, so we should establish a co-op work program between the manufacturer and the County Technical School to provide trained employees that meet their requirements.
SHARED SERVICES: Why does each town have a Tax Collector, a Tax Assessor, a Court System, Vital Records Clerk; can’t these services be consolidated? The County budgets almost 6 million dollars in salaries for positions with the name Clerk or Clerk Typist or Clerk Keyboard in their titles. I think they already have the staff to perform these functions.
What I am going to suggest I don’t know if it is legal to do and will make a lot of people angry, but it is time to reset the baseline of government expenses. I don’t think any town will turn over their responsibilities to an idea, so we have to build it and they will come.
COUNTY DISPATCH: This is a no brainer and has been done in New Castle County, Del. for over 60 years, in Delaware County Pa. for 40 years and more recently in counties in New Jersey. My Idea of this service would be to locate the facility in Woodbine. The current proposal to share a building with Lower Township Police at the airport is not the best solution. This location would become an island in a category 3 or higher hurricane; remember the story of the man that brought live ordinance that he found on the beach to the police-station lobby? The facility that I envision would be one that would contain 24/7/365 emergency dispatch, a computer room to house all county computer services and to establish a county email system that would eliminate in each town the need to recover their email system in the event of a disaster. With an exchange email server all towns would share the same server with naming convents like John_Doe@townname.cmc.gov. This computer room would also contain space to enter into a backup agreement. We could establish a “Triangle” agreement, Cape May would back up Atlantic, and Atlantic would back up Cumberland and Cumberland would backup Cape May. With a redundant fiber network between these data centers you create very high availability to network services.
POLICE SERVICES: This, I think, is the hot button. In the City of Philadelphia, the maximum salary for a police officer is $64,500. Why are the police in Cape May County making twice the average yearly home income ($45K) of its taxpayers? So I think it is time to reset and go back to reality.
First, I would look at the Sherriff’s Department and determine how many deputies and detectives are needed to support the courts and prison system. I would then abolish all of the remaining positions in the department.
I would then establish the Cape May County Police Department and start to hire based on a salary and benefits package that reflects the economy of the county. After the department is established, I would move detectives over to the county police department.
So the first thing this new department can do is patrol all county property and parks. Then I would offer police services to Woodbine, Upper and Dennis Township.
I would work on a five-year cost transition with the state. Then I would offer services to Middle and Lower townships.
I would hold off on the barrier island departments joining to make sure the added demand/cost can be transitioned effectively. After you have an established department you can restructure to create various departments like a Marine Division, Highway Patrol and others to offer officers various career paths.
SCHOOL SYSTEM: Here again, the numbers don’t make sense. Why do we have a technical school that costs the taxpayer $24,500 per student, highest in the state?
The cost to educate our high school students has a per student cost of $5,000 above the national average and I think we only graduate 87 percent of our students. So we need to come up with a county school system, abolishing existing school districts out sourcing school bus services and hiring staff for the new county school system with a salary and benefit structure that mirrors the private sector and our community.
There was a time when government jobs paid less than the private sector and the benefits were high to make up for the difference. What happened was that the benefits stayed high and the salaries grew to levels that we cannot afford.
FIRE AND AMBULANCE: This is a new area for me but with the problems Cape May is having staffing its fire department, it might be time to do a feasibility study. I know individual fire department budgets are in the millions and local government budgets have line items of $300,000 for ambulances, so I think there may be a better way.
OPEN SPACE: This is a property tax to buy land to keep it from being developed. It also takes it off the tax rolls. The state kicks in some money to offset this loss in taxes but with the state problems I would think one day this will go away.
If you look at Google Earth, it looks like most of Cape May County is already open so I question this program. Now the state has said you can spend the fund for other uses than buying land. So now it is a slush fund for county politicians to give money to local politicians.
New Jersey has some of the worst public access to water on the East Coast. We should use the money to build fishing and crabbing piers along the water and more public boat ramps. I remember crabbing with my dad when I was very young. Remember, we don’t sell vacations, we sell memories.
I am not one for bigger government unless it can be at a lower cost for the taxpayers and make Cape May County more livable. So we can keep the status quo that Ronald Reagan said was Latin for ‘the mess we’re in, or stop talking and do something before we hit bottom.” These are a few areas that I think can improve the economy of our county.
Cape Issues began in March 2008 as a non-partisan group to focus public attending on issues to improve Cape May County. Founding members were Fred Coldren, former Cape May County Herald editor and former Cape May City manager; Tom Flud, former North Wildwood administrator, and Art Hall, Herald publisher.