WEST WILDWOOD - If you learned anything about the American Revolution, the phrase, “No taxation without representation” likely appeared in the lesson.
The argument had been made before, as early as the English Civil War, more than a century prior. The argument continues today along the Jersey shore, as a group of shore town property owners look for a say in how their tax money gets spent.
“What we wanted to do is become a voice for those without a voice,” said Jay Weintraub. He lives in Bucks County, Pa. and owns a summer home in Margate, where close to 70% of properties are owned by people whose primary residence is elsewhere. There, and in other Jersey shore towns, most of the taxes that fund local budgets are paid by homeowners who call somewhere else home.
As has taken place in many shore towns, Margate property owners banded together to form a taxpayer group, the Margate Homeowner Association. Weintraub, the owner of Weintraub Financial Services, said in a recent interview that it’s time for the next step, to form a regional advocacy group, what he described as an association of associations.
“I’m a pretty smart financial advisor, but I’m smart enough to know I don’t know everything,” he said. The organization could serve as a brain trust, allowing the organizations to learn from each other. He’s also proposing pooling resources to hire two attorneys, one specializing in land use, the other in municipal law.
Also under consideration: A renewed push to allow non-resident property owners to vote in local elections. In Cape May County, existing taxpayer groups are listening, and some seem to like what they hear.
With 448 residents, according to the 2010 census, spread out over a little more than a quarter-square mile, West Wildwood often gets overlooked. Many visitors of the Wildwoods each summer are unaware of a fourth Wildwood municipality over the bridge at Glenwood Avenue.
However, a $1.76 million judgement against the borough in a lawsuit filed by its Police Chief Jacquelyn Ferentz drew statewide attention to the tiny community, attention fueled by details that the chief lives with Mayor Christopher Fox, and that the borough’s insurance company would not cover the cost of the settlement, arguing that borough officials failed to properly defend against the suit. That means the bill gets handed to West Wildwood taxpayers.
This year, borough Commissioner Cornelius Maxwell and administrator Christopher Riggins resigned after the state hit Fox with $24,900 in fines over alleged ethics violations. Both men cited personal reasons.
That leaves two people to run the town, said Trish Sinnott, one of the organizers of the Concerned Taxpayers of West Wildwood (CTWWW). She and others began paying attention to borough politics after learning of the Ferentz lawsuit.
She started attending borough meetings. When she raised concerns or made suggestions, she said, the response was not what she hoped.
The next step was to organize.
“When you see one decision being made questionably, it kind of alerts you to what’s happening in other areas of our government,” Sinnott said. The first meeting of the CTWWW had close to 200 people. They applied for tax-exempt status, named officers and created bylaws.
“We’ve been very productive. It’s been great,” Sinnott said. “The borough’s response has been painfully neutral.”
One change has taken place, moving the regular meetings of borough commissioners from late Friday to Tuesday afternoons, making it difficult for non-residents to attend. That’s turned out to be a boon, she said. Her group records the meetings and posts them online, allowing people a look at how West Wildwood is run.
She’s enthused about the idea of a regional taxpayer group. Different towns have different problems, she said.
The sizes and forms of government vary, but she sees the developing organization as a big think-tank, giving the member organizations insight into what has worked and what hasn’t.
An initial meeting with the Margate group lasted about three hours, she said, and just scratched the surface of the issues.
“It was terrific,” she said. Now she’s reaching out to other area organizations and taxpayers in other shore towns, trying to get them on board.
“It was very clear, one of the primary objectives would be to figure out how second homeowners could get the right to vote at the local level,” Sinnott said.
Not the First Try
Non-resident voting is one of those ideas that keeps coming back, said Gerald Thornton, director of Cape May County’s Board of Freeholders. Over his decades in elected office, he’s seen previous efforts fizzle out, only to see renewed efforts arise.
He did not rule out the possibility but suggested a referendum of current voters could show whether New Jersey wants to expand the right.
In Cape May County, 48% of the property is owned by second homeowners, he said. That percentage is higher in the beachside resorts.
If property owners who reside out of the area dominate local politics, what could that mean for investment in off-season services, Thornton asked. If non-resident property owners have a vote on school budgets when they’re already funding the schools in their hometown, will they be willing to invest in local education?
It’s been tried elsewhere, Weintraub pointed out. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Connecticut, Delaware and New Mexico allow non-resident voting in local elections, and 10 states allow voting in certain special elections. An essay on the organization's website indicates more states around the country have seen efforts to allow the practice.
“In most states, residency is a cornerstone of the right to vote,” reads the synopsis on the website. Earlier this year, Michael Kennedy of the Cape May County Board of Elections told the Herald that an individual’s legal residence determines where they vote.
Property ownership does not enter the equation. In New Jersey, someone with a year-round rental in Avalon who owns no property has a say in the operation of the town and who sits on the Board of Education, while the owner of a multimillion-dollar waterfront home has none if that person’s residence is elsewhere.
It was not always this way. Soon after the Revolution, only white men who held property had the right to vote. The term “freeholder” is a remnant of a time when only those who freely held their land could be elected.
By around 1850, the requirement to hold property was eliminated, for the most part, but it took the 15th Amendment to the Constitution to expand that right beyond whites after the Civil War, and it wasn’t until 1920 that the 19th Amendment guaranteed women’s suffrage.
If voting is simply a matter of owning property, does that entitle someone with three homes to vote in three places? While the focus has been on second homeowners who are dedicated to their summer communities, would an investor who’s never visited the town but owns extensive property also get a vote?
“The person who lives in a community has the same vote, the same power as the local millionaire,” said Carl Golden, an analyst with the William Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University. “To tie it to one’s economic circumstances really does offend some people.”
He sees numerous problems with the proposal, stating that it would likely be an enforcement nightmare.
“It comes up periodically, but it never really gains much traction,” Golden said. “Part-time residents, it’s always been felt that they don’t really have the vested interest in the community that the full-time residents have.”
Thornton raised other issues. Most Cape May County municipal elections are in November. How could election officials limit someone to voting in the municipality, preventing the possibility of someone getting two votes for president?
“I’m an IT guy. You just write a database,” said David Hayes, the president of Fairness in Taxes (FIT) in Ocean City, one of the oldest and most active taxpayer organizations in the area, founded by the late Bill McCarthy in 1988.
Like other tax groups, FIT has long said it wants to work with the city, but over the years, the relationship has swayed between antagonistic and cooperative. The group plans to join the regional effort and supports non-residents getting a vote, although some have reservations.
“Most of our members are second homeowners and most of them say they want the right to vote,” Hayes said. “We’re in favor of it, but there are certain members of our organization who don’t like the idea. We want Ocean City to stay dry.”
In 2012, city voters overwhelmingly rejected a plan to allow diners to bring alcohol to restaurants in town. Ocean City has not allowed the sale of alcohol since its founding as a Methodist community.
Many believe second homeowners would be more willing to allow BYOB.
There are other ways to get a vote. Hayes said he has encouraged property owners to declare Ocean City their residence if they want to vote in local elections. Weintraub plans to relocate to Margate shortly, working remotely and occasionally commuting to his office.
He said his group wants to understand how the city works, and create a partnership with local officials. Residents, including renters, are welcome to join the process, he said.
“People now are getting involved. They want to see what kind of a difference they can make in their community,” he said.
FIT’s bylaws state there needs to be a non-resident property owner on its board of directors. Although non-residents make up most of the membership of the organization, there is only one non-resident on the board. The rest live in Ocean City.
This year, three candidates are on the ballot to fill the remaining year of Maxwell’s term on West Wildwood Borough Commission: John Banning, Anna Doherty, and Amy Korobellis. Sinnott will not get a vote on who takes the seat.
To contact Bill Barlow, email email@example.com.