By NANETTE LoBIONDO GALLOWAY
VENTNOR – The Imagine Ventnor Team held its re-election kick-off meeting Saturday, Feb. 1 at the Community Room behind the library. The event was attended by approximately 60 residents interested in hearing what the incumbent commissioners had to say. The team announced in December that it would be seeking another four years in office.
“What we ran on in 2016, we accomplished,” Mayor Beth Holtzman said. “We ran as a team and will stay a team, which is based on trust and respect, and that’s why the city is moving forward.”
The three commissioners took no questions from the floor, opting instead to answer questions individually after their presentations. The commissioners took turns discussing accomplishments in their respective departments.
First up, Holtzman, who is Commissioner of Revenue and Finance, talked about the city’s finances.
“We reduced taxes in 2018 and 2019, and hope to do that again this year,” she said.
Holtzman said in addition to “aggressively” negotiating five collective bargaining agreements with city employees, the city stopped “boat check” payments, which upon retirement pays unused sick leave and vacation that can sometimes exceed $200,000, she said.
The city increased grant revenue by 220% and increased revenue derived from parking meters 129%, which resulted in a 1.5-cent tax rate decrease, she said.
Holtzman said the city added $43 million in new ratables, and after a controversial revaluation of all city property was completed, tax appeals decreased from 1,116 to 138 last year.
“And those who appealed didn’t always win,” she said.
The housing market has picked up and homes that sat on the market for an average of 143 days are now selling in 51 days, she said.
Forty new businesses have opened shop in Ventnor in the last four years, she said.
When Standard & Poors upgraded the city’s bond rating, the organization stated “Ventnor is economically strong,” Holtzman said.
Commissioner of Public Safety and Community Affairs Tim Kriebel thanked department heads for their “knowledge, trust and mutual respect.”
He outlined improvements in the area of public safety including purchasing new radios for the Police and Fire departments, upgrading medical equipment for the ambulance squad, and requiring Code Enforcement officials to work weekends during summer.
Public safety officials are also heavily involved in putting on special events, such as the Downbeach Seafood Festival and Ventnor Business Association’s block parties.
“We are action oriented,” he said.
He also touted the creation of three retail consumption liquor licenses, which has brought the city “millions in investments,” along with $170,000 received from the sale of licenses.
The city also cleared up some long-standing issues with the NJ Department of Environmental Protection’s Green Acres program, which will allow new rest room facilities to be built on the Ventnor Pier this spring, a project that would “engage people to want to come to Ventnor,” he said.
Shared services in the form of mutual aid agreements with other Absecon Island public safety organizations resulted in a $250,000 grant to purchase new breathing apparatus, the cost of which could have been borne by the city, he said.
The city has equipped all police officers with new body cameras, installed seven solar-powered speed signs in strategic areas and invested in a new user-friendly website.
“We work together every day on behalf of residents and we’re taking action, setting deadlines and holding people accountable,” Kriebel said. “We have a long and strong future ahead.”
Commissioner of Public Works Lance Landgraf, who is a professional planner, thanked the team members’ spouses and children for affording the commissioners time to work for the community.
Changes in the Code Enforcement Department and updating land use regulations to fulfill the requirements of the city’s new Master Plan is “moving the city forward,” he said.
Landgraf said the city worked with developers to bring new investments, including the Ventnor Square Theater and burger bar, and Santucci’s Original Square Pizza, which are both scheduled to open in time for the summer season.
“Without those liquor licenses, they would not have come here,” he said, crediting the residents for approving the referendum creating the licenses. “It has helped create a market for our restaurant community.”
The city has also nearly completed the Atlantic Avenue streetscape project in the North Beach area.
“We want the city to be a walkable, safe community,” Landgraf said.
He said the public will see several new beachfront homes built along the boardwalk.
“Someone just purchased a beachfront lot for $2 million,” and intends to build a home, he said.
“We updated our land use to comply with the new FEMA standards, which makes it easier for people to raise their homes and reduces the cost of flood insurance for everyone in the city,” he said.
The city has attracted new ratables, from $6 million in 2016 to $22 million in 2018, he said. This year’s added assessments tapped out at $17.6 million, mostly through new construction and home renovations.
A redevelopment plan created for the Ventnor Plaza shopping center opened the area up to new uses, including professional offices and the potential for new housing.
The city also spent $800,000 to upgrade all its playgrounds.
“Our work is not done,” he said. “We have challenges to resolve, such as our aging infrastructure, and protecting our neighborhoods from overcrowding.”
Landgraf said if the team is re-elected it would work to “spend taxpayer dollars wisely.”
Resident Anne Maiese said she didn’t realize how much has been accomplished over the last several years. Her husband Mario said, “We love everything that has been accomplished, especially the movie theater and Santucci’s. These two things alone will make Ventnor a destination.”
“The movie theater is a dream come true,” Jim Colaianne said. “They have the professionalism Ventnor hasn’t seen in well, forever, and there’s a lot of optimism in the city.”
“Impressed, jubilant and ecstatic,” Margate resident John Sewell said about the Imagine Ventnor Team’s accomplishments.
He said he would like to see the city make a major push to share services with the Margate schools. Both school districts are currently seeking to hire new superintendents.
“It’s long overdue to have a shared superintendent,” he said.
So far, no one has filed to challenge the incumbents in the May 12 non-partisan election. Challengers have until March 9 to file their nominating petitions.