By NANETTE LoBIONDO GALLOWAY
LONGPORT – With the absence of Commissioner of Public Safety Dan Lawler who is on vacation, Mayor Nicholas Russo took the brunt of complaints during the April 13 Board of Commissioners meeting about two issues of controversy facing the borough at this time.
First up was removal of the Volunteer Fire Department’s request for a new ladder truck from a proposed bond ordinance; and secondly, eliminating tents outside of two local eateries in the borough’s half-block long commercial district.
Upon introduction of a $3.3 million bond ordinance to finance various planned capital improvements, Commissioner of Finance Jim Leeds Sr., who usually abstains from votes on involving the Volunteer Fire Department because his son is a longtime member, stated that he would vote for the ordinance because it provides the borough with a funding mechanism for major purchases, construction at municipal buildings and roadway improvements, but he objected to removing an estimated $1 million from the ordinance to finance a new ladder truck.
“I’m disappointed because it takes out the fire truck,” Leeds said.
His comments came after the borough introduced its 2022 budget, which calls for a 1.5-cent tax rate increase. It is the first time in many years that the borough will be increasing the tax rate.
His son, Jim Leeds Jr., a local builder and a 33-year member of the Fire Department, said that with all the new construction of larger homes at much higher elevations, makes it mandatory that the department be well equipped.
“Why, if we need this piece of apparatus did you take it off the list?” he said, addressing Russo directly.
Russo said the commissioners discussed what would be included in the bond ordinance and removed some “big dollar” items, but funding the new apparatus “is not a dead issue.”
Russo, who is also a firefighter, said the borough has concerns about where the fire department is going in the future.
“You are not quite sure we are going to be here in a few years, so essentially, this administration stabbed the Fire Department in the back,” said Leeds Jr. who said he is “passionate” about the department. “If you think you are going to get Margate City to cover for anything less than $1 million a year…where will this $1 million dollars come from…You don’t have faith in us.”
Zoning Officer and resident Bruce Funk, who is also a volunteer firefighter in Longport with 55 years of service, said the borough does not have a “crystal ball” to determine the future direction of the department, and that the borough should allocate funding in the capital bond ordinance, and debate drawing down the money at a later date.
He said the aging department has recruited new firefighters who are younger and will keep the department operating for the foreseeable future.
“I think you will always have a reasonably strong group of guys to hold down the fort and protect the community,” he said.
Resident Bob English spoke during the public portion of the meeting, stating that he did not hear anyone say the truck was not needed.
“If we are going to maintain a viable department, it should be well equipped…and you should fund for it,” he said.
Reached by telephone Friday morning, Lawler said replacement of the 22-year-old ladder truck, which has a 25-year lifespan, was viewed as the department’s “wish list” item.
“I felt it would not be fiscally responsible to bond for a truck that will take a couple of years to get and that still has a few more years left in it. It works fine, but we don’t need it right now. This is not the year to do it, but next year might be a whole new ballgame,” he said.
Solicitor Michael Affanato and auditor Michael Garcia, who attended the meeting to present a brief synopsis of the budget, said a new bond ordinance allocating funds for the Fire Department could be introduced at any time.
Several residents of Margate joined business owners Lekie Nika, owner of Ozzie’s Luncheonette, and Joe Tucker, owner of Catch restaurant, in support of allowing the restaurants to erect a large tent on the sidewalk to accommodate outdoor dining during the summer season.
An Executive Order signed by Gov. Phil Murphy during the COVID-19 outbreak allows New Jersey restaurants holding liquor licenses to expand their licenses to outside areas until November 2022. Ozzie’s does not serve liquor but Catch does. Ozzie’s is open for breakfast and lunch and uses the space in front of Catch, and Catch is open in the evening when Ozzie’s is closed.
Nika said her customers still do not feel comfortable eating in close quarters, they enjoy eating outdoors, and that the coronavirus pandemic with its new variants is not over. Having a tent instead of an awning provides protection when it rains, she said.
“We only have three months to carry us through the year,” she said, asking for the commissioners to allow the businesses to erect the tents for another season.
“Without the tents, we will not be able to make it,” she said.
Tucker asked the commissioners to allow it for one more season so the restaurants and borough can come to a compromise solution for future years.
Russo said several residents complained to him that the tents are ugly and about the loss of parking spaces in front of the businesses. The half-block commercial area includes a real estate office on the corner that had to endure two summers without parking spaces, Russo said.
For the past two summers, the borough has accommodated the outdoor dining tents, but required the parking area to have a concrete barricade so pedestrians and strollers would have a place to walk.
Several years ago at Nika’s request, the borough approved a zoning ordinance to allow outdoor dining but according to state law must require a 4.5-foot-wide unobstructed area for people to pass.
“I am not against outdoor dining,” Russo said in a telephone interview. “We have to provide safe passage for pedestrians, wheelchairs, people with strollers and service dogs. The only reason we allowed it was because of COVID, the restaurants were limited to 25% capacity indoors. Now we are at 100%. We do not want to endanger the public walking in the street, and I cannot take away those parking spaces.”
Lawler said he is against erecting protective barriers again this summer.
“We did it the first year because of COVID, and the second year, they got an even bigger tent. The only reason we did that is because they had limited indoor seating capacity. But I think it is an eyesore and we can’t take away any parking again this year.”
Russo said he will offer a resolution at the next meeting that would “marry outdoor seating, aesthetics and public safety.”
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