By Donald Wittkowski
Mayor Leonard Desiderio had a triple dose of good news Tuesday in his State of the City address: There will be no tax increase in the 2018 municipal budget, water and sewer rates are staying the same and local property owners are now in line for 35 percent discounts on their flood insurance.
Afterward, Desiderio said in an interview that he believes Sea Isle is the only municipality in New Jersey that has all three of those financial benefits for its residents.
Touting what he called the city’s “sound financial management,” Desiderio pointed out that Sea Isle began the year with a nearly $5 million budget surplus, representing a $1 million increase over 2017.
“We have worked since the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009 to ensure Sea Isle’s financial house remained in order,” he told City Council during his annual State of the City address and budget presentation.
For 2018, the municipal budget will total $24.7 million, up slightly from $24 million last year. However, taxes will remain the same. The average homeowner with a house assessed at $645,000 will pay $4,481 in total annual property taxes, according to Paula Doll, the city’s chief financial officer.
Meanwhile, water and sewer rates will remain the same under the city’s new $10.4 million utilities budget. The utilities budget is separate from the municipal spending plan. The typical utility bill for homeowners is $1,220 per year, Doll said.
Council has scheduled a budget workshop for 9 a.m. Thursday at City Hall to begin scrutinizing the spending plan. The governing body reacted favorably Tuesday to Desiderio’s budget proposal, including his plan to keep taxes stable.
“Thank you, mayor. That was good news,” Council President Mary Tighe said after Desiderio finished his remarks.
In his address, Desiderio said Sea Isle has strengthened its finances by controlling its spending, debt and personnel costs.
“Prudent spending by department heads, while at the same time ensuring that priorities were achieved, has been a critical part of the effort,” he said. “As an administration and Council, we’ve focused on infrastructure and capital improvements over the past decade, all while carefully managing the debt associated with all of our projects.”
In 2018, the city’s capital spending will continue to focus on flood-control projects to protect the low-lying barrier island. The city has already replaced or upgraded deteriorated stormwater systems and check valves. In the spring, it will install the first stormwater pumping station on the island, on the bay side of 38th Street, Desiderio said.
The city is also in the midst of a major flood-mitigation study scheduled to be finished this summer. It will be a sweeping analysis of Sea Isle’s most flood-prone areas as well as what can be done to protect them from raging ocean waters and the overflowing back bays.
Desiderio noted that the study will allow the city to design and build additional improvements for flood-prone areas, but he stressed that the plan will be expensive.
“Let me be clear: We know that this is a problem for our citizens,” he said of the chronic flooding. “We know this is an issue that the city government must deal with. And we know that this will require a significant allocation of funding.”
Expressing confidence in the flood-control efforts, he said the city will work with the county, state and federal government to “come up with solutions that will greatly improve conditions.”
“We have a proven track record over the past decade of systematic planning and design that has served us well, and will continue to serve us as we plan for the future,” he said.
Twenty-five years ago, Sea Isle was in danger of being thrown out of the National Flood Insurance Program. Since then, it has undergone a dramatic transformation and is now considered one of the nation’s leading communities in flood prevention.
“I know the administration and City Council are together in our desire to expedite flood mitigation, and I ask all of our citizens to share my confidence in the process we’re undertaking,” Desiderio said.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which oversees the flood insurance program, recently boosted Sea Isle’s community rating from Class 5 to Class 3. By moving up the ladder two steps, it means that Sea Isle property owners will now be eligible for a 35 percent discount on their flood insurance policies. Previously, they had received a 25 percent discount, Desiderio said.
Sea Isle is now the only municipality in New Jersey designated by FEMA as a Class 3 community. Only a handful of cities and counties across the nation are considered Class 3 or higher.
As a town, Sea Isle and its property owners will save a total of $1.9 million annually in flood insurance costs under the new Class 3 designation. The savings had been $1.3 million when Sea Isle was a Class 5 community, Desiderio said.
More than 6,000 properties in Sea Isle are insured through the National Flood Insurance Program. Overall, the higher designation to Class 3 will save policyholders in Sea Isle an average of $291 annually on their flood insurance premiums. Previously, the discount was $208 annually, Desiderio said.
Flood-mitigation projects are a top priority in Sea Isle’s updated master plan, a 58-page document that serves as a blueprint in the future for planning, zoning, housing, economic development, transportation, parking and other key issues.
Desiderio called on Council to consider expediting changes in the zoning law that would reduce density in all of the city’s commercial zones. He said the master plan should also be changed to include a reduction in density for housing projects built in the commercial zones, as a way to avoid overcrowding.
Mixed-use projects that combine commercial space such as retail stores or restaurants on the ground level with condominiums built on the top floors have been growing in popularity in the city.
Developers have been capitalizing on a change in the city’s zoning law, approved by Council in 2008, that allows businesses to rebuild commercial properties while adding more residential space.
Desiderio noted that he has been listening to many residents who have expressed “deep concerns” about housing density. He said he wants to explore potential changes in the zoning law that would respect the property rights of developers while also “assuring and preserving the quality of life for our residents.”
“Specifically, I believe reducing the number of currently allowable housing units in some of our commercial zones can have a positive impact on our city,” he said. “I believe what Council set out to do over 10 years ago has been achieved, and now is the time to re-visit the issue.”