By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Barring any last-minute changes, there will be a City Council meeting Tuesday morning. But there will not be an audience.
When the five-member governing body convenes its regularly scheduled meeting at 10 a.m. at City Hall, there will be row after row of empty seats in the Council chambers.
Sea Isle spokeswoman Katherine Custer said that members of the public will not be allowed to attend the meeting as part of the social distancing precautions in effect statewide in response to the coronavirus outbreak.
The city has made arrangements for the public to teleconference in for the meeting by calling toll free at 1-866-899-4679 and using the access code 628-125-773.
To allow the Council members to discuss and vote on the agenda items, the public will be muted during the meeting except for the public comment portions.
Some towns have canceled their Council meetings during the global coronavirus pandemic. Custer said she heard no mention of canceling the Sea Isle meeting Tuesday, so it is still scheduled to be held.
“Obviously, the intention is to accommodate everyone as best as we can,” she said of the public being able to participate by teleconference.
Among the items up for a Council vote is Sea Isle’s proposed $25 million municipal budget for 2020. The spending plan will keep local taxes stable and includes more funding for Sea Isle’s volunteer fire department to have a firefighting crew on duty during the overnight hours.
A restructuring of the fire department, following a series of major fires over the past three years, includes incentivizing the volunteer firefighter positions with a stipend program for overnight duty.
The proposed budget would increase the fire department’s funding from $116,300 to $269,125 to pay for the overnight crews, Sea Isle Chief Financial Officer Paula Doll said.
Doll said in an interview in February that final details for an overnight crew are still being worked out. The city plans to have the overnight coverage ready to go starting with Memorial Day weekend, the traditional kickoff for the bustling summer tourism season, she indicated.
Concerns arose about the fire department after four separate blazes destroyed a total of nine single-family homes or duplexes dating back the past three years. One of the fires killed an elderly woman in November 2018.
Some residents have called for Sea Isle to consider switching to a paid fire department instead of relying on volunteers, or to improve fire protection and response times in other ways. City officials have repeatedly praised the volunteer firefighters for their service and response times amid recent changes in the department.
A restructuring plan announced in February by city officials includes improvements for emergency dispatching, response protocols and staffing.
Police Chief Tom McQuillen, who oversees Sea Isle’s public safety, said that since November 2019, the city has made changes to the dispatch protocols for simulcast dispatching, in which police, fire and emergency medical technicians are all alerted for response to an emergency scene. The former protocol had police going to survey the situation prior to other personnel responding.
Meanwhile, although the proposed $25 million budget is up slightly from the $24.6 million spending plan in 2019, local taxes are remaining the same.
The owner of an average home assessed at $674,873 will pay $2,564 annually in local taxes, Doll said. The owner of the same house will pay $4,845 annually for all taxes, including local, county and school levies.
Sea Isle’s water and sewer rates are staying the same for a seventh year in a row. The average homeowner pays $1,220 annually for sewer and water service.
Reflecting Sea Isle’s strong finances overall, the 2020 budget includes a $6.4 million surplus, believed to be the city’s largest ever, officials said.