By Donald Wittkowski
Mayor Leonard Desiderio is proposing a slight decrease in the local tax rate in the 2019 municipal budget, reflecting what he called Sea Isle City’s exceptionally strong financial position and sound long-term planning.
In his annual State of the City address Wednesday, he said Sea Isle is beginning the year with a $5.6 million budget surplus – nearly $5 million more than 10 years ago, when the city was struggling financially during the recession.
As a result of the city’s healthy budget surplus, Desiderio is proposing to cut the local tax rate by a half-cent this year and is already pledging not to raise taxes in 2020. He noted that there was no city tax increase in 2018.
More details about the 2019 spending plan will be announced on Thursday when City Council holds a budget workshop. The workshop starts at 9 a.m. in Council chambers at City Hall and is open to the public. Council is scheduled to introduce the budget at its Feb. 26 meeting.
The mayor began his address by recalling the city’s financial struggles in 2008 during the national recession and how Sea Isle has managed to recover from those “difficult times.”
“At that time we were first being subjected to the State-imposed levy cap, and our overall budget was increasing by over a million dollars,” he said. “Our surplus position was as weak as it’s ever been, and we were in the beginning of what is now known as the great recession in the United States.”
To strengthen its finances in the last 10 years, the city has shunned short-term gimmicks in favor of long-term planning that is both “forward thinking and sustainable,” the mayor said.
“Our financial position is so strong that I am proposing a half-cent decrease in this year’s budget. This follows last year’s zero tax increase budget, and, based on analysis of all projections, I am committing to another zero tax increase in 2020,” he said in his address.
“These commitments to the future are not made with over-confidence in our ability to achieve them, but with the understanding that we are in our soundest financial position ever; that we have not built our budget on one-time strategies or gimmicks, but from a foundation based on sound financial planning and sustainability,” he continued.
In another sign of the city’s solid financial structure, local water and sewer rates will remain the same in 2019 for the sixth year in a row. Desiderio said he is already committing to no rate hikes for water and sewer in 2020.
“I, as much as anyone, understand and appreciate how much we all dislike the cost of government,” he said. “In the words of George Washington, ‘No taxes can be devised which are not more or less inconvenient and unpleasant.’”
Desiderio stressed that his administration has done “everything that we believe is logical and prudent to reduce costs, yet provide for the core mission of local government – a clean city, a safe city, a well-maintained and enjoyable city, and a city that achieves satisfaction for our residents and visitors.”
Responding to complaints from local residents about overcrowding, Desiderio also renewed his request for Council to consider changes in the zoning law that would reduce housing density in all of the city’s commercial zones.
He wants Sea Isle’s master plan amended to include a reduction in density for housing projects built in the commercial zones as a way to avoid overcrowding and ease some of the city’s parking problems.
He also used his address to highlight a series of previously announced capital projects planned in 2019, including flood-control measures, road construction and decorative lighting on the Promenade and city streets.
The city is also expected to build a nearly $1 million fishing pier and kayak launch site on the bayfront at the Dealy Field athletic and recreation complex. The project will be completely funded through the Cape May County Open Space program.
In 2019, the city’s capital spending will continue to focus on flood-control projects to protect the low-lying barrier island. In March, the city is expected to activate a series of flashing road signs that will warn motorists when flooding occurs.
The city has already replaced or upgraded deteriorated stormwater systems and drainage valves. In the spring, it will install the first pumping station on the island, on the bay side of 38th Street, to ease flooding in the surrounding neighborhood.
Sea Isle is currently the only municipality in New Jersey given “Class 3” status by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which oversees the National Flood Insurance Program. Under that rating system, Sea Isle property owners are eligible for a 35 percent discount on their flood insurance policies. More than 6,000 properties in Sea Isle are insured through the National Flood Insurance Program.
The city will also move forward with a number of improvements along the beachfront in 2019. This summer, more of the popular beach mats will be installed to make it easier for people to walk across the sand.
This fall, Sea Isle is scheduled for a beach replenishment project to add new sand to eroded sections of the shoreline. The replenishment project will be done in partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
In addition, Sea Isle has been included in a comprehensive study that will look at ways that the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can help protect shore communities from flooding in the back bays.
“As we move forward with planning for the future, the city is well-positioned to be in partnership with the state and federal governments for funding for critical flood-mitigation projects,” Desiderio said in his address.