W♥V TOPICPart IV – The Public Hearings, the Vote, the Construction

W♥V TOPICPart IV – The Public Hearings, the Vote, the Construction

Had the City possessed necessary funds to award the bid for the pier project at the same time it introduced the Resolution for an award of $124,755 to R. A. Walters to build access ramps – a bid opened on the same date (March 13th) as the pier bids – it is likely the matter would have raised taxes but without any controversy at the public hearing phase.  

A review of the Meeting Minutes for March 15, 2007, suggests that there were no members of the public in attendance other than an official with the Viking Rowing Club, who presented a picture to the Commission on behalf of his organization.  There were no comments from the public at other parts of meeting at which comments would have been appropriate.  The Minutes show the meeting started at 6PM and suggest, with the incomplete entry
that it might have concluded after a matter of only minutes, and certainly within the hour.   Ventnor’s Commission meetings typically enjoy little or no attendance during the colder months of the year.

The Commission’s loss of the winning contractor from the first bid-letting, however, pushed consideration of the higher-cost pier reconstruction bid into Ventnor’s peak population summer period.  The hearings, moreover, occurred around the same time that Ventnor residents had received unusual tax bills reflecting 12% hikes on average and, for the first time in anyone’s recollection, the bills only estimated what the full annual tax bill would be. 

The pier issue asked taxpayers, many reeling from opening their mail, to weigh the economics of an “icon” as a going concern (net profit $11,000 per year) against the $3.2 Million (potentially $4 Million) costs for reconstruction.   The controversy stirred by the combination of tax hikes and a new capital spending project was guaranteed to attract press attention, as seen by one Atlantic City Press account of the public hearing on August 2, 2007,  and depicted in this article.

The city released two financial information sheets (images shown) about the revenues, costs and profitability of pier operations. The Pier Master later corrected the printed information at the July 19th hearing, stating that the total annual membership was not 284 but rather somewhere between 370 and 380.  Not changed, however, was the number of Ventnor residents who are members.  They numbered 170 fishermen, by all accounts.  Not changed, either, were the net profits presented at the August 2nd public hearing.

The comments and suggestions offered at the two Commission meetings where the topic was raised can be found in the 2007 Compendium of all Minutes in Brief at the City of Ventnor.

They can also be read, as relevant excerpts, presented here:

July 19th Commission meeting Minutes in Brief – Part 1
July 19th Commission meeting Minutes in Brief – Part 2
August 2nd Commission meeting Minutes in Brief – Part 1
August 2nd Commission meeting Minutes in Brief – Part 2

Opinion appeared to divide into many points of view, and some speakers offered combinations of options.

  • Sell the pier to private parties who could rehabilitate it, or if that effort proved unsuccessful, then demolish it.
  • Devote more effort to find funding from grants or private donation drives.
  • Explore concession stands, advertising sponsors and other revenue-generating methods which would defray the taxpayer burden of debt repayment for pier reconstruction.
  • Table the matter in August and put it up for a Referendum vote since a NJ Assembly election was already scheduled for November and no special election costs would be incurred.
  • Save the pier at public cost but allow Ventnor property owners whose tax dollars would fund the new pier to gain access without further charges.
  • Save the pier at all costs, and at public cost, and continue the club membership and “key privileges” aspects of the existing arrangements.

Less than a week later, an article by a Somers Point attorney was published in several local newspapers.  It inquired why Ventnor citizens opposed to the spending measure did not pursue a petition drive to force a Referendum vote.  There may have been several reasons.  Ventnor had lost what might have served as an organized “taxpayer voice” capable of mounting such a petition drive several years earlier.  More significantly, the variety of solutions offered by speakers at the public hearings did not seem to lend itself to the binary nature of yes/no or up/down voting which a Referendum would offer.  Most taxpayers had not spoken in favor of pier demolition, but rather seemed to question the adequacy of advance homework on all potential funding options, and a failure to consult with citizens who might have been helpful if approached for a fund-raising effort somewhat like Margate’s “Save Lucy the Elephant” drive. 

The suggested timing when visionary leaders might have sought out philanthropically-inclined constituents went back to 2003, when the Ryan and Pennoni engineering reports pointed to known hazards and Ryan’s report recommended immediate attention.  That year would have found Ventnor’s Commission not only in the midst of decisions about spending on the new Library and Cultural Arts Center, but it also would have found the Dunes Referendum a bit of recent history.  The pitched battle over dunes may have closed off access by the current Commissioners to one of Ventnor’s greatest “hidden treasures” for effectuating public benefit through private voluntary donation – wealthy, philanthropically-inclined owners of homes in the beach blocks.

The total cost for the new pier was not fully reflected in the $3.2 Million R. A. Walters bid presented on charts at the August 2nd public hearing.   A change order for new railings estimated at over $200,000 was rumored in early 2008; architectural fees of over $28,000 for a new clubhouse were discovered in an auditor’s list randomly uncovered by an OPRA filing and they appeared to have been incurred during 2006 as items of Current Fund expense; and the eventual cost for materials and “internal job cost” labor to build the new clubhouse were also left out of the figures presented at hearing.

The ad hoc committee, assembled from volunteers at the August 2nd public hearing but not meeting until the following week, met to explore better funding methods after the vote to add more public debt.  That group reportedly disbanded after holding no more than three meetings. Some members favored finding advertising sponsors and concession operators but it appeared that there might be difficulties in retro-fitting such activities to the existing DEP permits.  Other members wanted to avoid commercial activities on the pier.  Colder weather arrived and some committee members departed for Florida.

City servants braced for complaints from Pier members about the timing. 

Work began in October.  

City officials have expressed optimism about Green Acres funding of $800,000 in 2008.

This article concludes W♥V’s four-part series on the Topic of the Ventnor Municipal Pier. 

IMAGES APPEAR BELOW. (click for larger version)