WEST WILDWOOD — Taxpayers voiced their displeasure at an April 4 meeting where Borough Commission introduced a $2.69 million budget that could increase the local tax rate by more than 6.5 cents.
One man called for the commissioners to resign, a call that met with a smattering of applause. Commission members said they are trying to make the best of a difficult situation.
Last year, a Cape May County jury awarded police Chief Jacquelyn Ferentz more than $1 million in her whistleblower suit against the township, an award the Joint Insurance Fund does not want to pay. The question of whether the JIF can decline to cover the payout is in front of Superior Court Judge James Pickering.
At the Wednesday meeting, Mayor Christopher Fox said he expects the borough to lose the case.
That will mean putting out $1.06 million in total for the jury award and more than $700,000 in legal fees owed to Ferentz’s attorney, Michelle Douglass, accrued over the years of the lawsuit. Both Ferentz and her lawyer have agreed to accept a payment schedule, although borough Administrator Chris Ridings said they have a right to demand immediate payment. An agreed payment schedule has the borough paying Ferentz $5,040 a month starting this month and running through March 2035. The borough will pay Douglass $17,589 a month and have her paid off by 2021.
The tax rate has not been set, according to Ridings, but it could be more than 6.5 cents higher than last year’s rate of 95.2 cents per $100 of assessed value, which itself was a jump from the year before. He hopes a reduction in school costs will help ease the impact on borough taxpayers.
A public hearing and final vote on the budget is set for 9 a.m. May 2 at Borough Hall, 701 W. Glenwood Ave.
Ferentz filed the suit in 2008 during a lengthy disciplinary hearing. She was later dismissed from the department. Then-Mayor Herbert Frederick had accused Ferentz of several infractions. Ferentz filed her own suit, alleging Frederick sought to interfere with the operations of the Police Department and with her role as acting chief at the time.
Soon after Fox was elected mayor in 2012, Ferentz was reinstated, named chief and awarded back pay. Borough officials say that helped ease the impact of last summer’s jury award in her favor, because it did not include punitive damages.
The borough is doing what it can to cut costs, officials said. That includes furloughs for most city workers on Fridays and a 50 percent cut to the pay borough commissioners receive.
“We did all of the things that we needed to do to try and get the tax rate as low as we can,” Fox said.
WEST WILDWOOD — The borough must pay a $1.76 million judgment to police Chief Jacquelyn Ferentz in her whistleblower lawsuit against the borough, a big number in a municipality with about 600 year-round residents and an annual budget of about $2.5 million.
The commission members made no comment on the budget when it was unanimously introduced. The discussion came later, during the public comment portion of the meeting. It started slow, with property owner Mary Ann Welsh asking the status of the court case over funding of the legal award.
“It’s still in front of the judge. The judge has not rendered a decision in that as of yet,” said Commissioner Cornelius Maxwell.
“My feeling is, it’s not going to be good. The way it was presented, the way it was handled, the attorneys, the job they did or didn’t do, I wasn’t real comfortable,” said Fox. “Am I still hoping and praying that we win that thing? I do.”
Others in the audience asked about the possibility of an appeal if the judge sides with the JIF. Fox said the option to appeal is always open but the borough may not want to take that step. He said the borough would have to take the advice of professionals and look at the judge’s ruling.
“You look at all of that and say, 'Is it worth another $100,000 to appeal something?'” he said. “Yes you can. Whether we do or not is another story.”
Speakers described the local taxes as a hardship.
“We need to ask them now to resign. Resign. Step down, because you did a bad job,” said Mark Meighan, a property owner who said he is in the process of moving to the borough.
Helen Roa, another nonresident property owner, brought up the borough’s liability for the award.
“The reason the JIF denied it was that we did not follow their recommendations,” she said.
“That’s what they’re saying,” said Maxwell.
“So are you saying we did follow their recommendations?” she asked.
“I’m saying we did what was best for the borough,” Maxwell said.