Jersey Shore Politics: This Is What Happens When No One’s Looking

Does a sleepy Shore town really need 21 cops, a multimillion-dollar library, and a school system that spends $47,000 on every kid?
A deserted street in Avalon after the shoobies have gone home | Photograph by Eric Prine

A deserted street in Avalon after the shoobies have gone home | Photograph by Eric Prine

THE SKY IS SHAPELESS and gray, looming above Margate like a wool curtain. Dustin Widas sits behind the wheel of a black-and-white Ford Explorer, sizing up empty million-dollar homes for unexpected signs of life as raindrops pitter-patter across his windshield. An inky-black AR-15 rifle is mounted to his right, a few inches from a 20-ounce cup of Wawa coffee. 

He cuts across Atlantic Avenue, down Decatur, back across Amherst, from the ocean to the bay, passing through scenes that resemble still-life photographs on this late November morning. Here’s Lucy the Elephant, six stories tall, swollen and empty. There’s a block of HGTV-esque properties, their shutters drawn for the winter. Historic Marven Gardens looks like it could play host to a tumbleweed race at any moment. We slow as we approach a stretch of traffic lights that switched to blinking yellow once the summer visitors decamped to the cities and suburbs, freeing locals from the tyranny of red lights. Every now and then, a flurry of movement catches Widas’s eye: An older man jaywalks in front of the Ford; a woman winces at a gust of wind as she waits for her dog to hurry up and do its business. Widas, solidly built and trim at 39, with short black hair, keeps driving, accompanied by the hum of the Ford’s engine and the muted whine of the windshield wipers. His police radio is silent.

Widas used to work as an EMT in always-on Atlantic City, where he responded to the parking-garage collapse at the Tropicana casino that killed four construction workers in 2003. Then he spent two years in war-torn Iraq with the National Guard, steering armored vehicles through southern towns like Basra and Nasiriyah. He switched about a year ago from the Atlantic County sheriff’s department to the Margate City police department, from serving warrants for wanted criminals to working 12-hour patrol shifts in a town that averages about seven arrests a month from July to October. And that’s the busy season.

“Some people think that because it’s Margate, nothing happens,” he says. “But everything happens here. We’ve had assaults with weapons. It’s just not with the same frequency as it is in other places.” We pass Lucy again — she’s still wide-eyed and lonely — and then it’s back over to the bayside, and Memories, Jerry Blavat’s stomping grounds, and a line of empty parking spaces. Nobody’s inside doing the Twist.

Widas isn’t a lone sheriff. On the contrary, Margate — a town that takes up less than one and a half square miles, with an off-season population of around 6,200 — has a full-time force of 27 police officers, all of whom work year-round. There’s a murder here about every five years. The most frequent headaches involve DUIs, occasional bar fights, and thieves trying to break into the posh deserted houses. Even so, police officers can earn up to $96,391 a year — about $30,000 more than cops make in Philly, where a shooting unfolds every six hours.

Other Margate public servants are making out pretty well, too. The city has a 35-member fire department that eats $3.8 million out of the budget, even though the actual number of fires that need to be extinguished each year only hovers around 30. Teachers at the elementary school — where the class size is about 17 students per grade — earned a median salary of $88,362 in 2015, some $30,000 more than what teachers glean in wealthy Moores-town. A municipal construction official here can pull in up to $125,000 a year, while a systems analyst can earn $145,000.

Why such largesse? From the locals’ perspective, the answer might well be, why not? Thanks to years of rising real estate values and ever-bigger trophy homes, Margate has seen its tax revenues soar, and town officials, like most lottery winners, have been only too happy to spend their windfall. Indeed, from 2008 to 2016, the municipal budget has grown 31 percent, from $24 million to $31 million.

But just as important, the booming real estate market — and changes to the overall economy — has fundamentally changed the nature of Margate itself, at least in the off-season. Where once the town boasted a small but vibrant community of year-round middle-class residents, today the vast majority of property owners are affluent out-of-towners who only show up for a couple of months in the summer. Which means a) they probably aren’t paying all that much attention to where their money goes; and b) even if they are, they can’t vote.

Margate’s isn’t the only Shore government basking in the Benjamins. Travel up and down the Jersey coast and you see town after town with plenty of cash. So a place like Ocean City can afford to dish out a million bucks a year on its public-relations office, while tiny Avalon — which in the off-season pretty much defines sleepy — can spend $47,401 on each of its 59 grade-school students, and even tinier Stone Harbor can build a 9,400-square-foot library for its 844 year-round residents. Oh, and if you think Margate’s robust police and fire protection might also cover, say, neighboring Ventnor, you’d be wrong. That town — which has a year-round population of 10,486 — spends nearly $10 million on its own police and fire departments.

All this spending would seem to be a prime example of government bloat and inefficiency, which it very much is. But it’s also possible to see this story through another lens — namely, as an income-inequality tale with a Robin Hood twist, one in which, at least for now, the have-nots are taking the haves to the cleaners.

Stone Harbor’s new $4.2 million library, left, which sits just three miles from Avalon’s equally posh library, right. | Photographs by Eric Prine

Stone Harbor’s new $4.2 million library, left, which sits just three miles from Avalon’s equally posh library, right. | Photographs by Eric Prine

I’M DEVELOPING A soft spot for the Christmas tree. It’s average-looking, as fake trees go, and maybe a little thin in the middle. But it’s perched atop a table in the back of Avalon’s beautiful, cavernous public library, right near a block of soaring windows so the red and white ornaments catch the sunlight. There are wreaths and bits of holly everywhere, and I get the sense that the people who decorated this room really love the place.

It’s the day before Thanksgiving, and the staffers easily outnumber the patrons, who consist of two people: me, and an older guy with black-rimmed glasses who’s noisily flipping through the pages of a magazine. I silently nickname him Blue Sweatshirt Guy and wonder if he can hear me chewing gum. A bank of eight computer terminals sits unused, across from cardboard cutouts of C-3PO and R2-D2. A couple of employees are making small talk at the front desk, and their voices carry across the library’s 9,000 square feet. The situation was much the same when I visited in early September; the library was so empty, I could hear a staffer politely inform one customer that she owed $15.12 in late fees.

The library houses 60,000 titles and is open seven days a week. If you’re one of Avalon’s 1,297 year-round residents, you can check out iPads for up to three weeks at a time, or join a book club, or take up creative writing, or attend an author lecture. “A lot of people hang out here,” says library director Erin Brown. “It’s like our front porch.” The building opened in 2005, as part of a $7 million project that included a neighboring elementary school. A few years later, officials in Avalon cut the ribbon on a $4.5 million, 17,737-square-foot public-safety complex on nearby Dune Drive that houses the police and fire departments.

Three miles away, Stone Harbor for years had a 750-square-foot library that was packed with James Patterson audio books. It was a tight squeeze, sure, but given the town’s minuscule year-round population and the fact that Avalon’s Barnes & Noble-quality library was just a few minutes away, you might think it would have been sufficient. Woo boy, you’d be wrong.

In September 2015, Cape May County officials broke ground on a new $4.2 million library for Stone Harbor residents. The mammoth navy blue and gray structure that rose above 96th Street and 2nd Avenue looks like it belongs on Martha’s Vineyard. Lovely building, but the shelling-out of so much money raises an eyebrow.

As it turns out, though, the Stone Harbor project is really just an exclamation point on nearly a decade’s worth of multimillion-dollar upgrades to Shore libraries, with new ones also built in Wildwood Crest, Sea Isle and Woodbine and branches in Upper and Lower Cape May undergoing extensive renovations, according to Deb Poillon, director of Cape May County’s library system.

New Jersey has required a small percentage of property taxes to be routed to its libraries since 1884. When the Shore’s real estate market went boom, the library system’s ship came in. In 2006, $5 million in tax revenue was directed to the libraries. By 2009, the revenue stream reached a high of $9.5 million. Poillon leads me from her bright yellow office to the second floor of the Cape May Court House branch and beams as she shows off two state-of-the-art 3-D printers. Soon, she hopes to add virtual-reality headsets to this growing tech wing. “All of a sudden, we had all of this money, and the towns came to us and said they were interested in something better,” Poillon says. “Instead of ‘No, we don’t need a library,’ people were asking for bigger and better ones.”

This theme surfaces in almost every Shore town that’s reaping the benefits of the fertile real estate market: The money’s there, so why not spend it? Certainly, the year-round residents deserve nice amenities for putting up with waves of tourists who take over their neighborhoods every summer. And visitors who drop Disney money on a trip to the Shore expect to find a more idyllic version of life back home.

If your Shore roots go back far enough, you know these towns weren’t always rolling in dough or trying to dazzle vacationers with tastes of luxury. The beaches and boardwalks were what lured you down for a week or a month or maybe the whole summer, not the promise of quartz countertops. Things changed somewhere along the way, and the modest bungalows and kitschy hotels that made up the Shore’s fabric became endangered species, replaced by hulking condos and lavish mansions. Longtime residents cashed in their real estate lotto tickets, and the year-round populations took a precipitous fall.

Mitch Zitomer, a realtor at Berkshire Hathaway and the chairman of the Greater Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce, saw hints in the late 1990s that the housing market was starting to shift. New construction projects sprouted in Longport, Margate and Ventnor, and developers rushed to erect speculative housing on plots of land they owned. “And then the bubble burst in 2008,” Zitomer says wryly over a cup of tea one afternoon at the Bocca Coal Fired Bistro in Margate. “Then you had a major recession. And where were people going to put their money? They weren’t going to put it in the stock market. If people had money, they were investing down here. They started to build again.”

Then, in 2012, just when the Shore seemed like a safe and lucrative investment, Hurricane Sandy threatened to wipe whole swaths of it off the map. The storm inflicted billions of dollars in damage as it barreled up the coast. Some places, like Cape May, were miraculously spared; others, like Mantoloking, were annihilated. But the storm also seemed to kick the Shore’s evolution into a new phase.

“Sandy was a catalyst for the acceleration of the gentrification of the Shore,” says Kevin Gillen, a senior research fellow at Drexel University’s Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation. “The homes affected most by Sandy were older, smaller homes that were built to weaker building-code standards, and they depreciated to the point where they became tear-downs. But the land value was so high that in order to recoup your money, you couldn’t just build another 1,200-square-foot cottage. You had to build a 6,000-square-foot, five-bedroom monstrosity right out to the property line.”

The steady rebuilding was mostly welcomed by Shore officials, who, like the frazzled mayor of Amity Island in Jaws, were desperate to assure tourists that their towns were still open for business. But those monstrosities Gillen talks about are pricing average families out. Only the wealthy can afford to take the plunge on six- or seven-figure vacation homes, and that trend doesn’t figure to reverse anytime soon — if ever. Those who do purchase Shore properties aren’t spending a ton of time in their second homes. “Out-of-towners who own their houses aren’t staying here for weeks at a time,” Zitomer tells me. “It’s becoming almost a 10- or 12-weekend season.”

Most of these towns had lost significant chunks of their communities even before Sandy hit; census data shows Margate’s population dropped 22 percent between 2000 and 2010, while Ocean City’s and Stone Harbor’s each fell 23 percent and Avalon’s plummeted 37 percent. “There are a lot of people who only come for the summer season and then pack up and go home,” Jane Dawley, owner of the Well Dressed Olive, tells me inside her olive oil and balsamic vinegar boutique in Stone Harbor. “Those of us who stay year-round are just happy to have the island to ourselves. It’s usually beautiful — and there’s no one in the streets.”

There’s a real romanticism to the notion that Shore towns become almost private enclaves for the people who decide to live in them permanently. But there’s a flip side to that coin. The shrinking number of residents means there are fewer eyes than ever on local government officials who happen to have access to piles and piles of taxpayer dollars. Yeah, I know — it’s not like New Jersey has ever had an issue with public corruption. (Stop rolling your eyes. You’re going to get a headache.)

I THOUGHT ABOUT Jim Kenney’s face when I was in Ocean City a few months ago. The God-help-me hangdog expression that Philly’s mayor so often wears in public does a good job of summing up just how hard it is to get something meaningful — a.k.a. expensive — accomplished in the city. Kenney had to fight tooth and nail for months to get City Council to approve a 1.5-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks, a move that should cover the $60 million annual cost of providing pre-K to thousands of children across the city in the next five years. His reward for passing his signature achievement in office? He was criticized by the media and Council for not disclosing that some of the soda-tax money would be spent on other priorities, like health and human services programs and disability settlements for city employees.

Now consider what happened in Ocean City last winter when mayor Jay Gillian introduced an ambitious $98 million five-year plan to improve that town’s infrastructure: The local city council adopted the plan within a month, no fuss necessary. Maybe it’s just easier to get big spending plans approved in smaller areas, especially when your family DNA is entwined with that of the town. Gillian’s grandfather, David, founded the eponymous boardwalk amusement pier in the late 1920s. Years later, Gillian’s father, Roy, built the boardwalk’s electric Wonderland Pier, and went on to serve as the town’s mayor in the 1980s. And Jay’s wife, Michele Gillian, is the executive director of Ocean City’s Chamber of Commerce.

But that’s not to say Gillian doesn’t take heat. A local nonprofit group called Fairness In Taxes, or FIT, often criticizes the spending and insider-y feel of the local political structure. Ocean City has a $73 million budget to go with an off-season population that sits around 11,300; in contrast, Gloucester City, a Camden County town of some 11,400 people, has a budget of just $18 million, while Camden County’s Bellmawr Borough — population 11,500 — has one of $13 million. Granted, these don’t make for perfect apples-to-apples comparisons; Ocean City sees its population swell to more than 150,000 during the summer and ever-growing shoulder seasons, and neither Gloucester City nor Bellmawr has real estate worth north of $11 billion. But FIT’s interim president, James Tweed, argues there’s still room for Ocean City to cut back, particularly on its roster of 258 public employees.

The city’s public-relations office alone eats up $1.1 million a year, and another $1.1 million goes to the aquatic and fitness center situated within the local library and community center, which underwent a $15 million expansion in 2010. (The center now houses a museum of Ocean City historical artifacts, in case you’re ever in the mood.) Nearly half a million is spent annually on the boardwalk’s music pier. “We think our city government is bloated in terms of personnel, especially since we have a very small population in the wintertime,” Tweed says. “I think we have a lot more cops than we need in winter, especially for a community that’s got a lot of elderly people and no bars or liquor stores.”

Some $8.9 million is spent on a staff of 56 police officers, and another $9.2 million on 58 firefighters. Does a city voted by Coastal Living readers in 2016 as the best beach in the whole country really need to devote such resources to public safety? I try to ask an Ocean City patrol cop stranded on a boring traffic assignment at 8th and Wesley in early September for his take. He calls a supervisor to ask for permission to talk.

Within a minute or two, Captain Steven Ang, the OCPD’s spokesman, pulls up next to me in an SUV. He tells me about the cookie-cutter duplexes that replaced weathered boardinghouses, which used to bring a transient element to the town. Senior Week used to be a big deal here, too, unleashing drunken teenagers who’d smuggle booze into the famously dry town. But that sort of bullshit has tapered off, too.

“In the off-season, our calls pretty much stay consistent,” says Ang. “We have a lot of thefts, and we get domestic-violence-related calls, like any other town. We’re fortunate that we haven’t had any serious stuff down here for many years. But in the summertime, when you pack 150,000 people in this town, there’s a possibility that anything can happen.”

That’s true enough. I was there on vacation with my family in July when a bomb threat near the boardwalk plunged the area into lockdown mode for a few hours, forcing baby-faced summer rent-a-cops to nervously shoo older couples and young families away from the action. But it’s still fair for newer, part-time residents to ask if Ocean City could function in the off-season with a smaller force, like Gloucester City, which survives with 28 cops. Cracking the members-only political circle isn’t easy, though, even for locals. “It seems a lot of decisions are made before they go through public scrutiny,” FIT’s Jim Tweed says. “Decisions are made first, and then they’re put out in the public.”

“It’s a great inside joke as long as you’re on the inside,” says Pat Callahan, who bought a property in Ocean City’s quiet south end back in 2008. About five years ago, he and scores of neighbors had to form a nonprofit and hire their own lawyer to thwart a local plan to build a bike path over wetlands near their homes. He hates that second-homeowners aren’t allowed to vote in local elections. (FIT has long championed that they should be.) If they could vote, maybe the spending concerns would get debated a little more thoroughly. “A revolution was fought in this country for this very reason: taxation without representation,” Callahan says in a booming voice. “Millions of dollars flow into this city’s coffers, and no one knows where it goes. It’s very, very frustrating. The ultimate solution would be for all the homeowners to have the right to vote.” There’s something a little maddening about ponying up big money for a vacation home only to find that it doesn’t buy you a meaningful seat at the table.

A number of other second-homeowners I talked to expressed identical frustrations. But Doug Bergen, Gillian’s spokesman, tells me the mayor actively solicits feedback from part-time dwellers. “The mayor and City Council are committed to giving a voice to all property owners in all city matters,” Bergen writes in an email. “All financial decisions are made in public meetings, and anybody with any interest in the city is encouraged to participate in public comment — and they do.”

Margate spends more than $4 million on its police force, where monthly arrests can usually be counted on two hands. | Photograph by Eric Prine

Margate spends more than $4 million on its police force, where monthly arrests can usually be counted on two hands. | Photograph by Eric Prine

MICHAEL BECKER, MARGATE’S affable mayor, breaks into a knowing smile when I ask him if he hears complaints from second-homeowners about their lack of clout and how he spends their tax dollars. He settles into a plush chair behind the desk in his office, a large, plain room that’s broken up by partitions.

Becker is 79 and in his third term as mayor. You expect the healthy tan, but not the small earring in his left ear. That accessory, coupled with the casual striped t-shirt and dark shorts, gives him the air of a younger man. He says he was elected on a platform of less government and less regulation and has tried to keep Margate’s spending in line. As proof, he asserts that the city had 135 full-time employees when he was first elected in 2007. There are 133 today. But salaries eat up more than half of Margate’s $31 million budget.

A city clerk here can earn up to $90,000 a year; a deputy fire chief, $145,000; a zoning officer, $105,000; a supervising laborer, $103,000. The median teacher salary is $88,362 — and $111,979 for administrators. Yet the city’s elementary and middle schools have a combined enrollment of just 365 students.

Martin Kohli, a chief regional economist at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, says government employees fare better than expected in Shore towns: “For most of the country, the average local government wages are below the average private-sector wages, but in these counties, it’s the reverse.”

Nationwide in 2016, the average local government weekly salary was $892, according to BLS data. In Atlantic County, it was $1,134; in Cape May County, $1,027. By comparison, the average weekly private-sector salary across the country was $1,049, but only $755 in Atlantic County and $629 in Cape May County.

That’s a long, math-y way of saying that municipal government plays a unique and crucial role in Shore communities: It’s the main source of industry in these towns, the most reliable option for decent wages for the ever-shrinking middle class. “We get people who complain we’re spending too much money, but if we were spending $3 a year, we’d find somebody in town who’d complain about that,” Margate’s Mayor Becker chuckles. “I’m very proud of our public works. We have the cleanest beaches anywhere. Our streets are clean. We provide the best water in Jersey. I think the majority of people are happy they’re here.”

He encourages residents to approach him personally at the hardware store in town where he works if they have a concern — even the out-of-towners who, according to a recent Inquirer data project, own 65 percent of the city’s properties. He tells them, half jokingly, that if they really want to vote in Margate, they should just move there full-time.

“We’re very sensitive to the fact that the out-of-town people want to have their voices heard,” Becker says in a patient tone. “A few years back, we scheduled meetings on Saturdays during the summer months, so [second-homeowners] could come. We had two meetings, and after that, nobody showed up.”

But it won’t be so easy to dismiss the out-of-towners as their control of local real estate grows even larger. In Avalon and Stone Harbor, part-time residents own a staggering 87 percent of properties. They might love clean roads as much Becker does, but they still chafe when they see how Avalon’s $26 million budget and Stone Harbor’s $16 million budget compare to those of similarly sized towns like Farmingdale and Lebanon Borough, which make do on $792,000 and $1.8 million, respectively. Avalon has a staff of 21 police officers and five dispatchers; according to FBI data, the town recorded three violent crimes in 2015. Yes, you read that correctly: The town had 18 more cops than violent crimes in an entire year. The department’s Facebook page sort of underscores how quiet things are, filled as it is with updates about bridge work, crimes in other cities, and an unexpected warning about the dangers of drinking hand sanitizer. This isn’t a knock on the cops themselves, who take a chance every time they put on a uniform. But when you can count criminal stats on one hand, you’ve entered Andy Griffith territory, and that should start a conversation about spending habits.

“The towns look great, and the police and fire serve the community very well,” Mitch Zitomer says. “But there’s going to be a side here that says, ‘Everybody should be looking at shared services, because why do you need so many full-time workers if you only have three months in the summer and 10 weekends where there’s a greater mass of people here?’ I think they’re going to wind up having to do that, because the population shift isn’t going to change.”

Zitomer favors having nonpartisan committees evaluate the Shore towns now and where they could be in a decade or more and explore proactive belt-tightening in case the real estate market ever goes sideways. But it’s unlikely political leaders will trip over each other in a rush to start cutting services, or — gasp — allow part-time residents to have a hand in shaping spending priorities. Why mess with a good thing?

I DRIVE OUT of Avalon on a mild fall evening and watch the sun climb down from the heavens, bathing the streets and the water tower in rays of honey. It’s travel-brochure poetry, but I can’t find anyone to share the moment with me. The horizon is deathly still in every direction. And I find myself pondering the question no one wants to ask: How much longer can this dynamic — cities spending big while their populations dwindle — last?

The Shore has two factors in its favor. For millions of people, their warmest memories of families and friends are here, buried in the sand and sprinkled along the boardwalk like so many dropped french fries. That emotional pull is stronger than the tides. There’s also the fact that the Shore’s geography is finite; nobody can build a new Margate or Ocean City, so there’s reason for continued demand.

But what happens to the towns’ spending power if the steady rhythm of real estate sales hiccups? Or if another Sandy-like storm pummels the region, which seems worryingly inevitable? “There’s a lot of uncertainty about what effect climate change is going to have over time,” says Marc Pfeiffer, the assistant director of Rutgers’s Bloustein Local Government Research Center, who has studied Shore towns. “At what point do you start to look at policies that encourage some kind of a retreat? But real estate is a big deal to people. Nobody really wants to talk it down. If you own a property, you tend to look at the short term instead of the long term.”

The other spoke in the wheel is generational. Baby boomers can still afford to invest in Shore properties, but you sure as hell can’t count on their kids and grandkids to come up with that kind of money down the road. Millennials are marrying later than their parents did, starting families later, owning homes at record-low rates, and struggling to keep their heads above water in the ever-growing 1099 economy. Doesn’t exactly sound like an ideal profile for aspiring vacation homeowners.

Look, part of me thinks not even the world’s tiniest violin should weep for people who can afford to bitch about their vacation homes and the unwritten rules that govern those towns. That’s a Thurston Howell first-world problem to the nth degree. But budgets should ideally be rooted in some sort of fiscal logic, and it’s hard to drive or walk around skeletal communities and believe they all need to maintain bloated staff levels just because that’s the way it’s been. The whole you-don’t-really-live-here shtick that’s directed at part-time residents needs to be buried with a couple of shovels from Hoy’s. These are difficult conversations that need to happen. But, man, they’re going to be uglier than a little kid who drops his ice cream while waiting in line for the Ferris wheel.

Follow @dgambacorta on Twitter.

Published as “Does a Sleepy Shore Town Like Avalon Really Need 21 Cops, a Multimillion-Dollar Library, and a School System That Spends $47,000 on Every Kid?” in the January 2017 of Philadelphia magazine.