“It’s a full house here tonight,” Mayor Susan B. Marshall said, opening Tuckerton borough’s July 17 council meeting. The room was packed with both full-time and seasonal borough residents, hungry for announcements on last month’s unfinished cannabis conversation.
On June 20, Councilman Keith Vreeland suggested putting a referendum on the ballot in the general election to get residents’ opinions on a cannabis dispensary in town. On July 17, Vreeland moved a resolution with a clear ballot question.
“Shall the Borough of Tuckerton permit recreational cannabis operations and retail distribution within the Borough?” Vreeland read.
Vreeland motioned to adopt the referendum. Councilman Brian Martin voted “yes,” while remaining council members voted “no.” The resolution did not pass.
Resident Carolyn Keen thanked Vreeland and Martin for their efforts, but left other members with a vital question: “What’s the fear about putting it out to the voters?”
There are too many residents and nonresidents to get a representative vote of all parties, Councilman Ron Peterson responded. Councilman Mike Dupuis backed Peterson, reminding residents of the ordinance’s past three readings, all of which provided borough residents with ample time to respond in agreement or disagreement.
“I don’t believe, personally, that it is a good fit,” Dupuis argued. “We are supposed to be a family community.”
While some agreed with Dupuis that Tuckerton is a family community, several wondered how a dispensary would change the trajectory of that reputation. If substance abuse is the issue, then, CEO of Jersey Shore Extracts Candace Johnson argued, alcohol’s threat, as well.
“There are seven different locations where you can buy alcohol in this family-friendly town,” Johnson said.
Council is aware of alcohol statistics and the damage overconsumption can do to a town’s environment, she said. So, she wondered why dispensaries would be any more harmful than the rate of alcohol retail and expenditure already present in the borough.
“I can say this about the liquor licenses,” Dupuis responded. “Every single one of them (liquor licenses) didn’t come out of thin air. They came about through the population, and those date back to well before anyone in this room was born. So, it’s nothing new.”
Residents advocating for the ballot referendum understood Dupuis’ point on alcohol. However, they continued circling back to one question: revenue. Several residents stood before council demanding new means of revenue for the community if dispensaries could not be an option. Environmental Commission Chair Kaylyn Ullman had much to say on this discussion.
“I know you said it’s a family town,” Ullman began, “and I hear that. But everything we try to do for the families, (for example) the fireworks, moth night (or) any kind of activities we do, we still have to rely on the citizens of the town to donate.”
Ullman explained the upcoming event on Aug. 4, Moth Night, is paid for entirely out of pocket. Committees have no money to spend, she said, questioning council’s continued disregard of dispensaries’ highly profitable advantages. She stressed the financial impact of any new business on a town. So, why would a dispensary’s effects be any different? An increase in revenue means more money to host family events, thus making Tuckerton, if anything, more family friendly.
Dupuis respectfully disagreed with Ullman’s opinion, saying he had seen countless towns larger than Tuckerton turn down an opportunity to open a dispensary. He argued the town’s school and already crowded business presence make it nearly impossible to find a suitable location for a dispensary.
“It’s fine for other communities,” Dupuis began. “(But) unfortunately, to have a dispensary right on Route 9 is, I don’t think, a good fit for our community.”
Dupuis said he’d had many conversations with older town members, ones who are unable to attend these meetings. He recalled their hesitancy and concern with putting a dispensary in town. Ullman, as well as Councilman Martin’s father, Wayne Martin, wondered why these opinions mattered more than their own.
“I do think it (retail cannabis) should be put to a vote,” Wayne Martin began. “I really think you folks should reconsider, because you are honestly sending the wrong message by not letting the public (vote). But seriously, think about it. It’s not just you (council), the people you talk to and the minds of the people sitting behind me.”
However, just as many residents urged council to reconsider their decision, a handful of others agreed that retail cannabis had no place in their community. Even Tom Donahue Jr., a self-described cannabis user, explained his adamant rejection of a Tuckerton dispensary. A dispensary would bring in a different crowd, he said, explaining how interaction between this new group of people would be inapt with current residents.
Though a handful of residents urged council to reconsider its decision, it is unclear if any future adjustments will be made.
In other news, Councilman Martin explained the new water and sewer rates. As of July, water and sewer bills increased by 30%.
“Currently, the borough has about $15 million in infrastructure costs through the New Jersey Infrastructure Bank. We have to pay back the interest on all of those annually in the water and sewer budget. While those rates are still low, we did see a big increase because of the current economics. All the interest rates have gone way up,” Martin explained.
Last year, he added, the borough accumulated about $6,000 in interest, whereas this year, it has incurred almost $124,000 just in interest. Interest is one of the leading factors in water and sewer increase, but not the only one, he said. General cost of living has increased by 24% since the pandemic. Since this increase is achieved annually, the water and sewer bill is finally seeing this rise in price, as well. Required repairs to wells #2 and #3 are also affecting the increase.
Martin went on to explain the pandemic’s effect on water and sewer charges. He said no unpaid balances or interest on late payments could be collected and no water could be shut off during that time. Because of this, the borough took on a huge deficit, and now the deficit must be made up.
“In 2020 and 2021, we did know we would have to do the increase (in water and sewer charges). We up here (council members) did not want to do the increase during COVID,” he began. “We did not want to burden the residents of the town during COVID while people were out of work.”
As of now, prices in New Jersey have increased by roughly 20%, Martin said, explaining water and sewer charges were no exception to this jump.
Tuckerton residents argued a 30% increase was entirely too much at once and demanded further explanation from council during public forum.
Seasonal resident John Dietze expressed his immense dissatisfaction at the new bill. He explained his friends in Beach Haven West in Stafford Township and in Little Egg Harbor are seeing a 12.4% increase in their water and sewer charges. However, Dietze and his wife are paying a significantly larger jump in their charges.
“You don’t have to be a mathematician to know that 30% is ridiculous,” Dietze argued. “It can be done slowly; it doesn’t have to be one solid hit. So I ask you to reconsider that.”
The increase could be done slowly, Martin said, agreeing with Dietze’s point. However, two years ago the 2023 water and sewer payment decision was finalized. It was agreed the hit would happen all at once and not accumulate slowly. Martin said the state Board of Local Finance agreed this was the best plan of action due to the level of deficit the borough was in.
Dietze asked how Tuckerton could be so far ahead of other communities, to which Martin replied that $15 million had been spent on infrastructure in the last four years. And though Dietze heard Martin, he wanted council to know he strongly disagreed with its decision.
Year-round resident Gail Romano was largely concerned about the lack of utility authority and oversight surrounding this bill. She wondered how residents could be sure this jump wouldn’t happen again next year if they weren’t warned about the current increase.
Borough Clerk Jenny Gleghorn responded, assuring Romano there is oversight. The state Division of Local Government Services reviews the borough’s budget annually and makes recommendations, and once the ordinance is up, the borough is required to send a copy of it to the division.
“I don’t believe this governing body could have predicted the increase the president and the economy has done,” Gleghorn said.
However, this budget had been previously announced, Martin said. This budget was read first for public comment and hearing and then passed 28 days following its final reading. Martin recalled no questions or comments being posed during first or final reading, and he urged residents to attend meetings to remain aware of budget changes.
— Stefani Leonard