Seaside Park officials are considering backing out of a shared services agreement with Lavallette under which the two towns share building inspection and code enforcement services.
The borough council discussed options for ending – or at least lessening – the partnership after a number of residents and real estate agents said Seaside Park homeowners were receiving too many fines and not enough service.
“Like many things in life, it seemed like a good idea at the time, but it’s not working out so well,” said Linda Stefanik, a realtor in Seaside Park.
The bulk of the complaints were over fines that have been levied upon Seaside Park residents for failing to have a rental property inspected by March. Officials surmised that Lavallette is too liberally utilizing a portion of the borough code that fines residents an extra $100 if an inspection is not completed by a certain date, above a higher price they already pay for inspections after March.
“There are fines out there of $100, over and over again, and when you start adding that up, they’re getting the money,” said Judy Applebee, another realtor, referring to Lavallette. “I’m dealing with people who are trying to abide by the law and do the inspections, and it’s costing them big bucks.”
The seeds of a return to home rule have already been planted.
“We discussed in our committee about bringing back at least a code enforcement officer,” said Council President Gail Coleman. “I’ve had discussions with the administrator this past week about having someone with Saturday hours, maybe switching it up to Sunday some weeks.”
Councilman Frank “Fritz” McHugh, however, called the idea “impractical” and said Seaside Park’s hiring of its own officer on top of the agreement with Lavallette could cause controversy over which town collects fines.
But McHugh, however, still expressed his displeasure with the arrangement, citing what he described as an unfriendly encounter with Lavallette officials when he asked a question about the shared services agreement.
“There’s been a lot of dissatisfaction in town. It took me as a council in town about a month and a half to get an answer to what I thought was a simple question,” McHugh said. “Besides the money part of it … there’s an underlying philosophy, and that’s the argument on providing community services.”
Council members debated whether to operate a full building department or explore a different shared services agreement. Prior to Superstorm Sandy, code enforcement was handled in-house but Berkeley Township provided inspection services. Berkeley ended the agreement after officials there said they were inundated with requests from their own residents after the storm.
Under the current agreement, Lavallette assumes all of the revenue generated through inspections, but provides its services for free. The agreement, signed last year, was for four years, however a clause allows either town to back out with 90 days’ notice. The deal was struck after Seaside Park lost about $75,000 in its building department in 2016.
Ending the agreement this year, however, could prove impossible.
“To make a quick exit and put this department back all of the sudden would be a financial burden for 2018,” said Borough Administrator Sandra Rice. “I think we should do it in a patient manner and think about the 2019 budget.”
Mayor Robert W. Matthies also expressed frustration: “I’m the customer, and I demand better service,” he said.
As for walking back a shared services agreement: “Code enforcement has always been home rule,” Coleman said.