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Desiderio Stresses Partnership Between County, Small Businesses

Christopher South
Cape May County Board of Commissioners Director Leonard Desiderio giving a state-of-the-county address to the county chamber of commerce March 21.

By Christopher South

DIAMOND BEACH – Cape May County Board of Commissioners Director Leonard Desiderio told members of the county chamber of commerce that the county is in a strong financial position and touted two years of county tax rate reductions.

Desiderio made his remarks in a state-of-the-county address at the Thursday, March 21, chamber luncheon, telling his audience they are part of a partnership with county government.

“As a small business owner, I know that we are working together,” he said. “Nothing is possible without working together.”

Desiderio said the county commission would adopt the $214 million budget for 2024 on April 8 and called the second straight year for a tax rate reduction “unprecedented.” The reduction was aided, he said, by the addition of $10 billion to the county ratables base and reductions of about $5.1 million in wages and $3 million in health benefits due to the privatization of the Crest Haven Nursing Home.

At the same time, he said, the county worked hard for months using a zero-based budget strategy, increasing accountability from each department for every dollar spent.

The county, he said, is planning for the future with significant cash on hand for maintenance and road projects. He outlined for the chamber members the county’s Ocean Drive Upgrades and Bridge Improvements project, which includes the replacement of the Middle Thorofare Bridge.

Desiderio said the project, which would run from the Canyon Club at the base of the Cape May Bridge to the Wildwood Crest/Lower Township boundary, could cost as much as $500 million by its completion. County Administrator Kevin Lare said after the luncheon that the exact amount is to be determined, as the county is about to seek bids for the design phase. County officials are confident the federal government will contribute to the plan.

The commission director said there are other infrastructure projects on the slate, including the 96th Street Bridge in Stone Harbor. He said the $42 million project could begin in September 2025. He also said the county has more than $100 million in open, funded projects in 2024, including over 20 miles of road reconstruction, drainage, small bridge maintenance, facility improvements and new capital construction.

Desiderio said there is a $19 million project at the Cape May County Technical School that will allow curriculum expansion, including in the areas of hospitality, veterinary sciences, allied health, law and public safety, and other areas.

“This two-year project is offset by a $14 million state grant obtained by the technical high school,” he said.

He reminded the audience of the county’s efforts to stop the placement of wind turbines off the coast of Cape May County. Referring to the Danish company Orsted as “Goliath,” Desiderio credited lead county counsel Michael Donohue for a successful effort, supported by the commercial fishing industry, the county chamber of commerce, the environmental group Clean Ocean Action and Rep. Jeff Van Drew, who sponsored two hearings to give voice to the opposition to the wind farm.

“The county is not and never has been against renewable energy that makes sense,” Desiderio said. “However, any project must not cause environmental devastation, it must be able to meet energy demand, it must not financially overburden our people, and it must not jeopardize a $7 billion to $8 billion annual tourism economy or put our commercial fishing industry at risk.”

He echoed remarks by state Sen. Michael Testa, who a week prior, in the same location, said the fight against wind farms would continue.

Desiderio told the audience his administration had formed several ad hoc committees to address some of the county’s biggest challenges, including housing, the cost of which goes up each year. He said one of the committees would look at areas of redevelopment, as it has been doing for Pacific Avenue in Wildwood, and at a partnership with Dennis Township to remove an eyesore motel. Other committees deal with recreation, intergovernmental affairs and homelessness.

He said there is no magic pill to address all of these issues, but the county wishes to work with its municipal partners to create solutions. “In the coming months, the county will keep interested parties informed as our work develops,” he said.

Desiderio said the county is on the verge of launching a digital newsletter that will be produced quarterly.

In May, Atlantic Cape Community College-Cape May Campus will cut the ribbon on a zoo education wing, which he said would provide educational opportunities for youth, including summer campers, and programs for residents and visitors.

Desiderio also mentioned last week’s groundbreaking on improvements to the county veterans cemetery. “I want the cemetery to look like a mini Arlington,” he said, referring to Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.

He concluded his remarks by saying, “Please leave here today knowing that the county is in a strong financial position” and referred to small business owners as the “backbone” of Cape May County.

Thoughts? Questions? Call Christopher South at 609-886-8600 x-128 or email csouth@cmcherald.com.

Reporter

Christopher South is a reporter for the Cape May County Herald.

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