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Leusner Keys on Finances in First State of the Township Address

Leusner Keys on Finances in First State of the Township Address

By Vince Conti

Mayor Christopher Leusner delivering his State of the Township address.
Vince Conti
Mayor Christopher Leusner delivering his State of the Township address.

COURT HOUSE – Middle Township is doing very well, thank you.

That was the message from new Mayor Christopher Leusner as he gave his first annual State of the Township address to the Middle Township Chamber of Commerce Wednesday, Feb, 28, at the Bellevue Tavern.

The focus of a large part of Leusner’s remarks was on township financial health. He stressed that the township is committed to sound financial management, a stable tax rate and continuous expansion of its ratables base.

As proof of that commitment, Leusner cited the $44 million increase in ratables from 2023 to 2024, a growth that leaves the township with an overall valuation of $2.9 billion. County tax board documents put the true value of township property at over $3.5 billion.

The mayor pointed to rising property values when he noted that the median home value in the township is now at $356,000. In his 2020 State of the Township presentation, then-mayor Timothy Donohue reported the median home value in the township at $250,700.

Leusner’s slide show presentation showed new businesses that have opened across the town, from Julio’s Tacos in Court House to the Burlington store in Rio Grande. The new County Commons sports an entertainment complex that has theaters, bowling alleys and even a way to test and correct your golf swing.

The mayor also spoke of the housing developments underway in the township, including at the Stone Harbor Golf Course and the marina in Avalon Manor. He reminded the chamber audience that all the development that followed on the heals of the township’s settlement with the Affordable Housing Center has to meet a 20% affordable housing set-aside.

Among other developments, Leusner spoke of the pending merger between Cape Regional Medical Center and the much larger Cooper University Health System, which promises to bring more specialist care to the township while also creating a financially sound local hospital environment able to better withstand the headwinds that plague small, independent health systems in today’s volatile market.

The mayor said township services and the local tax that supports them comprise just 27% of a property owner’s total tax bill. The remainder of the total tax levy comes from school, county and fire district taxes.

One slide in his presentation showed the impact of recent inflation of county budgets. The mayor said that county services today cost the average taxpayer $5.52 per day. A look back to Donohue’s 2020 presentation shows that county services cost the taxpayer $3.31 per day then.

The impact of inflation in general on township budgets was one of the challenges Leusner cited in his presentation. Others included an increase in statutory expenses and state programs like the 20%-plus increase in employee health benefits mandated by the state last year.

The township has taken steps to meet financial challenges through imposing an occupancy tax on short-term rentals, looking to responsible introduction of one retail cannabis shop whose sales are taxable by the municipality, and diversifying township investments and thereby significantly increasing earnings on those investments.

The presentation showed that a key to financial health in the township is attracting business and creating jobs for a population that continues to grow despite a population downturn elsewhere in the county. The mayor pointed to economic development efforts that include an expansion of redevelopment zones in the commercial areas of Rio Grande.

Improving recreational opportunities was also highlighted in the presentation. Leusner spoke of events and programs at the Recreation Department, park upgrades through partnership with the county Open Space program and improvements to the Middle Township portion of the increasingly popular countywide bike path.

The goal, he emphasized, is the creation of a “uniquely desirable place to live, work and visit.”

It has become tradition for the township address to include a discussion of public safety initiatives from the chief of police. This year was no exception, with Chief Jennifer Pooler also taking a turn to address the chamber.

Police Chief Jennifer Pooler gives her report at the State of the Township Chamber of Commerce event. Photo Credit: Vince Conti

Pooler spoke of the township’s commitment to a strong police force, noting that that support permits the department to maintain a force of 55 full-time officers. The size of the force matters not just because it allows added enforcement, but mainly because it gives the department the flexibility to move beyond enforcement to efforts at community outreach.

Community policing has long been a hallmark of the department, which Leusner headed as chief for 13 years.

Pooler spoke of her commitment to developing and maintaining a positive relationship between the department and the township’s youth. She talked about community programs as varied as coffee with a cop, the department’s summer youth camp, the use of mental health specialists to aid in response to calls for service, and a list of other similar efforts at community outreach.

But she said that never lost in all this is the fundamental commitment to public safety.

Pooler described a department that uses data on crimes and traffic incidents to deploy its resources where they are most needed.

She cited a slight increase in crimes reportable through the National Incident Based Reporting System, where township offenses rose from 963 in 2022 to 1,012 in 2023. While crime was down in many areas, including crimes against property, incidents of simple assault and drug offenses saw slight increases.

The Rio Grande area continues to be an area of focus with a new and expanded police substation that opened in December.

Contact the author, Vince Conti, at vconti@cmcherald.com.

Reporter

Vince Conti is a reporter for the Cape May County Herald.

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