Medford Township continued on a path of revival during 2013. Township officials spent the year working on ways to attract new businesses and improve organization in the local government.
Luring in new commercial entities was the township’s biggest challenge and was done through ordinances, promotional efforts and even legal action.
Changes weren’t only found in the township. Both Medford Public Schools and Shawnee High School also saw changes in the form of a new teacher evaluation system and a new curriculum.
These changes will likely continue into 2014. So before turning the calendar, let’s take a look back at the top stories in Medford in 2013.
Medford’s process in trying to become more business-friendly began early in the year with the passage of a new sign ordinance.
The new ordinance relaxed the regulations on signs, allowing for larger sizes and electronic boards to be erected while still keeping the character of Medford Township. “We got a lot of complaints that the sign ordinance was not good and it left a lot of room for improvement,” township manager Chris Schultz said.
The amendment was created through a cooperative effort by the township planner, council members and business owners.
After its passage in the spring, Council brought the sign ordinance back up for discussion in the fall to re-evaluate its effectiveness and see what areas needed to be improved.
Mayor Frank Czekay was concerned about the brightness of the electronic boards. He used the ones at St. Mary of the Lakes School as an example, saying it was a distraction for homes across the road.
Czekay was also concerned about enforcement issues with the new ordinance. He said the township would not be able to penalize political organizations that don’t follow the township’s rules about political signs because of a 30-day compliance period.
These, along with other comments about the ordinance, were brought back before the original subcommittee to be re-evaluated for improvements to the amendment.
At a meeting on Dec. 4, Township Planner Michelle Taylor presented the sub-committee’s opinion after meeting about Council’s proposed changes.
Taylor said the enforcement period cannot be changed since the ordinance could possibly be in violation of due process. She did suggest that the ordinance be amended so the brightness of electronic signs can be amended.
Czekay commented that some organizations did turn down the brightness of their signs during the fall. Amending the ordinance to draw up specific brightness regulations could be on the table in 2014.
Township looks toward redevelopment
As part of Medford’s effort to revive Main Street, the Economic Development Advisory Committee continued to push for businesses to fill up the vacancies that existed along the road.
In April, committee chairman Mike Pagnotta said the old bank building on the corner of Bank and Main streets would likely become the new home of the Pop Shop of Collingswood.
“It means there’s significant interest in the downtown area,” Pagnotta said. “The building was vacant for five to seven years. Symbolically that was important. Selling it marks the end of recession.”
Entering 2014, nothing has opened in the bank building. However, new businesses have taken up shop in Medford Village. Sheer Envy Boutique and True Story Photography were two of the new businesses found along Main Street in the fall.
“We’ve definitely seen the vacancy rates going down,” Pagnotta said in the fall. “We’re trying to increase rateables. We want to fill these vacancies.”
Other projects the EDC looked into focused on drawing customers downtown. Improvements to sidewalks and better pedestrian crossings were made to help make Medford Village a more “pedestrian friendly” area.
Later in the year, Medford joined a new county program called Shop Burlington County First. The hope was that joining the initiative would encourage residents to shop locally.
Township goes after liquor licenses
Another part of the township’s effort to attract local businesses was to free up two liquor licenses that have been held in an inactive state by Medford Village East Associates since 2003.
In October, the township objected to the renewal of MVEA’s two licenses in a brief. The developer received the licenses in 2003 after planning a mixed-use project called Medford Crossings.
The project was tied up in litigation and no progress has been made on it since 2011.
“The way the litigation is playing out, we’re just not confident anything is going to be built there,” Schultz said.
The issue was a large one for a municipality that was trying to attract new businesses to the township. The loss of commercial tax ratables is one reason the township went after MVEA.
“After many years now, Medford Township has run out of patience,” township solicitor Christopher Norman said in a legal brief. “The municipality is now losing out on commercial tax ratables that would be generated by two restaurants with active plenary C retail consumption licenses.”
While the township tried to recover the two licenses from MVEA, a third liquor license went up for bid in the fall for $600,000. Unfortunately for the township, it did not receive any bidders.
Council brought the license up for discussion again in a November Council meeting. After discussion, they agreed with a recommendation from Schultz and dropped the minimum bid for the license to $450,000.
Pinelands Library agreement
The future of Medford Township’s relationship with Burlington County freeholders regarding the Pinelands Branch Library was in limbo for a portion of 2013 after the county rejected an agreement crafted by Medford Council in February.
The township was developing a tri-party agreement among itself, the county and the Medford Library Association as the calendar turned to 2013. With the dissolution of the Medford Library Association in 2012, it prevented an agreement being signed in 2012.
The new agreement was rejected in February by the county freeholders for numerous reasons, one of which was the payment of maintenance costs.
“The agreement they sent us was asking us to reimburse vendors directly, which was never part of the agreement,” Freeholder Leah Arter said in a letter. “They also asked us to hold the insurance for the building as well.”
Many of the issues stemmed from the building, which was considered outdated and in need of repairs by the county. Medford had looked at building a new library in the township for many years, but had hit numerous snags.
Medford township officials were particularly upset at having to pay for repairs to a library that is part of the county system and used by residents in neighboring municipalities such as Shamong, Tabernacle, Southampton and Woodland.
Councilman Jeffrey Beenstock suggested coming to a one-year agreement with the county so that there would be time to develop a comprehensive plan for the library.
“It’s a goal of ours to have a long-term solution. We need to sign this agreement first,” Beenstock said. “We need to get 2013 tied up, that’s the most important.”
The library controversy picked up again in April, when Burlington County questioned whether Medford wanted to partake in shared services.
“After review of Medford’s proposed revisions to the branch agreement for the Pinelands Library, I have arrived at the inescapable conclusion that your governing body, led by Councilmen Pace and Buoni, must be diametrically opposed to shared services programs in Burlington County, and most notably, the Burlington County Library System,” Arter said in the letter.
The county and Medford did reach an agreement to cover $30,000 in repair and maintenance costs. The county also asked for the township’s cooperation in renovating the building. Renovations would include a resource area for children, a cyber café and an adult reading room, according to Arter.
The disagreement came with who should be paying for the upgrades. With the building owned by Medford Township, Arter didn’t want the burden of the costs put on other towns’ residents.
“I cannot, in good faith, recommend to the commission that it execute your amended agreement, which would end Medford’s shared service responsibility and place the total burden for paying for the Pinelands Branch on county library taxpayers, most of whom do not have the luxury of having a branch in their own hometown. Simply stated, I will not recommend that the Library Association raise property taxes on residents of other towns to upgrade the library building that Medford owns,” Arter said in the letter.
Medford officials said the library is part of the Burlington County Library System and the county has financial responsibility for the facility.
“It’s like if someone rented a building from me, without having to pay rent and I paid for all of their utilities,” Councilman Randy Pace said. “That just doesn’t happen, it doesn’t make sense.”
Pace said he foresaw the freeholders shutting down the Pinelands branch and give its status to the Southampton library.
Following the April 2 meeting, Arter stated that the county never threatened to take away shared services from the township.
“What it comes down to is does Medford want this shared service?” she said in a letter. “At no time did I threaten to withhold shared services. The letter asks if it’s an important shared service and if they agree.”
Arter said the municipalities are responsible for capital improvements to the library and that the county tax goes directly to the library system.
The council and Arter finally sat down to meet on April 30 and were able to make progress on an agreement. The county agreed to provide $30,000 worth of reimbursement for maintenance costs, and progress was made on an improvement project for the library.
As the calendar turns to 2014, the Pinelands Branch Library remains open and a part of the Burlington County Library System.
Medford schools curriculum sees changes
Medford Township School District looked to make curriculum adjustments to prepare for the upcoming PARCC test in 2014–15.
“I’m looking forward to a successful implementation of the new teacher and principal evaluation initiative,” Medford superintendent of schools Joseph Del Rossi said. “However, foremost, providing students with the best educational opportunities possible for them to succeed is what I most look forward to.”
During the summer, the district decided to change to the Big Ideas math curriculum for the 2013–14 school year.
Administrative Director of Programming and Planning Thomas Olson suggested the change because the former curriculum, Connected Math, did not align with the state’s common core standards and a change had to be made.
After a pilot program with Big Ideas, Olson recommended making the change permanently.
“It’s aligned to the common core. Its strongest piece is that it has a dual pathway,” Olson said. “It has a balanced instruction between inquiry and direct instruction.”
One of the most appealing parts of the new curriculum was the user-friendly home component that allows parents to work with their children away from the classroom.
The district also revised its literacy curriculum for the new school year; Word study design for kindergarten through fifth grade was changed to support the New Word Study Program. In addition, the sixth-grade reading units were outlined further.
Lenape District approves new teacher evaluations
Meanwhile, the way teachers were evaluated on job performance changed in the Lenape Regional High School District. In June, the state Department of Education approved a new teacher evaluation for the school district that complies with the TEACHNJ Act.
Director of Curriculum and Instruction Heather Xenakis said teachers will receive a rating ranging from highly effective, effective, partially effective or ineffective.
“We wrote our own evaluation tool. We had it approved by our board of education and the state DOE. There was a request for qualifications process, to which we applied, and were given approval. Very few districts were given approval to use their own tool,” Xenakis said. “We are proud to say that our tool, which was developed by teachers, administrators and district administrators, was a collaborative effort that we worked diligently on for over a year.”
The planned evaluations also included more classroom evaluation time of teachers. The new plan puts every teacher under evaluation for two full classroom periods.
The new teacher evaluation program was expected to save the district $15,000. The district originally planned to implement a costlier “off-the-shelf” program.
Chris Herren comes to the Lenape District
In hopes of reaching the students in the Lenape Regional High School District better on the topics of drug and alcohol abuse, former NBA player Chris Herren was invited to give two assemblies at each of the four high schools and a parents’ presentation.
The announcement was made in September shortly after the Lenape Regional High School District Foundation donated $29,000 to help pay for Herren to come to the district.
The reaction from Herren’s assemblies was very positive, according to administration, staff and students. A capacity crowd filled the Performing Arts Center at Cherokee High School to hear Herren’s story in person.
Herren’s message was that lots of drug and alcohol abuse starts when kids are in high school and only worsens if it is not caught early on.
“When I ask children in the schools I visit to draw a picture of what a drug addict looks like, they draw pictures of homeless people and prostitutes,” Herren said. “They see addicts on their last day, not their first. They don’t know about day one enough. It all starts with red (plastic) cups.”
The assemblies tied in with the school district’s Defy the Issue campaign, an initiative to help make the high schools a drug and alcohol free zone.
“Defy the Issue, a drug-and alcohol-free campaign, continues to be the focus of student-to-student presentations both within our schools and with the middle schools in the eight townships which we serve,” LRHSD superintendent Carol Birnbohm said. “And while it is impossible to attribute it to one thing, we can say with confidence that the message is being spread effectively throughout our community.”
Concerns raised over skate park
Schultz expressed his concerns about skateboards and bikers breaking the rules at the skate park in Freedom Park and threatened to close it due to liability concerns.
“Skateboards are certain days and bikes certain days. They are disregarding that and are entering the park on the days they are not supposed to be in there,” Schultz said. “The other concern is they are not using personal safety equipment like helmets.”
Schultz stated that an injury in the park would cost more than the cost to build the park. The park was unsupervised due to a lack of staff.
The presentation brought up a discussion among Council, where members talked of adding a registry for parents where they would confirm that their children would obey all of the parks rules. Schultz warned that without changes, the park may close.
“It’s a great facility but it’s a very risky sport,” Schultz said. “We have to be prepared for that one [incident] that could come to us.”
The park remains open and there are no plans to shut down the park today.
Municipal taxes increase
Medford Township was forced to raise taxes for the 2013 fiscal year by 3.7 cents per $100 of assessed property value despite cutting the budget by 4.4 percent.
The total budget was projected to be $20,971,844 and remained very similar to 2012. Some changes were made to the state health benefit plan and the outsourcing of sanitation. The township also continued its brush and leaf program.
Schultz credited township officials for being more careful with township dollars, which helped to cut wasteful spending.
“I want to compliment the department heads. They’re watching their dollars now. We’re all trying to watch what we do and how we do it,” Schultz said.
School taxes increase
Both Medford and Lenape District schools saw increases in taxes after budgets were presented for the 2013–14 school year. Medford Township school taxes increased by $198 for an averaged assessed home of $330,013, according to Business Administrator Chad Fires. The tax levy increase for the $50.5 million budget was necessary to close a $1.1 million shortfall.
Even though the tax increase surpassed the 2 percent cap, a referendum was not needed since the district utilized a bank cap.
A slightly lower tax increase also took place at the Lenape Regional High School District. The $150.4 million budget included a 1.79 percent increase on taxes from the previous year.
Along with Mt. Laurel, the bulk of the Lenape district’s taxes come from the township.
“This changes every year,” Board Vice President David Stow said. “The four basic characteristics that come into the tax are, the changes in equalized value, the changes in ratables, the changes in regional enrollment and the assessed value of average homes. If you see a big change in any of those four, it’s probably going to mean something’s going to happen in the share or the amount that that township has to pay.”
State aid remained the same at $28.4 million. The budget was mainly the same as the previous year, with no programs or additional staff added.
“Our budget is a no programs added, no additional staff added — except for those staff members that are mandated for individual educational program students,” Stow said. “We have 13 students coming in from our sending districts with IEPs, and those IEPs require a paraprofessional, a sign language person or special education teacher.”