Year in review: a look back on 2019

Check out what happened locally this past year

Mother and daughter duo, Nicole and Ava Tilley, plant flowers in front of the Washington Township community garden as part of Daisie Troop 64513’s “Make the World a Better Place” pedal project (Anthony J. Mazziotti III/The Sun)

It was a banner year for Washington Township, and The Sun is here to recap some of the biggest headlines. From council meetings to charitable donations, board of education meetings to interesting resident profiles, there was an abundance of newsworthy events in “Township” through 2019. 

Without further ado, here is Washington Township’s year in review.

Municipal tax decrease

In the first two years of Mayor Joann Gattinelli’s administration, the tax rate was steady. This year, residents saw a slight drop in the municipal purpose tax. For the average home valued at $210,358, a resident could see their purpose tax drop $5 for the year.

“I can say that between myself, our business administrator, chief financial officer and assistant chief financial officer, it was a collaborative effort,” Gattinelli said. “We found monies to utilize and keep resources the same, bring in more services for the town, and cut the tax rate slightly. Albeit something small, it’s something we worked hard on to give the residents a reduction.”

One of the things Gattinelli credits for the success is the collaborative effort, not just between her administration, but from the town itself.

“I’m proud of the fact that we had our open budget meetings and heard from residents with constructive information and ways to be able to cut some costs in a sense or look at cost-savings and things to be more cost-effective, which is helpful,” she said.

Looking forward to next year, Gattinelli believes she will bring back the open budget meetings while looking for grants and other monies to utilize.

Bike share program

On June 13, Washington Township introduced its new bike share program that allows visitors of Washington Lake Park to rent bicycles free of charge, so long as they are returned to the kiosk.

Business administrator Jason Gonter said the township amended Gloucester Township’s model to fit its needs.

“Being we planned on putting $1 million into the park to expand paths and rejuvenate around Cedar Lake, we thought it would be great for residents to take advantage,” he said.

The kiosk and bicycles came at no cost to taxpayers because of a wellness sponsorship from Jefferson Health. Jefferson Health donated $20,000 to complete the project.

The bicycles are only able to be rented during park hours. To access a bicycle, one must download an application to their phone and insert a credit card number. From there, the visitor will input the bicycle number and it will be unlocked. There is no charge to rent a bicycle so long as it is returned to the kiosk. The bicycle shelter is located by the concession stand and ranger station.

Steve Levy Wall

A lot has changed in 20 years. For instance, the cell phone was nothing like it is today, there was no social media on the internet and people were terrified of Y2K. A lot has stayed the same over that course of time, too, like Washington Township’s appreciation for Cpl. Steven Levy who lost his life in the line of duty.
Mayor Joann Gattinelli and members of council want to ensure his legacy lives on by way of a dedicated wall in the courtroom at the municipal building. The dedication was made at the Oct. 2 council meeting.
Levy served on the Washington Township Police Department for 13 years at the time of his end of watch. He earned the rank of corporal, as well as serving with a countywide critical incident team. He proudly wore badge No. 63. He answered a domestic violence call on Thursday, Oct. 21, 1999, and suffered a gunshot wound to the face that proved fatal.
“On that day our world as we knew it changed forever,” Gattinelli said. “Cpl. Levy is the first and only officer in Washington Township history to lose his life in the line of duty. We’re here tonight to remember Cpl. Levy. I’m pleased to reveal the wall which we have dedicated to No. 63, Cpl. Levy, as a reminder of his life and dedication to his position on this 20th anniversary of his end of watch. I am forever grateful to all of our first responders and their sacrifices.”

Mercurygate

At the Jan. 29 Washington Township Board of Education meeting, it was unveiled that nine floors were emitting mercury vapors causing a potentially dangerous environment for faculty and students.

A Jan. 22 letter from Superintendent Joseph Bollendorf stated, “In 1997, and for many years prior, mercury was a popular additive used by contractors to quicken the curing time of rubberized floors. We learned that because it was an additive, the presence of mercury was not required to be listed in the manufacturing specifications of the floor, referred to as the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS). Additional rubberized floors were installed in the district in 2005 and 2006, well after the year 2000 when the federal government prohibited mercury as a curing agent.”

The Jan. 22 letter continues, stating the district had air-quality tests done in the five schools during summer 2017.

“The air samples came back indicating there are little to no mercury vapor emissions from our floors. The results have been reviewed and accepted by our air-quality contractor, Coastal Environmental, our district engineer from Remington and Vernick and the New Jersey Department of Health.”

At a following board of education meeting, a certified industrial hygienist Mike Menz provided insight to how other states handle mercury particles in the air, saying the EPA has thesholds, btu there’s not a consensus standard universally. 

Menz referenced guidelines other states and agencies have used in the past, noting Minnesota set the bar at 1.8 micrograms per meter cubed, the New Jersey Department of Health gave a guidance level of .8 micrograms per meter cubed after an incident at Kinder College, and the Agency for Toxic Substances Disease Registry has a range that goes up to 3 micrograms per meter cubed.

Menz believes Arizona’s guidelines are the best. The guideline says if the space has 1.0 micrograms per meter cubed, no further action is necessary; between 1 and 3, the functional space can be used but some adjustments, like increased ventilation, are suggested. If the test comes back over 3.0, the space should be vacated.

“I would recommend the Arizona approach,” Menz said. “New Jersey doesn’t have that yet but I think they are realistic, conservative values to protect the occupants and the public.”

At the March 26 meeting, the board weighed its options on how to resolve the problem. According to then-business administrator Peg Meegan, the board would have an extra $260,000 in the budget if they went to the 2 percent cap. The budget also included $1 million dollars for cases like this.

With residents speaking out at every board meeting since January, Bollendorf spoke these words at the end of the March 26 meeting: “I’m 58 years old, I’ve been doing this for 36 years, and this is probably the toughest job I’ve ever had in my life, bar none. This is about doing the right thing, nothing more, nothing less.” Bollendorf said.

The board ultimately did not have to raise taxes to the 2 percent cap or go to referendum to complete the project. With the $1 million allocated for the project, they were able to supplement with $2.16 million from the capital reserve for a total of $3.16 million to complete the project in one fell swoop. The budget, which raised school district taxes $43 for the year on the home valued at $210,358, was passed unanimously.

In mid-August, Bollendorf said all nine floors were removed and had no detection of mercury. At the Aug. 19 BOE work session, board president Julie Kozempel reported all of the rubberized floors were in place before school started on Sept. 5.

Monzo Madness

The Washington Township High School Interact Club hosted its 16th annual “Monzo Madness” dance-a-thon on Jan. 18 to raise money for ALS research and a local recipient.

April Renzetti, the Interact advisor, said roughly $17,000 was raised by the students. Each student that participated was required to raise at least $50 for the cause. After supplies, the group netted $15,000 for the Philadelphia chapter of ALS research and the Schuenemann family. Mike Schuenemann is Washington Township’s late tennis coach.

“When we asked the kids if they were OK with splitting the proceeds, it was a true testament to the kids in the school,” Renzetti said. “Everyone was on board with donating to the Schuenemann family. The kids deserve recognition.”

The event itself was a spectacle – the gym was packed with more than 300 kids wearing matching teal “Monzo Madness” shirts. 

Film Festival

The fifth annual Artists Alike Film Festival took place on Feb. 32 at the Investors Bank Performing Arts Center at Washington Township High School. The event is geared toward giving young filmmakers a chance to showcase their work.

Kristen Dirato, the television production teacher at WTHS and founder of the Artists Alike Film Festival, said she created the event with the state five years ago.

The festival boasts eight categories, and submissions come at no cost to the student and are judged by industry professionals from across the country. 

Of the 48 films submitted, 13 were from Washington Township. Dirato said each film had at least two students working on it. Some had upward of five. She estimated approximately 50 students from the high school took part in the 13 submissions.

Five Washington Township students were honored at the festival. Sophomores Dylan DiMaio and Michelle Mateo won first place for their movie trailer “Jinxed”; junior Sophie Aguila and senior Eddie Wang won first place for their narrative “The Silence of Sounds”; and sophomore Will Scarborough was the first runner-up for his narrative “Gleaming the Cube.”

Washington Township Public Schools Business Administrators

The board of education saw 26-year business administrator Peg Meehan retire this past year.

In May 1993, Meehan became the board of education’s business administrator. The July 23 meeting was the final meeting of her career.

“She’s like an encyclopedia for us, not just a business administrator. She can recall the history of things, those who work with her know what I’m talking about,” Board president Julie Kozempel said. “Every person that we talked to said Peg has the best interest of the kids in mind, and she does, in my experience, have that.”

Janine Wechter, a lifelong Washington Township resident, took over as business administrator on Aug. 1 and brings a wealth of experience to the position. She took her first district business administrator job in 2009 at South Harrison School district.

“You hear all the stories about our kids and what they’re doing,” Wechter said. “It’s not just crunching numbers. I get to see the good that comes out of the budget and things we’re paying for.

“It makes it more meaningful because it’s my community.”

Police accreditation

When Pat Gurcsik took over as the chief of police in January 2017, he set out to change the culture of the Washington Township Police Department. From putting an emphasis on community caretaking to being as transparent as possible, he wanted the department to truly be the best it could be.

Under Gurcsik’s watchful eye, the WTPD earned accreditation from the New Jersey Association of Chiefs of Police – one of Gurcsik’s first-year goals for the department.

“When I became chief, I was alarmed to learn our accreditation had expired in 2013,” he said. “I made it a priority in my five-year strategic plan.”

The accreditation process is rigorous – according to Gurcsik, the New Jersey Association of Chiefs of Police gives the agency several hundred standards to meet, and the agency in turn has to show proof it met the standards. This includes a two-day, on-site assessment that took place in December 2018. Representatives came to Washington Township police headquarters and examined all aspects of the police department, from the website and social media accounts to the different departments and bureaus.

“Accreditation is the gold standard of policing,” Gurcsik said. “Less than 1 percent of police departments are accredited.”

Smoke Alarms

The Washington Township Fire Department installed its 1,000th free smoke alarm in a two-year period this past March. 

The American Red Cross’ “Home Fire Campaign” is the inspiration behind the fire department’s mission to install smoke alarms in the community. According to American Red Cross Executive Director Madhuri Rodriguez, the organization has installed 33,000 smoke alarms since the program’s inception in 2014.

Fire Chief Patrick Dolgos brought some statistics to light in regard to house fires. He said 50 percent of smoke alarms don’t go off in home fires because they’re either disconnected or the batteries are missing. An additional 23 percent aren’t working at all because they’re old and outdated, he added.

“One of the things investigators do when we do an investigation is check for smoke detectors, see if they’re there and see if they’re working,” Capt. Stephen Finn said.

Through two years the Washington Township Fire Department has installed 1,000 free smoke alarms and it will continue to do so.

“The results were just outstanding,” Dolgos said. “This magic number 1,000 goes a long way. We really appreciate everybody’s assistance with that.”

Jonavin Webb

A Marlton-born mixed martial arts fighter, Jonavin Webb currently lives and owns an MMA gym in Washington Township. 

Webb wrestled for Cherokee High School where he had his share of first place finishes at the district tournament, a first place finish at the regional tournament and an appearance at the state tournament. Though he was a polished wrestler, he began practicing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu during high school.

“I walked into a gym one day and I remember seeing a couple of older gentlemen. I was still in high school, and I thought I was really good at wrestling,” Webb recalled. “I walked in and said ‘I’m going to beat these guys up, this is going to be easy.’ They moved around me and submitted me so many times, and I was in awe. I couldn’t figure out what they were doing to me, but that day made me want to figure it out. I wanted to be able to do that to someone else. Since that day, it’s been in my head that I want to master jiu-jitsu.”

After years of hard work he eventually earned his black belt from Professor Brian McPherson. 

The transition from jiu-jitsu to full-on mixed martial arts is one that not many grapplers make. For Webb, it was a bucket list thing to fight. He took his first fight on two weeks notice despite never throwing a punch in practice and won.

The rest, as they say, is history. Webb signed his first professional contract with the CFFC (Cage Fury Fighting Championship) which airs on UFC Fight Pass. He is a former welterweight champion in the CFFC and has made an appearance in the UFC, too. 

Brandon Winslow

When Brandon Winslow graduated from Washington Township High School in 2013, he continued his education at Widener University where he earned a bachelor of arts degree in sociology. From there, he decided to work toward a master’s degree in organizational management at Misericordia University. It wasn’t until his time at Misericordia that Winslow knew what his career path would be.

“My goal now is to continue in higher education,” he said. “Move to another institution and continue on this path I’m currently on. It found me, I was not looking for it. A lot of people in the field say the same thing.”

While a career in higher education isn’t necessarily in vogue, Winslow has found a niche that suits him well. This past year, he was nominated for and won the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators award for outstanding graduate student for his work setting up the welcome week celebration at Misericordia.

Deborah Wright

After a 10-year hiatus from competing in pageantry, Deborah Wright decided to throw her hat in the ring when she moved from Central Pennsylvania to Washington Township. Her first pageant in a decade led her to the Mrs. Washington Township title.

Having a platform to promote is one of the most important aspects of pageantry. While the Mrs. New Jersey pageant is not platform-based, contestants can still promote their platform. Wright didn’t want to pigeonhole herself with one cause, so she created her own platform, H.O.P.E.

“Helping Other People Everywhere,” Wright said. “Most women designate themselves to a national or local organization specifically. For me, I wanted to leave it open. I wanted to be able to lend a hand where I’m needed. That’s why I developed H.O.P.E. That way, any organization in the area that thinks I’d be fit for their event or representing them can reach out to me. I’m open and ready to lend a hand. I want to be able to help all people.”

Dana Pasqualone

While the title of “Most interesting man in the world” is held by actor Jonathan Goldsmith, who portrayed the man in Dos Equis commercials from 2006 to 2016, the title of “Most interesting woman in the world” is still up for grabs. Washington Township’s Dana Pasqualone should send her resume and cover letter.

Pasqualone is a homegrown product of Washington Township. She graduated from Washington Township High School in 2007, where she was involved in student council. From there, she attended Rowan University where she earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting and graduated cum laude in 2011. During her tenure at Rowan, she was a junior and senior class senator. After graduation, Pasqualone began her career as a public accountant before becoming a global senior consulting analyst, which allowed her to travel to 10 countries for work.

When she’s not at work, Pasqualone sits on the board of directors for Habitat for Humanity of Gloucester County, serves as a mentor in accounting for students at Rowan University and has been a councilwoman in Washington Township for three years.

Between all of these things, she still finds time for one more activity – standing on the sidelines during Philadelphia Eagles games rooting on the home team as an Eagles cheerleader. The current season is her third as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles organization.

Rich Nardiello

One of Rich Nardiello’s favorite hobbies was restoring old Volkswagen buses and beetles. When he suffered a hemorrhagic stroke back in 2012 that left him with minimal use of his left arm, his hobby slowly fell by the wayside.

Nardiello, a Washington Township resident, credits his Italian South Philadelphia heritage as well as Scorpio zodiac sign as reasons for his defiant nature. In his opinion, this genealogical makeup is the reason he survived his stroke in the first place.

Though he can no longer work on Volkswagens, he has since found a new hobby, this time involving the most popular car in the year 1991 – the Little Tike Cozy Coupe.

Nardiello customized one of the little red cars with the yellow roof for his grandson, and after making a second one, he decided it was time to take it to the next level.

After speaking with a family friend who was battling pediatric cancer, he asked for suggestions on whom he could customize a car for. This is the genesis of PopPop’s Kustom Kars.

“I had two goals from starting what I do – to put a smile on the face of a kid who has childhood cancer and also to raise awareness about childhood cancer. Both of those things are coming true very rapidly, very quickly and expanding,” Nardiello said.

Election results

There wasn’t much by way of local elections in Washington Township this year, but in the board of education election Danielle Halpin, Renee Pollard and Shawnequa Carvalho were elected to three-year terms.