A Historical Look at LIFE in ALEPPO

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MEET CHRISTOPHER P. SICILIANO - THE MAYOR WITH COMMUNITY INTERESTS AT HEART

By: Dave Gordon



At nearly 30,000 residents, Ocean Township, New Jersey, might be comparatively small, but thanks to Mayor Christopher P. Siciliano, Ocean Township shines as a place with the air of healthy progress and a positive feeling that the municipal government is open and responsive to its citizens.

A local resident for nearly sixty years, Siciliano has served the Township on the City Council since 2003. He became mayor in 2015and this year was voted in to serve a second term.

This profile offers those who work, play, and live, in Ocean Township to become acquainted with their mayor, and what he represents. Most importantly the mayor wants people to know that his primary objective is to “strengthen the relationship between communities.”

Visionary Community Members

The Sephardic community began planting roots some four decades ago, the mayor recalled. Those early visionaries, he said, had a plan to make the region the perfect place for like-minded individuals, who appreciated the proximity to the city, the ocean, the rail line, the ferry, and amenities that make it ideal for raising a family. “A lot of people thought they were crazy” because at the time people thought there wasn’t enough support. “They pressed on and, lo and behold, it grew.”

Individuals such as furniture store owner Joe Betesh corralled others such as Charlie Saka, according to the mayor, they “really took a chance and a gamble.” Siciliano related that the fundscollected would eventually pay for the old Walter Reed Estate, on Deal Road, which would eventually become the area’s first religious center. “Those early visionaries built a large synagogue, Congregation Magen David of West Deal, in hopes that families would come around it,” the mayor said.  “They knew it would be a great place to live.”

And they came. Soon enough, thousands more would visit the shore, and plant roots. Today, the Betesh and Saka families still live in the area, a testament to the quality of life that has been provided for them, and others.

Congregation Magen David

As for Congregation Magen David of West Deal, Siciliano takes pride himself in having played a role in its development, too. When the congregation sought an addition to build a new mikvah, they needed a zoning variance, and Siciliano was instrumental in waiving the variance in order “to help these folks have what they need to make this a full-fledged, Class A operation.”

“Let me tell you, it really is beautiful!” the mayor says. “That’s probably a model on the shore. I’m very proud of that. It really helped the community, too.”

As mayor, keeping up with everyone’s needs is a balancing act with the ever-growing community. The mayor makes it his business to stay connected with citizens and leaders, and also keeps up with their day-to-day concerns. 

Taxes

One of the biggest gripes Ocean Township residents have is the high cost of property taxes, which increase steadily each year. On top of that, the new Federal Tax Plan restricts deductions of local property taxes, further increasing the burden on homeowners. It’s important to know, the mayor explained, that he and the City Council have relatively little control over the entire tax fund scheme.

He explained that only a fifth of the tax bill actually goes to the township (the municipality), the only portion which he and the City Council can control. That fifth goes to pay for services such as police, road maintenance, garbage collection, city improvements, parks, community events, and so on. The mayor noted that it can be a juggling act to keep within budget while trying to pay for the diverse services needed.

“If we go above that, there is going to be a tax increase,” the mayor explained.” We try to keep things below that so we don’t burden tax payers so much.”

The mayor is proud of the fact that the townshiphas “a record of having a stable tax base for the municipal portion of your tax bill.”  He added, “What goes up are property values, of course, because the demand is so great. So, it’s hard to lower the rate to match the value goingup.”

Keeping Up with Needed Changes

The town’s growth is a positive factor, though it also means that at 170 years old, the township has to keep up with modernity. And the boom of the 1960s and 1970s has meant that some of the old formulas for highways, business districts, andresidences need to be re-evaluated and balanced accordingly.

“We are going through what we call a ‘rehabilitation zone’ on all our commercial properties, the Highway, Norwood Avenue,” he said. The town is offering business owners a chance to improve theirproperties with a five-year pilot tax break on the improvements going forward, to incentivize it. The idea behind this, he said, is that by improving a property, a better tenant could come along, who is more stable, and has better revenue.

“When you havea better business district, you get more rate-ables. The more rate-ables that we get, the more tax revenue from that we pass on to the homeowner.” (A property's “rateable” value represents the amount of rent the property could have been let for on a certain date.)

Zoning and Construction

On the topic of improvements, many residents have voiced their concerns about zoning and construction. The mayor understands his constituents’ frustration and he advised various ways to make life easier. Due diligence is key, he said. It’s important to know what the setbacks are in advance, and know that a variance can take time.

“We did try to streamline a lot of the replacing of existing decks or fences. Whatever is in that existing footprint, we try to streamline that at the counter now,” the mayor explained. “Come in, bring your plans in, have the community developer look at it, and go from there. We can send it around to the engineers and to whoever has to look at it without going to the Zoning Board.”

But take heed. Most additions will still need to go before the Zoning Board, and it’s imperative to have concise plans, a good engineer, a good architect, and a good lawyer “to get you through the process as quickly as possible, so you don’t have to come back three or four times,” the mayor noted.

“We don’t want that either. It clogs up our agenda.”

Keeping within the Budget

Among the many accomplishments the mayor enjoys touting are projects that he says haven’t been properly addressed in twenty years, including keeping expenses within budget.

“As a realtor by trade, I was able to find where pockets of money were coming in. I could get a developer to pay for our town improvements,” he noted. As one of his first orders of business, the mayor had a band shell installed, that replaced a “rickety old stage,” built with a half million dollars of developer impact fees that cost the town nothing. In addition, he spoke of the “beautiful indoor class A tennis center,” that is open to the community. The $4 million facility has a twenty-year land lease, where the monies go back to the town as a revenue stream. Last year’s activity pool also helped bring in more revenue at the pool club, the mayor said.

“Our private little pool club here does better than Loch Arbour Beach. It makes more revenue. Partly because of that, but it’s also well run. It brought about 30% more families who joined our pool club because they saw it was so well run.”

Serving the Residents Faithfully

There’s a lot the mayor can help with, be it advising, or moving the levers of municipal government, as he strives to help residents and businesses with their needs. Still, he wants to advise people of the notion that there are simply times that he has his handstied. Often, people think “the mayor has a magic hat, and a wand, and they can just pull a rabbit out whenever they need him to.”

“We are going to accommodate everybody, but we have to do it reasonably, and we have to do it rationally. If you have an issue or thing something can be changed, call me. We just want to welcome everybody,” the mayor said.

“My job is to manage the town and make it the best experience for the folks living here without burdening them taxwise. That’s really how I look at it.”