Toms River 2020: A Final Look Back

(Photo by Micromedia Publications)

 2020 began with residents worried about their schools and services getting the funding they deserve and then plummeted into fears about just surviving.

  Some efforts were made to boost morale. Schools put together fun videos for the kids. Hospital staff and first responders were thanked.

  A lot of times, it was regular people stepping up to fill the void. Hospital staff didn’t have enough masks, so regular people made them. Donations came from everyday people.

  There’s no point in belaboring how much COVID changed everything. Restaurants and small stores shuttered. People stayed indoors (in the beginning, anyway). The primary election was postponed. Special events were cancelled. Parks eventually shut down because everyone went there because there was nowhere else to go.

  It’s hard to believe that anything but COVID and politics happened in the last year. But looking through the archives, we found reports of ordinary people doing extraordinary things (and some extraordinarily bad things), and people living life day to day.

Changing Of The Guard

  Several high-ranking officials left public office in 2020.

  Mayor Thomas Kelaher and Councilmen George Wittmann Jr. and Brian Kubiel did not run for re-election. Councilman Maurice Hill ran for mayor and won.

  “If I had any measure of success, it’s because I surround myself with good people and let them do their job,” said Kelaher, who had Ocean County Prosecutor as one of his former titles.

Maurice Hill addresses the public for the first time as mayor. (Photo by Chris Lundy)

  Matthew Lotano and Joshua Kopp joined the Township Council. Kevin Geoghegan, who had been on the council previously, won a seat.

  Hill had been a councilman for 12 years when he decided to run for mayor. He led the Republican slate that included Lotano, a principal in the commercial Lotano Development Corporation; Kopp, a veteran and director of Kopp Electric Company; and former Councilman Geoghegan, a retired Toms River Police Officer and member of EMS and fire departments.

  Superintendent David Healy retired at the end of 2020.

  During his tenure, there has been new curriculum, full day kindergarten, career academies, and other improvements. The district passed a $147 million referendum last year that will help repair dilapidated buildings.

  Thomas Gialanella was selected to serve as the interim superintendent while a new one is chosen.

Protests And Rallies

  The decisions in Trenton and Washington, D.C. seem so very far away. But locally people hoped to make a difference by attending protests and rallies.

  Protests against Gov. Phil Murphy and the shutdown rules, rallies for President Donald Trump, rallies for Black Lives Matter, rallies in support of the post office.

  President Donald J. Trump held one of his popular campaign rallies in Wildwood on January 28.

  “With your help we will lift millions of our citizens from welfare to work, from dependence to independence, and poverty to prosperity with that beautiful phrase ‘made in the USA.’ For decades we had politicians who that phrase didn’t mean anything to them,” Trump told the crowd.

  New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney got a loud reception when he arrived at The Grove Restaurant in the Howard Johnson’s motel on the morning of January 7.

  It was not, however, the kind of reception he may have appreciated. Sweeney came to the township as the scheduled guest of the Ocean County Mayors Association.

  One group was against school funding cuts to the area. Another wanted to be able to continue having religious exemptions for vaccinations for school children. Yet another wanted the continuation of a bear hunt in the state.

Protesters, police, and community leaders marched together. (Photo by Steve Edreff)

  A Black Lives Matter protest and prayer was organized on Route 37. Organizers and police marched together, despite fear-mongering rumors of “Antifa” coming to invade Toms River.

  Several members of the 2nd Amendment Sanctuary spoke about how several laws, such as “red flag” laws are unconstitutional and infringe upon their rights. They had been going from one town to another, asking governing bodies to support their movement. Governing bodies in Lacey, Jackson, and the Ocean County Freeholders were among those that passed resolutions supporting them.

  At a Toms River Township Council meeting, counterpoint was provided by members of Moms Demand Action For Gun Sense In America. The meeting was relatively civil.

Homeless Policy Inspires State

  The law changed regarding Code Blue, which governs when temporary shelters open in winter weather.

  Previously, a Code Blue alert was to be declared when National Weather Service forecasts and advisories predict within 24 to 48 hours that: (1) the temperature will reach 25 degrees Fahrenheit or less without precipitation or 32 degrees Fahrenheit or less with precipitation; or (2) the wind chill temperature will be zero degrees Fahrenheit or less for a period of two hours or more.

  The new law requires a Code Blue alert to be issued when: (1) temperatures are predicted to reach 32 degrees Fahrenheit or less, regardless of precipitation; or (2) the wind chill temperature will be zero degrees Fahrenheit or less for a period of two hours or more.

  However, Toms River had operated on a separate rule. Township officials pointed out that freezing is freezing regardless of whether there was precipitation. They changed it so that as soon as the temperature dropped close to freezing, 35 degrees, then their shelter would open.

  Toms River’s change prompted legislators to make the change for the rest of the state.

  The change in the law was widely supported. Locally, the Senate version of the bill was sponsored by Sen. Robert Singer (R-30th) and the Assembly version was co-sponsored by Assemblyman Greg McGuckin (R-10th). It was signed into law.

Performing Arts Academy Opens

  The Ocean County Vocational Technical School Performing Arts Academy building opened on the campus of Ocean County College.

  It used to be in Hanger 1 at Joint Base Lakehurst, which due to security reasons made the civilian school facility difficult to access.

  The project has a 20-year bond for $27 million. County Commissioner Joseph Vicari said that 40% of the cost of the new facility was provided by the state while the county’s portion was $8 million. Another $8 million was provided by the Jay and Linda Grunin Foundation.

MONOC Intensive Care Ends

  MONOC’s Mobile Intensive Care Unit program closed on April 1. Local officials had to make sure that residents had a replacement lined up.

  Not all ambulance crews are the same. Basic life support is often manned by volunteers. Advanced life support requires more training and is used in more life or death situations. Most towns have a volunteer squad, and a company like MONOC takes up the more critical cases. Sometimes, both will arrive at a serious car crash to see what is needed.

  “MONOC has experienced a challenging financial environment caused by declining reimbursements and increasing payor restrictions, while the costs of running a high quality, high performance EMS and medical transport program continued to rise over the last few years,” a statement from the company said. It explained that member hospitals acquired their own EMS programs.

  Ocean County Sheriff Michael G. Mastronardy said his department was meeting with local officials and hospital staff to ensure a smooth transfer of service.

School Aid Crisis

  Just because there were new problems like COVID doesn’t mean that the old problems went away.

  Toms River Regional Schools were still under the gun, losing state aid every year.

  This is in response to State Senate bill S-2. S-2 was first proposed by Senate President Stephen Sweeney in 2017 and then signed into law by Governor Phil Murphy in 2018. The bill cuts “adjustment aid” to school districts that the state has deemed to be overfunded due to losing enrollment, including Toms River schools.

Photo courtesy Toms River School District

  It will cut more than $90 million from the district over the course of its 7-year phase-in. Cuts have already begun, in staff and supplies.

  Several petitions have been launched. Officials continually contacted Trenton in order to stop the cuts and to shed light on the methodology that determined the cuts.

Rise Up Shut Down

  The controversial Facebook page Rise Up Ocean County was shut down, but rose again.

  The owner of the site has said that it is against development. Critics pointed out that it is a haven of anti-Semitism.

  On February 5, Facebook removed it from its site for “using hate speech.”

  However, remnants of it still exist in some form on that social media platform.

To Catch A Predator

  Sometimes, police pretend to be an underaged girl online to trap sexual predators.

  A resident with no connection to law enforcement did this as well.

  Rashawn Bass, who goes by the stage name Minnow, pretended to be a 14-year-old girl online and arranged to meet with a suspected predator in Toms River. He interviewed the suspect with his cell phone camera. Then he did it again and caused another arrest.

  “At the end of the day, I prevented someone from getting hurt,” Bass said.

  During the interview, he kept calm, and as non-confrontational as possible. Afterward, he told reporters that no one else was doing this, this suspect wasn’t on anyone’s radar, and he was proud that he was able to get a potential child molester off the streets.

  Police warned that he should leave it to the professionals in case someone gets hurt.

  There are so many different agencies doing investigations at any given time, that a member of the public could blunder into the middle of a case and ruin it, Ocean County Prosecutor Bradley Billhimer said.

  “It could have jeopardized an investigation,” he said, “but it didn’t in this case.”

Tornado Rips Through Town

  Residents reported seeing a tornado blow through the area as heavy winds damaged trees and fences and even lifted a trailer into the air. While winds were severe throughout the area, Toms River seemed to get the brunt of it.

  Toms River Mayor Maurice Hill said that the main damage was in the area of Brookside Drive, Bay Avenue, Cedar Grove Road, Twin Oaks Drive, and Derry Drive.

  A press release from the township said the “apparent tornado” touched down “in the Melody Park and Twin Oaks neighborhoods of Toms River and again in the area of Pepper Tree resulting in hundreds of downed trees, private property damage to homes, cars, decks, pools, vehicles and fences.”

  The storm claimed the life of a boater from Ocean Gate.

Tolls Increase

  The Turnpike Authority issued a plan to increase tolls throughout the Garden State Parkway and New Jersey Turnpike which will include improvements in Ocean County and beyond.

  The tolls increased by 27 percent on the Parkway and 36 percent on the Turnpike for passenger vehicles. Commercial vehicles will see an increase as well.

  In Ocean County, the Barnegat toll increased from $1.50 to $1.90 and the Toms River toll increased from 75 cents to 95 cents. The tolls on the ramps in Waretown, Lacey, Berkeley, Lakewood and Brick increased from 50 cents to 65 cents.

GOP Boss Sentenced

  George Gilmore, 71, of Toms River, was sentenced to one year and one day in Fort Dix Federal Correctional Institution. He had also been sentenced to three years of probation after that.

George Gilmore (Photo courtesy Ocean County)

  He had previously been convicted of not paying federal income tax and lying on a loan application. During the appeal handled by his attorney, Kevin Marino, he alleged that the trial did not include expert psychiatric testimony regarding his claim of having a hoarding disorder that made him spend lavishly on personal expenses rather than pay his taxes.

  The appeal process is still underway for Gilmore, an attorney who worked with lots of local municipalities.

  The Vaping Crisis

  Yes, in the midst of all this, there was also a “vaping crisis.”

  With e-cigarettes being marketed toward young people, they were starting to fill the spot that cigarettes once had.

  The Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office formed the Escape the Vape Taskforce, using education, policy change, and other methods to stem the tide.

  According to a 2019 Monitoring the Future Survey, nationwide, 25.5% of 12th graders, 19.9% of 10th graders, and 9.6% of 8th graders had vaped nicotine in the past 30 days. This is a big difference when compared to the use of traditional tobacco products like cigarettes. While 11.7% of 12th graders reported daily nicotine vaping, only 2.4% of 12th graders reported daily smoking of cigarettes.