Mayor Pasquale Menna lashed out last night at “little juveniles” from out of town whom he blames for recently grafitti-bombing the public library and loitering in front of stores near West Front Street and Maple Avenue.

His remarks came amid a series of complaints by merchants at last night’s borough council meeting that packs of young people are hanging out in front of stores and damaging property, particularly at the City Centre Plaza shopping center, the 7-11 and the parking lot next to the Commerce Bank.

“These are not our kids,” Menna said. “These are the rich kids from other towns.”

Not so, said Mark Harry, whose wife runs a hair salon at City Centre, where he said employees have been harassed by loiterers, including at least one incident in which a young adult sought to exchange sex for cash.

“Some of those kids wear Red Bank Regional jackets,” Harry said. “Don’t tell me it’s not Red Bank.”

The eruption of the issue seems likely to throw a spotlight on a problem that store owners and restaurateurs downtown have been griping about privately for months: that the business district is becoming clotted by groups of adolescents who block sidewalks and sometimes pester shoppers well into the night, particularly on weekends.

Just west of the downtown, though, the problem may be more acute. On any given afternoon or evening in good weather, it’s not uncommon to see a half-dozen or more young people gathering in the parking lot opposite the Bluffs or at the eastern entrance to City Centre. Business owners complain of finding broken beer bottles many mornings.

At City Centre in particular, the loitering problem has escalated to begging and property damage, merchants said. Phil Giaramita,
the owner of White Dove Cleaners, said his delivery vans have been vandalized. Center co-owner John Bowers said other stores have their windows spit upon and outdoor tables and chairs vandalized; someone recently threw a 15-pound ashtray atop the building’s roof, he said.

Bowers said he would hire a security guard, “but the feedback we’re hearing is that [the loiterers] would just cross the street” and trouble another property owner. “We definitely have a problem.”

“I’ve been here since 1991,” Giaramita said. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

“You’re this close to something really happening,” said Harry.

But the council was clearly struggling to come up with a solution that didn’t involve a loitering ordinance, which several members, and borough attorney Kenneth Pringle, said could raise constitutional issues, particularly if enforcement is not equal throughout the town in all situations.

Menna said he would convene a meeting of Pringle, Police Chief Mark Fitzgerald and others to review whatever loitering and curfew laws are already on the books while seeking out a new solution that doesn’t simply result in the packs moving from one location to another.

Giaramita said he “can only see one solution: hit them in the pocketbook.” He proposed fines starting at $250 for a first loitering offense, wtiht costs rising for subsequent violations.

“If the parents have to shell out the money, you won’t see it happening anymore,” he said.

But Councilman R.J. Bifani said the first move should be by City Centre.

“You have to hire a uniformed guard,” Bifani said. “Start there, and then we can help you.”

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