Crammed in beside desks in a gym repurposed as offices since Hurricane Sandy, dozens of residents attended the meeting. Below, the proposed police, fire and first aid building would include borough offices on the second floor. (Photo by John T. Ward. Rendering by Settembrino Architects. Click to enlarge)
By JOHN T. WARD
With millions of federal dollars possibly at stake, Sea Bright voters debated Tuesday whether to take on the financial burden of rebuilding all of the town’s public facilities wiped out by Hurricane Sandy.
With a pivotal referendum scheduled for September 27, dozens of residents crowded into a gym that’s been co-opted for borough offices since the 2012 storm, largely in agreement that new facilities are needed, but split on costs.
Councilman Jack Keeler outlined his objections to the plan. Below, Councilman Charlie Rooney delivered an impassioned speech that cited his late father, who served as councilman and mayor. (Photo above by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)
The question of how much new facilities would cost created an abrupt rift in the 1,400-resident town this summer, pitting those who see a “once-in-two-lifetimes” opportunity to rebuild against others who think it’s all just too expensive.
In June, the council, by a series of 4-2 votes, approved bonding for the project, and was preparing to go out to bid on construction. But a petition calling for the bond approvals to be rescinded drew 87 signatures and led to agreement that a referendum be held.
At issue are two proposed buildings:
• A community center to be built at the eastern edge of the municipal parking lot overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. At about 10,000 square feet, it would be elevated about 18 feet and house the library; changing rooms and toilets for beachgoers; beach management offices; and open meeting space.
• A consolidated police, fire and first aid building of about 15,000 square feet, to be constructed on the site of the demolished police and fire stations. It would also house borough administrative offices.
Here’s the plan: Sea Bright Public Facilities Plan
Together, the project is estimated to come in at $12.73 million. Advocates argue that $7.4 million worth of funding from the Federal Emergency Management Administration, as well as “cash on hand” from insurance settlements, would bring the net local burden down to under $5.3 million.
Moreover, the debt service on that portion, they argue, would be largely covered by revenue from newly implemented seasonal paid parking, which is outpacing income projections; beach user fees; and rents from a new cell tower on the drawing board.
The upshot: for the the owner of a property assessed at $500,000, the project would add about $90 to the annual tax bill, borough Administrator Joe Verruni told the audience.
Councilman Brian Kelly, who has worked on plans for borough facilities for a decade, said this one addresses needs identified before Sandy “put the final blow to some of our buildings,” including the beach office, library, police station and firehouse in October, 2012.
The difference, he said, is that before Sandy, the town had no clear means to pay for replacements. Now, he said, the FEMA grant money makes them possible — but the funding could vanish if the borough doesn’t win voter approval of three bonds in next month’s referendum.
“In my opinion, the longer you wait, the more you risk losing the funding” as the federal agency diverts its attention to more recent disasters, he said.
Councilmen Jack Keeler and John Lamia, the “no” votes in June, both cited project costs.
“I voted no because I believe we could build these buildings for less,” Lamia said. As possibly the biggest project the town might ever take on, “we need to get this right,” he said.
Keeler said his opposition was additionally based on his view that the emergency services building should be dedicated to that use only. By including borough operations, he said, “you’re in their space,” he said. “I don’t think that’s good policy. If there’s a fire call, those guys are in their cars, and they’re moving.”
But Councilman Charlie Rooney said the project would be the third most significant infrastructure investment in town, along with the construction of the sea wall after World War II and beach replenishment in the 1990s.
“This is it. We’re going to make Sea Bright history right now,” he said. “There’s no way we’re not doing this.”
He found support in the audience from Courtney Davis, among other residents. She criticized Lamia for not having a “plan B,” whereas the one on the table was the result of ample community discussion and input through a process dubbed Sea Bright 2020, she said.
At issue, she said, was not only the cost of going ahead with the plan. “What is it going to cost if we don’t accept this money?” she asked.
Late into the three-and-a-half-hour meeting, several residents spoke of a need for “compromise.” Erwin Bieber urged the council to cut the costs by $2.3 million, the sum associated in the plan with “contingencies,” which he said would turn opponents into supporters. Mayor Dina Long replied that she would “not be comfortable” with a plan that did not provide a cushion for unexpected costs.
“What we want to do is build as efficiently as possible,” said resident Barbara Nadler. “To me, the compromise is to say ‘yes,’ with a commitment to bringing these numbers down” before construction begins.
Advocates have said construction could begin as early as next April, and be completed in about 18 months. The impact on taxpayers would be felt beginning in 2019, they said.
“If this goes down, that means these plans never go out to bid,” Rooney said of the referendum. “We would never know what these buildings would have cost, and that would be tragic.”
For residents with additional questions or suggestions, the administration has scheduled “drop-in” sessions on Saturday from 10 to noon and September 7 from 4 to 7 p.m., both at borough hall.