By JOHN T. WARD
Fair Haven residents found a lot to dislike about a proposed $3.4 million purchase of real estate for borough use when they gathered at Bicentennial Hall Thursday night.
They barraged borough Administrator Theresa Casagrande with questions and complaints about the plan’s financial impacts, the displacement of business tenants and more.
The proposed purchase of the tenanted office building at 623 River Road as the prospective site of a new borough hall and police station is a key piece of an ambitious $20.87 million plan to consolidate borough facilities.
Officials estimate a new structure on the 1.44-acre River Road site, next door to the firehouse, would cost an an additional $9.6 million above the purchase price, from demolition to furnishings.
Thursday’s event had been announced Wednesday as a “Mayor’s Special Public Forum” to be hosted by Mayor Ben Lucarelli. But a subsequent announcement made just hours before the event said that no members of the governing body would attend, on the advice of the borough attorney, because it had not been advertised as an official public meeting.
Instead, Casagrande hosted the event, without Lucarelli or any other elected officials present. And Lucarelli’s absence proved to be one of many points of friction for some attendees, who appeared to think he was ducking them.
“In term of saying they’ve been transparent, that’s not true,” a man who did not identify himself said of borough officials.
Rather than offer a detailed presentation, Casagrande referred attendees to handout material available at the door that had been used for a similar purpose in January, 2019, when the officials hoped to acquire another River Road site for a new town hall and police station.
That deal, for the former Sunoco station site at the corner of Cedar Avenue, fell apart over environmental cleanup issues, Casagrande said. Meantime, she said, the owner of 623 River Road, located directly across the street from the Sunoco site, approached the borough with an offer to sell, she said.
Except for the property to be purchased, “it’s basically the same plan,” she said.
But audience members at the standing-room-only session pelted Casagrande with questions about the impact of the purchase, and the consolidation plan, on the town’s credit rating and property taxes.
One man who did not identify himself said that residents had been led to believe that the plan could be implemented without any impact on taxes.
That’s incorrect, Casagrande said.
“No one’s saying you’re not paying for this,” she said. Rather, because of the end of payments on a 2009 debt issue, the plan would be “debt neutral,” she said.
“You won’t see an increase in the debt service portion” of the budget, she said.
Others said that by acquiring the River Road building, officials would be forcing a popular yoga studio, a physical therapy practice and other tenants to move out of town.
“There are many other options other than taking a person’s good building,” said resident Diane Mevorach.
But “putting people to the curb is not the intent of the mayor and council,” Casagrande replied.
She noted that the owner, Reiss Manufacturing, of Rumson, could sell or develop the property with a new three-story building, consisting of first-floor retail and two stories of residential units, under a new affordable housing zone plan.
Among the comments that drew loud applause was one that the matter should “go up for a vote” by registered voters.
“This is the largest expenditure by Fair Haven of all time, and it’s not going to a vote,” said a man who did not identify himself.
“We’re not talking about a grandiose borough hall,” Casagrande said at one point, prompting loud laughter.
“We need to take a step back,” said retired public works employee Dave Becker. “This is kind of being shoved in our face.”
Meantime, police Chief Joe McGovern is slated to host open-house tours of the police station Saturday from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m.
The consolidation plan, officials have said, is in part driven by decrepit conditions at the police station.
The broader plan also calls for consolidating the existing public works operation onto a smaller portion its current site at Third and Allen streets, and converting the existing borough hall and library building, at River Road and Fair Haven Road, into a library and community center.
Here are relevant documents that borough officials have cited in discussing the plan and its anticipated financial impacts: