By JOHN T. WARD
Red Bank’s elected officials got an earful from the public about the borough’s disabled Senior Center Wednesday night.
But even as the all-Democratic council unanimously approved a new lease on interim space, sparks continued to fly between its members over the center’s near-term future.
The lease, with Trinity Episcopal Church on West Front Street, calls for the borough to pay $2,000 a month to use meeting areas once pandemic restrictions ease, allowing seniors and others to congregate indoors there. For now, Senior Center officials are visiting them at their homes.
The agreement, which is effectively immediately, includes an “escape clause” that lets the borough terminate the lease on 90 days notice. Here’s the lease agreement.
But while the lease proved largely uncontroversial, much of a lengthy workshop session and ensuing regular session, both conducted via Zoom, were filled with passionate comments denouncing the council for not repairing the Senior Center on Shrewsbury Avenue.
Many of the comments appeared fueled by a belief that the borough government has designs on the property for sale or another use. Business Administrator Ziad Shehady sought to refute that notion, as well as other pieces of what he characterized as “misinformation.”
The building has been closed for most of the past two years following a leak of the fire suppression system, as detailed last week by redbankgreen.
Here’s a sampling of comments:
• Tiffaney Harris, Cedar Crossing, former Senior Center outreach worker: “Why are we ‘exploring options’ when we can just put the necessary funds in, fix the Senior Center and make sure our seniors can come back to the place where they originally were?… They depend on that building. They got their exercise in that building, they got their arts and crafts in that building, they got doctors who came into that building.”
• Brian Donohue, Bank Street: “This town has given its senior citizens some of the best real estate in town. Waterfront views. A really rare spot. This is a town that really values its seniors… This is a population that doesn’t have access to the river in other ways…. This is this population’s chance to look out over the river, to watch the sunset, to watch the bald eagles that fly by. You can say ‘move them somewhere else, it’s adequate facilities.’ It’s not… I also think that you’re maybe underestimating the anger in the community over this… Spend the money and fix it.”
• Freda Terry, of North Carolina, a retired Senior Center director who traveled to Red Bank for a ‘fix-it-now’ rally held Saturday: “I just want all of you to please think about what you’re doing and how it is really going to affect the seniors of Red Bank. I speak to my aunt, Dot Davis, she’s my grandmother’s sister, and that is all she talks about…You don’t know how many people are home with no place to go, and it’s wrong… I’m begging you to please fix it.”
• Angela Mirandi, of West Lake Road: “I was at the rally. The seniors love their center. It’s their own place, on the water. They’re at home. They don’t want to move. We shouldn’t move them… Do the morally right thing and fix it.”
But Shehady, who opposes spending to get the center reopened, said it would cost “several hundreds thousand” more dollars to do so, for repairs not covered by an insurance policy the borough has already collected on.
Before the pipe ruptured in February, 2019, the 25-year-old building had been the subject of complaints about the heating and air conditioning, he said. “Repair after repair, band-aid after band-aid” makes additional spending unwise, he said.
“The reason that we have not repaired it right now is because we don’t want to rush to put more band-aids on this facility, and instead, because we care about the seniors, we want to give them the best facility possible,” he said.
Options including making comprehensive repairs and “finding another location,” he said. But the council should hold off spending while the borough’s Redevelopment Agency, which is conducting a review of all municipal assets, works toward a recommendation, he said.
“Time after time,” local governments “are chastised and criticized for making rash decisions, quick decisions and just looking for a quick fix to acquiesce to political pressure,” he said. “This governing body, the majority of this governing body, is not doing that.”
Without naming names, he said “a lot of bad information” was being spread by individuals who wanted to “make this administration look bad, as though we don’t care.”
Following Saturday’s rally, four council members – Kathy Horgan, Kate Triggiano, Hazim Yassin and Erik Yngstrom – joined by Mayor Pasquale Menna, issued a press release criticizing the other two members, Michael Ballard and Ed Zipprich, as having “placed their own popularity over what’s best for our residents and taxpayers” by calling for immediate repairs.
Patricia Kouten of Spring Street called the press release “shameful,” and echoing several other callers, said that she “would like to see the infighting and name-calling stop.”
But after Shehady’s remarks, Triggiano, a first-term council member who was appointed liaison to the Senior Center on January 1, addressed residents, suggesting they “wonder why they were given such false information, and who they received it from.”
“Suddenly, there was a call to arms under a false narrative,” she said, referring to the rally. “All we are asking is to take a deep breath and let the Redevelopment Agency do their job and give us proposals that may work.”
Ballard, who along with Zipprich attended the rally, said all the residents he talks to “want their senior center where it is.
“I’m just telling residents what I know, which is that this building has been down for two years, and we haven’t moved to fix it,” Ballard said, “and we have a Redevelopment Agency that’s telling people we’re looking to move it. They don’t want it moved, period.”
“You’ve done far more damage than that,” Triggiano said.
“In your opinion, councilwoman,” Ballard said.
“Lies are damage, sir,” Triggiano shot back.
“Oh, now you’re calling me a liar?” Ballard said, before demanding an apology.”
If you value the news coverage provided by redbankgreen, please become a paying member. Click here for details about our new, free newsletter and membership information.