After receiving new bids for the Athletic Field Complex, with the lowest among them at $2.9 million, Garwood councilmembers discussed whether or not the borough could afford to move forward with the project, which is now more than 12 years in the making.
The cost to taxpayers to complete the project would be $1.6 million in bonded funds over 20 years if council awards the project to the $2.9 million bidder. The additional $1.3 million in funds for the project would come from grants and capital surplus.
Councilman Louis Petruzzelli stated that when the Athletic Field Complex committee met on June 19 to review the bids, the committee recommended moving forward with the project. In the first round of bidding earlier this year, the lowest bid was $2.3 million, but legal issues surrounding the language of the project specifications forced the council to rebid the project.
"I can say that since I’ve been on Athletic Field Complex committee, it’s evolved, it’s changed," said Petruzzelli. "It’s evolved into a complete complex. We have 1.1 million in grants. That’s money we’re just going to throw away [if we do not move forward]. We've already spent $236,000 in engineering fees."
Councilman Jim Mathieu was outspoken about how approving the cost would affect the borough's debt.
"We have to borrow $1.6 million," said Mathieu. "$1.6 is a 58 percent increase in the town’s outstanding debt. It’s rare for me but I’m speechless. How could we do that? All I heard, and correct me if I'm wrong, is that this was all going to be paid for by OPM, other people’s money. I discounted that and said, okay, you're going to have a little bit of a cost overrun, but I didn’t think it would be one million, and I certainly didn’t think it would be $1.6 million."
Councilwoman Sara Todisco pointed to the debt in other towns being higher than Garwood's even if the project is approved.
"Where we are at right now is .56 percent," said Todisco. "If you approve the Athletic Field Complex, we'd be at .65. I asked the CFO to give me some numbers on this and for example, Cranford is at .92 and Clark at .79. The towns beneath us range from .25 and .30 percent. This project doesn’t put us dramatically over the top in relation to other towns. We need numbers on the impact of this to residents and we have to keep in mind the debt level, but when’s the last time we did something like this? Yes, you shouldn’t do major projects like this every year but every once in a while, it's time to go out and get a great project."
The mayor, acknowledging the she and Mathieu have butted heads previously on many issues, said this time she was in agreement with him and said she would like to see the project focus more on the fields than on the new fieldhouse.
"My priority is the playing fields and a refurbished baseball surface for the kids," said Quattrocchi. "… I mean, for the rest of it, I’m personally concerned and I’m also a little disappointed because when I went into this at the beginning I let everybody who was at the table that night know this is how much money we have. I don’t want to go over this amount. We really can't afford to go over this amount. ... The ultimate goal of the project is the playing surfaces to me. If we have an ice cream guy and a couple Port-A-Potties, well. ... I have long said we need to lance this boil and we need to do something but we really need to, in my opinion at this point, I think it needs to be reined in, and I’m a little disappointed that it couldn’t get reined in as much as I would have liked."
Borough Clerk and Administrator Christina Ariemma said that reconfiguring the project could cause the borough to lose grant money.
"I need to tell you again if you don't award this project soon, you're going to lose the Green Acres grant and that is a big portion of your grant money," said Ariemma. "You only have two years to award and you've already exceeded that, and then they took into consideration our environmental issue. I will write to Trenton, but I'm more than certain you will lose the money."
Ariemma added that there were several opportunities to reduce the cost of the project to $2.75 million – including changing the type of turf used, changing the lighting, taking out the bocce court and taking out the basketball court – but the committee did not make that recommendation.
"We felt that bocce was $5,800 and it’s the one component for seniors," said Petruzzelli. "The basketball court is the only part of the field that's self-sufficient. The baseball field is $95,100 and included in that is resurfacing the entire outfield, the fence, drainage, sprinklers. If you try to start taking out bits an pieces, we're getting less of a project and still spending a lot of money. ... This project has been going on for 12 years now. To use the words Keith Sluka said in our meeting, it’s going to be the new center of town. It’s going to provide a lot more for our school system. It’s going to provide a lot more for this borough. ... I think it’s something that is going to make people want to come here."
Mathieu said he completely agreed with Petruzzelli on the merits of the project, but still felt the cost was too high.
"I think where the courage would come in here is to say enough, we made a mistake," said Mathieu. "Let’s pull the plug on this as it is, let’s not dig the hole deeper. Let’s use the money we have the budget we have and start getting something done, anything done in that field. ... We’re not committed to blowing all this money just because the low bid is far in excess of anything we could ever afford. It just seems to me that doing something like this and jacking the debt up, it’s really almost cruel. It’s really kind of kicking people when they’re already down."
Councilmembers were eager to know what the exact impact of bonding the funds would cost the taxpayers. Ariemma mentioned that in 2007 auditors did an analysis on the of impact of bonding 1.2 million dollars over 20 years.
"Now this is old so these numbers are not exact, but the average home assessed at $100,000 that’s in debt $50 a house, at $125,000 that’s $63 a house, $150,000 that’s 75 a house," said Ariemma. "And this a little bit old. You have to take into consideration today’s tax rate and today’s interest rate."
Councilman Mathieu suggested putting the project to a public question on the November ballot.
"Again I know for a fact the people that elected me did not elect me to do this, to jack up the debt 50 percent," said Mathieu. "This is such a huge commitment, I think we have to go to the voters on it."
Ariemma countered by telling Mathieu that rebidding would cost the borough $5,000 and likely cause the bids to go up in price again.
Ultimately, councilmembers passed a resolution to ask the three lowest bidders for an extension of the 60-day award deadline. Instead of awarding the project by August 7, councilmembers will have more time to award if the bidders agree to an extension. Ariemma stated that the lowest bidder verbally told her that they will agree to an extension.
As to councilmembers' questions on how to bond for the project and what the exact cost to taxpayers would be, Borough Attorney Joseph Triarsi suggested that they bring in the borough's bonding attorney to answer their questions publicly at council's next meeting on July 10. Councilwoman Todisco suggested looking into a 30-year bond instead of a 20-year bond.
Residents in attendance had differing opinions on the complex.
"I understand the cost but I also heard the word commitment this evening," said Scott Kessler, president of the Garwood Baseball League that primarily uses the field. "I think you made a commitment to the town and to the kids in this town. You hear the money and sometimes and you don’t put into perspective what it really needs to be spent on, the kids and the seniors of this community. I’m not sure if any of you went to our baseball picnic this year, but there were 400 people there. That’s 10 percent of the town. We can do so much more and so much better for our kids with a better facility."
Kessler also noted that potentially losing the field at Washington School to the YMCA would leave no area for the borough's kids and said that the building at the field needs to be part of the complex because it is so dilapidated. Kessler also said that the league loses kids to other towns every season because of the condition of the field.
Resident Dolores Dombrowski disagreed with moving forward, point to the cost to the taxpayers and especially seniors on fixed incomes and those struggling because of the economy.
"How many people have left town?" asked Dombrowski. "Have lived here for 30, 40, 50 years and now they can’t even stay here. They’re crying because they have to leave. ... Do you know what seniors have to do on fixed incomes to come up with that $50 for this project, then for the school project, then for this project? It’s $300, $400, $500 dollars in added taxes. Who is representing the taxpayers? ... Let’s give the kids something they need, yes, but this is a little, little town. We cannot compete with Westfield, Cranford, all the other towns. We don’t have the taxpayers here to pay for it. Let’s do what we can afford to do."