Once again none of our area’s newspapers or media sites sent anyone to cover the 1/27/14 Hightstown Borough Council meeting. As such, I have typed up a summary once again in case anyone is interested in what was discussed. Please note that this is my attempt at recounting what went on at the meeting in a fair and objective way. I have some personal opinions on the meeting, but I will save those for the end. I didn’t come prepared with a notebook or a recording device, so I’m going to avoid too many direct quotes since my memory may be faulty. If anyone else who was at the meeting has any corrections or additions, please use the comments section to add to this post, thank you.
The primary focus of this meeting, once again, was the status of the Borough Hall project.
Mayor Kirson gave an update on the continued discussions with representatives from FEMA. Last week, the mayor spent several hours meeting with a group consisting of the FEMA consultant, Councilwoman Denny Hansen, architect Eli Goldstein, a representative from the state Office of Emergency Management and staff from the Borough’s Public works department. They toured the damaged Borough Hall facility and went through a detailed analysis of the likely calculations used for a FEMA review of the costs associated with repairing or rebuilding the property. As noted in my last blog post (please read it if you haven’t), if FEMA’s review of the situation results in the cost of repair being higher than 50% of the cost of a totally new replacement, then they will consider they structure a total loss and Hightstown would be eligible to receive approximately $900,000 in FEMA funds to rebuild. That figure is based on the analysis done last week and may not be a final sum.
After this review and some further contemplation, the FEMA consultant and Eli Goldstein feel that the ratio may be in our favor and we have a decent chance at qualifying for the extra FEMA funds. If Council decides to pursue the FEMA money, the next step is to engage professionals (architects, engineers, etc.) to prepare an application.
There are still several open questions related to this FEMA issue. One open question is how much money Hightstown must spend to run the full analysis (the estimate at the last Council meeting was between $75,000 and $100,000) A second open question is whether or not the FEMA money would come with strings attached requiring the rebuild to be an identical structure in form and function to the one that was flooded (the indication is that those strings are not attached, but there was not 100% certainty on this). A third open question is whether or not we could still collect the full amount of FEMA money if we decide not to rebuild and use it toward leveling the old structure and making improvements to another location to house our Borough staff (the indication is that no, we would not get the full amount of FEMA money if we were not going to rebuild something on the old location).
Progress has clearly been made this month in the effort to gain clarity with FEMA. There was also a discussion about how much money Hightstown is able to collect from the insurance company and that conversation revealed that several questions remain unanswered on that topic as well. Mayor Kirson offered to re-engage the insurer in an effort to seek clarity on those issues.
The rest of the discussion about Borough Hall was moderated by the Mayor when he asked each Council Member to offer their opinions on what they think the Borough should do moving forward. He asked them to assume that we receive between $2.5 Million and $3.4 Million in funds (which would include the maximum insurance payout and the estimated FEMA money).
There was clearly no appetite among the Council Members to choose any strategy that would require the Borough to take on any more debt. This sentiment seems to eliminate the proposed $6 Million new facility that has been pitched by the Goldstein Group since the insurance and FEMA funds won’t cover it.
There was what appeared to be a majority opinion (by my count at least 4 clear supporters) in favor of not rebuilding in the existing location at all. That plan would include a continuation of the shared court and jail services we have used since the storm, the continued rental of the old Lucas property for the police and spending funds to upgrade the Public Works facility to permanently house all the Borough employees. There were also several instances when Council members noted that this may be an opportunity to look for more sharing of services with our neighboring communities.
This was not a unanimous opinion. Each of the 4 members in this majority added their own concerns and wrinkles. There was support for revisiting last year’s plans to use modular structures instead of building a totally new facility as well as one Council Member who remains in support of rebuilding an entire Borough Hall facility in the same location.
I felt it was definitely a worthwhile exercise and applaud the Mayor and Council for taking the time to share this discussion with the public.
As for my personal opinion on the matter, I have long agreed with the notion that the flood damage has given us an opportunity to do something else with our Borough resources. The police department has functioned well in its home at the old Lucas property. Sharing the courtroom in Robbinsville and the jail cells in Cranbury has worked out sufficiently. The worst problem we have faced has been finding a proper location for the other Borough staff who were displaced by the flood. They have been in cramped quarters, but improvements were made and there is certainly room for more such improvements if we choose to fund them. Two and a half years have now passed and I think we have seen that we actually don’t need a Borough Hall.
I think we should follow the path recommended by Council President Susan Bluth and seek a settlement with the insurance company which would allow us to demolish the old building, rehabilitate the plot of land it is on, fund improvements to the Public Works building so that it can be a permanent home for our Borough employees, and help fund the rental of police facilities. In my opinion there is no need for a new municipal building and this community should definitely not support taking on any debt to build one.
This path forward will also help preserve our community’s flexibility when it comes to government services. The next 5 to 10 years could very well see many changes in the way small towns in New Jersey approach their municipal governments and services. We only need to look a few miles to our West to see what the Princetons have accomplished in their consolidation efforts. If Hightstown wants to maintain the possibility of a similar approach, then we need to remain flexible now. We need the flexibility to share services. We need the flexibility to adjust quickly to changing state mandates. We need to maintain the flexibility to meet the challenges of our future.
I think that building a new municipal complex would erase our flexibility by anchoring us to that spot. It would do our community a disservice and I am happy that a majority of our Borough Council agrees with that opinion.
Please share your thoughts and comments below. Thank you.