Sunday, July 27, 2003

Old council chambers in basement will become library room

By Chris Neidenberg

Though one councilman has insisted that borough taxpayers cannot afford it, a governing body majority is prepared to create an additional debt of roughly $800,000 to launch major upgrades at the Maywood Public Library.

A major feature of the initiative is converting the old Trinka Hall council chambers into a use for the library - now only upstairs at 459 Maywood Ave.

Earlier in the year, members adopted the mechanism to finance and take bids on the upgrade that, library officials anticipate, will reduce congestion and improve their ability to provide services to those using the 38-year-old facility.

Currently, all of the library's services - reference and loaner books, periodicals and computers - are strictly on one level for children and adults. This status will change, now that the former municipal meeting place was rendered obsolete when the council relocated to 15 Park Ave. The new building - the "John A. Steuert Municipal Complex" - opened in early March and was officially dedicated during a ceremony late in the spring,

Prior to that, the council and library had a long history of co-existence, with borough offices and the council chambers confined to the basement level and the library on top. Ironically, the council moved from an old address - 15 Park Ave. - with the library to the Trinka Hall site in the mid-1960s.

Thus far, the governing body - working in cooperation with the library Board of Trustees - has consented to advertising for "the receipt of bids for library improvements," on the board's behalf, for this major project.

During a March council meeting, the first regular meeting in the new building, Library Board President Joseph Wolfson maintained that it has been improperly reported that taxpayers will ultimately assume the entire estimated $1.2 million price tag - the amount expected to be bonded.

Wolfson explained then that the library will directly reimburse the municipality a major portion of the final bill via funding from outside sources.

"There have been many reports in the media describing this as a $1.2 million project," Wolfson told the council at the time "People forget, about a third of this is being funded by non-taxpayer (non-municipal property taxpayer) money."

He noted that various local fundraising efforts - such as those waged by the Friends of the Maywood Public Library (as of late March) - raised about $25,000.

In describing some of the purposes of this planned, major renovation, Wolfson said the changes will being the library into the 21st Century and up to current building standards.

"Since the library was built, the role of the library has changed dramatically," he explained. "t's not just for books anymore. It's for DVDs, CDs, videos and computers. It's a large part of the library now."

He pointed out that the library estimates that it is involved in roughly 400,000 transactions a year.

"We're now the cultural center of the town, like libraries across the country," the board president added, in explaining the rationale for this big-ticket item "That is our function. That is what we're here for."

Wolfson further noted that the building is stuck in the mid-1960s (it opened in 1965) in terms of meeting current building regulations, including electrical codes.

This big undertaking comes on the heels of the completion of the new municipal complex that will leave taxpayers with a debt in the area of $6 million (a price tag which, critics have said, could climb higher due to potential cost overruns).

Last year, the council adopted a roughly $800,000 bond ordinance for various items, the biggest percentage individually coming from a controversial proposal to install lights (about $300,000) at a Memorial Park baseball diamond. The council has assured that this project will be pursued only if it can be reimbursed by outside sources.

A check of borough bond ordinances, either adopted or introduced between last March and this July, indicates that the council has planned to commit an additional $400,000 in bond funds covering areas ncluding other building improvements, enhancements to the borough's swimming pool and adjacent parking lot, along with the new Briarcliff Avenue park (the latter is being funded via a low-interest state loan).

Additionally, the council recently discovered over $100,000 in hidden, dormant funds it didn't even realize it had, in the form of unexpended bond ordinance balances.

It is using these monies so far to make improvements to the Peerless Engine Company firehouse. Republican Mayor Wayne Kuss, who earlier declined seeking a second-term, previously voiced concern over municipal accounting procedures because of the situation.

While these projects carry big dollar signs, Republican Councilman James Petrie told Wolfson he sees trouble signs ahead for the municipality's finances - and for the taxpayers who must absorb these costs.

These major expenses will be inflated in the coming years through accrued interest (as the council chooses to pay later, rather than now). Petrie fears ramifications for years to come.

."It's painful to say, but given the environment we're operating in, I don't think this is a taxpayer priority," said the councilman, who more recently, was credited with playing a major role in chopping a proposed municipal tax hike from 15 to nine points.

"When this project was first proposed, I don't think anybody could have anticipated the burdens put on this community in the past two to three years," added the councilman, unimpressed with his colleagues' assurances that outside sources will help reimburse the town for some of these long-term expenses.

Before voting against advertising the project, the first-term Republican promised to do "everything in my power to assure that this is a community that remains affordable and accessible to the hard-working resident."

At the time, Petrie was the lone council member opposed. All others - Democrats Tom Richards, Dr. Tim Eustace, Jeanne Matullo (who has since resigned because she is moving to Florida), along with Republicans Tom Gaffney and Fred Zigrest, voted "yes."

The support of Gaffney and Richards, the GOP and Democratic mayoral nominees who are in lockstep on many spending and other issues, assures voters skeptical of the expense have nowhere to go (short of a write-in) in the upcoming election.

Both candidates are apparently looking to appeal more to library users.

"As far as (resolution) 62-03 is concerned," Gaffney told the audience, referring to the measure allowing advertising for bids, "I have to be behind it 100 percent."

Wolfson assured Petrie that those involved in executing the project will rigidly scutinize all expenditures..

"Again, I want to say we very much need this," he said. "I pledge to you, as in the past, every dollar will be spent with regard to the taxpayer, and that there is no waste."

Wolfson was the only resident addressing the council on the bid resolution that night.

During a February work session, Richards urged his colleagues to work with Wolfson's board in setting up a "clerk of the works" system for the library project

He explained that it should be similar to the one used in the later stages of the new Borough Hall initiative. Doing that, Richards said, could help avoid a rerun of problems and possible cost overruns.

Bungled Duvier loan, yet state still steers monies to new site

The municipality is working on a new park that will be located at the southerly end of Briarclif Avenue, using monies from a botched loan originally intended for the current Arthur Fenniman Park site.

In the early spring, the council, following lengthy delays, awarded a $124,915 bid to Abbott Contracting Co. to develop a fully landscaped park that will feature a play area for youths and resting places for adults. Abbott was deemed the lowest responsible bidder among five companies. In developing the site, Abbott is following specifications prepared by the municipality’s engineering firm, Neglia Engineering of Lyndhurst.

Implementation of the low-interest loan, from the Green Acres (GA) Program under the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), culminates an almost four-year saga with suspicious and somewhat shady beginnings.

Problems with the loan started with Whitman’s 1999 visit

For one thing, then-Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, during a much-ballyhooed visit in July 1999, falsely announced that the council received the $128,000 loan for use at what was then informally called “0uvier Park,” later named officially for the deceased and longtime borough volunteer Arthur Fenniman.

Whitman went as far as presenting then-Mayor Thomas Murphy an oversized “dummy” check at the site, while flanked by state troopers, to mark the occasion.

But shortly after the visit, part of Whitman’s statewide tour to promote open space, things began not adding up.

Thomas Wells, Whitman’s Green Acres administrator, admitted that his boss was misinformed. Wells said, in fact, that Maywood was not yet awarded the loan because it still needed to perform an environmental assessment on the site.

Furthermore John Perkins, borough administrator in 1999, stated that the borough intended to retroactively use the loan in helping to pay off drainage upgrades to the facility that had been made prior to Whitman’s visit. The park itself had already been financed by voluntary contributions from various concerns, as part of the municipality’s building the Maywood Senior Citizens and Recreation Center just across the way.

Additionally, Perkins successfully tried stalling on any attempt to perform the environmental review. Doing it would have forced him to evaluate the site’s proximity to thorium contamination at the Maywood Interim Storage Site, a sore thumb with Maywood officials, who have historically tried downplaying the problem.

After GA Principal Planner Martha Sapp advised the borough in 1999 that it had to perform the review, Wells overrode this decision.

He said regulations allowed the program to wave such requirements. Wells explained that Perkins convinced him that an environmental analysis at the Fenniman site was unnecessary. Yet a federal government map showed the park was in a “B” zone of radiation, meaning that the levels were deemed above background levels. This fact suggested that the review Sapp earlier outlined might have been in order. Ultimately, the council decided on shelving the loan, and it remained dormant for roughly two years.

Questions over the loan lingered in 2002-03

The council’s waiting game paid off with the arrival of the Democratic McGreevey administration in 2002.

The new governor's DEP officially approved reprogramming the monies over to Briarcliff, even though problems and issues regarding the municipality’s handling of the matter persisted.

In 2002, Borough Attorney Andrew Fede ruled that the borough mishandled the public hearing on the new Briarcliff loan. Also, last year, Democratic Councilman Thomas Richards announced that developing the new park, in addition to adding a new recreational facility, would block any government entity from forcibly acquiring the land in case it wanted to somehow connect the tract to nearby Route 17. Richards also said the park could be used as a shield against any possible push from Bergen County to continue Pleasant Avenue from Paramus (just across Plaza Way) eastward into Maywood.

Yet resident Michael Nolan, of the Concerned Citizens of Maywood, noted that Richards’ rationale was somewhat off base.

He pointed out that an agency in Trenton, called the State House Commission, could obliterate any local decision to protect parkland if the government needed a particular tract for a major public project – such as a highway extension. He cited a press report that stated the commission, usually, grants such requests..

In fact, in applying for the money, the council had to furnish the state a list of all available parkland the loan funds could be applied to – in case the state wanted to acquire the Briarcliff park site. Borough officials apparently see this as an unlikely scenario. Regardless of this scenario, Nolan maintained that the council should have tapped into a roughly $1 million surplus to finance the park outright, rather than using the state loan - with its strings - and saddling the taxpayers with any interest charges

In trying to get the loan off the ground in 2003, problems persisted. In a move apparently unexpected by the governing body, McGreevey’s DEP required the borough to do some kind of preliminary analysis at the Briarcliff site that Whtman’s DEP had foregone at Fenniman. Ultimately, the bid decision was delayed for about a month.

Additionally, the resolution awarding the bid was mis-worded. It stated that the council was making “improvements to Briarcliff park,” even though no such park existed previously. The funds are - in fact -being used to develop an entire new park.

Once the new facility is christened, Republican Councilman Fred Zigrest has said he hopes the council will follow the example it started at Fenniman by naming the site after an outstanding resident. And despite the council’s problems in handling this loan, it intends on seeking more government funds in setting up yet another park on Thoma Avenue - pursuing a plan shelved years ago.

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