Berkeley Heights Swap

Many residents in town seem to think that the SWAP is a done deal and that it cannot be stopped.

This is an incorrect assumption. In fact this single election may determine whether it goes through or not.

WHAT IS THE SWAP? Simply put the Township will surrender its Library on Plainfield Avenue and pay $2.845 million to the Church and receive the land and buildings on Hamilton Avenue currently owned by the Church. Value of the library is $1,486,257. The township’s appraisal of the Library was done by Value Research Group, and a partner is Paul Beiser, a friend of Mayor Bruno.

The Township expects to sell the Church  property to a developer and the proceeds and additional borrowed money to construct at 29 Park Avenue a new Municipal Complex, containing a new library with Township administrative offices.

HOW DID THIS COME ABOUT? In 2012 representatives of Little Flower Church approached Council members Mr. Hall and Mr. Woodruff to discuss the possibility of a swap. These secret meetings were held sometime between February and August 2012. By December 2012 the Mayor (Joe Bruno) was on-board with the idea and so it was announced on the weekend of December 2nd to the Little Flower parishioners that it was under consideration. On December 4th 2012 the announcement was made to the public  at a Township Council meeting. An architect, planner and appraiser were secretly hired to begin work in their specialties and reports were created with an appraisal of the properties and concept plans. Believing that the residents would not be likely to approve of this plan, the Council decided to proceed under the Local Redevelopment and Housing Law. A resolution to award contracts to the planner and architect was passed in February 2013,  although  the work had already been largely completed. In fact the contracts were specified to begin on January 1, 2013 instead of the date of award of the contract.

WHAT IS THE LOCAL REDEVELOPMENT AND HOUSING LAW? An area in town can be declared in need of redevelopment based on 8 criteria. Satisfying any one of them is sufficient. The easiest one to satisfy is criterion (h), which essentially means every  property in Berkeley Heights is blighted. The planner prepared a report and convinced the Planning Board that the Municipal Complex area was blighted and then the Council agreed that it was. Once this determination of blight was made, the Council acquired enormous power to issue bonds without any voter approval. Residents lose the power to challenge spending unlike other bond ordinances. In fact the residents cannot have a referendum on any ordinance or resolution needed for the swap or redevelopment!

WHAT HAPPENED NEXT? The planner then prepared a Municipal Complex redevelopment plan and the Council adopted it as an ordinance. There is now a concept plan to rebuild the municipal complex slightly west of its current location. The existing complex would be torn down.

WHAT ELSE HAS HAPPENED? A similar process has been followed for the Library property on Plainfield Avenue. The Council determined that the Library property was also in need of redevelopment and has recently passed an ordinance with a redevelopment plan. The Township paid for that redevelopment plan.  An agreement for sale has also been signed.

HOW MUCH HAS BEEN SPENT ON ALL THIS? We currently do not have an exact total but at one point last year the total of legal, planning, architecture and advertising fees exceeded $200 thousand. Probably by now the cost is over $300 thousand.

WHAT IS THE COST OF THE NEW MUNICIPAL COMPLEX? We have seen a figure of $27 million and so about $23 million might be bonded. Current township net debt as of December 31, 2015 is about $21.4 million.

WHY HASN’T THE SWAP BEEN COMPLETED? The agreement for sale has certain contingencies that have to be met such as due diligence. There is also some pending litigation since certain council members who have voted to award the initial contracts in February of 2013 were active members of the Church and participated in executive sessions. While this ligation is not an absolute bar to proceeding there is some risk involved in moving ahead before it is resolved.

WHAT ELSE HAS TO TAKE PLACE? Basically, the Township will need to find at least $2.845 million to pay the Church. That probably will  have to come from a bond ordinance and takes 4 affirmative votes by the non-conflicted members. They also need to decide how to continue library services after the library is sold.

WHERE DO THE CANDIDATES STAND ON THE ISSUE OF THE SWAP? Tom Maciejewski has decided that this swap is not in the best interests of the Town.  He thinks that a referendum on this issue should take place.

The Republican candidates support the swap and the redevelopment of the municipal complex.

The Democrats seem to support it but have said they need more information that they claim is not available yet.

A bullet vote for Tom Maciejewski is one way stop the swap. That means you vote for Tom and no one else.