By Ron Leir
A new firehouse, a restored public recreation center, a fixed-up senior center and other improvements are in the works for Belleville with the passage of a $3.45 million capital bond ordinance last month.
But, then again, maybe not.
One of two Belleville Council members who voted against the bond Oct. 11 is spearheading a petition drive to put the matter up for a public referendum on the grounds that it’s too much to spend now for work that can wait.
By law, that man – Second Ward Councilman Steven Rovell, who is also deputy mayor – has until Nov. 8 – Election Day – to gather the approximately 1,000 signatures he says are needed to trigger the balloting.
Township Manager Victor Canning says the councilman’s efforts are wrongheaded and that all the improvements covered by the bond are essential to Belleville’s progress.
Rovell says that if he can muster the required number of residents’ signatures, he would prefer to have the Council majority reconsider their vote instead of having the township incur the cost of a special election.
Time will tell how things turn out.
Canning said the bond would account for an annual increase of about $46 in real estate taxes for the owner of a home with an “average” assessment of $249,400. “On a house assessed at $500,000, it would mean a $100 a year tax increase,” Canning said, “but there are very few $500,000 homes in Belleville.”
Canning said the township is well below its borrowing limit and is taking aggressive steps to pay down its total accumulated debt of $29 million and be “fiscally responsible.”
But Rovell and his ally, Councilman-at-large Michael Nicosia, gripe that Canning has not factored in the cost of two other recent bonds, one for paying tax appeals and another for acquiring water meters, that — together with the capital bond — will add up to about $10 million in debt and more tax dollars.
“My taxes this year went up $1,000,” Rovell said. “Fortunately, I can afford that, but a lot of people here are struggling with this economy.”
Nicosia echoes that, saying, “We’ve got the worst economy since the Great Depression and here we are putting a huge bond together with multiple construction projects that are not necessary.”
If the bond stands up, it would authorize spending $600,000 toward construction of a one-story firehouse on Franklin St. in the Silver Lake section to replace an existing 8-decade-old facility that, according to Canning, “needs extensive work” just to maintain. Repairs, he said, would cost “between $400,000 and $500,000.” However, Canning added that NJ Transit has offered to lease the township an acre of property and provide $634,000 toward the building of a new firehouse large enough to accommodate two rigs and parking.
Rovell says this project would be counter-productive because the township is short of firefighter personnel and equipment and, therefore, would have trouble staffing a new firehouse designed for two companies.
Never mind what may happen in the future, Nicosia says. That firehouse “has been closed down more than 30 times this year alone for lack of manpower.” In the past two years, attrition has cut the firefighter ranks to 58 from around 70, he says.
The proposed bond would also provide $610,000 to supplement $476,000 in county Community Development Block Grant funds to rebuild the Friendly Home recreation facility on Frederick St. The old structure was torn down four years ago after having fallen into disrepair.
But Nicosia says the targeted site “couldn’t be located in a worse spot . . . . The property is on a small lot with limited parking and security issues, and the building would probably accommodate only one function at a time.”
The bond would also provide $330,000 for an Astro Turf soccer field on Elementary School 9 property on Ralph St. Since soccer is a growing sport in Belleville, that’s a “good idea,” Nicosia says, but “just not at this time.”
The bond would provide $300,000 to build a one-story storage facility to house township records which, by state law, it is obliged to keep for a designated period of time. “We pay to store records and files in two different places now,” Canning says. Neither Rovell nor Nicosia has an argument against this project.
Nor do they quarrel about the $150,000 earmarked for a backup generator and repairs to the township senior center or the repaving of the quarter-mile-long Garden Ave. or the acquisition of new public works equipment – all of which, they concede, are needed.
Problem on the bond is, notes Nicosia, that “this was an all-or-nothing vote,” so certain items could not be pulled out of the ordinance for a separate vote by the Council.
Rovell hopes to make up for that by pushing his petition drive, particularly on behalf of the Second Ward which, he says, “historically has contributed more in residential taxes” than any other section of Belleville.
The last time Rovell took on the political establishment – in 2004 when he wasn’t yet on the Council – he and other residents crusaded against a development plan calling for 400-plus apartments at Essex Park. “We wanted to reduce the density of the project, and it was scaled down to 200-plus units. We fought and we won,” he said.
Now he’s waging a new battle. “I never chose this path,” he says, “but this is where I am.”