Saturday, July 21, 2012

Cape May County (KWWD), Wildwood, New Jersey: Panel recommends Lower Township vacate building at airport, move to Villas

LOWER TOWNSHIP — An 11-member panel suggests the township vacate the Public Safety Building at the county airport and relocate its police and courts to the municipal complex in Villas.

Doing so would mean vacating a lease that runs until 2018.

A report from the committee, delivered to Township Council last week, concluded that “what initially seemed to be a bargain” in 1995 had in fact become “a drain on township resources.” It recommends terminating any more repairs or renovations and spending the $2.5 million to $2.8 million necessary for relocation.

Mayor Mike Beck said it’s time for the township to cut its losses.

“If the township waits until the roof begins to leak, it risks throwing good money after bad,” Beck said.

It sounded like a good deal at the time: For just $100,000 for the building and $1 a year to lease the land, Cape May County gave the township use of a massive building at the Cape May Airport in the Erma section of the township.

That was $4 million in renovations ago. The utility bills on the building were almost $110,000 last year. The flat roof, which at 48,000 square feet covers more than one acre, soon will need repairs estimated to cost $800,000 to $1.8 million. There are 16 heating, ventilation and air conditioning units on the roof, which could pose additional costs.

Beck said the township can “squeeze the lemon as hard as possible” for a couple of more years but should be ready to vacate the building.

Given the impending roof issues, Beck said it should be a wash. The committee, which was formed in December and chaired by Beck, also recommended using solar and geothermal systems to slash energy bills at the new facility. Beck said that would save $1 million over the next 20 years.

“We’ve put $4 million into the building. ... That’s $5 million to $6 million in today’s dollars. If there was a lemon law for buildings, we would have filed a claim long ago,” Beck said.

Township Councilman Tom Conrad wants more information before he makes up his mind. If the township vacates the county building, Conrad said it still may be liable for the roof repairs until the lease runs out.

“Can we get out of the lease? Nobody has approached Cape May County. We need answers from Cape May County,” Conrad said.

He also wants better cost estimates on moving. The committee estimated $2.5 million to $2.8 million, but Conrad wants more detailed research.

The committee made mostly an economic argument. For years Beck has pushed to move the police back to Villas, where they had been located in the municipal complex, because that’s the more densely populated area. He said it would help the public perception of safety and make it easier for those without cars.

“There is no public transportation within a mile of the Police Department or courts despite prevailing literature that specifies a police building should not be more than one block from public transportation,” Beck said.

The committee recommended moving the Municipal Court to Township Council’s meeting room. The construction, zoning and planning offices, which are next to Township Hall, would be moved into the hall. The police would then take their building, but it would be connected with an addition to the courts.

Council earlier this week voted to purchase a property next to Township Hall owned by Manzoni Real Estate. The committee recommended the purchase with the idea of adding parking and having a place for a geothermal energy system.

“The reality is that eventually the township will have to spend money, whether to repair an aging, inefficient and poorly located building, or to relocate to the township complex at virtually the same cost. We feel that when the day comes, a return to the township complex would be in the best interests of the residents,” the committee concluded.

Council moved quickly to purchase the Manzoni property, which covers more than a half-acre, authorizing $200,000 for the purchase and $10,000 for settlement costs. Beck said the property is assessed at $315,000. Conrad voted for the purchase even though he has not made up his mind on the larger issue of moving.

“If it got public, the price would have skyrocketed. I may not support the whole idea, but I have to protect the taxpayer,” Conrad said.

The Public Safety Building is a World War II-era building dating to when the airport hosted a U.S. Navy air station. Renovations were not supposed to cost $4 million, but there were three huge cost overruns: $1.5 million in 1995, $300,000 in 1996 and $600,000 in 1997.

A 2004 building analysis by the VHE Group of Millville recommended unloading the building and constructing a new one in Villas at an estimated cost of $2.5 million.

Conrad said the VHE study was done before the jail cells were removed from the old police station, so costs could escalate even further. He also wants consideration of which building would fare better in a storm.

Nobody is still on council from 1995, when the deal was made with Cape May County to use the building. The township’s population was growing at a rapid clip then, and it was projected to continue.

But those projections failed to materialize, and the population is now stagnant.

At the time, the police were outgrowing the 4,200-square-foot building now used by construction, planning and zoning. The airport building offered plenty of room for growth. It even had space for the Lower Township Rescue Squad, which is not a government function.

With three of the five council seats up for grabs in the November election, Beck said a final decision won’t come until the new council takes office in January. That’s fine by Conrad.

“We accepted the report, but we didn’t accept the recommendations. We need more answers. It’s going to take some more study,” Conrad said.


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