Full House Says “No” to Banquet Hall Purchase

On Monday evening, June 8, 2009, the Township Committee held a special meeting to hear the public’s opinion of buying a portion of the firehouse structure, the “banquet hall”, for $855,000.  The windowless cinder-block room was added to the firehouse to serve as a fundraising attraction but the fire company would sell it to the township for its appraised value.

Mayor Kristin McCarthy opened the meeting with a brief overview of the Township Committee’s thinking about the possible purchase.  For many years the Recreation Commission has wanted a community center and a senior citizen’s center.  When federal funding became available, Ms. McCarthy and Cynthia Sulewski, the late chair of the Recreation Commission, wrote a grant application requesting funds to build a multi-purpose building, which could serve as a community center, a site for the senior citizens to meet and an emergency evacuation shelter.  The grant requested over a million dollars, but the federal government offered only $147,000.

Realizing the Township would not have the funds for a new building, Committeeman Alan Johnson and Mayor McCarthy contacted the Fire Department about using the banquet hall.  When it became apparent that the Township could not afford to lease the building, it seemed logical to apply the grant towards the purchase of the space.  The township attorney suggested an arrangement styled after a condominium association, whereby the building would be virtually divided and the township would enter into an association agreement with the fire company – purchasing just the banquet hall.  The $855,000 price tag was arrived at through two appraisals of the property, which is zoned for commercial use.   Mayor McCarthy explained that the committee had briefly discussed the financing, which would be in the form of a down-payment and 20 year loan.

Prior to opening the meeting to public comment the Mayor asked the public whether, if the firehouse concept was unappealing, another building should be acquired, or nothing at all.  She also said that other options included a heated steel pole barn at Sarah Dilts park, or the purchase of the Brethren Church in Sergeantsville, which is for sale.

Questions and Comments.

This author asked why the township couldn’t simply use the school gymnasium as an evacuation center – like so many communities around the country.  Ms. McCarthy replied that if the need arose during school hours, the school might have to be closed and that DTS does not have backup electrical power, which the firehouse does have.

Resident Joan Faiello questioned the need for an evacuation center:  “How many people in our township, and how many people in Lambertville and Stockton, are in the flood zone?”   Committeeman Johnson replied  “Approximately 750 in Stockton and 4500 in Lambertville.”  Police Chief Bruce Mast said that in Delaware Township only 22 homes are in flood zones.  Comparing the numbers of local residents and residents of the other two municipalities, Ms. Faiello summarized: “First of all, we don’t have enough [residents] and the other towns have too many.”  Mr. Johnson acknowledged that the building is not big enough for the entire population but countered that we would be working towards alleviating the problem on a regional basis.

Fire Company treasurer Jon Perlman stated that “there is a perception in town that the banquet hall has become an albatross for the fire department and that is not the case.  The basic truth is that even in the last year, 2008, the banquet hall functions created a net profit and helped to defray the costs of the fire company.  So, please do not think that this is being dumped on anyone; it is still making a profit and therefore helps the fire company.”

A member of the senior citizens’ group said that they don’t need such an elaborate large building.  “For years we’ve been after just a little room, for maybe 40 people and that’s all we need.  We don’t need a big $855,000 building.  We only meet 8 months out of the year for an hour and a half or two hours a day.”

Resident Bob Byrd raised the idea of using the banquet hall to house the police department, which has been in need of a new structure for years.  He said that it would be cheaper to do that than to buy land and build a new police building.

Sam Faiello was not convinced that the proper background investigation had been done.  When the mayor explained that the Recreation Commission had envisioned this use for a long time, he said: “It doesn’t sound like a needs analysis to me.”  But Committeeman Rich Madden, a volunteer fireman who recused himself, felt that the basis of the grant application was in itself a needs analysis.

Paulette Luxich asked about the financial burden for the township and, without having any exact numbers, Ms. McCarthy replied that her bigger concern was not the purchase price but the yearly operational costs, which have been estimated at $13,000/yr.

Another resident asked whether the Township could make money on the investment through charging for the use of the building.  Mr. Johnson said yes: “We would mostly charge organizations or groups to recover the costs so it wouldn’t be a burden shared by all the taxpayers”, but the other members of the Committee seemed to disagree with this statement.

With no comments in favor of the purchase, there was a tacit consensus in opposition to the purchase.  The Committee did not vote, but will vote at a later meeting.

The other options presented by the Mayor, to do nothing, build a pole barn in Dilts Park, or buy the Brethren Church, got little discussion.  But when a resident asked about the price of the church, Ms. McCarthy answered that she thought it was in the “low fours” [$400,000’s], which seemed to generate some interest among the public in attendance.  Mr. Johnson commented that the Committee had done a walk-through of the building, which has its own set of problems: accessibility, environmental issues, parking.  “It’s a very nice building and I’d love to see it preserved for an alternate use but in spite of that purchase price, there would still be a lot more money” to solve those problems, he said.  Mayor McCarthy implied that the committee will be seeking further public guidance on that project in the future. “We are still working on that project.  It has not been fully vetted.”  The $147,000 federal grant is available for another year and a half.  It expires 12/31/2010.  In the interim she expressed an interest in getting figures to convert the use of the church, and there seemed to be a modicum of interest in that.