ORANGE, NJ — Mayor Dwayne Warren revealed during questions from Orange City Council and the public on Monday, Dec. 14, that the $2.5 million deal to purchase the old YWCA building on Main Street and convert it into a new recreation center for the city will not be tax-free, as originally promised.
This revelation came during a Q&A session Warren had promised two weeks earlier, after council voted at its Dec. 1 meeting to pass two key resolutions the administration said were needed to facilitate the YWCA deal. The seven-member council voted 6-0 at that meeting to pass Resolution No. 284-2015, which authorized the administration to submit and accept a $2.5 million direct appropriation grant from the state Department of Community Affairs, and Resolution No. 285-2015, which allows the council to insert the $2.5 million into the Calendar Year 2015 City Budget.
At-large Councilwoman Donna K. Williams recused herself from the vote on Tuesday, Dec. 1, because she is a former member of the YWCA Board of Directors.
It was Williams, however, who suggested to Warren on Monday, Dec. 14, that the Orange Board of Education be “at the table,” for any negotiations about the YWCA purchase, since the administration has stated it is working in partnership with the BOE and other public and private entities to ensure the facility’s success.
Warren indicated Monday that the Orange public schools have signed on to play a much bigger role in the YWCA deal than was previously made public, meaning taxpayers would have to help the schools pay its promised portion of the bill.
“I just had a meeting Friday, Dec. 11, with the superintendent to make sure that they are going to shore up their $800,000 part,” said Warren on Dec. 14. “The (BOE) business administrator and the superintendent understand this. They know what’s going on.”
Warren also said there are some other opportunities to help generate revenue at the new recreation center to help fund its planned programs and operational costs, as he’s “always willing to try and pull in dollars from state, local and county to make sure we have what we need.”
At that point, East Ward Councilman Kerry Coley and members of the audience, which included local businessman Jeff Feld of Epstein Paints and South Ward resident Murphy Wilson, said the $800,000 pledge by the schools means using tax money to help pay for the
YWCA deal, because the only way for the district to raise that kind of money is to bond for it.
Bonding for capital projects refers to borrowing money by selling bonds on the bond market, and is similar to taking out a bank loan that must eventually be repaid in full, including accrued interest. The city has to pay off the bonds, which means using taxpayer money.
“That $800,000 from the school board, is that bond money?” Coley asked at the meeting.
Warren confirmed that, to which Feld commented, “That’s tax money,” speaking out of turn since it was not during the portion of the meeting set aside for public comments.
Feld’s remark, however, was all West Ward Councilman Harold J. Johnson needed to drive home his point that the administration has not been forthcoming with the council or the public regarding the real cost of the YWCA deal. Johnson said a lack of transparency about the deal is the main reason he has serious reservations about it, and doesn’t want to approve it unless the administration gives the council and public the information that has been requesting for months, since the deal was first announced.
“Just come clean,” said Johnson on Monday, Dec. 14. “I’m afraid. Based on the documents in front of us, it seems like the bankruptcy trustee, or whoever, is under the impression that the deal is already done. Is that the case?”
Warren said the deal was not done, but his reassurances only led to further scrutiny from Feld and other members of the audience, since the local businessman was in possession of redacted documents relating to the city’s grant application to the state Department of Community Affairs that were not made available to other members of the audience or to the Record-Transcript.
Feld said he obtained the documents because he had submitted an Open Public Records Act request to the city, and refused to share them with the Record-Transcript, saying the newspaper should get the documents from Director of Planning and Public Works Marty Mayes.
The city clerk told the Record-Transcript she was not in possession of documents relating to grant applications to the state and that she was not the one who had provided them to Feld. She referred questions about the documentation to the administration.
When the Record-Transcript asked Warren for copies of the documents already in Feld’s possession, as per the city clerk’s direction, the mayor said they were unavailable for “legal reasons.” But when asked why Feld had copies, Warren changed his answer, saying copies of the document are available to the public online.
Johnson said such behavior is indicative of why he and some other council members still have reservations about the YWCA lease deal, even though Warren’s appearance on Monday, Dec. 14, marked the third time he has come before them to discuss it in a little more than a month.
“I appreciate the mayor taking the time to bring us up to date on this internal memorandum,” said Johnson, with regard to the documents he and the other council members had been given from the administration at the meeting. “All the money will be used for the closing on the property? I don’t see it being copacetic.”
Feld said the council has to be careful when it comes to any vote to approve the YWCA purchase deal, because there are still too many unanswered questions.
“When are these documents going to be made public? The documents that we have, there’s no line item for the purchase. The public is entitled to this information. … The key is the information needs to be made available to the public,” said Feld. “I made an OPRA request to the state for documents related to this purchase and they said there are no documents on file about it in Trenton. Be careful.”
Wilson, a member of the Orange BOE’s facilities committee, also urged the other council members to be careful about what they asked Orange taxpayers to pay for, if the YWCA purchase deal is approved.
Based on testimony from the city’s construction official, Paul Arthur, and engineer Justin L. Gibson of Remington, Vernick & Arango Engineers, who both testified about the building’s challenges with regard to mold, the pool, HVAC system, and electrical system, Wilson said she doesn’t think it should be in use. Warren told the council that programs for students are currently taking place at the facility, according to Wilson.
“I’m very concerned about the details of this adventure,” said Wilson on Monday, Dec. 14. “You need to have those details, especially when I hear about getting another $800,000 from the Board of Education. That’s still on the backs of the taxpayers.”