Committee Dithers As Town Hall Crumbles

Our committee has been talking about the future of Tabernacle’s office facilities and public works since, at least, 2013 when it acquired the old TRS building on Hawkin Road. But they’ve never done anything about it. Now we have an emergency.

The township’s architect, Scott England, announced at the October 12 meeting that town hall is in such bad structural condition that support walls have to be built in the basement just to enable a safe 90-day move out. After that, the repairs will be so invasive that municipal operations won’t return for three to five years.

The only choices the committee thought it had were whether to rent replacement space somewhere else or to rent trailer offices for placement at the town hall site. They chose to rent a triple trailer combination, which has recently been installed. The cost is $167,000 for a three-year term. There are additional costs for “fit outs” needed to adapt the trailers to office use, such as electric and telephone, a barrier free ramp, the costs of transition and probably a boatload of inconvenience.

As a point of reference, it took Medford years to plan and build its new municipal building, which cost upwards of $9 million.

Tabernacle’s architect couldn’t estimate repair costs because the extent of town hall’s problems and the possible requirements for construction code updates aren’t yet known. He said that it would be “very, very expensive.” His ‘order of magnitude’ cost estimate started at $1.6 million, excluding the second floor. But he said it could easily double.

His time frame to figure the scope of the project was six to eight months. He warned that to proceed with repairs without an analysis could open a Pandora’s box of change orders as unknown problems surfaced.

Not to worry though, Tabernacle’s finance officer, Rodney Haines, says Tabernacle has up to $15 million in unused bonding capacity.

At the subsequent meeting of October 25, 2021, the committee again started to act without a comprehensive understanding of what Tabernacle’s needs and options are. Committeeman Sam Moore suggested they look at some available properties to see what they’re selling for. He’s been leaning towards a new municipal facility.

Committeeman Joe Barton answered that it was premature to look at new sites when the committee hasn’t decided what they want or where they want it. That’s a fair comment, though it’s taken eight years for a committee member to say that.

To be sure, Tabernacle’s public buildings are in bad shape. In addition to town hall’s structural problems, the Annex (where code enforcement is), the old Tabernacle Rescue Squad building (the community center) and the public works building have needed substantial work or replacement for a long time.

Tabernacle should have done a comprehensive plan that addressed all of its space needs long ago. This would have included assessments of the decaying buildings to determine which should be renovated, which should be taken down, which should be sold, what should be built new and where it should be built.

Instead, the committee has been loosely talking about municipal facilities since 2013, when it acquired the old TRS building. Around 2014, Committeeman Rick Franzen was tasked to make a “space plan.” He produced a simple plan based on the idea that the municipal facilities and town hall should remain in downtown Tabernacle.

The report wasn’t an analytical study and didn’t address costs. It was more like a “Hey, I think this would be a good idea” kind of report. It’s so casual that it doesn’t even have a date on it. The committee generally favored it and referred to it periodically as if it was a township plan. But they never followed up on it.

Their next step should have been to hire a professional to assess all of Tabernacle’s buildings and properties; to analyze Tabernacle’s needs and to present a comprehensive set of options with rough costs for the committee to review and decide on.

Because this would be an expensive project that would strongly reflect the Tabernacle community, a thoughtful committee would have involved the public in a significant way, such as through extended pubic comment, special meetings, workshops or a referendum.

At the time of the Franzen report, and various times thereafter, I suggested that the committee get professional help (for the plan). So did others. But the committee continued to discuss the issue without help and structured their discussions on the individual buildings as if they were all separate and unrelated. It’s fair to say that the committee couldn’t imagine an overall plan and wouldn’t consult with a professional who could help them.

Their mindset continued through 2021 when the committee instructed Administrator Cramer and Construction Official Boyd to do a rough analysis of town hall, the Annex, the public works building, the fire station and the old TRS building. But even then there still was no analysis of what Tabernacle needed or what the options might be. Everyone seemed to think that they already knew that, even thought they all disagreed about what that was.

Mr. Cramer and Mr. Boyd returned to the committee in June 2021 with their analysis of the conditions of the individual buildings and a strong recommendation that the committee get a structural analysis for them.

The result was the Scott England Report that was presented at the October 10, 2021 meeting. Finally, after eight years the committee had a structural assessment of the buildings that the township owns. It also has an order-of-magnitude cost estimate to renovate the old TRS building. That estimate is $1.35 million dollars.

Despite these first steps, the committee still doesn’t have an analysis of what Tabernacle needs or what the options are. For example, does it make sense to house some township offices at the old TRS building (for $1.35 million dollars) and have other township offices somewhere else, perhaps, at the Emergency Services Building where there is available space? Is it better to consolidate township offices at one location? Should those offices remain in the center of town? If there was any township department that could be housed at a remote site it probably would be public works. Is the old landfill, a site that we already own, suitable?

The committee has never had substantive discussions about these questions or any other related issues. That’s why they’ve never approached consensus since 2013. And when the township acquired that wretched TRS building, there wasn’t any public discussion of why Tabernacle needed it or what it would cost to maintain. All of those discussions, if they occurred, happened behind closed doors.

As Committeeman Barton said, Deputy Mayor Moore’s proposal to check out real estate prices is premature because the township still hasn’t looked at the options and figured out the best plan for Tabernacle.

With the retirement of long-term administrator Doug Cramer December 1, 2021, the committee will soon lose a significant source of information. At the November 8, 2021 meeting, the committee appointed a new administrator, Casey English, to replace Mr. Cramer. The background and qualifications of Casey English were not mentioned by the committee. It didn’t even take the time to mention him or her by name.

As an aside, it was hard to miss that the committee didn’t mention or discuss the names, qualifications or background of any of the 15 people that it hired or appointed at that meeting. It was a shabby introduction. New employees deserve to be recognized and introduced to their new community. Residents deserve to receive the same introduction as an assurance that the new hires are competent. This is especially true here, given the salaries they’re being paid (e.g., $95,000 for the township clerk). Mayor Brown and the committee were more interested in shortening the meeting than introducing the new township staff.

THE SEQUOIA SCHOOL DEBACLE

The committee’s lack of planning wouldn’t be complete without review of its decision to not acquire the Sequoia School property from the Tabernacle Board of Education (TBOE) in 2018. This property would have addressed the immediate needs for record storage, a community center and the construction and tax assessor offices. It would have addressed our current town hall needs. It would also allow the removal of the Annex, which might free up enough land for public works to improve their space permanently or in the short term.

The Sequoia building is 14,442 square feet. The property is 5.77 acres.

The building was extensively renovated by the Lenape Regional High School District in 2001. Lenape’s renovations included the connection to the TBOE’s septic system at the Olson Middle School. It also has a huge meeting room and lots of potential office space. It was easily convertible to municipal and community uses.

When Lenape terminated its lease, TBOE offered the property to Tabernacle Township. The listing price was $850,000.

Most people seemed to favor the idea of keeping municipal functions in the center of town. Keeping municipal offices in the center is generally consistent with Tabernacle’s official master plan. It’s also the gist of the Franzen plan. When Committeewoman Brown explained her vote for a grant to improve town hall, she emphasized that town hall is “the hub of our township.”

The acquisition of Sequoia was spearheaded by Committeeman Stephen Lee and had both widespread and diverse support. He envisioned Sequoia as a community center, a library, a post office or other community uses. Committeeman Joseph Yates saw enough merit in the idea to support a public referendum, which was suggested by Colonel William Lowe, Tabernacle’s former Office of Emergency Management Coordinator.

Colonel Lowe strongly supported the acquisition rather than spending money on the old TRS building. He offered to donate books for a library.

Mark Lemire, resident and member of the Land Development Board and chairman of the Recreation Committee, said he favored municipal purchase and said it would be a positive move.

Steven Cramer, resident and captain of the TRS, volunteered to be a public member of the committee for Sequoia building usage.

I also supported the acquisition of Sequoia. I had suggested acquisition back in 2001 when I was on township committee.

Then-Mayor Barton and Committee members Brown and Moore voted against the acquisition of Sequoia. Mr. Barton explained that because taxpayers had already paid for the property through their TBOE taxes, the TBOE should give Tabernacle the property for free. This explanation was wildly impractical. It was unlikely that TBOE would give away an asset as substantial as Sequoia. And they didn’t. If they did give it away, Tabernacle taxpayers would feel the consequences of this lost revenue in future TBOE tax bills, just as they would if Tabernacle Township purchased the building.

Because committee members Barton, Brown and Moore opposed the acquisition, Tabernacle sent the TBOE a letter of no interest. A non-profit organization recently bought the property; it will be exempt from taxation.

As Tabernacle taxpayers pay $167,000 dollars for trailer rental plus $3 million dollars to $5 million dollars or more to repair or rebuild town hall, repair or rebuild a public works facility, possibly buy a new site for municipal facilities and otherwise deal with the Annex and the old TRS building, and receive no tax revenue from Sequoia, they should remember that Barton, Brown and Moore didn’t want to spend $850,000, the asking price, to buy the Sequoia property. They wouldn’t even explore the idea or put it up for a referendum.

MORE DITHERING ABOUT THE OLD TRS BUILDING

The old TRS building is one of the worst buildings in the township and one of the least used. Its operating costs are high, its condition is poor; its utility is low; it has asbestos and lead paint in it; the site is small and wet. It has been a money pit ever since the TRS off-loaded it to Tabernacle in exchange for rent-free use of the new $4 million Emergency Services Building. Committeeman Yates called the old TRS building an albatross.

The TRS transferred its building to Tabernacle for $1 and gave Tabernacle a letter from its appraiser, which said the property was worth $455,000. The Township had it appraised in October 2018 and the appraised value dropped to $175,000. After Mr. England, Tabernacle’s architect, reported that it would cost $1.35 million to renovate the old TRS building, Administrator Cramer conceded that the building was worth less than the $175,000. It’s astonishing that the appraised value has dropped roughly 75 percent to 85 percent.

The discussion of what to do with the old TRS building has dragged on for eight years without result. Committeewoman Nancy McGinnis has been strong on the idea of selling it. The committee has resisted discussion of her ideas. The disposition of the building was supposed to be on the agenda for the November 22 meeting. But that meeting was canceled for lack of a quorum. All committee meetings are remote and committee members only need a cell phone to participate. How could there not be a quorum for this long schedule meeting?

This is more dithering.

The next township meeting will be held electronically December 6 at 7:30pm.