Berkeley Heights Township Council Rejects County-Backed Solar Energy Plan; Councilman Proposes More Budget Reductions

BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - The Berkeley Heights Township Council on Tuesday night voted against a Union County Improvement Authority plan aimed at funding solar energy projects on public buildings.  The Council cited several issues that contributed to the Council's decision:  1)  the potential township liability for financing of the project; 2)  a shortage of information about the project; and 3) that there was only a single proposed project for Berkeley Heights in the plan.

Under the improvement authority's Renewable Energy Initiative Program the authority will apply to the Local Finance Board for $45 million in bonding to finance installation of solar heating and cooling panels. The panels will be installed on a number of buildings around the county. Although the installing companies will fund the projects, the county agency will act as a "co-signer" of the initial funding and the communities involved could benefit from any energy savings.

Township Council President Joseph G. Bruno said the company for which he works has taken advantage of a similar program for private industry and has found it beneficial.

"There would be no cost to the township, no liability and potential savings," he added. "I cannot see why we would not vote for it."

Both Councilmen Kevin Hall and John C. Bonacci, however, said there was not enough information available on the program. Councilman Hall said he was unsure whether or not Berkeley Heights would face some financial "contingent liability" for the funding.

Councilman Bonacci, however, supported the measure when he was assured there would be no cost to the township.

Councilwoman Elaine K. Perna, who joined with Councilman Hall and Councilman Gerald Nelson in voting against the measure, also was skeptical about whether the township would ultimately be responsible for some of the cost of the bonding.

She also did not see why communities such as Linden and Hillside were chosen for projects on a number of public buildings while only the Berkeley Heights Municipal Building was chosen.

Township Administrator Jack Conway replied Union County engineers had evaluated all potential project sites. He added the improvement authority would apply to the Local Finance Board for projects whether or not communities endorsed the program.

Residents Carol and Richard Matula warned, however, that county funding could come with "strings attached" and even federal and state incentive programs used to obtain some of the funding would ultimately have to come partially from township taxpayers.

Mr. Matula added some European countries have found solar energy has not produced greater cost savings than conventional forms of energy such as oil, gas and nuclear.

On another matter, Councilman Bonacci proposed $33,000 in reductions in a number of salary and wage and other expense accounts in the 2010 municipal budget. These reductions, along with using $75,000 from surplus, would bring the increase in municipal taxes from 9.1% down to 7.9%, the councilman said.

Councilwoman Perna estimated this would mean the average township homeowner would see a tax increase for municipal purposes of about $135 this year. Without the reductions the increase would be $152, she said.

Both Mayor Robert Woodruff and Councilman Hall, however, said they did not like the idea of further decreasing the salaries of employees who already had agreed to salary freezes for the past two years and were picking up a greater share of their healthcare costs.

Other Councilmembers did not agree with Councilman Bonacci that the township could sufficiently recover from the decreased amounts in municipal surplus in time for next year's budget, as predicted by Councilman Bonacci.

Councilman Bruno, however, thanked Councilman Bonacci for moving the governing body further along on budget cuts before the budget adoption date of August 10.

Mayor Woodruff said other governing body members should contact Councilman Bonacci with their ideas for further reductions.

One resident did, however, have some news that could help the situation. He said he had been tracking year-to-date police payroll costs and, if current trends continue, the police salary and wage accounts could come in $60,000 to $81,000 lower for the year than originally projected.

Councilwoman Perna said part of this savings could come from police agreements to defer overtime into next year in exchange for compensatory time off, which could save about $68,000.

In another item concerning the police department, Mayor Woodruff said the Berkeley Heights and New Providence police chiefs and business administrators had been studying the feasibility of merging the departments in the two communities. The Union County Prosecutors Office, he said, suggested the studies for a number of similar communities located near each other.

The mayor was quick to note, however, that the studies were only preliminary and much work still had to be done before any plans were made.

A change in the zoning ordinance to allow for buildings in the downtown business districts to be a maximum height of 36 feet with two and a half stories drew a negative vote from Councilman Bonacci.

He wants to limit heights to 28 feet and two stories.

Councilman Hall noted, however, that if the governing body does not adopt the zoning change, as proposed in the 2007 Master Plan, the Planning Board would be forced to live with the current ordinance that allows building heights up to 46 feet.

Councilman Bonacci responded the council should try to completely improve the current ordinance to meet limits that he said are supported by a majority of township residents.

On another planning matter, the Council heard a presentation by the Westfield Gospel Hall of the Plymouth Brethren, which plans to build a new worship center on property at Sherman and Berkeley Avenues.

The group has received approval for its plan from the township Planning Board, but would have to apply for a variance to allow it to extend its parking lot six feet into the Berkeley Avenue right-of-way. If the council approves of the extension, however, further Planning Board action will not be needed.

At the urging of Councilwoman Perna the township attorney will work with the church group on a provision to make the right-of-way extension contingent on its reversion to the township if needed for future widening of the roadway.

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