In my opinion, the inexperience and weak leadership of Berkeley Heights Mayor, Angie Devanney, is starting to become impossible to ignore. She has allowed issues with the Municipal Building Complex project to fester privately and neglected to share the details with our community. Now the problems have bubbled to the public surface and the mismanagement and cost to the taxpayer are shocking.
In December 2019, the Mayor made public an issue involving unclaimed grant money from Union County. She knew about the issue officially in September 2019, and unofficially through her participation with PAL, dating back four years to 2016. Ms. Devanney surfaced the issue in mid- December 2019, with a December 31st deadline looming. She told the public that the "most feasible" option, in such a short time, was to spend more money (approximately $350,000) and build a small grass field, or we would “lose” the grant money. That assessment was not accurate. Ultimately, the Recreation Commission, Board of Education and the PAL collaborated to bring diverse ideas and solutions to the table to resolve the situation, at no cost to taxpayers.
Fast forward to today, the Town is faced with a much more complex, costly and critical situation regarding the Municipal Complex. The Mayor’s strategy, in my opinion, looks the same as the approach with grants and needless grass fields. The Mayor, and her Administrator, are accountable for the management and oversight of this project, since taking office in January 2019. We have gone from a cost savings to cost overruns and delays. Regular updates at Town Meetings during 2019 and a weekly series of updates in TAPinto (that stopped right before March 2020) never even hinted at the serious issues with deadlines established in the contracts. Here is one sample:
At the May 12th Town Council meeting, Mast, the project management company, made a presentation. The public was told for the first time that the developer is non-responsive (even to legal counsel), and an expected delay is now 8 months+ and we need to spend more money. Mast noted that the project “veered off course” last Spring and early last Summer. The Mayor claims we only have two options: (1) pause the project and have the old complex sit empty for months, then restart the project in 2021, where it likely will cost more than $2 million or (2) bond for at least an additional $2M in municipal taxes now, and the building still will be delayed. Our backs appear to be back against the wall again.
There are other options. Some were suggested at the May 12th meeting and others are suggested herein, including:
- Secure new experts (who do not benefit financially from these delays) and bring the public voice to inform common sense approaches and solutions to reduce the cost of existing project commitments.
- Call for volunteers with applicable expertise to help offset the cost that would otherwise be paid to a contractor (architect, legal, construction, project management, etc). Remember, at the time the project was started, we had sitting council members with project management and construction management skills assisting with the oversight.
- Explore ways to utilize the space to generate income to offset costs (i.e. collaboration/meeting space for small businesses or even satellite Union County office space).
- Work to mend the relationship with the Developer, perhaps bring in a 3rd party to work with them and see if we can negotiate a better result to get the work going again without additional funds.
- Leverage Federal funding programs recently made available to the State of NJ and Union County to pay for any delays caused by COVID-19 impacts (i.e. insufficient personnel to get the work done in a timely fashion, resulting in delays).
The residents of Berkeley Heights have learned that just because our Mayor tells us we have limited options and limited time, that is not necessarily the case. I would ask all concerned residents to reach out to the Mayor (firstname.lastname@example.org) and/or participate in the next Zoom Town meeting on Tuesday May 26th, to voice their concerns.
Do not allow her to put our backs against the wall again. That is not how we responsibly manage the largest project, in our town, in our lifetime.
Editor's Note: Rob Casalaina is a member of the Berkeley Heights Republican Municipal Committee.