The Mayor of Berkeley Heights is seeking to use unclaimed grant money, from prior years and completed projects, for a new pet project, in my opinion, that would cost the town approximately $220K. I attended the Berkeley Heights Town Council meeting on Tuesday night 12/17/19. The Mayor and Neglia Engineering, discussed her proposal to develop a small “grass” field with a 12 foot high fence, on the front area of Snyder field. Why? That is a good question. From what I understand, the timing of events was as follows:
- October 2nd letter to the Mayor from Union County Manager outlining unclaimed grant money including approximately $110K that needed to be “claimed” by 12/31/2019
- November 18th, the Mayor met with the Recreation Commission chair and Recreation Director to pitch her idea for the new grass field.
- November 26th, Recreation Commission met and discussed that a small grass field was not a priority and asked their leadership to let the Mayor know that they would like to engage in a process to figure out other ways to claim the money.
- December 17th, Council members stated that they received a letter from the Recreation Commission letting the Town Council know they did not support the small field proposed and welcomed an opportunity to work together with the Mayor to develop a plan that addresses field priorities.
At the Town meeting on 12/17/2019, the Mayor described her long-standing involvement and support of PAL and her belief that a small sided grass field is needed in town. She, in my opinion, argued vigorously for her field project, citing clear support from PAL, including a pledge of $50k from them for this project. The Recreation Commission does not appear to support this project.
Council members raised concerns about spending money, not budgeted, on something that was never discussed when there are many drainage and road issues around town that the money could be used towards. Residents also asked why we have to spend $220K to get $110K?
It appears that there are many options to claim this money that the Mayor either did not know existed or simply failed to explore. Those options include:
- The grant money was approved for projects that happened between 2005 – 2014. It is unclear the reason, but the town did not submit all invoices or proof of completion of multiple projects, leaving money unclaimed. Why did we not spend the last two months looking for proof of completion of these multiple projects? If we found it, and submitted it, we could have claimed the money we are owed. It would not cost the town anything, except some employee time or Recreation Commission time, to get the documentation.
- There are other projects, similar in nature, that have been completed in the last 12-24 months, with proof of those, we could have submitted to the county to collect the money. No cost to the town.
- As mentioned by a member of the Recreation Commission, shading structures are needed over the Memorial Park playground, Synder Park playground as well as shading structures over the picnic tables at Lower Columbia Park. No cost to the town.
This is not the first time this situation has been an issue in Berkeley Heights. In 2016, then Mayor Woodruff, with the full support of the Council, put the PAL, Board of Education and Recreation Commission on notice that there were uncollected funds.
At that time, the Mayor and Council properly notified the groups of the funds, explained to them and the public how they could claim the funds, by providing documentation to the county and encouraging all the groups to do so.
It appears that Mayor Devanney chose a different path. She chose option (4), which is to view this grant money as new – for a new project – which requires rescoping, submission and matching funds of approximately $330K. It means we lose the initial grant money we paid, by not collecting it for the projects that were completed, and now we are going to use this money for another project, which we need to spend more to collect it. Only in government does this make sense. Some, or all, of the $330k would need to come from the town and be approved in our town budget. Other Council members rightly pointed out at the meeting that our town could pave roads, do drainage studies, or otherwise better spend this money.
The Mayor said multiple times at the Town Meeting that we are up against a 12/31/2019 deadline and that time is critical. If that is the case, why did she delay in sharing this information with the rest of the Town Council, and all interested organizations in town, specifically the Recreation Commission, who applied for this grant money initially. Proper procedure would have been to immediately contact the organizations tasked with making these decisions, give them all the facts, see what they want to accomplish and help them do that. Instead, she appears to have just moved full steam ahead on this project, touting her devotion to our town, our kids and more fields.
More concerning was that she was an active PAL board member back in 2016. She or her PAL colleagues should have known about these funds based on the 2016 resolution, and still they went uncollected. Now, we are told there is a time crunch, three years later.
At the meeting, she told the public that she would ask for an extension the next day, Wed 12/18. I hope she did ask the county for the extension and that she took responsibility for the delay. We all want what is best for the town. That is accomplished by respecting and empowering our volunteers and working together to deliver the best possible solution for Berkeley Heights.