LIVINGSTON, NJ - The Livingston Township Council moved a step closer to building a new public works facility when its members authorized a contract for design development on Monday night.

The contract, awarded to Parette Somjen Architects and not to exceed $22,700, also calls for developing a design for fitting out space in the new Town Hall for the Health Department. The department would move there from its current site in the Hillside Community Center.

The architects are also to design a new customer service counter in the Town Hall.

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The decision on the contract came on a 4-1 vote and followed a number of public comments. Mayor Rufino Fernandez Jr., Deputy Mayor Stephen Santola and Council members Gary Schneiderman and Michael Rieber voted for the authorization. Council member Deborah Shapiro voted against it.

In discussing the public works facility, members left open the possibility that the site would be moved from its present location on South Livingston Avenue. Several speakers noted that the space is too small and possibly could be put to better use as a commercial property.

Township manager Michele Meade said the contractor had been chosen following interviews with six candidates, selected from 14 bidders.

When entering into professional contracts, the municipality is not obligated to choose the lowest bidder, she explained.

Several residents questioned the amount of the contract and the way in which the professionals were chosen, but Sterling Drive resident Arlene Johnson praised the Council for undertaking the project.

“You have my support and commendation for moving forward to look at this in a comprehensive way,” the former mayor said.

She indicated there has been a cost to taxpayers for having inadequate space to service vehicles, and with more space, recycling efforts could be enhanced.

In voicing her opposition, Shapiro expressed concern about the amount of outstanding debt the township already has.

“There is no compelling reason to build a new Department of Public Works,” she noted.

Regarding the move of the Health Department to Town Hall, she said, “Again, I feel no burning need.”

Schneiderman argued that people move to Livingston for a certain quality of life, and its leaders should continually seek to upgrade the services. He advocated spending what he called “a minimal amount of money to educate ourselves.”

Santola said there was always an intention to reunite the Health Department with other municipal departments. The vacated space at the community center could be used by any one of 10 different organizations, he indicated.

“I think we all agree something has to happen with the DPW,” he added, pointing out that building a new facility could take 7 to 10 years.

Fernandez said if the township manager believes a customer service counter is needed, he supports building one. Regarding a new public works facility, he said conversations about shared services go on all the time, and leaders should inform themselves about what the township needs.

On the topic of the health department, the mayor said, “Having all services here is beneficial to the community.”

In other business, the Council passed an ordinance on final reading that sets fees for the impoundment and maintenance of dogs and cats.

The Council also reintroduced an ordinance that regulates Christmas tree sales. Fernandez explained that he had asked to have the originally proposed ordinance pulled and changed to exempt charitable organizations from having to pay a $500 permit fee.

A hearing on the revised ordinance will be held Aug. 1.