Public Safety Committee Doesn't Support New South Orange Emergency Shelter

South Orange is debating what should be included in the new Rescue Squad building when this one is torn down for a major development project at Valley and Third streets. Credits: Amy Kiste Nyberg

UPDATE 7:50 PM Feb. 5, 2014:
SOUTH ORANGE, NJ – An emergency shelter space should not be included in the new South Orange Rescue Squad building, the village Public Safety Committee decided at its meeting Tuesday night.

The recommendation, which has support of all three trustees serving on the committee, is scheduled to be presented at Monday's Board of Trustees meeting, according to Trustee Sheena Collum, head of the committee. Trustees Mark Rosner and Walter Clarke also serve on the committee.

The matter was referred to the committee at the last Board of Trustees meeting (read story HERE). Village President Alex Torpey, who is the Office of Emergency Management coordinator and a member of the rescue squad, supports the idea of a second-story multi-purpose room that could double as a 40-bed emergency shelter.

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Expanding the second story of the building to include a multi-purpose room would cost somewhere between $150,000 and $250,000, based on cost estimates, according to village Administrator Barry Lewis Jr. But Torpey said the space is needed because the village’s current shelter sites are not adequate.

“We say we have emergency shelters with the (public) library and the Baird Center,” Torpey said. “But neither of them are up to code to be shelters. We say we have emergency shelters, but we’re not providing the things we say we’re providing.”

Among Torpey’s biggest concerns are the facts that neither buildings have a source of backup power and that in the event that the Rahway River were to flood, many residents would not be able to reach either location, according to a memo he sent to village trustees.

“The bifurcation of the village into two sides is, regardless of its particular timing, a significant public safety incident when it does occur,” the memo reads.  “Specifically, although some homes on the west side of the river can possibly take advantage of county resources for sheltering … homes on the East Side may not have access to those resources.”

The matter is not so cut-and-dried, though, with some members of the Public Safety Committee saying that Torpey has not adequately documented whether such a shelter is necessary.

“Knowing our taxes are already high, and knowing that we want to keep our taxes low, I’m not so quick to agree with the proposal,” said Andrew Boyarsky, the South Orange Community Emergency Response Team coordinator. “We need a better understanding of the demographics who will be using the shelter. For the $100,000 you’re proposing we spend, you could outfit two schools with enough generators and equipment to act as emergency shelters, which could serve more people than the rescue squad building.”

Rosner agreed, noting that South Orange’s public schools and other buildings are capable of serving almost 10 times the number people of the proposed shelter, and that $150,000 is not as insignificant a sum as Torpey made it sound. He also noted that there are other, longer-term options available that have a more significant “cost-to-benefit ratio.”

Others, however, do support Torpey's proposal, inlcuding police Chief Jim Chelel. 

“The two locations we have now are not ideal,” he said. “And that’s fine for now, because South Orange is an affluent community.  A lot of the residents can afford to sit out an emergency somewhere else or know people who they can stay with for a few days. But that’s not everyone, and maybe we do need a way to accommodate 20 or 30 people who need a shelter right now.”

Torpey noted that while he does not know the exact price of retrofitting existing buildings, he objects to the idea of “wasting nine months and four or five times the amount of money” to conduct the studies needed before any construction could get underway.

He also expressed concern about housing people in schools “without some extreme level of access control, which we do not have right now.”

“I understand the points Alex (Torpey) is making,” Collum said. "But my priority would be to see the funds go toward renovating police headquarters.”

Clarke said he feels similarly.

“One- or two-hundred thousand dollars is not a paltry sum, and I would rather see it be put to use on something we need more immediately,” he said.

The Board of Trustees will meet Feb. 10 at 7:30 p.m. at the South Orange Performing Arts Center main stage, with the open meeting scheduled for 8 p.m. 

The reporter is a student participating in hyperlocal journalism partnership between The Alternative Press and Seton Hall University's Department of Communication & The Arts.

UPDATE: This story has been updated to include the recommendation of the Public Safety Committee and to include the name of village's CERT coordinator.

UPDATE: This story has been updated to clarify the cost of a second-story multi-purpose room on a new rescue squad building.

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