WEST ORANGE, NJ - Township council members voiced mounting frustration this week over unanswered questions about the company selected to redevelop West Orange’s downtown core.
At Tuesday’s council meeting, members said they remained in the dark on key questions about Prism Green Urban Renewal Associates IV. These questions concern the company’s financial health and the procedures it followed in winning approval for its construction plans.
The meeting saw council members vowing to get answers before allowing the project to move forward and one member, Joe Krakoviak, urging the body to be ready to sever its relationship with the redeveloper.
Prism, which owns several properties in West Orange, signed agreements with the township last spring to build a mixed residential-retail development centered on the former Edison Battery building on Main Street. In return, the township offered the company a 30-year property tax abatement and pledged to issue $6.3 million in municipal bonds to pay for infrastructure improvements around the site. Construction has not yet begun on the project.
At a planning board meeting Sept. 5 and a council meeting Sept. 11, residents pointed out that Prism was delinquent on its property taxes on several of its West Orange holdings and that it is embroiled in a lawsuit with Wells Fargo over the former Barton Press property on Lakeside Street. The suit, filed last year, alleges that Prism has failed to make mortgage payments on the property.
In the wake of this news, council members agreed that Prism must show them its balance sheet. “If Prism is not financially stable,” said Councilwoman Patty Spango at an Oct. 2 meeting, “I don’t think there is anyone sitting up here that would be happy to hear that and be willing to move forward.”
Prism paid its overdue taxes on Oct. 10, though there are unconfirmed reports that it is appealing its tax assessment. The Wells Fargo lawsuit remains unresolved.
Resident Rosary Morelli has also charged the township’s planning board with failing to ensure that Prism was current on its taxes when it applied for approval of its construction plans, as the board’s rules require. Councilwoman Susan McCartney, who sits on the planning board, has denied the board acted improperly. In an email to the Alternative Press, McCartney said the planning board, when it heard Prism’s application in July, possessed a letter from the West Orange tax collector affirming that Prism was then current on its taxes. Records available on the township’s web site show that Prism paid its first and second quarter taxes (due Feb. 1 and May 1, respectively) on July 10. The planning board met July 11.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Krakoviak complained that he had written to the planning board a week earlier, asking for a response to Morelli’s charge, but had received no reply. He also said he had attended a planning board meeting Oct. 10 but was unable to raise the issue there. That meeting did not permit public comment.
Council President Victor Cirilo expressed irritation at this news. “You should get a response,” he told Krakoviak. “You deserve that respect as a council person.”
Krakoviak also told the meeting Cirilo had overruled an invitation Krakoviak made to the township’s redevelopment counsel – the attorney who oversees its relationship with Prism – to appear and answer questions about Prism’s taxes, its finances and the Wells Fargo lawsuit. Cirilo urged patience, and said the redevelopment counsel would make a presentation at the council’s next meeting on Oct. 30.
Krakoviak urged his colleagues to be ready to break ties with Prism if the outcome of the redevelopment counsel’s report was unsatisfactory. “Let’s cauterize the wound if that’s what’s necessary,” he said. To that end, he suggested council be ready to declare Prism in default of its agreements if it failed to pay its fourth-quarter taxes (due Nov. 1) on time.
Krakoviak was the only member of the council to vote against the agreements signed with Prism last spring.
Other council members assured the public they were taking seriously their responsibility to oversee the Prism relationship. “We’re not just moving blindly forward,” said McCartney. “Prism doesn’t get anything,” said Councilman Jerry Guarino, “until they meet all the requirements.” But until the council receives the redevelopment counsel’s report, he said, “it’s the blind leading the blind.”
Prism’s tax abatement has not yet taken effect, nor have the $6.3 million in infrastructure bonds been issued. Construction plans for the first phase of the project have been approved but permits have not yet been issued.