Governing Body Discusses Proposal To Consolidate Fire Houses

During the last Municipal Capital Budget Workshop on May 14th, mayor and council brought up the question of consolidating fire houses into what would become one large municipal complex at the ends of Laurel and Seaton Avenue that would house the Department of Public Works (DPW), Roselle Park Fire Department (RPFD), and the Roselle Park First Aid Squad (RPFAS).

Long considered to be one of Roselle Park’s many ‘golden cows’, the unpopular question that has the potential to become a political football was finally publicly asked by elected officials in order to reduce an ever-growing debt that ends up being paid by taxpayers. The discussion was brought up – in part – due to the RPFD’s five-year proposed budget for capital expenses that totaled just over $2 million. This amount is more than the five-year proposed budgets of the police, first aid squad, Office of Emergency Management, and library combined.

During the workshop, the governing body was trying to see what could be cut from this year’s capital requests to bring it to $395,000 in capital expenditures. This figure is the goal in order to end up spending less than the this year’s debt service amount of $395,000 that needs to be paid off from property taxes. Debt service is the long-term payments for large capital projects; consider them annual payments on a long-term loan. The fire department’s capital request for 2015 alone was over $475,000.

“One of the ideas to be thrown out was to possibly make one big unit [for the] DPW and fire department,” stated Mayor Carl Hokanson, “Build it all at once, sell the properties, get rent, and hopefully in 10 years everything will be paid for. That was another option that was on the table.”

The mayor referred to $70,000 currently requested to be set aside every year for an eventual $350,000 addition to Station 3. Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Ken Blum discussed that, in the past, a flat amount was given to the fire department and they decided what to spend the budget on. The current amount being considered was $123,000. This would push back a lot of the RPFD’s requests further down the years and, sooner or later, that would have to be put back on which would increase that year’s capital expenditures and, thereby, that particular year’s debt service.

Councilwoman-At-Large Charlene Storey asked, wanting more of a discussion, “What about this other possibility of building everything together?”

Mayor Hokanson remarked, “That was a proposal that was brought and it hasn’t gotten any further.”

“Well, maybe that’s something we should talk about,” commented the Councilwoman-At-Large.

The mayor explained that costs for the municipal complex would go up from $100/sq. ft. up to perhaps $300/sq. ft. due to the larger area needed for a larger complex. Mayor Hokanson said, “If we put in the other bays, now we’ve got more soil to remove and it’s a bigger cost.”

He was referring to what was later termed ‘historic fill material’ which is, according to the State of New Jersey, material put in to raise the elevation of a site that was previously contaminated with construction debris, dredge spoils, incinerator residue, demolition debris, fly ash, or non-hazardous solid waste. Reports have supposedly shown that low-level contaminants were found and that historic fill material is needed to not only cover them but also support a large structure so it does not sink or settle unevenly.

Councilwoman-At-Large Storey continued the discussion asking if the other fire houses would be sold.

The mayor responded, “That was on the table. That’s one of the things that we can do.”

The CFO reiterated that the municipality was waiting on the figures to see the feasibility of going through with such a possibility. Currently, his office is waiting on a report from the Borough Engineer, Neglia Engineering, and an architecture firm.

Third Ward Councilman Ryan Kelly joined the discussion, stating, “I agree. We should definitely evaluate it. [If we pay] Neglia more money, I’m sure they’ll come up with drawings and give us the numbers so we at least make a decision off of that.”

“I would like to get the numbers and see if we can’t see how feasible that is,” said Councilwoman Storey, “If it makes sense to put everything together, [then] get it done in one shot, sell off or rent the other properties, and then we could have it built so that when we replace Engine 3 we have the space – which just doesn’t exist now – to fit the engine in a bay. Then we would have the space to put to store a Chief’s vehicle – so on and so forth – instead of here’s a little bit there and a little bit here.”

She continued, “I’d rather see where we can bring in other money to balance it out and get something permanent in that we’re not looking at these not so little things every time we’re faced with the budget. It would be wonderful and I wish we could give them a half a million dollars every year but we just don’t have it. And our residents just don’t have it for tax costs. We’ve got to figure out a way another option to supply them with what they need and, at the same time, not be hitting our residents with big tax increases.”

Councilman Kelly, thinking about future vehicle purchases, stated, “I think [the need for] that bay is because the fire truck and the way they’re built now. So inevitably, that whole garage needs to come down . . . When the next truck’s going to be replaced, that’s going to need another bay as well and so on and so forth.”

The CFO spoke also of how equipment for all departments could be lessened due to things being in one centralized location instead of having the same equipment in three places. This would also impact the need for space. In line with reviewing how all options are being considered, he said, “Everything’s on the table for all the departments.”

The proposal that was presented to the finance committee put forward the question of what the benefits will be to sell the Faitoute fire house as well as the First Aid Squad buildings with a projected sale of between $900,000 to $1.2 million. That amount, along with money collected from converting the property from a municipal parcel to taxable land, would go towards to paying off the new complex. This was expected to pay off for the project in a decade to 15 years.

The current proposal had Kelly-Kaulfers Park remain at is location between the two parcels.

The discussion at the workshop had the Central fire house remain since the turn radius for fire engines outweighed the foreseeable selling price of $100,000. Although it was not proposed, the possibility of using that location as the OEM garage could further cut capital costs since currently there is a proposal to purchase a garage and place it next to Borough Hall in the rear of the corner of Walnut Street and Westfield Avenue.

The mayor contended that this was a proposal to be considered and if it is pursued, to try not to cut costs now since it might raise costs later with fixing issues that were not addressed during construction. He also stated that having one municipal complex will lessen capital costs as the years progress. Using the fire department’s half decade outlook, he said, “This way, we’re not constantly spending in $500,000 to $600,000 [a year].”

He stressed again, in closing, “It’s only a proposal. It’s still very early.”

When reached for comment Fire Chief Joseph Signorello stated, “I have been informed by the fire commissioner of the proposal. We are open to ideas for the betterment of Roselle Park to save taxpayers money while keeping in mind their safety but I really don’t have much more to comment right now because we haven’t seen any drawings, plans, or even an artist’s rendering. We’d like to see some sort of concept and more information.There’s some logistics we have questions about, like for openings on Laurel and Seaton Avenue and how all that equipment will be manged. We’re open to a back and forth dialogue. Just tell me when – we’ll look and talk.”

Roselle Park has three fire houses in an area of 1¼ square miles; one on Laurel Avenue at West Lincoln Avenue, one on Chestnut Street at West Lincoln Avenue, and one on the corner Sherman Avenue and East Westfield Avenue.

A copy of the proposal is available below: