Ordinance 2465 Raises Permit Fees; Waives Them For Churches.

Ordinance 2465 will be increasing permit fees for a wide-range of construction-related work. The close to 3,000 word bill expands what requires a permit and accompanying fee, increasing the dollar amount for those already on the books. The ordinance was introduced on June 16th and is set to be voted on tonight and enacted into law.

The charges will apply to new construction, additions, renovations, alterations, repairs, plan reviews, demolition, roofing, siding, signs, Certificate of Occupancies (C.O.), reconstruction, asbestos abatement, swimming pools, lead abatement, storage tanks, plumbing, boilers, furnaces, hot air furnace replacements, AC condenser unit replacements, hot water heaters, the electrical subcode, smoke detectors, intercoms, burglar alarms, transformers, generators, solar equipment, sprinklers, incinerators, and installation of tanks. A full listing is available below in a copy of the complete ordinance.

Construction fees help bring revenue into the borough. In the last few years, those fees have been in the $140,000 range even though they are budgeted to bring in revenue of only $65,500. With the anticipated Meridia on Westfield development alone, those construction fees would – theoretically – lessen the property tax burden on homeowners.

Originally on May 19th, when the ordinance was introduced as Ordinance 2462, Councilwoman-At-Large Charlene Storey stated, “I think a lot of these increase are really very, very high.”

“These [fees] are exorbitant.” – Councilman Shipley

She further stated that she researched similar fees in Union Township and Kenilworth and found, “Some of these are so dramatically higher from what we had in the past that I just don’t understand them . . . What the heck are we getting $250 for doing? I don’t get it. You go through this, one after another, you see a big difference. I think that these fees are much too high.”

Fifth Ward Councilman Thomas ‘Thos’ Shipley was in agreement, stating, “These are exorbitant.”

He also had an issue with exempting the churches from paying permit fees. He said, “I just can’t see asking the people to ascribe to exempting an organization that you may not belong to or be a part of. Although I’m a church goer I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

When Mayor Carl Hokanson asked about the Board Of Education, which is exempt from paying permit fees, Councilwoman Storey replied, “That adds to the value of your house.”

First Ward Eugene Meola moved to table the resolution.

On June 16th, the ordinance was re-introduced as Ordinance 2465. At that time neither Councilman Storey nor Councilman Shipley voiced any concerns with the fees but Councilwoman Storey moved to amend the ordinance to remove the waiver of houses of worship from the bill.

The section, 6(c), excludes permit fees for houses of worship within the borough when they own the land and improvements where they conduct services.

I would say that if this is passed we would be facing possible litigation.” – Councilwoman Charlene Storey

A vote was called and councilmembers Meola, Shipley, and Storey voted to remove the waiver while councilmen Elmarassy, Kelly, and Petrosky voted to keep the ordinance as it was written, leaving the waiver in place. Mayor Hokanson was going to vote to break the tie but Councilwoman Storey referred to Grabowsky vs. Montclair, a court ruling that upheld that a member of a governing body should recuse themselves from voting on a matter where that elected official held a leadership position in an organization which was being voted on because it was a conflict of interest. In this instance in Roselle Park, Councilwoman Storey stated that the mayor was a trustee of the Knights of Columbus, a religious organization related to the church, and that the mayor should recuse himself. Borough Attorney Richard Huxford stated that even if the mayor did not vote, there would not be enough votes to constitute a majority in order to amend the ordinance.

The councilwoman then stated that she spoke with an attorney named Ian Smith about the potential Constitutional problem. She added, “He has advised me that this is clearly unconstitutional. It’s not even a question. I would say that if this is passed we would be facing possible litigation.”

Mayor Hokanson replied directly to the councilwoman, “I knew you were going to do that!”

“I’m glad that you knew it because I support the Constitution,” responded Councilwoman Storey.

The mayor went on to say that he spoke with other mayors and added, referring to the waiving of permit fees to houses of worship, “There’s over 200 towns that exempt [to] allow it.”

Roselle Park News researched surrounding communities and found that none had any such exemption regarding houses of worship on their books. The mayor even referred to Rich Belluscio, the borough’s zoning officer who also is Cranford’s Construction Official, in regard to the exemption.

He said to me he does not have this in Cranford nor would he have it in Cranford but you want it here in Roselle Park so he refused to remove it.” – Councilman Eugene Meola

That is when Councilman Meola said, “I spoke to Mr. Belluscio. The idea of having this in with other fees disturbed Mr. Belluscio but he was powerless to do anything. He said to me he does not have this in Cranford nor would he have it in Cranford but you want it here in Roselle Park so he refused to remove it. He was very fearful about this. He does not have it in Cranford . . . This is a fine thing if you want it but it shouldn’t be with these other things. It should be standing on its own.”

The mayor then called for the vote. The votes mirrored the previous amendment roll call and ended with the mayor voting to break the tie. He voted ‘yes’ to introduce the ordinance. Councilwoman Storey stated that she wanted it on the record that the mayor should have recused himself due to a conflict of interest.

In reaching out to Ian Smith, who is an attorney for Americans United For Separation Of Church And State (link), he stated that the Constitutionality issue of the waiver was that it should apply to all non-profits so as not to show preference for one over the other. He explained, “It is unconstitutional for the government to provide special benefits to religious groups that nobody else gets.”

When asked if it would be a problem or unconstitutional if the ordinance had exempted all non-profits from construction fees, Mr. Smith answered, “No [but] the way the ordinance is written right now I think it’s unconstitutional because it specifically gives a benefit to houses of worship that nobody else gets.”

The next Mayor & Council meeting is tonight, July 21st, at 7 p.m. in council chamber at the Roselle park Municipal Complex, located at 110 East Westfield Avenue.

A copy of the ordinance is available below for review:

Download File (PDF)