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Public Safety Building Plans Languish

By Vince Conti

CAPE MAY – After almost two and a half years, final direction on a Cape May Public Safety Building remains unclear. Cape May City Council enters 2020 lacking consensus on the project.
Committee Appointed
Council officially stated Aug. 1, 2017, that the city’s public safety departments are “housed in inadequate, outdated, crowded, hazardous, and in some cases, toxic quarters.” That statement was part of a resolution establishing a Cape May Public Safety Building Advisory Committee (PSBAC). 
The late Jerry Gaffney, former mayor and council member, was asked to chair the group. From the start, the resolution spoke of a joint public safety building.
The committee began work immediately with “proof of concept” drawings, needs assessments, alternative site considerations, visits to public safety complexes in nearby towns and periodic reports to council.
By March 2018, the PSBAC recommended a shared facility on the site of the existing firehouse, on Franklin Street, opening the door to early design efforts. Later that month, council adopted a bond ordinance, allocating $300,000 for preliminary expenses for the conceptual design.
While all appeared unified in the opinion that the existing facilities for the public safety departments were unacceptable, a crack in the agreement on the Franklin Street site occurred when Gaffney, committee chair, and Wister Dougherty, vice chair, shared, with council, a minority opinion from the PSBAC.
Admitting that they represented a minority of two on the committee, they argued that the site was too small to accommodate the complex. While the plans for the building continued to move forward, that early disagreement, about the wisdom of a combined public safety building on the Franklin Street site, was never resolved.
‘Secret Plans’
While the PSBAC was doing its work in 2017, another effort was underway to potentially designate the block bordered by Ocean and Franklin streets and Washington and Lafayette streets as a redevelopment zone. This area, Block 159, contains the site under review by the PSBAC.
Council charged the Planning Board Oct. 3, 2017, with determining if the block met the requirements under state law for a redevelopment zone and asked the board for its recommendation. As the Planning Board began work on that charge, the PSBAC was busy visiting public safety buildings in Avalon and Sea Isle City.
Simultaneously, controversy erupted during council meetings, as some residents claimed that secret plans existed, tying the redevelopment zone designation for Block 159 to a proposed four-story parking garage on the grounds of the Washington Commons shopping center. An August email to council members, from City Manager Neil Young, was accessed through an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request, which led to copies of conceptual plans for the block developed by local businessman Curtis Bashaw.
The lack of public notice that meetings with Bashaw occurred and that the rough concept drawings existed led to charges of secret deals. It also led to a distrust of the redevelopment process in the hands of the Planning Board.
At a packed January 2018 meeting, the plan for a redevelopment zone on Block 159 failed to gain Planning Board support, as members of the public challenged the Determination of Needs Report language, as well as expressed their distrust concerning secret deals and a feared public/private agreement concerning a parking garage.
The reasons for the opposition to the redevelopment proposal varied, but defeated the move.
The drawings that were pointed to as proof of the secret plans were published in the Herald Feb. 1, 2018. The most ambitious of the conceptual plans, Plan D, called for a significant reorganization of the block and left no room for the proposed public safety building, which did not appear in the rendering.
It was two months following the defeat of the redevelopment proposal that the council approved the bond ordinance for $300,000 for further development of PSBAC’s recommendation.
Building Plans Continue with Tentative Schedule
By August 2018, work had progressed to the point where a request for proposal (RFP) was issued for an architectural firm. The design work would become more formal, aiming at a final agreement and the documents necessary for a construction bid process.
Eight bidders on the RFP led to five firms being interviewed and an award being made to USA Architects. The RFP was issued within one year of the formal appointment of the PSBAC.
By November 2018, elections introduced two new members to the council and the public safety building discussions.
During a February 2019 meeting, Young announced a tentative schedule for the project. He anticipated an award decision for the architectural firm by Feb. 19, 2019, with the goal of development of construction bid documents. 
Within 30 days, the programming and conceptual design phase by the architects was expected to be complete, with the schematic design and construction documents ready by July 5, 2019. Young suggested a 90-day construction bid/award process, with construction beginning October 2019.
A 14-month construction phase should lead to completion in December 2020 and occupancy by January 2021.
Building Plans Lead to Unacceptable Cost Estimates
By August 2019, two years after the formation of the PSBAC, things had gone awry once more.
The initial three conceptual options, proposed by the city’s architectural firm, had associated costs exceeding what city officials expected. The options, ranging from 33,000 to 37,000 square feet of space in a three-story building, had estimated costs that ranged from $19 million to $21 million.
A planned public meeting was canceled, and work began to reduce the costs by eliminating parts of the design.
The two council members elected in November 2018, Zack Mullock and Stacy Sheehan, challenged the underlying assumption of a combined building, reigniting the debate that followed the disclosure of Gaffney and Dougherty’s minority opinion regarding the PSBAC deliberations.
In August 2019, Sheehan announced she would not be the fourth vote for a public safety building bond issue. A bond ordinance requires a supermajority, which, in Cape May, means four of the five votes available on the council.
By September 2019, two new designs were presented, which removed the third floor, reducing the available space to 27,000 and 28,000 square feet.
The three options presented in August 2019 grew to five in September 2019. They grew to seven in October 2019.
The two October designs included one variant on the smaller two-story version of the building and one that put the third floor back in a way that the architects believed would still reduce costs from the original three-story building concepts. No cost estimates were provided for this design (3-A).
To calm taxpayers who wanted more information on the tax-rate impact of the proposed building, the city’s auditor made a presentation, in which he stated that $11 million in new bonding was a breakeven point given the capital debt that would be retiring soon; $11 million in new debt, all other things being equal, would result in no need for a tax increase in 2021, the first year that debt service would hit the city’s books.
He explained that every million after that would result in an increase of $67,000 in debt service. He concluded that at $15 million, a one-penny increase in the tax rate would potentially be needed.
What was not part of the public discussion was a projected capital plan covering other needed capital projects that would potentially add to the debt service over the next few years.
Proposal’s State
At an October 2019 meeting of council, resident Jules Rausch argued that the city is, and has long been, split between those who favor new development and those who support the preservation of the city’s unique historic character.
Arguments over the “fit” of the proposed public safety building in the heart of historic Cape May continue to grow, along with the worries about municipal block parking and long-term capital debt.
Those who argue that the urgent need for new facilities has become more urgent also continue to push their case.
The 3-A concept plan has had no public discussion of estimated costs.
Over 30 months after the formation of the PBSAC, no documents are ready for a construction bid process. Using the estimates in the tentative design, proposed by Young in February 2019, a completed building is almost two years off, even if a design concept was agreed to immediately.
Toxic mold in the firehouse has forced career firefighters to convert the common space to living quarters while remediation is attempted.
Police Chief Anthony Marino continues to urge council to move forward with the combined building plans because of his expressed concern that any split into two buildings is likely to result in a new firehouse and a forgotten police department.
Council’s Jan. 7 reorganization introduced a new year without resolution on public safety facilities.
To contact Vince Conti, email vconti@cmcherald.com.

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