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Sunday, May 19, 2024

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Public Safety Building Referendum Possible

By Vince Conti

CAPE MAY – Cape May City Council debated two possible ordinances Feb. 4, which would commit $15 million for a combined police and fire department structure at Franklin and Washington streets.
The discussion of the two proposed versions of the ordinance was not part of the public agenda.
The two ordinances differ in that one would require a binding public referendum on the action at the next general election in November. Solicitor Frank Corrado said that any ordinance requiring a binding referendum must set the date of that vote for the time of the general election.
The second version of the ordinance would commit the same funds, but would allow a period for citizens wishing a referendum to gather signatures on a petition calling for one. Such a petition would require support from 15% of the voters who exercised their vote in the last general election, November 2019. According to Corrado, the number of signatures needed on such a petition would be 137.
A referendum in response to a petition could be held through a special election, meaning the city could schedule such a vote before the November general election, possibly, Corrado said, as early as May. The city would bear the cost of any special election.
One version of the ordinance guarantees a referendum. The other version delays the use of the committed funds long enough for a referendum petition drive, if citizens organize one. Both versions commit the city to a $15 million public safety building.
Neither version of the ordinance was on the agenda for the council meeting, but intent by some to add it to the agenda can be discerned from the fact that Feb. 4 was used in the drafts. In the end, there appeared to be agreement that such a weighty item should not be voted on without first appearing on the public agenda, so residents who wish to attend the meeting could do so.
The last time any architectural plans were presented at a council meeting, none were selected by the council. This led to questions concerning the origin of the $15 million proposed commitment, and which floor plan it would be connected to.
One member of the public, Dennis Crowley, proposed the referendum include a second component, allowing the public to decide if it accepted the overall concept of a combined building on the Franklin Street site. Later, Corrado indicated that the referendum would have to be on the ordinance, committing the $15 million.
Not long ago, public debate indicated a concern by several speakers at council meetings with a $15 million price tag for the new building. Now, the ordinance versions seem to set that as the going price, not including monies already spent.
The time spent on planning new public safety facilities is a pressure point on the discussions. A sense of urgency contextualizes the discussions.
One member of the public warned that “we’ve been at this a long time” is the worst justification for a decision. Many in the city would disagree, arguing that action, not more planning, is needed.
There is general agreement that both the fire and police departments are in deplorable facilities, and should be provided with new homes. The disagreement has been over whether that new home should be a combined building next to the newly designated library branch at the historic Franklin Street School.
Several members of the public have also raised concern about the impact of a $15 million bond issue on other necessary capital projects that have not had full public attention.
Council has been split on these issues, with most votes going 3-2. Unlike other resolutions and ordinances, a bond ordinance will require four votes to be adopted.
There has been little public effort at defining a compromise position. The strategy appears to be to get the needed fourth vote for a commitment that would require public support through a referendum, although only one version of the ordinance guarantees such a referendum.
The discussion and sense of urgency makes it likely that the two ordinances will be on the public agenda for introduction at the next meeting Feb. 17.
To contact Vince Conti, email vconti@cmcherald.com.

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