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FROM THE BERGEN RECORD

Did Edgewater retaliate?

Thursday, November 1, 2007
By MERRY FIRSCHEIN
STAFF WRITER

EDGEWATER -- Former fire official Charles Batch has sued the borough, claiming an investigation into his overtime pay was retaliation for his citation of safety violations at a luxury apartment building constructed by the borough's largest developer.

Batch also claims borough officials violated his rights under New Jersey's whistle-blower statute.

Batch worked for the borough for 33 years as a fire official, a fire subcode official and as an emergency medical technician.

According to the lawsuit, he cited safety violations for several years at the St. Moritz, a luxury high-rise building off Gorge Road.

Batch said he found "numerous" fire-safety violations at the building in 2005, including missing safety equipment and sprinkler heads. Violations still existed in February 2007, Batch claims.

Moreover, people were living in the building for about two years without a certificate of occupancy, he said in his suit. He reported all of this in various official memos, he asserts.

The building was constructed by Fred Daibes, who has developed many of the new residential buildings in the borough.

Batch says borough officials started their investigation of his overtime pay in April and threatened to take their findings to the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office if he did not agree to lesser amounts of pay for his unused sick and comp time.

In negotiations with borough officials, Batch agreed to take a lesser amount because "he had enough of the pressures they were putting on him for the wrong reasons," said David Fox, his attorney.

The lawsuit claims the borough then reneged on terms of the financial settlement because he cooperated with an investigation by the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs into the borough's Construction Department, construction official John Candelmo and several projects, including the St. Moritz.

As a result, the suit contends, the borough violated the Conscientious Employee Protection Act, the state's whistle-blower statute.

DCA spokesman Christopher Donnelly confirmed that the state agency is investigating the municipal agency, but he declined to comment further.

Batch "had 33 years of terrifically exemplary employment," Fox said. "It was just too much to believe this sudden turn against this employee was related to anything other than what he did at the building."

Mark Ruderman, the borough's special counsel in the matter, said he would not comment on the litigation. However, "we deny there was any retaliation," he said.

Batch retired Sept. 1 after working for the borough since 1974. He filed his lawsuit in mid-October.

He is seeking $62,320, one-half the amount of his unused sick days and comp days. That amount is what he says was promised in the settlement with the borough.

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FROM THE EDGEWATER VIEW

Debate should occur

October 12, 2007
By EDGEWATER VIEW EDITORS

For an eighth consecutive year Edgewater residents will not have the opportunity to see their council candidates debate the issues important to them. Mayoral candidates Valory Bardinas and Nancy Merse, the incumbent, will also not debate this year.

The Independent candidates ask their opponents to participate in a debate every election season.

The last debate occurred in 1999. One was slated to occur in 2001, but the Democratic candidates walked out of the forum. The Republican candidates did not show up at the debate.

For the past five years, the independents say, neither Democrats nor Republicans have responded to the independents' request for a debate.

This situation shouldn't happen.

A debate between candidates should occur, especially in a municipality as politically charged as Edgewater. Debates are an important source of information for voters, especially at the local level. A neutral party, such as the League of Women Voters, moderates them. They are often well attended and give some residents the only chance to meet their candidates in person and ask them questions directly. Some candidates win or lose an election based on how well they debate.

In many cases, the decisions municipal officials make have more of an impact on residents' lives than the decisions state or federal officials make. The candidates, especially the current borough officials, owe it to residents to be as honest and forthright as they can be when it comes to letting people know how they feel about issues affecting their livelihood.

Democratic officials and previous candidates have said they have no desire to have a debate based on the independents' supposed uncivil behavior during public meetings.

Mayor Nancy Merse said that debating the independents "wouldn't be worth our while. They're too nasty. We'd just be wasting our time."

This isn't a valid reason to decline the independents' offer.

Regardless of how a candidate may act, Merse and her running mates owe residents the opportunity to have their candidates debate in order to give them a clear picture of their platform as it relates to their lives. All the candidates owe it to themselves, their opponents, and the residents to act in a dignified, civil manner, so voters may be as informed as they can be when they go to the polls Nov. 6.

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FROM THE BERGEN RECORD

Lawyer asks: What's wrong with pay-to-play?

Tuesday, August 28, 2007
By CHARLES STILE
RECORD COLUMNIST

It has been the mantra of politicians throughout New Jersey as they scrambled onto the bandwagon of ethics reform these last few years: Pay-to-play is bad.

Now along comes Dennis Oury, the lawyer for the all-powerful Bergen County Democratic Organization. His message: Attempts to ban it are worse.

And he's getting ready to go to court to make his point.

Oury says he will soon ask a judge -- on behalf of the BCDO -- to strike down the state's landmark pay-to-play restrictions on campaign contributions from state, county and local contractors.

Most critics of the law say it doesn't go far enough to effectively stop the practice of rewarding donors with lucrative government spoils -- which in turn inflates costs and drives up property taxes.

But Oury says the law already has gone too far -- and that it's unconstitutional.

In fact, Oury, a pugnacious and unrepentant defender of the old guard that thrived in the heyday of pay-to-play, believes the much-heralded reforms are a menace to Democracy with a capital "D," a heavy-handed government intrusion into politics.

His argument -- a blend of populism, constitutional theory and resentment -- boils down to this: Pay-to-play is a myth manufactured by the press and government do-gooders who never ran a race for dogcatcher, let alone a costly street fight for a county freeholder seat.

"This is another example of government saying to the individual, 'You can't get it right. You can't do this right so we're going to do this for you,' " Oury said in an interview in his Hackensack office. "Every poll we have seen -- the average guy in the street doesn't care about pay-to-play, nor probably should he. He cares about if my taxes are going to go up. Am I going to have health care coverage? ... That's what he cares about."

And if voters rank government rules for picking contractors at the bottom of their priority list, Oury says, why rob a contractor -- anyone from a lawyer to a street paver to an architect to an engineer -- of the right to participate in politics through his wallet?

Furthermore, Oury says, it will only make it harder for the "little guy" to launch a career in politics -- with the help of a well-oiled county organization, of course. Only millionaires, such as Governor Corzine or Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Forrester, will be able to afford the costly advertising and consultants.

Oury, a municipal lawyer himself and a generous dispenser of campaign donations in his own right, says voters can simply boot council members out of office if they are unhappy with their choice of lawyer or other professionals.

"The politician should get up and say, 'If you don't like it, don't vote for me,' " he said. "Let the voters decide the issue, because, at the end of the day, this is what this is all about. ... That's the litmus test."

Certainly, the Bergen County Democratic Organization -- whose rise to power was subsidized by a statewide surge of special-interest money -- stands to lose a bundle of cash and influence, especially if more communities take advantage of a provision in the state law that allows them to impose even stricter pay-to-play regulations locally. So far, only eight towns in Bergen and Passaic counties have passed the stronger limits, but a push to let voters in Teaneck approve a tough new ban is likely to inspire other towns to follow suit.

That forecast spells trouble for the BCDO, whose stable of attorneys, engineers and other contributors landed long-term, lucrative municipal appointments after the organization bankrolled victorious local government slates.

Contractor donations have dropped significantly for the state Democratic Party and county committees since the ban was imposed by executive order in 2004. Perennial party givers, some of whom donated more than $100,000 to the BCDO before the ban, have simply stopped giving, according to campaign finance documents analyzed by The Record.

Oury, at times, seemed exasperated by the whole issue.

"What makes people think that because I made a contribution, I'm not a good lawyer?" he asked. "Why can't I contribute to a campaign and be a good lawyer and do a good job for the community? Why is it mutually exclusive?

"I think the borough has an obligation to get the best that they can get."

Ironically, that could be the reason Teaneck voters adopt an even stronger ban on the practice. If they do, wouldn't that be an expression of the public's will?

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FROM THE BERGEN RECORD

It's time to rename N.J. the Knucklehead State

Tuesday, July 31, 2007
By MIKE KELLY
RECORD COLUMNIST

It's time to face facts.

To portray New Jersey as the Garden State is like casting Lindsey Lohan and Paris Hilton in a film about safe driving.

New Jersey's bucolic garden image no longer fits the facts. Yes, we have our tomato patches and blueberry bushes. But once again we have been reminded that we are a bastion of bottom-dwelling scammers looking for a quick dollar -- especially with their friends in government and politics.

Yep, we're the Knucklehead State.

The latest chapter in this pathetic saga is set in Edgewater, a town that ought to be ashamed of itself for allowing developers to crowd the Hudson waterfront with an array condominium boxes that display the architectural charm of auto parts warehouses.

But that's another problem.

Edgewater wanted to hire a private firm to write applications for grants from government agencies or private foundations.

This was not unusual. Lots of towns no longer have the staff or the time to devote to writing applications to the agencies and foundations that give money for such things as extra police equipment, new streetlights or extra library books.

The trick is to find the right words to impress the right people who have their fingers on the right money. It's the kind of work that does not require an engineering degree. But how about a crime-free past?

Well, guess what. The firm Edgewater hired, Strategic Enterprise Solutions, had two ex-cons on the payroll.

These were hardly small-time crooks who got caught shoplifting cigarettes when they were teenagers and were now leading an exemplary life. These were serious crimes, involving money and trust -- just the sort of character traits grant writers ought to have, right?

As The Record's Merry Firschein reported, Paul Steffens, the director of grants management for Strategic Enterprise Solutions, had been convicted of fraud in February 2003 while working another job. Strategic's operations director, David Biunno, had been convicted of stealing from clients when he worked as a lawyer.

This information was hardly a state secret.

Steffens' target was Medicaid. As executive director of the Hudson Behavorial Treatment Center in Jersey City, he got caught submitting nearly $130,000 in phony bills to Medicaid for drug and alcohol treatments that never took place. He pleaded guilty and received three years' probation.

Biunno, a former New Jersey deputy attorney general, stole almost $400,000 from clients while running a private law practice. Not only was he disbarred, but he served three years in state prison for his crimes.

Perhaps both men learned a lesson. Perhaps they haven't even stolen a hotel towel since their convictions.

That's not the point.

These guys both stole when they were placed in positions of trust. Medicaid trusted Steffens to submit accurate bills. Biunno's clients trusted him to guard their money.

Both failed. And Edgewater was perfectly willing to trust these guys with the important work of obtaining lucrative grants from trusting government agencies or foundations. Huh?

After Firschein's story appeared, Steffens and Biunno resigned their posts at the grant-writing firm. That's fine, but it raises an interesting question: What if this information never was published?

But that wasn't the end of the story. After the resignations, Strategic Enterprise Solutions withdrew its contract to write grant applications for Edgewater. The firm said it no longer had enough people to do the job.

Guess it must be hard to find good help in the land of knuckleheads.

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FROM THE BERGEN RECORD

Troubled consulting firm ends contract

Friday, July 27, 2007
By MERRY FIRSCHEIN
STAFF WRITER

A grant-writing company hired last month by Edgewater has accepted the resignation of two employees with criminal records, one of its owners said Thursday.

The company, Strategic Enterprise Solutions, also withdrew its one-year contract "because we do not have adequate personnel resources to service the account at this time," owner Michael Neglia said in a statement. "In the future, our firm will be more careful in screening any new employees who are hired."

Neglia is president of Neglia Engineering Associates, which owns Strategic in partnership with Netta Architects of Springfield.

Paul Steffens, former director of grants management for Strategic, was convicted in 2003 of Medicaid fraud while director of a Hudson County drug and alcohol treatment center.

David B. Biunno, former director of operations for Strategic, spent three years in prison after pleading guilty to stealing money from clients.

The Borough Council approved hiring the firm at a June meeting, after Mayor Nancy Merse broke a 3-3 tie. Beatrice Robbio and Denis Gallagher, both independents, and James Delaney, a Democrat, voted against the contract. Three other Democrats -- Maureen Holtje, David Jordan, and Neda Rose -- voted for hiring Strategic.

Holtje, the council president, said Thursday that she was reviewing bids for a replacement.

"Our main priority is that the residents of Edgewater continue to receive the grants that have helped us improve our neighborhoods and provide open space and enhance our police and fire departments," Holtje said.

Robbio said she suggested on Wednesday and Thursday that the council terminate not only Strategic's contract, but a contract with Neglia as well.

Neglia "exposed the borough to potential damages and financial risk," she said. "None of this would have happened had we done our due diligence and followed proper interviewing procedure prior to the hiring."

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FROM THE BERGEN RECORD

Edgewater grant writers have criminal records

Wednesday, July 25, 2007
By MERRY FIRSCHEIN
STAFF WRITER

EDGEWATER

A top official for a grant-writing firm hired by the borough last month was convicted of Medicaid fraud four years ago, and the firm's director of operations was convicted in 2000 of stealing funds from clients for his personal use.

Strategic Enterprise Solutions LLC was awarded a one-year contract by the Borough Council in June. The resolution authorizing the hire was approved in a 3-3 vote, with Mayor Nancy Merse breaking the tie.

Paul Steffens, Strategic's director of grants management, was convicted in February 2003 of defrauding Medicaid of about $130,000 while he was executive director of Hudson Behavioral Treatment Center in Jersey City in the mid-1990s, court papers show. He pleaded guilty and received three years' probation.

Steffens admitted to a judge that the center submitted claims for drug and alcohol treatment though some patients never received treatment, court records show.

The company's director of operations, David B. Biunno, is a former lawyer and former New Jersey deputy attorney general who served three years in state prison for stealing money from various clients. He was disbarred in 1999.

Biunno pleaded guilty in March 2000 to stealing $180,001 from a developer in 1995 as part of a real estate transaction, court records show. He also pleaded guilty to stealing a total of $207,582 from nine other people, court records show.

Hiring a municipal contractor, such as a grant-writing firm, that has employees with criminal records isn't illegal in New Jersey. A state law says that if a person holding public office or appointment is convicted of a third-degree crime, he or she must forfeit the position.

Both Steffens' and Biunno's crimes are third-degree offenses, records show. But they work for a contractor, not a government agency.

Strategic Enterprise Solutions, based in Springfield, was created in September 2006 as a joint project between Neglia Engineering Associates and Netta Architects. Michael Neglia, president of Neglia Associates, and Nicholas Netta, president of Netta Architects, each own 50 percent of Strategic, Neglia said.

The firm replaced Bruno Associates, a Clifton-based company that provides grant-writing services to several Passaic and Bergen county municipalities. Bruno Associates had served as Edgewater's grant writer since 2000.

The one-year contract, which started July 1, comes with a fee of $60,000, or $5,000 a month, the same amount Edgewater paid to Bruno Associates.

Strategic Enterprise Solutions also has a grant-writing contract with Lyndhurst and assists North Arlington's grant-writing firm.

Neglia said Steffens and Biunno are simply employees in the newly established grant-writing firm.

He said he found out about their backgrounds only after he hired them.

"I was a little thrown back," Neglia said. "I'm not going to throw them out. I will give them an opportunity to prove themselves."

Neglia said Steffens and Biunno have decades' worth of experience in grant writing and are doing a good job thus far.

"As long as they do their job, as long as they are productive and do their job and work hard and honestly and obtain grants for communities as they were hired to do," he said.

Edgewater officials said they changed grant-writer contractors because the previous contractor and the writer assigned to the borough weren't doing good work.

"I was not impressed," council President Maureen Holtje said. "I received complaints from the Police Department and the Fire Department where they claim they contacted [the grant writer] several times to look for grants, and she never followed through."

Holtje said she looked at all three bids for the job. She said she spoke on the phone with Steffens for about 45 minutes.

She said she told Steffens she would give him a chance because Strategic was a new company.

"I would be willing to give him an opportunity," she said she told Steffens on the phone. "After a year, if I'm not impressed, I would not vote to renew [the] contract."

However, Holtje said she did not know he had a record, and that when she called around to ask about Steffens before hiring the firm, no one said anything.

One of the reasons Holtje said she liked Strategic was that the firm offered "grant management service," a follow-through after grants are awarded. Bruno didn't offer such a service, she said.

"If the guy served his time and is working in the real world and is doing a good job," then why not give him a chance, Holtje said.

Merse said she, too, did not know about the criminal records until told about them. She said the borough could ask Strategic to assign another employee to Edgewater.

"If it's a problem for the council, we'll ask them to send someone else," she said.

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FROM THE BERGEN RECORD

Edgewater ferry is far from free

Sunday, March 18, 2007
By ADRIENNE LU
STAFF WRITER

Edgewater's new ferry service was supposed to come at no cost to borough taxpayers.

But it's now clear there will be no free ride.

Residents will pick up at least $5.3 million of the estimated $17.4 million bill for the ferry landing and marina project.

"I think we were sold a bill of goods, as far as what it was going to cost," Councilman Denis Gallagher says. "It wasn't going to cost anybody anything from the way it was presented."

Even if the newly launched ferry at the borough-owned Grand Cove Marina is a smashing success, local taxpayers will be paying for the project for years to come -- despite politicians' promises.

In 2003, then-Mayor Bryan Christiansen pledged that taxpayers would not have to pay anything to bring a ferry to town, saying Port Authority contributions would cover all the expenses, including the land acquisition, legal costs and site analysis.

"I'm not going to support any site that is going to cost the borough of Edgewater any money," Christiansen said at the time.

But costs shot up as time went on. Among the reasons: The borough estimated it would cost $4 million to acquire the property through eminent domain, but the courts ruled it was worth $6.1 million. The docks were in worse shape than initially believed, and four fuel tanks had to be removed from the property. And the Port Authority insisted on a canopy for the ferry walkway that cost $850,734, a cost that the borough did not anticipate.

Christiansen defends the project today as including improvements the borough would have had to undertake even without the addition of a ferry landing.

"A lot of that work would have been done anyway for the marina," he said. "It's not work being done because the ferry came in."

Councilman Dave Jordan, one of the ferry's strongest supporters, sees no reason to worry.

"If the ferry for some reason goes crazy and doesn't work, we still have the marina, the park and the waterfront site," Jordan said. "The worst-case scenario is they walk away. We're not paying for the operation of the ferry."

But the ferry faces stiff challenges if it is to succeed -- which means there's a good chance taxpayers will end up subsidizing some costs for ferry passengers.

In the first eight days of ferry service, nearly four of five seats per trip were empty, on average. If the borough is to break even on its operating costs -- to say nothing of capital expenses -- usage will have to improve dramatically.

Edgewater receives 25 cents from NY Waterway for each ticket sold. Even if each of the 15 trips a day NY Waterway has scheduled between Edgewater and West 39th Street is filled, the borough's ticket revenues still won't cover the annual costs of running the two jitney buses for the ferry, estimated at $100,000.

NY Waterway has estimated it will have 676,000 passengers in the ferry's first year of operations, which would yield $169,000 in revenues to Edgewater.

But to meet its projections, the company would have to increase its daily capacity from 1,500 passengers to 2,600 passengers -- which would mean adding a second ferry or more trips. The company is prepared to add a second boat, if the demand exists,.

Even NY Waterway officials have shown signs of doubt. In November, the company's president, Arthur Imperatore Sr., declared the route would not be viable on its own and would be added to the Weehawken-to-Manhattan route. More recently, the company proposed changing the one-way fare from $7 to $9. In both cases, the company backed down after much protest from Edgewater officials.

"We are confident riders in the area will use this service," Imperatore said. "But as my old Italian mother used to say, only time will tell."

NY Waterway itself is still working to climb out of debt, after a New York lawyer bailed the company out from near-bankruptcy two years ago. A successful ferry service would undoubtedly bring more sparkle to this once blue-collar town. Although industrial sites are still sprinkled throughout Edgewater, sleek new high-rises and pricey retail shops have turned the borough into a coveted bedroom community for commuters.

In 1999, before any serious talk of bringing a ferry to Edgewater, voters approved a ballot proposal to tax themselves 3 cents per $100 of assessed value to acquire Grand Cove Marina for preservation and recreation, up to $2.3 million. In 2003, when 60 percent of voters approved a ballot question to bring ferry service to town, no cost was mentioned.

Grand Cove Marina does look rejuvenated after its multimillion-dollar makeover. The ferry should take cars off River Road during rush hours. And the ferry could substantially boost local real estate values, particularly for those within walking distance of the marina.

Councilwoman Neda Rose, among others, feels the borough made "a very good investment."

"We have maintained a view corridor, maintained our connection to the water, we have a facility there that's going to last for generations," Rose said. "We're going to get money back from the slip rentals, get some money back from the fares and nothing will be developed on that land."

But the bills are still coming in. Beyond Edgewater's $5.3 million share of the project, it will cost at least $2 million to dredge the marina to allow the private boats access to slips, a process that must be repeated periodically.

The borough postponed dredging the marina to avoid interfering with construction of the ferry stop and has already missed out on revenue from two winter seasons and one summer season. Now, it looks like the marina won't be ready until spring of 2008 at the earliest, which means hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost revenues from slip rentals.

Philip Tracy, a longtime borough resident, thinks the ferry will be a good thing for Edgewater. But he has a hard time understanding where all the money went.

"You have a little building, you talk about cleaning up, doing the demo work, then building the building, the improvements to the pier and the parking lot and landscaping -- it just amazes me, how does that get to $12 million?" Tracy said, excluding land acquisition costs from his calculations.

"They never seemed to have a handle on it."

E-mail: lu@northjersey.com

* * *
By the numbers

A breakdown of sums paid to contractors for the Edgewater ferry/marina/park project through Jan. 16. In addition, the borough paid $6.1 million for the land, which was acquired through eminent domain.

Austin Helle, construction: $6,700,695

DeCotiis, Fitzpatrick, Cole & Wisler, attorneys: $450,296

Malcolm Pirnie, on-site construction manager: $439,451

Gruzen Samton, contract administrator: $207,330

Schoor DePalma, engineers: $196,045

Vollmer Associates, traffic study: $40,823

William Katchen, financial adviser: $32,381

Robert Regan, attorney: $24,142

Burgis Associates, planners: $1,498

Source: Borough of Edgewater

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FROM THE BERGEN RECORD

Edgewater Dems to introduce calmer meetings law

Tuesday, February 20, 2007
By ADRIENNE LU
STAFF WRITER

EDGEWATER -- Starting very soon, Borough Council meetings could become more civilized or less democratic, depending on whom you ask.

The council Democrats are expected to introduce an ordinance tonight to change the way public meetings are conducted.

Edgewater Council meetings frequently result in spirited debate, at times resulting in shouting and occasionally even threats.

Among the changes to the bylaws is a new section regarding disorderly conduct, which states that any person making "personal, defamatory or profane remarks, or who willfully utters loud, threatening or abusive language or engages in any disorderly behavior" shall be called to order by the mayor. If the conduct persists, the mayor may order the person removed from the meeting by police.

Another change states that members of the public who wish to speak about issues that are not on the agenda must wait until the end of the meeting.

Currently, residents may speak for up to five minutes early in the meeting on any subject; under the proposed changes, the public can speak for up to five minutes on an agenda item early in the meeting, then on any subject for up to three minutes at the end of the meeting.

Councilwoman Maureen Holtje, a Democrat in the majority on the council, said the Democrats had promised to bring more civility to council meetings and this would accomplish that goal.

"Last year we had to adjourn meetings because people wouldn't adhere to the rules of order," Holtje said. "This is just a mechanism to force people to be able to adhere to the rules of order."

Mayor Nancy Merse, also a Democrat, could not be reached for comment Monday.

Councilman Denis Gallagher, an independent, fears the new rules will dampen democracy. He said the measure would result in a "police state," with the party in the majority able to change the agenda to suit its wishes.

Gallagher said limiting the public's opportunity to speak on items not on the agenda to the end of meetings – which sometimes finish at midnight or later – would effectively limit public speech.

"It's very bad for Edgewater," Gallagher said. "It's bad for democracy and it's highly offensive."

E-mail: lu@northjersey.com

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FROM THE BERGEN RECORD

A screaming halt in Edgewater

Wednesday, September 20, 2006
By ADRIENNE LU
STAFF WRITER

EDGEWATER -- A Borough Council debate over the future of the former Unilever property erupted into chaos Monday night, with council members screaming at one another until the mayor pounded her gavel and called a five-minute timeout.

Democrats on the council pushed for, and eventually introduced, an ordinance to pay for the construction of a proposed new municipal complex, including a police station, on the former Unilever site on an installment plan rather than by issuing bonds, which could cost taxpayers an extra $1 million.

The vote came shortly after the council's three independents voted down a proposal to shift bonding money from a previous police station proposal to the new one.

The Democrats said their proposal to build a municipal complex was the borough's best option. The council also adopted a redevelopment plan for the former Unilever site by a vote of 4-3, with Democrats in favor and independents against the move. Democratic Mayor Nancy Merse cast the tie-breaking vote.

"I strongly feel that this is a good opportunity for the town," Democratic Councilwoman Maureen Holtje said. "We're going to be getting 2 acres of prime real estate property and a state-of-the-art municipal complex."

But the independents said the Democrats were using the more expensive installment plan simply to get around the rule that a bonding ordinance requires a two-thirds majority, or four votes, on the council. An installment plan requires only a simple majority, enabling the mayor to break the tie.

The independents have also claimed that the Democrats were desperate to make the deal work in part because the people who plan to redevelop the former Unilever property contributed money to the Democrats' election campaigns last year.

Last year, two principals of i.Park Edgewater each gave $4,800 to a political action committee that later gave $7,000 to Edgewater Democrats. The two Democratic candidates who ran lost.

"I think the Democrats realize there is massive opposition to this project, not just from independents but from the general population," said Councilwoman Beatrice Robbio, an independent. "They are caught in a situation of having accepted campaign donations from these developers, and now, as a quid pro quo, they are trying to push through the financing by any means possible. This is the quintessential example of pay-to-play, which plagues all of New Jersey."

The Democrats have denied there is any pay-to-play and said everything they have done is legal.

The independents say Borough Hall should not be moved to the southern end of town, especially in light of the plans to renovate the existing Borough Hall. They are concerned that the current Borough Hall will be eventually declared unneeded and sold, although Democrats have said they plan to keep the building for public use.

Another concern is the contamination on the Unilever property, an objection that Merse has dismissed, saying the borough would not pay anything until it had received the green light from the state's Department of Environmental Protection.

The developer, i.Park Edgewater, an affiliate of National RE/Sources of Greenwich, Conn., plans a mix of homes, offices and shops on the former Unilever property, which occupies 24 acres on the Hudson River waterfront. It has offered to give the borough a small parcel for the municipal complex and build the structure for $3.7 million.

According to an analysis by borough accountant Steven Wielkotz, a 20-year general obligation bond issue at 4.4 percent interest would result in a cost of nearly $5.7 million. An installment agreement at an interest rate of 6.5 percent would result in a total cost of nearly $6.7 million.

Democrats and independents each blamed the other side for possibly costing taxpayers an extra $1 million.

"The Democrats are evidently willing to squander an additional million dollars of the taxpayers' money to make sure the deal gets done, and it stinks," said independent Councilman Denis Gallagher.

"If they were so concerned about that, they should have moved the bond money that we had in place," Merse said.

The timeout occurred late in the meeting, during the discussion on whether to shift $5.5 million in bonds approved for an earlier police station plan to the Unilever plan.

Councilwoman Valory Bardinas, an independent, said a letter from a bonding attorney gives no reason the borough should use the installment plan approach other than that it requires only a simple majority. She also accused the Democrats of having secret meetings, which the mayor strongly denied.

Council members of both parties started yelling at each other, and then Merse called a timeout, during which some council members continued to argue heatedly.

The arguments eventually simmered down and the mayor opened the discussion to the public for comment.

Joe Keesecker, a newcomer to Edgewater, said he was surprised when the mayor indicated, at one point in the meeting, that if the council did not vote to shift the bond money the Democrats would simply approve the installment plan.

"I don't know how you know that before the vote's been taken," Keesecker said.

E-mail: lu@northjersey.com

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Edgewater plans 9% tax hike in '07 budget

Thursday, September 7, 2006
By ADRIENNE LU
STAFF WRITER

EDGEWATER -- The borough this week introduced a budget of $25.5 million for fiscal year 2007.

Excluding $2.4 million in county and state grants for the acquisition of Grand Cove Marina, which is being developed as a ferry landing, the budget comes to $23.1 million, a 4.7 percent increase over the previous year.

Assuming no further changes, the owner of a home assessed at the borough's average of $250,000 would pay about $300 more in taxes for the year that began July 1.

The tax rate on a fiscal year basis would increase 12 points, from $1.38 to $1.50 per $100 assessed value, said Borough Auditor Steve Wielkotz.

Borough officials said they expect to make changes, which they hope will include the addition of extraordinary aid from the state, which totaled $500,000 last year.

According to the proposal, the borough will seek to raise $16.4 million in taxes, compared with $15 million the previous year, an increase of 9 percent.

Councilwoman Valory Bardinas was the only member of the six-person Borough Council to vote against the proposed budget. Bardinas said she opposed the measure in part because this budget process mirrored others, with the borough adopting a financial plan it would later be forced to change.

Municipalities must submit introduced budgets to the state no later than Sept. 15.

A public hearing is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Oct. 16. The state is expected to announce extraordinary aid figures in late October or early November, which means the borough would likely adopt the budget in December.


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Unilever site plan advances

Tuesday, August 22, 2006
By ADRIENNE LU
STAFF WRITER

EDGEWATER -- The Borough Council moved a step closer to adopting a redevelopment plan for the former Unilever property Monday night, following the unanimous recommendation of the Planning Board.

The council voted to introduce an ordinance to adopt the plan, which would essentially rezone the 23-acre waterfront property and pave the way for it to be redeveloped by i.park Edgewater, an affiliate of National RE/sources of Greenwich, Conn. The land, once home to Unilever's research facilities, currently is zoned for office research.

The council voted 3-2 to introduce the ordinance, with Democrats Maureen Holtje, David Jordan and Neda Rose voting in favor, and independents Denis Gallagher and Beatrice Robbio voting against. Councilwoman Valory Bardinas was absent.

Holtje said the project would bring in millions of dollars in tax revenue annually.

"It's going to create jobs, it's going to clean up the site, open up the waterways, create housing," and result in a new municipal complex for the borough, Holtje said, referring to a proposal to pay i.park Edgewater $3.7 million to build a new borough hall and police headquarters.

"I honestly don't see any negatives."

But Gallagher said there would be a price to pay.

"I have grave reservations on this," Gallagher said of the overall plan. "We are, in fact, moving very fast. We are going to create a very dense new development. We know that there is a price to pay for this -- it drives our taxes up."

Robbio said the development would stress the borough's schools, police, ambulance, Fire Department and other services.

Borough Planner Joe Burgis said he has been working on the redevelopment plan for months, with input from the Planning Board, the public and i.park Edgewater, which bought the property for $23 million in 2004.

"This has been a true collaborative effort," Burgis said.

He said the redevelopment plan allows for less development than i.park Edgewater initially wanted, limiting residential buildings to six stories, for example.

The plan was intended to foster the creation of a "pedestrian-friendly and pedestrian-oriented" community, Burgis said. It allows about 490 residential units including multifamily dwellings and town houses, along with retail space and offices. The plan would allow as many as 74 affordable housing units and a ferry landing, although there are no current plans for a ferry to stop there.

The site is the largest developable riverfront property remaining in the borough. Among the issues the developer must deal with is contamination, with the cleanup to be monitored by the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The Planning Board voted 7-0 earlier in the evening Monday to recommend that the Borough Council adopt the redevelopment plan.

E-mail: lu@northjersey.com

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Additional Current News Articles

Edgewater has Questions About Housing Plan 7/29/05

Borough Pushes for Ferry Service 6/22/05

Agency Checks Plant Site for Asbestos Risk 5/26/05

Older Condos have Advantages 5/26/05

Edgewater will Return Money if Suit is Dropped 4/21/05

Builder Says Town Pocketed Deposit 4/13/05

Poisons Hit Home 4/10/05

Edgewater Seeks Legal Advice on Superfund Site 4/08/05

EPA asks Edgewater Not to Issue Superfund Site Permits 4/06/05


Please visit our archives for more news articles.

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