The City Council may vote on a bond ordinance this month for money to repair the foundations of Pier A Park, the park that juts into the water near First Street. But the vote will depend on whether negotiations to pay the costs of the bond issue from a Pier A maintenance fund are successful.
The council held a special meeting Wednesday to discuss Pier A Park and the planned 9/11 memorial that would be erected there. Councilpersons Beth Mason and Michael Russo were absent from the meeting.
According to a memo from Mayor Dawn Zimmer, the support structure of Pier A is in need of “major repair” due to shifts in the river that have exposed the steel pipe pilings to corrosion.
“I have a problem with this entire meeting.” – Councilman Tim Occhipinti
As part of agreements, nearby developers have been required to make annual payments of approximately $700,000 to a dedicated fund for Pier A maintenance, Zimmer said. The balance of that fund is currently $2.9 million. During Wednesday’s meeting, however, Director of Health and Human Services Leo Pellegrini said that as of now, the city cannot use the $2.9 million for the full repairs.
“[We’d like to] see if we can possibly change the language in the agreement to include [the fund],” said Pellegrini.
Zimmer said in the memo that the city is negotiating with the Port Authority and developers to expand the use of the fund to pay for the maintenance of the understructure as well as surface repairs of the park.
“These negotiations are going well,” said Zimmer in the memo, “and we are hopeful that an agreement can be finalized soon.”
Officials said that if an agreement is reached, the fund can be used to pay the costs of an approximately $3.5 million bond issue for repairs to the park, at no cost to the city’s taxpayers.
To be adopted, the $3.5 million bond ordinance will require six votes. Zimmer currently has five allies on the council.
Councilman Tim Occhipinti, a member of the council’s minority faction typically opposed to the administration, read from a memo sent from Zimmer to the council before a Jan. 19 meeting last year. Occhipinti said he had issues with how long it has taken for the repairs to be addressed.
“These repairs must be done expeditiously,” said Zimmer in last year’s memo, adding that she has directed engineers to prepare bid specifications as soon as possible.
“[This was] well over a year and a half ago,” said Occhipinti. “You were indicated by the mayor to prepare bid specifications. What happened? Where’s the disconnect here?”
Occhipinti also asked if Zimmer had used the word “expeditiously” because there was a safety concern with the park.
“If there was a safety issue,” said Pellegrini, “[our engineers] would have recommended us to shut down that area, and that didn’t happen.”
Pellegrini said that the holdup has been the city’s search for a funding source, later adding, “I think there was a sense of urgency, but I don’t think it needed to be done immediately.”
“There’s a distinction between “urgently” and “expeditiously,” said Council President Ravi Bhalla, an ally of the administration. “It sounds like we’re getting into semantics at this point.”
The council unanimously passed a resolution in a 6-1 vote to award a contract not to exceed $50,000 to Sedita Campisano and Campisano. The firm will be tasked with reviewing properties in the 3rd and 5th wards to determine whether they pose a legal risk or are environmentally safe.
During last month’s meeting, the council authorized eminent domain as a negotiation tool for the process of acquiring property in the 3rd and 5th wards for park land. The firm will now analyze these properties to ascertain their environmental conditions.
The administration would like to acquire the former Henkel/Cognis chemical plant in the northwest section, and the former Pino towing yard. Properties in the northwest section have often required environmental remediation because they once housed chemical and other industrial facilities.
Wanda Monahan, a partner for the firm, said that site investigation would determine the administration’s potential areas of concern when acquiring property.
“At the end of the day, the state of New Jersey has two people to go after [in an environmental lawsuit]: the seller and buyer,” said Monahan. “You’re never really relieved of the statutory obligations for environmental remediation.”
Helen Hirsch, a resident and frequent meeting attendee, expressed her concerns with a perceived lack of transparency in the administration.
“This administration has kept everything under covers,” said Hirsch. “There is no reason why the announcement was not made [at] last Wednesday’s [council meeting] that there would be a special meeting today. What was so important?”
“There’s no secrecy involved with this process,” said Bhalla. “There was notice provided pursuant to the law. There’s no conspiracy theory [and] no attempt to hide this from the public.”
At another point in the meeting, Occhipinti asked why the contract to Sedita Campisano and Campisano wasn’t heard at a regularly scheduled meeting.
“What are the extenuating circumstances that this contract needs to be awarded at this meeting,” asked Occhipinti. “I have a problem with this entire meeting. Why is it not being handled at our regularly scheduled meetings?”
Assistant Business Administrator Stephen Marks said the item was held from the last meeting so that the two firms being considered for the land analysis could further be reviewed.
“I know the administration and council is very anxious to move forward with open space [acquisition],” said Marks, later adding that the administration needed legal representation before engaging with property owners and their attorneys.
“Anxious does not constitute a special meeting, sorry,” said Theresa Castellano, a member of the council typically opposed to the administration.
The council also discussed the status of the 9/11 memorial. Pellegrini said that the city will need an additional $200,000 for the memorial due to the planned surrounding glass structure’s need for additional support. Pellegrini said that similar to Pier A repairs, the city is trying to use part of the $2.9 developer fund to cover the additional cost of the memorial.
If the funding is not secured in a timely fashion, and a contract is not awarded, the city could lose a $250,000 Department of Community Affairs grant intended for the memorial’s construction.
Officials said that the memorial should be complete by September of this year.
Stephen LaMarca may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.