The Secaucus Town Council sought Tuesday night to stamp out an emerging quality of life problem – prostitution – while another longtime municipal thorn – the Recreation Center – was again the focus of debate.
After a string of alleged prostitution arrests at two Secaucus massage parlors, the council last week introduced an ordinance to amend the law that regulates such businesses in town. The amendment seeks to crack down on sexual contact between massage therapists and clients, and will require spa owners and licensed therapists to undergo criminal background checks.
The revision prohibits therapists from performing a number of specific services, including “colonic irrigation, prostate massages, [or] vaginal or penile massages.” The regulation would also ban other forms of “sexual misconduct,” including penetration.
The council hopes the changes will put an end to spas opening in town and operating as fronts for prostitution.br>
“The Recreation Center will never make money.” – Michael Gonnelli
Secaucus has seen an increase in sex-oriented massage parlors recently. On Dec. 2 of last year two women, Piao Yihua and Li Meishan, were arrested by Secaucus Police at the Garden Health Spa on Paterson Plank Road in an undercover sting operation, according to Det. Sgt. Thomas O’Keefe. Meishan was charged with promoting prostitution, while Yihua was charged with engaging in prostitution.
Weeks later, on Dec. 21, two other women, Hae Pierce and Yang Kim, were arrested, also at the Garden Health Spa. Kim was charged with promoting prostitution and Pierce was arrested for engaging in prostitution.
And in May 2009, a man and a woman were arrested at an acupuncture business in the 1300 block of Paterson Plank Road for allegedly “engaging in sexual activity in the capacity of prostitution,” Det. Sgt. John Buckley told the Reporter at the time of the arrests. Three other women were arrested at the scene for allegedly promoting prostitution. One of these women was also charged with allegedly maintaining a business for the purposes of prostitution.
Both businesses remained open even after the initial busts.
“This gives us more power in the enforcement, as well as the licensing, of places that give massages,” said Town Administrator David Drumeler Tuesday. “This gives us greater flexibility and powers to revoke licenses of actual [spa owners]…This gives us the power to shut down the business. We think this will help clean up non-conforming businesses. We look forward to having this approved and giving our police and board of health a little more teeth in this regard.”
Under the proposed revisions, massage therapists and spa owners must have criminal background checks and anyone who has pleaded guilty to prostitution, or who has found guilty of prostitution, will not be licensed by the town.
Anyone who is granted a license will be photographed and fingerprinted.
There will be a public hearing on the ordinance, which was crafted with input from owners of legitimate spas, on Feb. 22 at 7 p.m.
50 new Rec Center members, not enough for resident Maffei
Just weeks after the council voted to revamp membership structures at the Secaucus Recreation Center, Deputy Mayor John Bueckner said Tuesday that the new rates have reaped some benefits for the town’s financial coffers.
Between Jan. 12 and 24, 45 fitness center memberships were sold at $120 each. In addition, 25 residents paid $25 each for access to the center’s indoor pool, indoor track, and basketball court, with 39 family members paying $5 each for affiliate memberships.
The $150 annual class membership is the only category that has yet to catch on, Bueckner said.
“There were two purposes of this,” said Bueckner Tuesday. “One was to get more people to use the center and the second was to draw new members.”
He estimates the center has taken in about 50 brand new members since the new rates went into effect.
“That’s a good sign, and that’s what we were looking for,” Bueckner added.
But during the public comments portion of the meeting later, resident Sam Maffei, who has long been an opponent of the Recreation Center, indicated that he was unimpressed.
The Recreation Center has long been controversial. It cost an estimated $12 million to build, even though original construction costs had been estimated to be $4.5 million – and was mostly built through bonding and other taxpayer dollars. Some residents also believed the decision to build the facility should have been put up for referendum for voters to approve. Instead, the project was approved by the administration of former Mayor Dennis Elwell.
Many residents have also complained that the town spent money to build the center without first finding ways it can support itself financially.
Noting that deficits at the Recreation Center were $538,311 in 2009 and $681,090 last year, Maffei said, “You cannot continue losing anywhere between $500,000 and $700,000 a year. It’s impossible for the people of this town to support a losing proposition.”
He urged the town to hire an industrial engineer. “They would [recommend] cost controls, efficiencies,” he said. “They would go over the entire budget, expenditures, anything in reference to the Recreation Center. They would even suggest ways to increase membership or the use of the center…If you can’t increase revenue, then I suggest maybe you convert the building” to another use.
Maffei has made similar suggestions in the past.
“We’re not doing that,” said Mayor Michael Gonnelli bluntly in response. “The Recreation Center will never make money. You don’t make money in recreation. You go up to the Recreation Center now, at 7, 8 p.m., and there are 50, 60 kids using it. Those kids weren’t up there before. You can’t put a price on that.”
Inquiry report in council’s hands
Finally, on Tuesday Councilman James Clancy, the governing body’s liaison to the Secaucus Volunteer Fire Department, said the council has at last received the findings of an independent inquiry into a 2004 harassment incident that allegedly involved three members of the department. The town was sued for the harassment of a gay couple who lived next to one of the fire houses. The town lost the civil lawsuit and its insurers wound up paying millions of dollars to the plaintiffs. Three firefighters who were implicated in the harassment later resigned from the volunteer fire department. Last year Secaucus hired a law firm to conduct a probe into the incident to determine whether the three men – Charles F. Snyder, Charles T. Snyder, and Charles Mutschler – can be reinstated to the department.
The council, Clancy said, is digesting the six-page summary of the inquiry and will hold a closed caucus on Jan. 31 to discuss its conclusions.
The report has not yet been made available to the public. The fate of the three former firefighters could hinge on what’s written in the report, which was conducted by attorney Edward DePascale of McElroy, Deutch, Mulvaney.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.