The Byram Township municipal building subcommittee and council held a joint meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 4, their first since August, when the subcommittee went on hiatus to allow the council executive privilege on negotiations to potentially lease space at the ShopRite Plaza on Rt. 206 for new municipal offices. While details of those negotiations were released to the subcommittee prior to Tuesday’s meeting, it was the first opportunity for the group to publicly discuss the option. David Romano, who owns the shopping center and who recused himself from the subcommittee in August, attended the meeting with his attorney, Jim Scott, to present further details of the proposal and answer questions in person.
The option, which is being referred to as the "condo scenario," based on the proposed ownership structure of the space, would create a 13,376 sq. foot area for offices, meeting rooms, and a new police department at the ShopRite Plaza, on the north end of the shopping center between the Subway and Halulu restaurants. Also proposed is the construction of a secure sally port at the rear of the building for police use. Romano and his company, Gordon Byram Associates (GBA), would refit the building, including ensuring the police department would meet Essential Building code, for a price tag of $4.55 million, about a million dollars less than the $5.52 million dollar rebuild and renovation project proposed by The Nader Group, LLC on the current site of the municipal complex on Mansfield Drive.
The Nader Group, LLC was retained in Nov 2018 to do a complete site analysis of the existing municipal complex, and explore options for either rebuilding or renovating the space. The design firm also analyzed the potential of using the Open Space section of the Byram Intermediate School, but that option was quickly dismissed as costly and inefficient, as well as riddled with security and parking concerns. In February and March 2019, the firm returned with analytics and a trio of designs for creating a new municipal complex at the Mansfield Drive site, and of the three, one (Option 1-C) was chosen to be pursued for further design and budgeting. That plan calls for renovating the standing mortar building into full municipal offices and building an addition to house civic meeting spaces. The plan would also demolish the current shed building and build a new standalone police station in its place.
While the Nader Group made good on its next deliverables date by producing a Phase1 Summary Report in August 2019, it was at that time that Romano and GBA made the decision to offer the space at the ShopRite Plaza as an alternative to the renovation and new construction on the current site. Romano recused himself from the subcommittee and entered into negotiations with the council, with Mayor Alex Rubenstein also recusing himself from the conversation due to conflict of business interest. On Tuesday night, Romano and GBA lawyer Scott made their public case for the plan.
Concerns in both options lie in the tax burden to residents through the bonding process for either option. Township Manager Joe Sabatini said that the bonds would need to be structured differently for construction at the Mansfield site as opposed to the shopping center.
“Using market averages for a 20-year bond over a 50-year building lifespan, we’d be looking at putting 5 percent down payment on new construction," Sabatini said. "But due to the bond restriction on renovated spaces, we’d be looking at a 15-year bond on the condo option, and would have to factor in the common area maintenance (CAM) fees as well as budget for a refresh of the spaces every twenty years or so.”
While the CAM fees would cover all costs such as snow plowing, parking lot maintenance, trash removal, and structural repairs, the town currently budgets those items departmentally, through the DPW. Sabatini’s calculations over the average 50-year life of a municipal complex show that the new construction would offer a small savings in the short-term in terms of bonding compared to a small savings in the long-term with the condo scenario. However, Sabatini said, the nature of the debt service and tax burden on either option shows that the condo option could cost up to a million dollars more in the long-term.
GBA attorney Scott disagreed with Sabatini’s analysis.
“The town’s tax base is a constantly changing thing,” Scott said. “Even if you use the argument of revenue lost by moving to a property the town doesn’t own, you can’t count on the tax base staying the same.”
Scott presented a spreadsheet based on current tax valuations and percentages in the township, which concluded that the average addition to each tax bill would be $10.26 per property, for a total of less than $36,000 lost by the town if they decide to go with the condo scenario at the shopping center, which would take away a taxable property for the town. Scott also urged the subcommittee and the council to consider the savings by year based on the fixed $4.55 million price tag on the space.
“I don’t believe there’s any chance the Nader budget won’t be exceeded,” Scott said. "If you blow the budget by even just a little, it makes this condo option look all that much better.”
For his part, Romano wants the town to consider his many years of construction experience and the amenities that the shopping center space would provide. He also believes that a great deal of the cost savings comes from being able to hire private contractors without the need for government bids and prevailing wage. Working with architect Joe Marra and drawing on his relationships with dozens of area contractors and construction specialists, Romano was able to present a detailed set of plans based on the town’s previous space and storage specifications.
“We know how to build, we know how to price things out, and we know how to find the right vendors,” Romano said. “The price difference between a private customer and a township getting bids is amazing. We can build this all out ourselves at this price and give the town a turnkey operation.”
In addition to ample parking and maintenance included in the CAM fees, Romano said the plaza is equipped with a full fire suppression system, has generator-protected water and sewer, and has high-speed internet and VOIP phone capabilities. He believes the draw of having the municipal complex in the center of town is also crucial.
“It’s easy to access from 206 North and 206 South,” Romano said. “And it really is right at the heart of the town.”
Romano and Smith believe that construction could be completed within 12 months of approval and permitting, which is approximately the same timeline as The Nader Group, LLC’s build plan, although new construction at the Mansfield site would require extra environmental permitting due to its proximity to Lubber’s Run. The municipal building subcommittee and the council will be granted time to go over the extensive documentation provided by GBA, as well as revisit all the Nader plans and reports before meeting again to discuss both options. That meeting date has yet to be set.