We could be getting an ordinance soon for the next phase of the Hilltop recreation plan, but last night at the Town Council meeting, we got the tab: $5 million for the two new sports fields and another $1.5 million for an outdoor amphitheater. The cost won’t immediately come out of your pocket unless you live on the Hilltop, but it may affect town taxes in other ways.
In 2005, when Verona’s economy was booming, volunteers and elected officials began work on plans for two new sports fields to compliment existing recreation on the Hilltop. Last October, in the final tweaks to the plan, a Council workshop reconfigured the rectangular field to full football field dimensions and tacked a youth soccer field onto the baseball/softball area. The new field plan would also expand parking at the Community Center complex to 366 spaces or more from its current 186 spots.
The October presentation did not put a price tag on the work, although Town Manager Joe Martin said later that the annual debt service on Phase II could be $250,000 to $350,000. On Monday night, Jim Helb delivered the top-line numbers and a broad overview of how the project’s financing could be structured.
Helb indicated that, based on the engineering documents that have been drafted, the two fields would cost $5 million to build. The landscape above the Community Center slopes steeply (see all the lines through the architectural plan) so the fields and parking lots would have to be terraced into the Hillside through excavation. The 900-seat amphitheater would be an additional $1.5 million, which Helb termed a “very preliminary” estimate. The amphitheater, which has been championed by Town Council member Bob Manley, was not originally envisioned in the Phase II plan and may not be included in the bond resolution that comes before the Council.
Martin gave only the broad outline of how the work would be financed. He said that one choice would to split the borrowing in two and fund part with short-term debt because interest rates on that financing is now less than 1%. The paper would then convert to long-term debt for a 20-year amortization at an interest rate of about 3%. Martin again stressed that income from the Hilltop’s residential development would pay this debt service, not property taxes. Martin also said he is trying to see whether the Hilltop could be designated as an area in need of redevelopment, which “could eliminate the need for a downpayment” on the work.
The levies on the Hilltop apartment buildings were structured as a PILOT, or payment in lieu of taxes, which means that Verona’s municipal government keeps the bulk of the money, instead of splitting it with the Board of Education and Essex County. The debt service on a $5 million project would be about one-third of the revenue that the Hilltop development will generate when it is completed, which means fewer PILOT dollars will be available for tax relief and use by the BOE, which has caused concern for that body. The BOE seems to be contemplating a referendum to fund repairs to school buildings and work on the two fields at Verona High School. The upper field was taken out of use last fall after two sinkholes opened up there. It will again be out of use this fall, forcing the BOE to rent bleachers and other equipment.
The four members of the Council who were in attendance last night (Councilman Kevin Ryan was absent) seemed to concur on the need for the new fields. Councilman Jay Sniatkowski noted that, since the field plan was originally conceived, enrollment in lacrosse has exploded. (According to Doug Smith, president of the board of the Verona Lacrosse League, the League had a 20% increase in participation last year and will probably show a 10% increase this year, to roughly 300 players. The League has added five teams in the last two years, Smith said.)
“I think we have the right plan,” said Councilman Michael Nochimson. “The question is, can we find the right funding?”
Martin said he would introduce an ordinance for Phase II soon. If approved by the Town Council, work could this summer and the fields could be playable by the spring of 2015. During the public comments at the end of the meeting, Gerard Shimonaski asked when the Verona Environmental Commission would be able to review the plans. The VEC, which is appointed by the town manager, has been given plans for all privately-built developments that come before the Planning Board or Board of Adjustment, such as the proposed Durrell Street townhouses or the mixed-use project at 176-200 Blooomfield Avenue. (Full disclosure: This reporter is a member of the VEC). The VEC looks at the project’s impact on Verona’s environment.
Martin initially tried to assert that the plans had been given to the VEC, which Shimonaski strenuously denied. Martin then said that a meeting would have to be scheduled for the VEC “with someone to explain the plans”. The VEC reviewed the Durrell and Bloomfield Avenue plans without outside assistance.