Voting 3 to 2 on Monday night, the Council awarded two contracts totaling almost $5.3 million to Landtek Group of Amityville, N.Y. The largest part of resolution 29–$4,888,500–is for building the so-called Hilltop Phase II fields. There is also a separate contract for $392,800 to remove and dispose of contaminated soil on the site. The Council voted last April to issue $5.125 million in bonds to fund the construction; the soil removal contract will be funded out of a capital ordinance that was passed when Verona acquired the property from Essex County.
The Hilltop Phase II will include a rectangular field for soccer, lacrosse and football, and a diamond for softball and baseball that would have enough space in the outfield for soccer and lacrosse. Both fields would be covered in synthetic turf, and there will be benches, bleachers, planters and lighting, a concession stand and lots more parking behind the Community Center, where parking is often as hard to come by as a mall at Christmas. The hope is that the fields will make it possible for young athletes to get in their practices and get home to bed at a reasonable hour, instead of waiting for a spot to open for their use.
Once again, large numbers of residents–many involved in youth sports–turned out for last night’s meeting, to speak for and against the project. Some opponents asserted that, with the approval of the March 11 referendum, Verona’s fields needs would be met by the rehabilitation and turfing of the Verona High School fields. Some proponents viewed the overwhelming margin of victory for the referendum, which passed by nearly 700 votes, as a sign that Verona wanted more fields. Still others expressed concern about the cost of two large, simultaneous field projects and asked the Council to reassess the impact of the Hilltop fields on taxpayers. “If you are buying a house and something big comes up, you don’t push through, you reassess,” said Woodland Avenue resident Dave Breitenbach. “You could use the PILOT [payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement] monies to offset the cost of the fields to taxpayers.”
The PILOT funds, which will be used to repay the field debt, were one of several points of debate at the meeting. While Mayor Bob Manley asserted that the Hilltop fields would not raise taxes (true), Councilmen Kevin Ryan and Michael Nochimson countered that the PILOT dollars could be used to lower taxes (also true). That’s because the town government keeps much more of a PILOT arrangement than it does of regular property taxes. The latter is split between the town, Board of Education and Essex County (25%-55%-20%, respectively), but in a PILOT, 95% goes to the town, 5% to the county and nothing to the BOE. The PILOT money need not only be spent on the fields, but it will be a long time before the PILOT dollars are large enough to support tax relief and projects.
Several of those who addressed the Council continued to ask why Verona is building new fields rather than spending to maintain current fields. The Centennial, Linn Drive (Veterans) and Everett Field are all owned and maintained by the municipal government. “Does it make sense to consider the alternatives?” volunteer coach Bob DiTrani asked rhetorically. “If you go past Everett, it doesn’t look so good,” he added. “Right now, Linn Drive is a mess. It’s hard to play there when it rains.”
Some speakers faulted the Council for not doing a hard, statistical analysis of field usage and demand to justify the new fields. The meeting swung from anecdote to anecdote, with some, like Mike Passero, asserting that baseball participation is falling, while others, like Rich Williamson, saying the opposite. “This discussion, week after week, that’s been a field study in itself,” said Deputy Mayor Jay Sniatkowski.
But the lobby for the fields was equally strong, particularly from the sports groups that have been active participants in their design. “We need to do the Hilltop,” said Doug Smith, a past president of Verona Lacrosse League. “We’ve needed to do it for a while.” That sentiment was echoed by Howard Street resident Ted Giblin: “Stop talking, vote on this thing, build the field,” he said.
“I’m surprised that we’re still talking about this issue,” said Rudy Frizzi, a member of the lacrosse board. “I saw the referendum as an affirmation of the Hilltop program. I’m here to urge you forward quickly. Build ’em and use ’em.”
In the end, the vote split along predictable lines. Mayor Manley, Deputy Mayor Sniatkowski and Councilman Frank Sapienza have long been supporters of the Hilltop Phase II project, and voted in favor of it. Councilman Ryan, who voted against the bond funding last year, remained opposed. He was joined in opposition by Councilman Michael Nochimson, who had voted for the bond, with conditions. Work on the field is expected to begin soon.