Verona is taking in less revenue than planned because of the pandemic but has sharply cut expenses, Township Manager Matthew Cavallo told the Town Council meeting on Monday night. The meeting also introduced a $12.8 million bond ordinance to buy two properties to prevent them from adding 370 housing units to town. If approved at the next Council meeting at the end of July, the properties would be preserved largely as open space.
Cavallo said that Verona’s revenue is down $157,000 and that the town has lowered expenses by $400,325, in part by furloughing part-time employees. Revenue from building permits remains strong but other fees and parking meter revenue are down 50% and Recreation Department revenue is down 75%. Cavallo does not now believe that he will have to declare a budget emergency.
Verona Pool registrations and revenue are down by almost half from last year. Mayor Jack McEvoy said there was no truth to a rumor that the pool would be forced to close, but Cavallo said operating hours might have to be adjusted slightly because of the revenue shortfall. He also expects that the pool budget, which is entirely funded by memberships and pool-related revenue, will be at a deficit this year, but Verona should be able to make that up next year. In August, the township will be re-bidding the planned construction of a baby pool-area splash park. Previous bids were higher than budgeted.
The meeting then turned to the purchase of two properties whose owners had sought to intervene in Verona’s affordable housing obligations. One lot is at the end of Commerce Court and the town has rented it for years to be the leaf dump. The other lies between the Eagle Rock Reservation and the Afterglow neighborhood. Taken together, they cover more than 25 acres and could have been the site of 370 units of housing.
The Council introduced a resolution to bond for $12.8 million, which appears to be the costliest land purchase ever by the town. The price includes both the cost of the land and the professional fees and legal costs that arose from a lawsuit brought by the properties’ owners. The lots have sometimes been referred to as Kruvant in previous Council meetings after the family involved in their ownership, but the actual business entities are Bobcar Corp., Neil Joy LLC and Forsons Partners LLC for the Commerce Court property; the Mount Prospect lot is owned by Forsons, Joy and Wolfbane Associates.
Cavallo said however, that town government has already begun work to lower the cost of the purchase to taxpayers. It is petitioning the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to get some so-called Green Acres funding, and is looking to see if there is funding available through Essex County’s Open Space Trust Fund. The property on Mount Prospect Avenue is adjacent to Eagle Rock Reservation. The township is also working with its open space consultant, the Land Conservancy of New Jersey, to secure private funding. And while Cavallo stressed that the Council’s goal is to maintain as much of the 25 acres as open space, it may seek to sell nine buildable lots from the Commerce Court property, about 25% of the total acreage there, for development as single-family homes that would be accessible from Birch Lane only. “The deed restriction is very clear,” Cavallo said, “no multifamily development would ever be built on the property.”
Through these actions, the Council hopes to lower the debt burden being incurred to about $7 million, which would mean that the debt service could be covered by the Open Space Trust Fund that Verona voters approved last year. That would not leave any money open for any other open space spending, but the Commerce Court and Mount Prospect properties make up the lion’s share of the undeveloped land left in Verona. The Council noted that while assuming ownership of the two properties would also deprive Verona of the property taxes paid on them, roughly $150,000, Verona would have had to pay for more teachers, police officers and other services had they been fully developed.
The Council said that the purchase has gotten the approval of the special master overseeing Verona’s affordable housing projects and the Fair Share Housing Development, the nonprofit that has forced all of the affordable housing development now underway statewide. Verona is satisfying its obligations with the affordable units included in the market-rate development planned at the Spectrum360 site and the 100% affordable development on the former Cameco and Poekel lots. “The major reason for us to acquire these properties is not the short term here,” said Mayor Jack McEvoy. “We’re looking long term, and not too far off, we’re looking towards 2025, when the next round of affordable housing starts.”
You can watch the meeting in full here.