Projects that are not near ready to actually start construction may see their funding from the County Open Space Trust Fund revoked or suspended under recommendations made by Freeholder Bill O’Dea at the Aug. 9 caucus meeting.
The issue arose when the freeholders were asked to authorize the extension of $13 millions in grants the county awarded almost four years ago, for projects that have yet to start.
“We’re being asked to continue these projects even though many of them are not ready to start,” O’Dea said.
Although the freeholders did approve the extensions at the Aug. 11 meeting, O’Dea asked the administration to set new rules that would make better use of the funds.
Letters and emails were issued to the heads of those projects that originally received three-year grants and which were scheduled to expire in August or September this year, offering each a one-year extension.
Each project was asked to submit a project status report to the Open Space Advisory Board if they wanted the extension,
On July 23, the county’s Open Space Advisory Board reviewed the requests, considered the progress of the projects, and concluded that the 31 requested extensions would be appropriate.
O’Dea, however, disagreed, saying that the projects needed to be closer to actual starting or else have funding withheld.
“We should weed out those projects that are merely in the planning stages from those that are almost ready to go, rather than continue to dedicate funds for project that will not start soon,” he said.
As a compromise, he said, the county might promise to rededicate the funding at a point when the projects are closer to shovel-ready.
Freeholder Al Cifelli, however, cautioned the freeholders against overreacting since some of the projects applied to the county first to secure funding that they could later build on from other sources.
“This is a very complex process,” Cifelli said.
“We’re being asked to continue these projects even though many of them are not ready to start.” – Bill O’Dea
But O’Dea said some projects are so out of the loop, such as the proposed improvements to Veteran’s Park in West New York, which had been granted $350,000 and recently switched engineers. According to West New York, the new firm as determined that the project is in need of more extensive work.”
“They’re not even going to know what the scope of the project is,” O’Dea said.
West New York has also been given $350,000 for Donnelly Park improvements, a project that also changed engineers and will need more extensive work than originally thought.
The town of Weehawken has two projects seeking extensions, a waterfront pavilion that received $400,000 from the county, and work on the water tower and park project that received $212,000. One project has been delayed by legal issues and with the other, repair has taken longer than expected.
Union City has two projects looking for extensions for its music park for a total of $585,000. Both projects have been delayed by administrative issues.
Secaucus received $31 million in county funds towards the purchase of waterfront property for which the town is still seeking state Green Acres funding.
Jersey City has several historic restoration projects, including funds dedicated to the Friends of the Loews Theater, a study for historic Jersey City City Hall, Boyd McGuiness Park Improvements, a Hackensack Riverfront Park, a playground for Van Vorst Park, and restoration projects for the historic Apple Tree House, totaling about $1 million.
“While I’m a big supporter of Loews Theater, I believe that we should not be funding something there unless they are ready to do the work,” O’Dea said.
The city of Hoboken has asked for extensions on five projects, including $300,000 for the 1600 Park Avenue Development, and $3 million for the purchase of the former Cognis Site for the construction of a Southwest Park. Also in need of extension is funding for the Castle Point Park Repair, the Hoboken Cove Park development, and the Hoboken Cove Boathouse.
Guttenberg requested an extension on a $400,000 grant for its waterfront park.
Bayonne has requested extension for two projects, Russel Gold Park expansion and the fishing pier on the former Military Ocean Terminal.
Although the freeholder voted to approve the extensions, O’Dea said the administration needs to require closer monitoring of these projects and asked that the Open Space Advisory Board ask for quarterly progress reports.
County Administrator Abe Antun said the administration shared some of O’Dea’s concerns.
“But how to we go back to local government and tell them we’re not going to give them the money we promised them?” Antun asked.
O’Dea said he understood the political nature of the funding and how the county needed to make sure funding each year was spread across all 12 municipalities if possible, but he said changes need to be made for the future.
“If it is a fair process and we believe in it, we will get the trust of the mayors, and it will work,” O’Dea said. “Once we show them it can be successful, they will buy into it. This was set up wrong to start with and needs to be revisited.”