After more than a year of factious disagreement over Open Space spending, Councilman Chris Chiacchio believes it’s time to end the squabbling.
In a recent letter addressed to Maura Dey, chair of the Open Space Advisory Committee (OSAC), Chiacchio—writing on behalf of himself and Councilwoman Stacey Jordan—.
Up until now, Chiacchio and Jordan have staunchly opposed the use of the fund for improvements at . They’ve also voted against bonding the project, raising concerns over timing and taxpayer impact.
Last month, , prompting . Following those actions, Chiacchio and Jordan together drafted a letter to Dey and OSAC seeking their support in a potential compromise.
“At the end of the day, we’re talking about fields for kids. Maybe we need to set an example for our kids and stop bickering,” the councilman said. “Really the motivation was to try to bring people back together.”
Chiacchio worries the STEM suit could be detrimental to the township, . If the judge sides with the township, the Trust Fund could take a serious hit, with all $1.5 million being drawn out of the fund—an action Chiacchio still strongly opposes. If the judge sides with STEM and takes a strict interpretation of the Open Space ordinance, the township loses the ability to expend the fund for important and much less controversial uses, i.e. maintenance of .
“That would leave a gaping hole in our budget,” Chiacchio said.
Spurred on by fears over the consequences of the lawsuit, Chiacchio and Jordan drafted the letter to Dey to find out whether OSAC would endorse any use of the fund for the project—specifically whether it would support “an annual contribution from the OS fund to be applied to the debt service.”
Over a 15-year bond, the Wesley Bishop North project would cost approximately $127,000 a year, minus $45,000/year in commitments from two athletic clubs and a “generous” resident, Chiacchio wrote in the letter. . Chiacchio added that he would “hold the clubs to their word” on the commitments.
Asked whether there’s a specific dollar amount from Open Space he’d find acceptable, Chiacchio said, “I don’t have any number in mind. That’s why I asked (OSAC).”
Jordan could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Mayor John Button, who voted in favor of using the Trust Fund as a “last resort,” was encouraged by the letter from Chiacchio and Jordan.
“I believe the township wants to see council pulling together,” said Button. “If we can find a way to get to (a compromise), I think that would be wonderful.”
The mayor insisted he was never a proponent of whittling down the Trust Fund to any great degree.
“All five council people are committed to open space,” he said.
Chiacchio said his goal—assuming the OSAC endorses the use of the fund—is to rescind the earlier resolution appropriating the $1.5 million and come up with a plan to bond the project.
“Once that’s rescinded, I’m guessing the lawsuit would be moot,” he said. “Not everyone’s going to agree with us. I just hope they see that Stacey and I have the town’s best interest at heart.”
But a member of STEM, speaking anonymously because he didn’t want to speak on behalf of the entire group, said it’s doubtful STEM would drop its lawsuit if council moved forward with any kind of plan to use the Trust Fund for the Wesley Bishop project.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s $1, $100,000, $1.5 million—it’s not a proper, legal use of the fund,” he said. “This isn’t a compromise … I believe (STEM) will not be in favor of any use of the funds (other than for acquisition and preservation).”
The STEM member said the issue is one of setting a precedent, calling the use of the fund for this project “a slippery slope.”
“Why don’t we bond for it out of the operating budget and reap all the rewards from the sponsorships and commitments that will be coming in?” he wondered.
Chiacchio acknowledged if the lawsuit continued despite he and Jordan’s proposed compromise, “that’s an issue.”
“Compromise is a good thing,” he said. “I know, as an attorney, at some point you’ve got to talk settlement.”
To read the full text of Chiacchio's and Jordan's letter, click on the PDF above.