Council Delays Fields Project Decision Again
Township council approves some field improvements, but will wait a little longer to commit on the full package.
After an exhaustive discussion Monday night, township council took action on two components of the athletic field improvements project, but once again held off on moving forward with the biggest chunks of the long-gestating project.
Council adopted—on first reading—an ordinance to bond $422,000 to pay for improvements to Pryor Park, and also came to a consensus on replacing the lights at Maple Dawson and Jeff Young parks.
The township is hoping to offset part of the $890,000 combined price tag for those projects by applying for a $250,000 recreation grant from the county, as well as commitments—in the form of annual contributions and sponsorships—from the Moorestown Youth Baseball Federation (MYBF), which so far come to roughly $300,000.
Members of council initially debated applying the grant money (if awarded) toward improving the track at Memorial Field after a pitch from recreation director Theresa Miller, but Councilwoman Stacey Jordan and Councilman Chris Chiacchio argued the lights at Maple Dawson and Jeff Young, as well as the lights at Pryor Park, are a much higher priority since they pose a safety risk.
“This is not a want; this is a need,” said Jordan. “We’re sitting here struggling with how we’re going to pay for these other projects, and now we’re going to add another one (Memorial Field) to the mix.”
Council ultimately agreed to apply for the grant and use it toward the lighting improvements at Dawson, Young and Pryor, but when it came time to discuss the Wesley Bishop North ($1.3 million—new turf field, parking improvements) and South ($455,000—fencing and irrigation) projects, a resolution was not as easily reached.
After council members lauded the “incredible commitment” from the various sports clubs toward those projects—which to date come to approximately $1.175 million of the $2.8 million total cost, according to township financial officer Tom Merchel—Mayor John Button reminded council the only amount they’d have to pay toward the projects this year is a down payment, therefore they didn’t have to settle on a full funding strategy right away.
“We won’t be paying debt (in the 2012 budget) on anything we borrow this year,” said township manager Scott Carew.
Council members Jordan and Chiacchio have refused to approve a funding plan for the Wesley Bishop fields that would dip into the Open Space, Recreation, Farmland and Historic Preservation Trust Fund (also known as the Open Space Trust Fund), echoing the sentiments of many members of the community who also oppose such a use. The other members of council—Button, Deputy Mayor Greg Gallo and Councilman Mike Testa—have been more liberal in their willingness to use some money from the trust fund.
“There’s a significant question in the public’s mind about whether using the trust fund for turf fields is proper,” said Chiacchio, who praised the sports clubs for their contributions, but questioned the need for the projects.
Chiacchio noted the $250,000 county recreation grant could not be applied to the Wesley Bishop fields because the county considers turf a "luxury item."
"These are worthy projects, but more hard commitments for real dollars need to obtained in order for me to support these projects," he wrote in an email to Moorestown Patch.
Based on Merchel’s projections, the combined cost for all the field projects—both Wesley Bishops, Pryor, Jeff Young and Maple Dawson—spread out over a 15-year bond would come to roughly $120,000 annually (not including contributions and sponsorships from the clubs). If not a single dollar was used from the trust fund, that would cost taxpayers between $13-$14 more per year over the life of the bond.
The township is aided by the fact that its debt service drops $650,000 in 2014 and then again by $1.1 million in 2019, according to Carew.
Gallo said he was in favor of moving forward on the Wesley Bishop projects, but Jordan and Chiacchio were less gung-ho.
Jordan was concerned about the timing of the projects after Carew noted the workload of at least one of the low bidders could delay the start of the project. If work doesn’t get underway until mid-summer or the end of summer, she worried, it could lead to the fields being shut down in the fall, when they’re more heavily used.
Council directed Carew to find out whether the low bidders would extend their prices past the original deadline—the end of this week—and also how long the township could delay the project once the contracts are awarded, in order to avoid shutting down any of the fields.