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Council Approves $1.5 Million from Open Space Fund for Fields

Moorestown council voted 3-2 in favor of dipping into the Open Space Trust Fund to pay for improvements to Wesley Bishop, while a potential lawsuit looms in the background.

CLARIFICATION: Township attorney Thomas Coleman, noting he is "also a taxpayer of this township," told council he would handle the litigation related to the Open Space case pro bono.

This information was accidentally omitted from an earlier version of this story. Patch apologizes for the oversight. 

__________________________

After all this time, it ended more or less how you expected it to end.

Following months (and months) of debate and indecision, township council voted 3-2 Monday night to use $1.5 million from the Open Space, Recreation, Farmland and Historic Preservation Trust Fund for improvements to .

The vote followed more than an hour of public comment—mostly in opposition to the use of the Trust Fund—and discussion among members of council, including a brief presentation from attorney Jeffrey Baron, who announced he planned to take action against the township in Superior Court to resolve the issue.

Baron, representing members of STEM (Save the Environment of Moorestown) and various other municipal groups and individuals, who he did not name, told council it was “unlawful” for the township to use the Trust Fund for improvements at Wesley Bishop because the field wasn’t acquired with money from the fund. Baron, of the Baron & Brennan law firm in Voorhees, .

Reading from the interpretive statement included on the 2007 ballot, in which voters again approved the levying of the Open Space tax, Baron said the use of the Trust Fund is for “‘the acquisition of recreation and conservation, including the development and maintenance of such acquired lands.’

“You can only use this money for lands you acquired with Open Space funds. I’m sorry to tell you that, but that’s the only reasonable interpretation of that ordinance … You’re stuck with that. So respectfully, you can’t use these funds for what you’d like to use them.”

Baron said he would file a “prerogative writ” in Superior Court today, asking for an interpretation of the law and the allowed uses of the Trust Fund. He also warned council he would file an injunction to keep the township from spending money from the fund until a decision is rendered by a judge.

“I would like to think you would have the respect for law that you would not do anything with these properties until a judge told us what can be done on these properties,” said Baron.

However, Mayor John Button and councilmen Greg Gallo and Mike Testa chose not to heed Baron’s warning and voted in favor of dipping into the Trust Fund—which presently has a balance of nearly $2 million—to fund improvements at Wesley Bishop North, including the installation of an artificial turf field, and improvements to the parking lot and drainage.

Gallo worried council would set a dangerous precedent if it held off a decision based on the threat of a lawsuit.

“We’re now into a realm where anyone who wants to prevent one of the allowed uses is going to throw this or future councils into paralysis (with the threat of a lawsuit),” he said. “We’re opening up anything to be challenged.”

Button and Testa also reiterated their belief—based on township attorney Thomas Coleman’s guidance—that the Wesley Bishop North project was a legal and worthwhile use of the Trust Fund.

Councilwoman Stacey Jordan, who has been the voice of dissension on the issue alongside Councilman Chris Chiacchio, asked township manager Scott Carew for his 2 cents.

Carew explained, while he believed the project should be done, he preferred bonding the project, rather than dipping into the Trust Fund. While it was a topic of discussion early on, council was never able to come to a consensus on bonding.

Carew said he was also concerned about the potential for a lawsuit—and an injunction that could hold up the necessary appropriations—as well as the effect the project would have on the Trust Fund.

“Tom’s (financial officer Tom Merchel) projections show it wouldn’t totally deplete the fund, but it certainly affects it negatively,” said Carew.

According to Merchel’s projections, the balance of the fund would remain roughly in the $500,000-600,000 range for the next decade, if the township used it to pay for the Wesley Bishop North and South projects. His projections don’t include matching contributions from the state after 2012, .

Council tabled a decision on using the fund to pay for $405,000 in improvements to the South field, based on concerns over the adverse effect the project would have on teams that use the field.

In light of the vocal public opposition to the use of the Trust Fund and the lawsuit cloud hanging over the township, Jordan questioned the timing and necessity of the action.

“I’m just still puzzled why we’re doing this now,” she said.

Chiacchio, not for the first time, suggested an alternative: a new referendum to clarify the use of the fund. The recommendation was put to a vote, with Jordan backing the measure as well. But Gallo abstained and Testa and Button voted “no,” so the motion died.

Several members of the audience spoke up in opposition to the use of Trust Fund, including and co-founder Mark Hines, who said, “I’m trying to avoid emotional language, but I feel this is a power grab … There are three people on council who have lost touch with what the people want.”

issued a statement of their own following the meeting, decrying Button, Gallo and Testa for “their disregard for the voters and taxpayers of Moorestown … We feel this spending is unacceptable and out of step with the will of the voters of Moorestown.”

In the end, council—perhaps not surprisingly to those who've followed the Open Space-fields rigmarole—split 3-2 in favor of using the fund, with Button, Gallo and Testa voting "yes," and Chiacchio and Jordan supplying the "no" votes.

What do you think of council's decision? Vote in our poll and tell us in the comments.

Ed Nice July 24, 2012 at 10:20 PM
HB catch up it costs us nothing. We lose then the money shouldn't be used for anything else. We win, once again nothing lost since Tom Colman was nice enough to handle this pro bono!
G. Williams July 24, 2012 at 10:58 PM
L&L, If a suit is filed on behalf of MSOS, and the judge finds the use of the funds are restricted to lands purchased with OS funds, I'm not sure how that would play out. Would a referendum and changing the existing ordinance occur? Can't answer that. If the judge decides against MSOS then Strawbridge would be eligible, but there is only about 500K left in the fund since the resolution to use 1.5 million of the fund was approved last night for Wesley, and that wouild also be eligible.
G. Williams July 24, 2012 at 11:01 PM
RR, Do you really believe that "Leaks" deserves a response? Read Accent's comments.
Betty Boneder July 24, 2012 at 11:12 PM
I think a ballot question is stupid. Seriously, we elected people to make decisions. Good/bad/indifferent....make a decision and drive on. If we have to "check with the voters" everytime we need to make a decision, why do we have a Town Council? Plus, we already voted on Open Space.
Peter Beter July 24, 2012 at 11:17 PM
Good debate today, everyone.....Time to go to the GOP Town Hall meeting!!!!
Roger July 24, 2012 at 11:26 PM
I am only thankful that there was the good sense not to bond this expense, and that's really what it is, an expense, not an investment. The plastic field will inevitably be "too dangerous" to play on within 10 years so what is that expense, $100K per year for one field. Then when it is too unsafe to play on we will have the additional expense to replace it. With inflation etc... we're probably looking at another $100K per year FOR ONE FIELD. In any case, given the prevailing thought that the open space tax was not for normal recurring expenses, and given the inability of politicians to keep there hands off anyunspoken for funds, perhaps we should explore ways of repealing the tax. Would any of the candidates commit to putting forth an effort to repeal the Open Space Tax? If the project were bonded, with the funds to be paid from the Open Space tax, it would be very difficult to repeal the tax without defaulting. In any case should the current decision prevail, consider the funds gone, a lesson learned, and REPEAL THE TAX.
Ed Nice July 24, 2012 at 11:29 PM
And L&L what George is conveniently leaving out is, if the judge rules in favor of the town which would make Strawbridge lake doable, that it would be bonded and paid for with the trust fund which the remaining $500000 can easily handle. Plus money will be repaid to the trust as it comes in from the donations. That number is $650000 over mostly 10 years. Also he doesn't let you know that the fund is replenished every year. George just campaigning again and not giving the full story, just what works for him and his Rep party.
Ed Nice July 24, 2012 at 11:40 PM
Ahhh Rodger that is incorrect. Each year money is put into the fund from the tax levy. They only spent 1.5 of 2 million with another roughly $500,000 going back into the trust come next year. There is also the repayment of matching funds that we can still receive but are not counting on. The clubs have raised large sums of money that will be put into the trust to repay for the work to be done ( like the cost of the Turf) By the time this is all done the cost of this project is going to be a small blip and never should have gotten this volatile!
Ed Nice July 24, 2012 at 11:42 PM
Thank you Betty someone that gets it!!! LOL
Roger July 25, 2012 at 12:08 AM
If the clubs have raised "large sums of money" then perhaps the Open Space funds will not be needed? What is the commitment to repay the Open Space funds? When someone lends money, which based on what you are saying is the case,(Open Space fronting the money for the sports clubs) a note is usually signed witnessing that obligation. Are the sports clubs and their supporters willing to sign such notes, with personal guaranty's? In any case, the issue here is trust and creating a "slush" fund for the politicians. Based on what I have seen and heard, those supporting this decision are in the minority, and not by a small percentage. We need to eliminate the slush fund; we need to eliminate the source of the cash that creates the funds that are all too tempting for the politicians and special interests.
L&L Kitchen Cabinet July 25, 2012 at 03:27 AM
I don't always agree with every OS acquisition, so should utilization of the fund go to a referendum every time? If you set the precedence than it has to be carried across the board. It can't be a convenient solution this time because a loud minority says it should.
L&L Kitchen Cabinet July 25, 2012 at 03:37 AM
GW - You are insulting everyone's intelligence by trying to make us believe that IF the full $1.5M is used for the fields than only 500K would be left in the account. We all know that our taxes go into that fund every year. By the time Strawbridge Lake would even be ready for the work, the fund would have more money. If you are going to post on here at least have enough respect for the town to post accurate information. Finally, I am extremely disappointed that your campaign has decided to take a position of publically attacking current Council members. Take the high road and run a campaign focusing on the positives your candidates bring to the table, not "blasting" those who are currently in those seats, regardless of whether you agree or not.
Herbert July 25, 2012 at 03:41 AM
What does this mean? I don't think Moorestown, New Jersey can afford Mr. Button for another term in office. Don't vote for Mr. Button in November. We simply can not keep up with Mr. Button's incompetence, it is that simple. Mr. Button has wasted millions on the town hall project. He now has the prominent role in raiding our trusted Open Space Fund. Don't re-elect Mr. Button for Mayor., Moorestown can't afford Mr. Button for another term, it is that simple.
G. Williams July 25, 2012 at 03:41 AM
Ed, Stop with the attitude. If you can not communicate without attacking the character or distorting the comments of others, then you don't belong here. You do not have to agree with my comments or opinions, but it shows poor manners on your part to add contrived motive or intent to them. If I conveniently (as you say), left out that Strawbridge could be afforded through bonding, then didn't you conveniently leave out last night's second resolution which would spend another 450 K from the OS fund for Wesley North. Remember, it was tabled, not defeated, thus, it's still in play. Let's see where that goes. I am not campaigning for anyone on this blog, and nothing I have said here would indicate otherwise, so stop saying it. When I do, I won't be coy about it.
Ed Nice July 25, 2012 at 03:57 AM
No you just like to act as if you could do better under these tough conditions George. You don't think calling BGT selfish and narrow minded isn't trying to make your MRMC candidates shine in a better light. By saying your not campaigning is just saying everyone on this site is ignorant. We all see through it George. Since you brought it up George Tom put the projections up on the wall for all to see, which had all possible solutions to the trust and showed it would not be depleted for ever even with South being done. We can go around and around with this George. If your going to state the facts then state them all. South has not gone away but it also in ink right now either. I also don't think it is going to get done right now!
G. Williams July 25, 2012 at 01:58 PM
Ed, In my opinion, BGT are being selfish and singularly focused because they have devoted so much of their public service time towards one item, field improvements. On four separate occasions it was defeated by vote. At what point do you bend a little? When does one realize that the resulting contention isn't healthy for the town? There must be a better way than confrontation to facilitate progress. A few of us attempted to reach a compromise last year, but it takes cooperation to do that, and Council didn't respond. I fully understand the desire of a few of the sports organizations to have upgraded facilities. But, maybe it is time for them to change course by pursuing a staggered approach. While I applaud their efforts in fund raising and sponsorships in order to defray the cost, weren't they asked to pursue that a year and a half ago? And, would that have benefitted them more so today? Perhaps. Unfortunately, the project got off to a bad start from the beginning. To me, it was too quickly sold, but not vetted. Assumptions were made that if the cost of 2.8 mil. helped only three fields, what would be the cost of tending to all of the other fields? What was phase two and three? Inclusiveness is paramont when spending public dollars, not salesmanship. And, Ed, none of my comments above are intended to further the campaign of anyone else. BGT are adults, and quite able to defend their own actions, or change direction.
Ed Nice July 25, 2012 at 02:10 PM
You wonder how this town can use OS money for turf fields? Must be illegal right? http://www.franklintwpnj.org/legal_ads/2012/120508-Legal%20Ads.pdf
Observer July 25, 2012 at 02:41 PM
http://www.nj.com/messenger-gazette/index.ssf/2012/05/franklin_township_targets_4_million_for_turf_playing_fields_at_middlebush_park.html Their Open Space fund generates $4 million per year. They can afford it and still meet the requirements of their other Open Space endeavors. Can Moorestown?
Ed Nice July 25, 2012 at 03:07 PM
Yes say Tom M., and that is what we pay him to do is advise us. But no the minority of the council has been able to keep the majority from bonding it and making it very easy to pay for. The numbers were right there up on the wall for all to see!
Talk of the town July 25, 2012 at 04:03 PM
I'm confused, are you stating that one of the GOP candidates is dropping out and someone else like p.miller is now running? What is it? Accent or leaks want to elaborate? What's the update ?
I. M. MADD July 25, 2012 at 05:19 PM
Kevin, I'll bet you ED a beer and a shot in Warminster that the Judge grants the injunction. Ed they have a pay phone there if you need a ride home
Yah Mo B There July 25, 2012 at 06:29 PM
Note that their levy is 5 cents per $100 of assessed value vs. moorestowns at 1 cent per $100 of assessed value
Tom July 25, 2012 at 07:44 PM
I thought the issue was that using the money was illegal not whether our tax rate is high enough. If it is legal, why not raise the rate then?
Talk of the town July 26, 2012 at 02:31 AM
Stop trashing jb people, let's be civil. What is going on here? Are all 9 candidates that are listed presently still going to be here in the fall? Are these just rumors or are some candidates switching are stepping aside? Who's replacing them if so? Isnt this a bizarre campaign? Anyone have any updates, or are these rumors just bluff ?
Snack mom July 26, 2012 at 03:12 AM
Talk is cheap like people who don't bring snacks when they are assigned as the snack mom and the kids all go hungry after a t ball game.
Yah Mo B There July 26, 2012 at 01:01 PM
legal/illegal is the issue. However, the comment was in regards to what Franklin twp generates. I was just pointing out that they pay substantially more per $100 to clarify how they are generating more funds. Our fund and theirs aren't apples to apples finance wise. But legality is the real issue.
Ed Nice July 26, 2012 at 02:31 PM
How is our fund and their fund different so they can build turf fields with OS money and we can't?
Yah Mo B There July 26, 2012 at 02:46 PM
I may be misunderstood. I think it's perfectly legal to use the OS money. The statement was that Franklin was able to "afford" it due to the large revenues. Yes they have larger revenues, but due to a tax increase, so it's not as if larger funding was the reason they OK'd the use of the funds. So it's not different from a legality standpoint, but some may twist the fact that there is more money into it being OK to use. As you point out thats irrelevant and I was simply acknowledging they pay 4x's what we do to generate that funding.
Tom July 26, 2012 at 02:58 PM
According to the lawsuit, it is not legal so how can Franklin Town do it?
Richard Booth July 29, 2012 at 04:17 PM
I have a question regarding the OS monies and is it true that we still owe money on the Winners Farm and Flying Feather lands that we purchased with Open Space revenues. Also is council going to just turn around and bond out this money because they do not need the approval from the taxpayers because it was given once. So instead of paying this off with money we already have are they are going to put us into more debt by bonding the balance of the money owed, so they can put this money towrds the turf projects.. I hope someone can give me a truthful answer to this question and no beating around the bush about it.

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