By Kevin Coughlin
Typically, the dog days of summer are slow times for town governments.
But Morristown is not your typical town.
After a protracted closed-door session that kept residents cooling their heels in the lobby, the council on Tuesday approved tax breaks for two developers, ratcheted up pressure on a stalled redevelopment, and heard a plea for support from the town’s embattled ambulance squad.
The council also increased maximum pay for future town administrators from $140,000 to $165,000–to attract more applicants when the job becomes vacant next month, according to town Attorney Vij Pawar.
Calvary Baptist Church was granted a two-year lease, at $1 per month, on a parking area at the corner of Coal and Martin Luther King avenues, pleasing congregation members who stuck it out in the packed meeting room.
And council members approved canoeing and kayaking on Speedwell Lake … while voicing some pool envy in the wake of improvements at Morris Township’s Ginty pool.
AMBULANCE SQUAD ON LIFE SUPPORT?
“Right now, I don’t know what our future is,” Karen Johansen, president of Morristown Emergency Medical Services, also known as the ambulance squad, told the council.
She made a pitch for more volunteers– by her count, the crew is down to about 20 members, from a high of 45 a few years ago. But she also prodded town officials for a declaration of support. This year the town slashed its annual grant to the squad in half, to $30,000.
And by the end of this month, the volunteers must vacate their headquarters at the former town public works site to make way for apartments in Phase II of the Speedwell Avenue redevelopment.
Johansen said she is eying a pair of new locations, but is unsure whether the squad should sign any long-term leases.
“We don’t know where we stand. Are we done? Finiti? We keep hearing rumors,” said Johansen.
“I think you should sign the lease,” said Mayor Tim Dougherty, asserting that a lack of volunteers is the only thing that could kill the 54-year-old organization. It now charges patients for its services, and contracts with Atlantic Health for ambulance coverage three days a week.
Town officials will “continue to have conversations” with the squad about funding, Council President Rebecca Feldman told Johansen, “because you need to know.”
DEVELOPMENT DEALS: HOLD THE CONDEMNATION
The council unanimously backed tax breaks to 55 Market Urban Renewal LLC, which is proposing a triangular law office between Market and Bank streets, and to Lofts at Morristown Urban Renewal LLC, which intends to build apartments at 10 Ford Ave.
Details were not released on Tuesday. Both agreements come back for a final vote on Sept. 8, 2015.
Generally speaking, Feldman said such deals allow builders to skip paying school taxes as an incentive to redevelop properties that otherwise might remain blighted. The new Modera 44 apartments and a nearly completed CVS pharmacy got such breaks, as part of the Speedwell redevelopment.
The council also attempted to goose redevelopment of a former lumberyard at 57-62 Elm Street. It was designated for redevelopment in 2006 but so far, no project has emerged. On Tuesday the council voted 5-1 to ask the planning board to revisit the matter.
New questions include whether to expand the redevelopment zone, to include two vacant parcels on Hill Street held by the owner of the lumberyard site, Larry Berger.
Residents expressed concerns about how this might affect the value of historic homes along Elm Street.
At the administration’s urging, the resolution emphasized that the planning board study won’t consider condemnation as an option. Not for now, anyway. To do so would create an adversarial situation with the owner that might delay redevelopment even longer, Pawar said.
“This is a huge eyesore,” Councilwoman Alison Deeb said of the lumberyard site. “It’s a good thing, a positive thing, to have some movement on this.”
Feldman, the council president, argued that keeping open the condemnation option would give the town some leverage. But her amendment garnered no support.
Raline Smith-Reid cast the only vote against the administration’s proposal. Michelle Dupree Harris, participating by telephone, abstained.
APPLICANT POOLS & SWIMMING POOLS
The Mayor led a round of applause for Administrator Michael Rogers, who leaves next month for a similar post in Summit. A special day will be scheduled to honor him, Dougherty said.
By a unanimous vote, the council agreed to boost the salary range for Rogers’ successor.
“It’s too low,” the Mayor said of the $140,000 max. Even the new ceiling, $165,000, is less than Rogers will earn in Summit, he said.
Rogers, who plans to continue residing in Morristown, may want to invest some of his raise in a good kayak.
Starting next month, residents can kayak and canoe on Speedwell Lake. “This will open up opportunities for fishing and access to the Whippany River,” said Councilman Stefan Armington.
As for swimming, Armington and Feldman questioned whether the town’s Burnham Park Pool is keeping pace with Morris Township’s Ginty Pool, which introduced a fancy slide, jacuzzi-style seating and water heaters among $2 million of improvements this summer.
Armington said he pays higher nonresident fees for his kids to swim in Morris Township, where they feel there are fewer rules and no “adult-only” swim periods. Feldman said an ordinance is necessary to enable open house events at Burnham Park, to attract new members.
“Other towns have open houses. People here won’t pay $45 a day to try it out,” the council president said.
Rogers countered that pool revenues are “steady or increasing,” suggesting that users enjoy the Burnham pool as-is and maybe don’t want water slides. The Mayor said he’s heard no complaints, and offered to conduct his own informal poolside survey.