ROSELLE, NJ — Opponents of a $50 million project for a new school, library and community center in Roselle that has been six years in the making feel they gained some ground, but fell far short of what they wanted when the Union County freeholders abruptly canceled a special meeting to alter the county’s involvement.
The special meeting was set for Thursday, Aug. 10, before the freeholders’ regular biweekly agenda-setting session, to “take action” on a resolution to amend
the county’s guarantee to back bonds by the Union County Improvement Authority for the the Mind and Body Complex. The freeholders had approved the backing of $59 million in bonds through the UCIA a year ago.
And although the special meeting was canceled earlier that day, about 50 residents attended the freeholders’ meeting at the Union County Administration Building in Elizabeth anyway, Anthony Esposito, one of the project’s vocal opponents, said. With the meeting cancelled and residents prohibited from speaking at agenda sessions, those who showed up were angry they didn’t have the opportunity to tell freeholders to withdraw their support and halt the project.
“They’re annoyed at the (borough) council, the school board and now the
freeholders,” Esposito said of the Roselle residents.
The proposed Mind Body Complex consists of a 45,000-square-foot community center with a pool, fitness center, gym with a full size basketball court, media center, teen center, locker rooms and cafeteria. The learning center will be the same size and include 18 pre-K and kindergarten classrooms, multipurpose room, small-group instruction rooms, administrative offices and a private outdoor playground. Site amenities include 182 parking spaces, drop-off and pickup areas for the school and a canopy covered and landscaped concourse.
According to Esposito, the complex is too costly for Roselle to swallow, and he calculates it will cost residents $500 a year on average in increased taxes. Proponents have pointed to a much lower $150.
Union County spokeswoman Tina Casey said in an email the county had no comment as to why the Aug. 10 meeting was cancelled.
Esposito claims the cancellation is due to a letter sent to the freeholders by a lawyer he has hired. In it, Esposito said he warned them that their vote to back the bonds a year ago was based on a lease agreement that the school board signed with the council in 2014. It stipulated that if the financing for the project was not acquired by the end of 2015, the lease would be void. Financing for the project was not obtained until the freeholders voted to back the bonds last year.
Esposito said the void clause was in the last paragraph of the agreement. The former member of the Roselle Board of Education said he had voted against the project.
“The entire thing is a complicated financial mess,” Esposito said. “It’s kind of like getting a loan. You have to get all kinds of paperwork. And the documents are in bad shape. They want to amend the documents, but you can’t amend a null and void agreement.”
According to Esposito, the rush to change the documents has to do with the upcoming November council election. Two candidates running on an platform against the project — Cynthia Johnson and Denise Wilkerson — won the Democratic primary in June, defeating candidates Richard Villeda and incumbent Andrea Staten, who had been endorsed by the party. Johnson and Wilkerson will run unopposed.
If Esposito is correct that the county was remiss in approving bonds based on an outdated lease agreement, the Roselle Borough Council and Board of Education will have to approve a new pact, which could be scuttled by a council that includes Johnson and Wilkerson, he said.
A ceremonial ground-breaking was held earlier this year but no further work has commenced.
“The borough administration has no official remarks on the matter at this time,” Matthew Hersh, director of communications told LocalSource in an Aug. 10 email.
But Councilman Sam Bishop, a proponent of the project, said the cancelled county meeting will have no effect on the project, adding, “It’s just a matter of language in the agreement being adjusted. I don’t know what the big furor is. I don’t know where this is coming from.”
Bishop said he based his opinion on comments made last week by James Pellettiere, the freeholder clerk. Pellettiere said the language that was up for adoption did not “amend” last year’s vote but was to approve “language for the board to adopt consent for the project to move forward.” Pellettiere was quoted as saying the new language would not affect the timeline or cost of the project.
Opponents of the project say is too big, and has increased in cost from the $35 million proposed in 2011 to about $50 million currently.
“There is a good chance that the Borough of Roselle will default on paying the lease for this project,” Esposito alleged in an Aug. 7 email.
“If Roselle defaults on paying, Union County guarantees the bond and will cost every municipality in the county to pay off the bonds.
“We have attended meetings with the board of freeholders to tell them to stop supporting this project which is a tax burden for the people of Roselle,” Esposito said.