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HIGHLANDS, NJ -  The new Borough Hall will probably mean an increase of 77 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation was the estimate projected during last night’s well planned, well-organized informational session Mayor and Council held to hear questions from the public on the proposal for new construct ion on the borough-owned tract at the intersection of Miller St. and Route 36.

The increase in taxes was only one of the areas covered during the two hour session with architect Kevin Settembrino and Construction official Pat DeBlasio fielding most of the questions ranging from when the building will be started, how long will it take to build, why does it require three jail cells and a private bathroom for the judge to why will construction take less than six months to be weather tight yet another eight to 12 months or more to completion?

Residents also expressed fear that construction of the 25,000 square foot building will mean other projects cannot be addressed, and wouldn’t a referendum be the better solution before more funds are spent.

Missing was any representation either from Police Chief Robert Burton or the NJ Highway Department on the impact construction of the borough hall on the main state highway leading to Gateway National Recreational Area would have on safety, congestion or access by emergency vehicles from one a busy highway to the lower section of Highlands.  Settembrino attempted to answer the question of whether police and emergency vehicles would have access to crossing Miller St. where currently no left turn is permitted off the highway,  but apparently misunderstood the question and instead responded there is a cutoff on the property not only on Miller St but on Route 36 as well.

Well prepared and thorough in their responses to a relatively small group of residents asking questions during the meeting, the professionals explained the building cost is project to be $11,778,163.61 to be financed over 20 years. Council had planned to introduce the ordinance to bond $9.5 million for a $10 million bond at last months’ meeting, then withheld it in favor of the public session to offer further information on the project first. The introduction is not on the agenda for tonight’s meeting but would be anticipated at the second meeting this month or the first meeting in March. Settembrino had estimated bids could be advertised for construction by April, with June estimated to begin actual construction. Council does plan to introduce a separate bonding ordinance tonight which DeBlasio explained will pave the way for a safe introduction of the larger bond ordinance for the new building.

Former Councilman Chris Francey expressed fear that so much debt will prevent the borough from being able to address flood control solutions he felt should be given priority. DeBlasio pointed to statistics that show the brough picked up $25 million in ratables and while at first the borough’s bonding capacity will be limited to $2.3 million, he projects that would be increased to $4 million within two years.

Although no new renderings other than what’s on display on the sign on the Route 36 property and on Settembrino web site were on display at the meeting, the architect explained the building is bilevel with the police department on the lower level and the administrative offices on the upper level accessible either by inside stairs or exterior ramp or stairs, with parking at both levels, and the entrance to the upper level towards the Highland Ave. side of the building. A pillared attractive front of the building faces Valley Avenue, and  a retaining wall is on the Highland Avenue side of the building. There would be some solar paneling on the roof and the building would be equipped with a generator to ensure power at all times. There would be an area for bike racks, and the police and court facilities would meet all the mandates of the NJ Department of Court Administration, which requires both separate cells and bathroom facilities for males and females as well as specific accommodations for municipal court judges.

In a few lighthearted moments during a serious, well run, and meeting dotted with nods and statements of thanks and appreciation, Michael of Portland Road told Council that “we’re projecting liked we’re going to grow”…where are we going to go? But he strongly lamented the fact it costs more than$32,000 to educate a single child in the borough’s elementary school, and as another resident said, the borough’s tax rate is the third highest in Monmouth County. Nor is it likely the borough will do any shared services with the neighboring community because “Atlantic Highlands doesn’t like us.” 

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