Petition: OK Public Safety Building Funds or Let Voters Decide

Architect's rendering of proposed Cape May Public Safety Building.

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CAPE MAY – Cape May has been locked in a stalemate over a proposed public safety building for longer than it would have taken to design and build one.

A council-appointed citizen committee began working on the project, in 2017. Recommendations were before the council, in 2018, but not without opposition.    

At issue is the proposed location for the 30,000-square-foot building and the price tag for the effort. Also at issue is the deplorable condition of the current facilities housing the fire and police departments, conditions which have forced firefighters, in one of the county’s few paid fire departments, to occupy their common room as sleeping quarters due to dangerous mold elsewhere in the building.

All agree that the current conditions are in urgent need of being replaced. The agreement ends there.

The council, once again, failed to adopt a bond ordinance July 21 that would allow for a $15 million combined public safety building on the site of the current firehouse. A citizen initiative petition was filed with the city clerk and was duly certified July 8.

Council’s failure to pass the bond ordinance places the issue on the November ballot, where citizens can vote on the measure.

Given new development, that may only be part of the story.

A second citizen’s group submitted a new petition July 16, proposing a $5 million bond issue for a fire station only on the site of the current firehouse. The petition calls for planning for a “new police station in a fiscally responsible way” after approval of the less expensive firehouse.

The debate that has frozen action on public safety facilities much of the last two years would be carried into the voting booth, with dueling referenda, a situation City Solicitor Frank Corrado said represented “somewhat unchartered legal areas.” Two bond ordinances, for an overlapping capital project, in significantly different amounts, voted on separately by the public and, if approved, authorizing the council to move forward.

Sitting in the middle is City Clerk Erin Burke. Newly named as clerk, in March, Burke’s certification process is key to whether the second petition gets to the ballot.

When Burke certified the first petition, concerning the $15 million bond ordinance, she said she received it June 12 and that she completed her examination June 30.

She read her certification and the ordinance at the July 8 council meeting, advertised it, as required by law, and scheduled one last required vote on the ordinance July 21, where it failed to be adopted. That process puts the ordinance on the ballot.

Schedules are much tighter this time around. The second petition was turned in to the clerk July 16, according to the petition committee. By law, Burke has 20 days to complete the certification task. If Burke completes the investigation, finds the petition in order, and certifies it in the same time period she did the first petition, a decision would be forthcoming Aug. 3, one day before the first council meeting in August.

The schedule tightens because an ordinance derived from the second petition must be read during one council meeting, advertised a proscribed period of time, and then voted on at a second council meeting, which would also see a required public hearing.  

This must be accomplished by the Aug. 28 deadline of the county clerk for the petition to make its way to the ballot.

If Burke certifies the petition, but not in time for it to be read at the Aug. 4 council meeting, and voted on at the Aug. 18 meeting, the petition, even if otherwise correct, would miss the deadline for getting on the ballot.

Supporters of both petitions include prominent members of the community. The sitting mayor and deputy mayor are strong supporters of the $15 million bond ordinance and are opposed to the second petition that would separate the fire and police facilities. They are backed by a third member of the council, the chiefs of the two public safety departments, and the majority of the citizen advisory committee that proposed the project.

The five-member committee that led the second petition drive for a $5 million firehouse includes a former mayor, a former council member, individual members of the city’s Taxpayer Association and, presumably, the two current council members who argued for splitting the police and fire facilities for most of the last year.

While the city solicitor contemplates the legal implications of dueling referenda, all eyes are on the clerk and the Aug. 4 meeting of the council.

To contact Vince Conti, email vconti@cmcherald.com.

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