Town Council Asked To Delay Awarding Hilltop Fields Contract

By on February 5, 2014

Frank Ferrari

Frank Ferrari

Citing concerns about rising taxes and overlapping purposes, a group of residents asked the Town Council on Monday night to delay awarding the construction contract for the new sports fields on Verona’s Hilltop. They want the Council to get an independent assessment of how youth activities use the existing town- and school-owned fields to see if Verona would be better served by improving the fields it has rather than building new fields.

“Do we need two field complexes in Verona,” asked Frank Ferrari, the president of the Fifth Downers, the football boosters group. “That’s $10 million in fields.”

Actually $10.8 million. Last April, the Council approved a $5.125 million bond to build two turfed fields behind the Community Center to handle youth soccer, lacrosse, football, softball and baseball. At the time, the Board of Education knew there were problems on the upper field at Verona High School–the holes began showing up in August 2012–but didn’t know what was causing them or what it would cost to fix them. As part of its planned referendum, the BOE has come up with a roughly $5.7 million project that would remediate the upper field for use by VHS gym classes and turn the lower field into a turfed complex for all the same sports as the Hilltop, plus marching band.

Ferrari and Steve Aldiero, the treasurer of the Verona Eagles youth football program, gave the Council a two-page memo on an alternative plan, a copy of which was given to this reporter. It says that the VHS fields should be the priority and that the money that the town is taking in from the Hilltop apartments could be used to pay for the work. By making the VHS fields work for multiple activities, the plan would open up the turfed Centennial field for other uses.

The Hilltop project plans.

The Hilltop project plans.

Town Manager Joe Martin has long stressed that the Hilltop fields would be built at no cost to Verona taxpayers, which is correct: The town has a PILOT (a payment-in-lieu-of taxes) agreement for the Hilltop apartments, which allows it to collect 95% of the taxes on the buildings and only send 5% to Essex County. Unlike normal property taxes, the BOE gets nothing from the Hilltop, putting even more pressure on it to raise money through a referendum.

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PILOT revenues would fully cover the $250,000 a year debt service on the bonds for the proposed Hilltop fields, but there isn’t enough PILOT revenue now to pay for both the Hilltop and the VHS fields. According to data from Martin, this year Verona will get $359,911 from the PILOT. But next year, the town projects it will get $663,292 from the Hilltop, which could service both projects. The town has not promised any money to the BOE, despite inquiries from its Finance Committee chair, Joseph Bellino. (Verona used the 2012 and 2013 revenue from the Hilltop to close gaps in the municipal budget.)

In one scenario, the lower field at VHS could be turfed for multiple sports and marching band activities.

In one scenario, the lower field at VHS could be turfed for multiple sports and marching band activities.

Ferrari and Aldiero asked the Council to put a 60-day moratorium on Hilltop decisions. But the request did not sit well with several members of the governing body and Martin, who introduced an ordinance to designate the town as the Hilltop redeveloper going forward. (The town has bids in from three contractors, but has not yet disclosed them or awarded the work.) Councilman Jay Sniatkowski, who has been the leader of the Hilltop field project over the 10 years it has been on the drawing board, asked Aldiero why he was stepping up now to question it. “My taxes,” said Aldiero, noting that his family has lived in Verona since the 1920s.

Sniatkowski noted that previous referendums on high school field work had been voted down and asked Aldiero if a No vote on the upcoming referendum would be a clear signal that Verona voters don’t want the work done. “You have to get an answer to that in a public forum,” Aldiero responded. “Did they vote no because of the lights or because their taxes were going up?”

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Sniatkowski expressed a preference for doing the Hilltop first and then figuring out how the Council could work with the BOE to improve its facilities, but didn’t completely dismiss the group’s request. Council member Frank Sapienza was openly opposed to doing the school fields instead of the Hilltop, asserting at one point that if Verona shut the lower field for a year to do the work it would permanently lose its ability to host the Greater Newark baseball tournament. But Mike Passero, the president of the Verona Eagles and a supporter of the school field plan, noted that Bloomfield High School played all of its games away for a year while Foley Field was being rehabbed, without incident.

Parents with children in soccer and lacrosse also spoke in favor of a school fields plan. “Upgrade what we have, fix what we have,” said Joanna Breitenbach, who noted that she had been a “big proponent” of the Hilltop before the problems surfaced at VHS. “We’re such an affluent town,” she added, “but we’re leaving things to rot.”

The next Town Council meeting is Tuesday, February 18, at 7 p.m.

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  1. Kevin Ryan

    February 6, 2014 at 11:50 am

    Since my position was not mentioned in the article, I want to take the opportunity to state that I have had discussions with Mr Passero and reviewed the most recent proposal. I have also attended the last three Board of Education Meetings as a private citizen. I agree that borrowing over 10 million dollars as a town to improve recreation fields doesn’t seem to make sense. We do need to do something, however. The town currently has 9 existing fields (6 Bd of Ed) 3 Municipal). Adding 2 more at Hilltop is not the answer. The Council and the Board of Ed need to work together to better use and maintain the existing fields. The Eagles proposal is a good starting point. This is one of the few areas where there is an overlap of interests. The Recreation Department has always utilized school properties which justifies the need for the municipal government to play a role in working out a solution that benefits the entire community.

  2. Kevin Ryan

    February 6, 2014 at 12:15 pm

    Every time I read the comment that the Hilltop II project will be built at no cost to the taxpayers it makes me cringe. The PILOT money is payment in lieu of taxes and it is a source of revenue. If it were not available, in all probability we would have to raise property taxes to replace it. It has been used as a general revenue source since 2012. Once the money is borrowed for the Hilltop, we will have to start paying back the principal and interest over a 20 year period and we will have to find other revenue to offset the loss. There was never any requirement for this income to be dedicated to finance the Hilltop Park development. As a revenue source, it can be used to offset the need to increase property taxes. We often hear the 1 million dollar figure mentioned. That doesn’t take place until 2029.

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