Eagles Rethink Plans For Youth Sports Fields

By on January 6, 2014

The Hilltop project plans.

The Hilltop project plans.

The board of the Verona Eagles football and cheerleading program has sent a letter to its parents expressing concern over spending on new turf fields at the Hilltop and Verona High School.

The letter stresses that the Eagles organization still supports additional turf fields, but it is asking its parents to consider whether there is a better way to provide for youth sports in Verona. The letter says the cost of the two projects–more than $10 million–“would put a tremendous burden on the tax payers”. “We certainly want the best for our children but at what cost?,” says the letter, which is signed by Eagles President Mike Passero.

In November, the Board of Education pegged the cost of turning the upper football field at VHS into a multipurpose turf field at $5,416,226. Last April, the Town Council voted to issue $5.125 million in bonds to fund the construction of two multipurpose turf fields on the hill behind the Verona Community Center that would be striped for everything from softball to lacrosse.

One of the holes that opened on Sellitto Field in 2012.

One of the holes that opened on Sellitto Field in 2012.

The Eagles’ board believes that new fields can be created from what Verona already has at a lower cost. Its letter says that Veterans Field, located by the Community Center along Linn Drive, could be turfed for $1.2 million. The field already has lights, bleachers, parking and a snack bar, all of which would need to be built for the Hilltop fields. The Eagles say that the infield at H.B. Whitehorne could also be turfed and lit for $1.2 million. HBW currently has a soccer field and a basketball court that was resurfaced by the town last year for $21,500. It also has a track that Verona shares with Montclair Kimberly Academy.

At the high school, the Eagles would like the focus to be on the lower field rather than Sellitto Field. It estimates that the lower field could be turfed for two multi-purpose fields and two baseball fields and that lights, bleachers, snack bar and score board could be added for $3 million total. “IMPROVEMENTS CAN BE MADE TO EXISTING FIELDS TO INCREASE USAGE BUT DECREASE SPENDING,” the letter says.

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“The reason why all this could be done at an estimated cost of $ 5,400,000.00 is because we are not spending millions of dollars on site work excavating, grading the land, retaining walls, parking lots, etc.,” the letter says. “When doing projects on our existing fields there is minimal excavating. Money would go directly into building fields and turfing and lighting because our sites are basically already there. This is not true of the Hill Top site where trees have to go and land needs to be graded, etc.”

But there may need to be some adjustments made to the Eagles’ calculations. Sellitto Field has been plagued by two large deep holes and the settling of infill put there in the late 1970s. That fill has been deemed dangerous and the BOE has said that the state will not allow it to lock the field up and walk away. Last May, the BOE said it would cost $1.9 million to compact the field to eliminate the voids. The $5.4 million cost now being considered for the BOE referendum includes that work, plus resurfacing, bleachers, lighting, striping for four sports and fixes to the tennis courts.

The track at HBW must also be rebuilt.

The track at HBW must also be rebuilt.

There’s also the cost of rebuilding the track at HBW, which is crumbling. Last January, the BOE said that might be $140,000, but it has been getting estimates as high as $600,000. Whatever the final tab, it will likely be split with Montclair Kimberly Academy, which co-financed the original track more than a decade ago.

And then there’s the matter of the town and BOE doing something together. The Eagles’ letter asks for its parents’ “support in imploring the Town Council and the Board of Education to join forces as they have done on other projects in the past to best serve our community.” While the town and BOE have collaborated on field maintenance in the last few years, they can’t commingle funds. The bonds for the Hilltop work are to be repaid from a special tax device that the town created: The so-called PILOT gives 95% of the Hilltop revenue to the town, 5% to the county and nothing to the BOE. (The BOE gets 55% of regular property tax revenue, with 25% going to town government and 20% to Essex County.) In 2014, Verona is expected to net only $359,911.08 from the PILOT on the two Hilltop apartment buildings, but the PILOT will generate more than $1 million in revenue from 2029 to 2041.

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MyVeronaNJ.com reached out to the other youth sports groups that have been backing the Hilltop Fields to get their reaction to the Eagles’ letter. Bill Gault, president of Verona United Soccer, said his group declined to take a position on it. The Verona Lacrosse League and Verona Baseball & Softball League have yet to respond.

“This should not be a Town Project vs a Board of Ed Project, this should be the community working together to do what is best for Verona,” the Eagles’ letter says. “At the end of the day it’s all the same Tax Dollars paying for these projects.”

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