Moorestown scales back plans for new town hall

Posted: September 21, 2012

More than a year ago, Moorestown officials rejected an ambitious $19 million proposal to demolish and replace the town's smoke-damaged municipal building, as well as the library next door and its adjacent recreation center.

The cost was too high, they said.

The main building - which housed the town hall, police station, and municipal court - was left unusable by a 2007 fire and finally was razed last fall. The only progress on the site has been the growth of an impressive patch of weeds.

Now in the works is a plan for a much-scaled-back complex. Bids are due next month, and after a contractor is selected, construction is expected to begin almost immediately.

Whether the project will be cheaper, however, remains to be seen. The town's architect, Rick Ragan, estimates that construction costs alone for 45,000-square-foot complex will run $13.7 million.

Unlike the rejected building, the two-story structure will include neither a police station nor a courtroom. It will house a new library roughly the same size as the old one, but the aging rec center will have to settle for renovations. (The current library will remain until the town decides what to do with it.)

The police are leasing space in a warehouse, and the township is paying neighboring Maple Shade $10,000 a year for the use of its municipal court.

"Are we looking for long-term solutions for both? Absolutely," said Scott Carew, the township manager. "But these are still in a conceptual phase."

Carew is exploring the possibility of keeping the police operation in an off-site location. To incorporate it into the building plan, he said, would substantially raise costs.

He also is talking with officials in four or five towns about establishing a shared municipal court.

The $13.7 million price of the project does not include demolition, engineering, and architectural fees, or remediation of the soil beneath the former town hall.

Comparing the cost of the latest concept to last year's proposal isn't an "apples-to-apples" situation, Mayor John Button said. Once fees are factored in, he said, the total could be about $17 million.

That would be "everything spent so far," including some previous architectural and engineering plans that were discarded, Button said.

Town council this month unanimously approved borrowing $11.9 million for the complex and agreed to spend about $690,000 to refurbish the rec center.

The town would spread the cost over time by obtaining a 20- or 25-year bond. Its cost to residents, Carew said, would be "a wash" due to anticipated revenue from the sale of Moorestown's first-ever liquor licenses and from taxes of several new businesses; a decrease in other municipal debt service; and a townwide reassessment that, in many cases, could lead to lower property-tax bills.

"We will be able to do it all without an impact on taxes," he said.

The $19 million plan rejected last year was chosen by an advisory panel that examined about 20 proposals. It would have resulted in a 66,000-square-foot municipal complex containing a town hall, library, and rec center.

At a recent town council meeting, a resident urged officials to reconsider the latest proposal and save the taxpayers' the expense of a new building.

"Some of this may be pride, but who says we need to have a new city hall? Financially, it doesn't make sense," John O'Meara said later in an interview. "Why are we going to spend all this money?"

O'Meara, a retired CEO, is secretary of the Moorestown Free Library Association, a fund-raising group. Personally, he said, he prefers that the town-hall offices and police station remain in rented space and the library to stay where it is.

He realizes that he may be in the minority and that others are weary of the debate. They also may be tired of looking at the unsightly vacant parcel where the town hall stood, he said.

But the real estate and bond markets are "a big unknown," O'Meara said. It would be better to "maybe put this off five years."

Button strongly disagrees. The town-hall project has "been a long, dragged-out process," he said. "I'm very pleased we have taken action to make this a reality. . . . It really was time to move on."


Contact Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224 or jhefler@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @JanHefler. Read her blog, "Burlco Buzz," at www.philly.com/BurlcoBuzz.

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