Bill would give Rowan-Rutgers partnership new powers

State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) sponsored the bill, which would give the Rowan-Rutgers health sciences alliance power to seize property by eminent domain.
State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) sponsored the bill, which would give the Rowan-Rutgers health sciences alliance power to seize property by eminent domain. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 08, 2014

TRENTON - A board created to oversee a new health sciences partnership between Rowan University and Rutgers-Camden would gain eminent domain powers under a bill that cleared the Senate budget committee Monday.

The bill, sponsored by Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), also would allow Rowan to enter into public-private partnerships, including for new construction. It would exempt the school - elevated to a state research institution as a result of the higher-education restructuring that took effect last year - from certain public bidding requirements, in line with existing law granting exemptions for state colleges.

The bill would also shield Rowan for two years from unexpected costs stemming from the dissolution of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey under the restructuring act. UMDNJ-Stratford is now a part of Rowan.

Rutgers, which absorbed much of UMDNJ through the restructuring, has been similarly protected from those costs, according to a statement accompanying the bill.

The bill's text was not available Monday through the Legislature's website, which said it had been introduced the same day. Sweeney's staff shared a copy of the legislation.

Democrats on the committee voted in favor of the bill. Several Republican senators, however, said they had just seen the bill's language and had too many questions to vote for it Monday - one of their last days to meet before the new legislative session begins next week.

"We're giving this joint entity the power of eminent domain. We're specifying that any shortfalls the health sciences program has will be made up by the state. . . . I certainly don't think it makes a lot of sense for us to be doing a cleanup bill by the seat of our pants when we are just getting the language," said Sen. Jennifer Beck (R., Monmouth).

Sen. Joseph Pennacchio (R., Morris) said he had "major concerns about a bill that would give an advisory board" the right to exercise eminent domain.

"Too soon. Too quick. Not properly vetted," Pennacchio said.

A spokesman did not make Sweeney, whose district includes Rowan, available for comment Monday.

Under the bill, the joint Rowan University/Rutgers-Camden board of governors created to oversee a new College of Health Sciences could enter into contracts and agreements, exercise the right of eminent domain, and accept monetary grants or contributions, as well as acquire and operate land.

Rowan spokesman Joe Cardona said university officials were interested in building a College of Health Sciences building in Camden, creating an "eds and meds" corridor that links Cooper University Hospital and Rowan University's Cooper Medical School to the city's campuses of Rutgers, Rowan, and Camden County College.

In June, Camden's redevelopment agency agreed to negotiate the sale of several pieces of land to Cooper Health System.

Cooper's chief of staff, Louis Bezich, said at the time that the final use of the land had not been determined, but referred to the Rutgers-Rowan collaboration and said that the agreement was "a strategy to give us some options as some other policies unfold." Bezich has since been appointed by Gov. Christie to the joint board overseeing the health sciences venture.

The board is still incomplete. Rowan's board of trustees and Christie have each made their appointments, but Rutgers-Camden's board of directors has not. That board is also incomplete, awaiting nominations from Christie, said Rutgers-Camden spokesman Mike Sepanic.

While eminent domain is "a last resort," Cardona said, the joint board could need it to obtain land.

"When you start talking about development in the city, there's a lot of owners" that could be involved in a particular piece of land, Cardona said.

Cardona said that Rowan and Rutgers, as state universities, have eminent domain powers, and that the bill would extend those powers to the joint board.

Greg Trevor, a Rutgers spokesman, said the university did not have eminent domain powers, according to the school's legal counsel.

The other provisions in the bill specific to Rowan would give the university options available to Rutgers - intended by the restructuring that made Rowan a research institution, Cardona said.

Of the public-private partnership option, Cardona said, "This is one of those pieces that needed to be spelled out." The arrangement would benefit Rowan as it plans to significantly expand its student housing, Cardona said.

The university, which has its main campus in Glassboro, has 4,000 beds and intends to add 1,200 in a new "freshman village," Cardona said. A public-private partnership would let the schoolwork with a private entity to underwrite the cost of a new building on land owned by the university, he said.



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