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Hamilton Street Business District Plan Stirs Controversy, Stern Words From Councilman

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Hamilton Street businessman Michael Gianotto asked the Township Council on Jan. 28 to delay introducing an ordinance that would designate the council as the new management corporation to direct the rejuvenation of the Hamilton Street business district.

A proposed ordinance that would give to the Township Council  all meaningful power over the renovation of the Hamilton Street business district – and relegate business owners to an advisory board – is being opposed by a group of those business owners.

The ordinance was introduced at the Jan. 28 council meeting, but not before Councilman Carl R. A. Wright (D-Ward 4) angrily “called out” his fellow council members for delaying the vote and doing nothing to help the district’s revitalization for a decade.

Wright was also sharply critical of Councilman James Vassanella (D-Ward 5).

The ordinance was necessitated by the discovery late last year that the former Hamilton Street Business and Community Corporation’s Board of Directors was not properly constituted. The corporation was formed to manage the district’s renovation after it was designated a special improvement district.

The corporation was funded by a special tax levied on property owners in the district. The corporation had an approximately $80,000 annual budget.

An investigation by Township Manager Bob Vornlocker revealed that the board had not had elections in 11 years, and that the only duly constituted members were those appointed by the council.

As a result, the trustees board was disbanded, and the corporation’s executive director, former Mayor and U.S. Representative Mike Pappas, was let go.

An ad hoc committee was formed to look into the issue. The proposed ordinance is the product of that committee.

Under the ordinance, the Township Council would assume the role formerly held by the HSBCC, that of “district management corporation.”

The council’s powers as such include the ability to hire employees, accept donations of money or land, fund the improvement of building exteriors and building rehabilitations, and “accept, purchase, rehabilitate, sell, lease or manage property in the district,” according to the ordinance.

The ordinance also creates a Hamilton Street Advisory Board, which would advise the council – as district management corporation – on matters related to the special improvement district and the DMC’s powers. The advisory board would also create its yearly budget and business plan, which would have to be approved by the council.

The advisory board voting members would be comprised of four property owners within the district, four owners or operators of business within the district, two residential property owners from the district and one other member.

The board’s non-voting members would be Ward 4 and 5 council members, another council member, the mayor, the township manager, and the township police chief, engineer, planning director and special projects manager.

A group of Hamilton Street merchants have already formed their own organization – the Hamilton Street Merchants Association – with the thought that it would be the successor to the HSBCC, said Michael Gianotto, one of the group’s organizers.

Gianotto asked the council to delay introducing the ordinance until the council and the merchants’ group had a chance to sit down and talk.

He said the group’s founders have created a set of bylaws – in conjunction with the state Department of Community Affairs – that are “very specific to a management corporation for a special improvement district.”

He said the plan was to have an interim board, with formal elections no later than six months after its formation.

Another Hamilton Street merchant, David Rubin, said the ordinance “gives the township too much power to use the funding, where the owners don’t have much of any control.”

“Most of the business owners have no idea” of the proposed ordinance, he said.

“Ninety nine percent of the people want the SID removed,” he said. “They have paid a tax for years and have seen nothing from it.”

After he spoke to the council, Gianotto said the proposed ordinance was a “bad precedent for SIDS around the state.”

“The council has tremendous power,” he said. “The proposed structure is unnecessary and undesirable.”

The merchants’ concerns led Councilman Ted Chase (D-Ward 1) to ask if the public hearing could be put off to the council’s second February meeting, rather than the first, to allow time for discussions with the group.

Chase later withdrew his proposal, after township attorney Louis Rainone said delaying the final adoption could jeopardize the council’s ability to collect the special tax in 2014.

Vassanella said that the council would probably give great weight to any recommendations that came out of the advisory committee, just as it does with other township advisory committees.

“Just because the word ‘advisory’ is in there, I wouldn’t take it lightly,” he said.

There was also discussion about “sun-setting” the ordinance after two years. Rainone said the SID law has a one-year sunset clause built in, because the council has to approve a budget each year.

“You could just vote to not fund it,” he said.

A motion made by Councilman Phil Kramer (D-Ward 3) to reduce the number of council members on the advisory committee from four to 3 died for want of a second.

It was at that point that Wright had heard enough.

“For 10 years, this thing has sat here,” he said, his voice uncharacteristically rising. “I walk down Hamilton Street, and nothing is happening.”

“Some of the council members in this room were on the SID” board that was later found to not have had any elections, he said.

“If you’re sitting on that board and you didn’t know that it wasn’t constituted right, then you’re a dummy from the start,” Wright said.

Wright said when the “center” of the township moved from Hamilton Street to the DeMott Lane area, “you forgot about Hamilton Street. You left Hamilton Street to its own devices, and what happened? Zero.”

“This is ridiculous” Wright said. “I want Hamilton Street not the way it is. I want Hamilton Street to have buildings on it where people are employed. I want Hamilton Street to have parking on it, which it doesn’t have now.”

“I don’t want anyone to take this lightly,” he continued, “especially the guy who owns the other end of Hamilton Street and was on the board from the beginning.”

Wright later said he was referring to Vassanella.

“Let’s just vote on the damn thing and move forward,” he said.

The council then unanimously voted to introduce the ordinance.The public hearing is set for the council’s Feb. 11 meeting.

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