Funding issues slow plan for muster zone

BY JOYCE BLAY Staff Writer

Staff Writer

LAKEWOOD — Township committeemen insist there will be a muster zone for Lakewood’s day laborers, but it does not appear as if it will be established anytime soon.

“You’re not just building a patio, and it doesn’t come cheap,” Mayor Raymond Coles said. “I think everybody wants to do something, but it’s not going to happen tomorrow.”

Coles said that he had only recently seen a report submitted by municipal manager Frank Edwards. Coles had requested that Edwards prepare the report following comments at an October meeting made by Committeeman Robert Singer.

Singer had commented on the possibility of moving the men who stand along Clifton Avenue to seek work on a daily basis to a more appropriate location. The community center was mentioned as the possible site of a muster zone where employees would be able to hire workers for the day.

Committeeman Charles Cunliffe said he was just as surprised by the estimate provided by Edwards for the construction of a muster zone shelter for day laborers.

“The proposal would have called for the construction of a permanent structure,” the committeeman said. “We saw various suggestions on what to do and two or three of them were out of the question financially. The members all felt we should go back to the drawing board.”

Cunliffe said the bottom line was cost.

“When we reviewed the report in executive session the numbers were shocking,” he said. “All five of us were flabbergasted. At this moment in time we don’t have the money.”

Deputy Mayor Meir Lichtenstein stressed that despite initial estimates that made the project prohibitive at this time, the governing body was committed to providing a safe alternative for the men who regularly wait on the sidewalks along Clifton Avenue for a chance to work.

“We’re revisiting and exploring what options are feasible and what the town can do” with the funding it can afford, he said.

The report included several alternatives for construction of a shelter on township-owned land behind the community center on 4th Street, according to Coles.

Although community activist Ada Gonzalez had suggested four poles and a canvas covering as a suitable shelter, Coles said it would not be that simple to construct, or as inexpensive as Gonzalez made it appear.

“What we’re looking at is a rudimentary structure [all the way up to] building a gym in the back of the community center,” said Coles. “We have the property behind the community center, [and] when we got into the thing, the thought was that we could throw that one in there, too, for use as both a muster zone as well as a recreational facility.”

Coles said a gymnasium would have

cost millions of dollars to construct.

No matter what type of facility was selected, Edwards said the committee would have to approve ordinances that made the operation of a muster zone possible. For that reason, he said he had also sent a copy of the report to Steven Secare, the township attorney.

Secare did not return a call placed to his office, but Edwards said the hours of operation would have to be regulated through legislation, as would the designation of the area for the purpose of a muster zone.

The issue of a muster zone arose earlier this year in Freehold Borough and ended up in federal court when advocates for immigrant day laborers sued the borough after officials closed the area that had been used as the muster zone for about five years.

The borough was eventually ordered to allow day laborers to stand on public property at the muster zone location. The day laborers were not permitted to continue using a railroad right of way as part of the muster zone.

Coles noted that Freehold’s day laborers have since moved to private property at a convenience store closer to the center of town. That location has become a de facto muster zone.

“Freehold is not actively engaged in the operation of the muster zone. There is no structure on it,” the mayor said.

Lakewood police Capt. Rob Lawson said he is concerned that it may only be a matter of time before there is an accident or fatality involving day laborers and/or the contractors who cruise up and down Clifton Avenue early in the morning to hire them. Lawson said many of the contractors double park or triple park along the town’s main thoroughfare and that job seekers rush their vehicles from sidewalks on both sides of Clifton Avenue.

He also said merchants and church officials have complained of damage to landscaping and public urination on their properties by the day laborers waiting in front of those locations.

Lawson said there are no anti-loitering laws in Lakewood that his department could enforce to prevent people, including day laborers, from standing on Clifton Avenue all day if they want to do so.

Currently, Lakewood’s underground economy comes out before sun-up each day to wait for contractors to drive along Clifton Avenue with an offer of work. Most of those seeking work are Mexican and many are in the United States illegally.

Gonzalez said the men would support the creation of a muster zone where they could wait for offers of employment in safety. However, she also said that contractors are less supportive of the idea since the men they hire are usually paid off the books.

In spite of the funding issues, Coles said he hoped that the Township Committee would be able to take action on the creation of a muster zone by next year.

“We just want to make sure that what we do is the best for the township,” he said.