Smith at odds with mayor on complex

Howell councilwoman says residents should decide if municipal offices should move

BY PATRICIA A. MILLER Staff Writer

Howell Township Councilwoman Pauline Smith thinks officials should stay put and renovate Howell’s aging municipal complex, rather than buying what she called a “white elephant” like the Global Corporate Center on Route 9 north and moving municipal operations there.

Howell residents should have the ultimate say through a referendum, Smith said in a recent interview.

“That [existing municipal] complex does not belong to the governing body,” Smith said. “It belongs to the people. It was planned as a hub.”

Smith objected to Mayor Robert F. Walsh’s remarks in a recent Greater Media Newspapers article in which he said he could not see spending millions of dollars to upgrade the buildings in the municipal complex, which are more than 100 years old.

“To me, it’s an absolute insult,” Smith said. “It insults me as a public official and it really makes me upset as a taxpaying citizen of Howell. I don’t like the way it was presented. Mayor Walsh doesn’t know Howell. He doesn’t appreciate the municipal complex. I know Howell and I care.”

Smith said she has seen the reports compiled by Accredited Environmental Technologies (AET), a Pennsylvania firm the Township Council hired in December to conduct hazardous materials inspections at town hall and several other buildings in the Preventorium Road complex that are used for municipal services.

“I’ve been criticized as a crazy woman who wants to save a 100-year-old building,” Smith said. “One hundred years is nothing. We have public buildings in this country well over 100 years old. How old is the White House? Everything can be saved if properly maintained.”

The consultant’s report detailed an array of problems in town hall, the recreation building, the fire district building and the engineering building, including asbestos in some areas, mold and lead-based paint.

Smith faulted previous administrations over the years for allowing the municipal complex to deteriorate.

“The municipal complex was not properly maintained for years,” she said. “Past administrations did not bother with it at all. I am embarrassed and ashamed as a public official and upset as a taxpayer. We’ve been there for 30-some years. We let it happen.”

Previous administrations had no problem bonding millions of dollars for sports complexes in Howell, but did nothing to alleviate conditions at the municipal complex, Smith said.

A discussion about the situation at the municipal complex was on the agenda for the March 16 council meeting. That meeting was held after this issue went to press.

“The building [town hall] needs to be maintained,” Smith said. “It wouldn’t all have to be done today. I resent having to make a decision now.”

Smith wants to see more numbers on how much it would cost to maintain the Global Corporate Center — which the council has discussed buying and turning into municipal offices — and whether there would be enough tenants interested in leasing space in the building that the municipality does not use.

“We should not be building government, we should be minimizing government,” the councilwoman said. “We do not need to go into the real estate business. It’s [Global Corporate Center] been empty most of the time. It’s a white elephant.”

The owner of the building has offered to sell the Route 9 edifice to Howell for $8 million. The building is handicapped-accessible, has sprinklers, includes office furniture, has room for growth and revenue potential from leasing out space. It is assessed at $14.6 million, Walsh has said.

Howell would need at least another $2 million for the corporate center, including $1.5 million for renovations and another $500,000 in soft costs, the mayor has said.

In its report, AET offered three options for remediation costs for town hall. It would run about $310,000 to address all of the asbestos, lead and mold issues if the township kept the building.

It would cost $725,000 for pre-demolition asbestos remediation if township officials decided to demolish the building.

AET estimated it would cost $180,000 for remediation to transfer ownership of the building, according to the report.

The Preventorium Road site was chosen as Howell’s municipal complex almost 40 years ago.

“It’s basically the center of the township,” Smith said. “It’s the hub.”

Previous plans for town hall called for building an addition onto the existing structure, Smith said.

“It is more economically sound to do that plan,” she said. “That would be something we already have, instead of going down Route 9 on a busy highway.”

Many residents are suffering because of the recession and cannot afford a hike in their property taxes, Smith said.

“People are begging me not to do anything because they can’t afford to pay their taxes now,” the councilwoman said. “I would like to do what needs to be done and stay in the current municipal complex.”

The municipal complex was built in 1910 as a “preventorium,” or “The Prevent,” as locals called it.

Preventoriums were built in the early decades of the 20th century as havens for children and young adults believed to be at risk for contracting tuberculosis, a major killer back then.

Contact Patricia A. Miller

at pmiller@gmnews.com.