Eatontown council clashes over Mallette Hall

Mayor wants Fort Monmouth site for new boro hall

BY DAN HOWLEY
Staff Writer

 Mallette Hall Mallette Hall Eatontown Mayor Gerald Tarantolo will begin lobbying the federal government to give Fort Monmouth’s Mallette Hall building to the municipality for use as a new town hall, despite a lack of support from several Borough Council members.

Tarantolo laid out his case for acquiring the building at no cost from the Army during a contentious June 8 council meeting, which saw the Democratic mayor and Republican Councilmen Kevin Gonzalez and Dennis Connelly trade repeated barbs over the issue.

Tarantolo, who has been seeking the building for use as a new borough municipal center since he was a member of the now disbanded Fort Monmouth Economic Revitalization Planning Authority (FMERPA), has attempted to sway the council to support his Mallette Hall plan on several occasions with little success.

Connelly and Gonzalez both say the building could prove too costly to the borough. According to Tarantolo, the borough’s current municipal complex is overcrowded, with many departments needing at least 50 percent more space.

The main stumbling block to Tarantolo’s plan has been the resistance of Gonzalez, Connelly and Councilman Mark Regan, who believe the building could prove expensive to the borough in the future.

“If we are going to be successful in the acquisition of that building, we have got to have our plan in place,” Tarantolo said.

“We’ve got to start the negotiations for the acquisition of that building, and as I have stipulated on numerous occasions, my intent is not to purchase that building, but to get it as a gift from the federal government.”

Tarantolo has stated on numerous occasions that the government owes the borough the building in return for educating children from the fort.

As a former borough Board of Education member, Tarantolo said he knows that the Army did not provide enough funding to the board to educate children from the fort in the municipality’s schools.

As a result, Tarantolo said, he believes the government is indebted to the town, and can be persuaded to give Mallette Hall to the borough as a gift in repayment.

But in order to negotiate with the Army, Tarantolo said he needs each member of council to support his efforts.

“I’m going to be honest with you, I don’t want to undertake any negotiations if I don’t have the complete support of the council, because that weakens my position,” he said.

“If we are a 3-3 split on this, that’s not good. We’ve got to go into this all supporting the concept that the building could potentially be used as our municipal complex.”

But Connelly and Gonzalez, who have expressed their dissatisfaction with the plan during prior discussions, would not be swayed.

“My position hasn’t really changed on this building,” Connelly said. “I don’t believe that’s the answer. I just believe that it is too big and that we are going overboard on what we are trying to accomplish.”

Connelly argued that although Mallette Hall is designated as the possible future site of Eatontown Borough Hall in the Fort Monmouth reuse plan, the council has not received confirmation that the municipality will receive the building for free.

Tarantolo shot back, saying that he wants the council’s support to acquire that exact information from the federal government.

Connelly also argued that there are other options within the borough for expansion that wouldn’t require the municipality to move to the fort building.

Following a previous discussion about the building, Connelly said he attempted to negotiate with the Board of Education for space at one of its buildings. Those negotiations, he said, were unsuccessful.

Connelly also pointed to the now- vacant Steelman School property, which the board sold for $1.4 million in 2007, as a potential expansion site.

“[The school] is sitting there abandoned. That is just a shame that this town sees it wasting away,” he said.

He also took exception with how the municipality determined its space requirements.

According to Connelly, the process was informal and resulted in the head of each borough department requesting approximately 50 percent more space.

“That’s great that everyone wants double, but it’s just not realistic. I know that there are some areas that are extremely cramped, but then there are areas that are not so cramped.”

Tarantolo pointed to the fact that the police department performs non-confidential witness interviews in the borough hall lobby, because of space constraints.

Connelly replied that the borough has other options available, including reducing the number of break rooms in borough hall from two to one, removing the police department’s gym and doing away with the bar and living room at the borough’s fire department.

He also suggested that the borough enter into a shared services agreement with Tinton Falls for its court services and expand the police department into the current municipal courtroom.

Gonzalez backed Connelly, saying, “I would love to have a 5,000-square-foot house; the fact remains that I can only afford at 2,000-square-foot house.

“First of all, I don’t think — whether we get the building for free or not — we can afford it,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez also speculated that by designating Mallette Hall as the possible site of borough hall, the municipality could be blocking private businesses from purchasing the site.

“I think in the current economic environment … we need to sit back; let’s see what happens, and I don’t think we can afford to put any money into this at this point.”

Councilman Anthony Talerico Jr., a Democrat, said he would back Tarantolo’s plan if the municipality could get the building for free, have it inspected by a borough professional and, if it is found to be in poor shape, reserve the right to return it to the government.

“I think that building would serve an excellent purpose, and with the extra amenities and the geothermal [system], I think it’s a win,” he said.

“I would like to continue saying I don’t know if the building is in good condition or not, and so I certainly would give you my blessing to go out there and ask for it for free,” he said, addressing Tarantolo, “with the understanding that council is not put in the position to automatically accept it if we find out that the free building is going to cost more money than we bargained for.”

But Connelly said he would not support that initiative either.

“I think we are making some bad decisions,” Tarantolo said. “I think it’s a travesty that this council can’t support me in an effort to rectify a shortcoming of this building that has already been identified.

“I think this is something that we need desperately in town,” he added. Contact Daniel Howley at dhowley@gmnews.com.