By Frank Mustac, Special Writer
HOPEWELL TWP. — With legal fees for the municipality’s ongoing affordable housing court case quickly adding up, and related costs mounting, the Township Committee does not seem to like it one bit.
Hopewell Township is in litigation ultimately to get a ruling on how many dwelling units for low- and moderate-income homes and rental units it will take to meet the municipality’s state-mandated constitutional obligation.
The maximum dollar amount the township allocated until year’s end to pay the Planning Board’s affordable housing attorney, Ronald Morgan of the law firm Parker McCay, was $17,000. Now the figure is $34,000.
The maximum set aside for Township Planner Frank Banisch for work performed related to the litigation was $13,000. Now it’s $17,000.
“Parker McKay was for extra work for affordable housing, as was Banisch Associates,” said Paul Pogorzelski, the township administrator, at Monday morning’s Township Committee meeting.
Although the Township Committee voted unanimously to pass a resolution amending professional service agreements to reflect the higher dollar amounts, Committeeman Kevin Kuchinski seemed troubled about the increases.
“My concern about the bills, particularly the legal bills, is that we’re getting them in the middle of December when these costs have already been incurred,” Mr. Kuchinski said. “I just think that next year we have to make sure we have proper financial controls in place.”
Committeeman John Hart appeared frustrated over the matter.
“We’ve got so many people working on this affordable housing,” Mr. Hart said. “I see the funds go up, but I don’t see anybody doing anything on it.”
“You’ve got too many groups working on this same thing. They’re overlapping each other,” he said. “I don’t think there should be so many professionals working on this.”
Besides the Parker McCay law firm and Banisch Associates that work for the Planning Board, the Township Committee has its own law firm for affordable housing — Mason, Griffin & Pierson.
“Any planning meetings I’ve attended, I don’t see any justification for exorbitant numbers for affordable housing. No way,” Mr. Hart said. “On the Planning Board, I hear them talking in circles on what we can do and what we can’t. It’s the same old story.”
“Nothing is getting done, so I don’t know why we keep paying these bills.
“I think we need to have an executive meeting here, get out front and say hey, ‘This is who we want to run this thing and we have a set goal what the expense is going to be and you let us know if it goes over it.’”
Mr. Hart asked the township administrator whether there could some consolidation in the number of law firms being used.
“We can have that conversation,” Mr. Pogorzelski said.
Because township officials were unsure of what to expect in the affordable housing litigation process, Mr. Pogorzelski said, the Parker McCay law firm fee was originally estimated at $5,000 and all the other attorneys were estimated at $10,000.
“That has ballooned tremendously, those costs,” he said.
The township administrator said he had given all the attorneys formal notice “that I do not want Parker McCay really doing anything anymore without specific permission being granted.”
Mr. Kuchinski said he understands the affordable housing litigation has contributed to a 100-percent increase in legal fees over the prior year.
“We understand we budgeted for some of that, but these last-minute increases are problematic,” he said. “There are two issues from my perspective. One, we’re not getting bills on a timely basis, and two, it’s apparent that the power to pre-approve (expenses) is too diffuse so that there is no actual control. So we have to tackle those two specific items.”
“I think starting next year, we do something from a process standpoint. The current process isn’t working,” he said.
Committeemen Hart and Brandt said they agree.
The township administrator said he would email all the attorneys involved in the affordable housing case and ask them to meet with him “to discuss expenses and protocols, and things like that.”
By Frank Mustac, Special Writer