By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Sea Isle City residents will have the choice of voting for a new community recreation center that includes an indoor pool – or one that does not.
For more than a year, city officials have been discussing whether to redevelop the old public school at 4501 Park Road into a recreation center.
In the next step, the city will place a non-binding referendum on the Nov. 5 ballot asking registered voters whether the recreation facility should include a pool or not.
At its Aug. 13 meeting, City Council approved the wording for the referendum as well as an interpretive statement.
The referendum says, “Shall the City of Sea Isle City in the construction of a municipal recreation building include a public swimming pool?”
A yes vote will be in support of a pool, while a no vote means the recreation center should be built without a pool, according to the interpretive statement.
The referendum also breaks down the tax implications of having a new pool versus not having one.
City officials are gathering public feedback before any decisions are made on the final cost and design of the school’s redevelopment – or whether to even go forward with the project.
During the Council meeting, City Solicitor Paul Baldini described the referendum as “another tool” to help gauge public support for the recreation center. He also stressed that it is a non-binding referendum.
“It’s not an end-all or be-all by itself,” Baldini told the audience members.
However, questions are already being raised about the proposed cost of the recreation center as well as the impact on the local tax rate.
According to figures released earlier by the city, the cost would range from $17 million to $20 million for a recreation center having a pool. There would be an additional cost of $500,000 to $1 million per year to staff and maintain the pool.
A project costing $17 million to $20 million would result in an extra $300 to $400 in local taxes annually on an average home assessed at $700,000, City Business Administrator George Savastano said during a June 29 town hall meeting on the project.
A recreation center built without a pool would cost an estimated $13 million to $16 million. At that price, it would add between $100 and $200 annually in local taxes on a home assessed at $700,000, Savastano said.
John O’Connell, a Sea Isle summer resident, characterized the construction cost as “almost ludicrous.” He called on the city to build a smaller, less expensive recreation center.
“This is an enormous expenditure,” O’Connell told the Council members at the Aug. 12 meeting.
He predicted that higher taxes associated with the project would harm property sales in Sea Isle.
Others object that only the city’s registered voters will be able to vote on the referendum. Some believe the referendum should be opened up to all of the city’s taxpayers, not just the residents.
“Most homeowners and taxpayers are not residents, by far,” David Cohan, a part-time Sea Isle resident said to the Council members.
Council President J.B. Feeley assured Cohan that the city is working on ways to reach out to all property owners about the recreation center.
The old school occupies an entire block bordered by Park Road, Central Avenue, 45th Street and 46th Street, giving a large footprint to build a recreation facility. The school closed in 2012 due to Sea Isle’s declining student enrollment.
The building is currently used for office space, storage, special events, community programs and public recreation in the gymnasium. City officials said the building is in need of a new heating and air-conditioning system, a modern gymnasium, new windows and doors and new handicap-accessible bathrooms. It also does not meet current flood standards.
Separate from the November referendum, the city recently circulated a questionnaire asking the public whether a new recreation center should be built with or without a pool.
The questionnaire also gave respondents the option of supporting the school’s renovation into a recreation center, at an estimated cost of $2 million. The renovation plan would be far less elaborate than building an entirely new recreation center and would not include a pool.
Of the 773 completed questionnaires that were turned in to the city, 358 of the respondents favored building a new recreation center with a pool.
According to the results, 184 of the respondents were in favor of renovating the old school and 179 want the city to build a new recreation center without a pool.
Respondents were also given the choice of “none of the above.” That choice was selected by 52 respondents.