by Kurt Bresswein for lehighvalleylive.com
The Phillipsburg Police Department in March took delivery of a $10,000 trailer for officers to work out of, two years after every other department began vacating town hall because of a black mold infestation.
Some officers take advantage of desk space in the temporary municipal building in the former Freeman School at 124 Filmore St. No one uses the basement, where the department’s detectives used to be housed. But, the 675 Corliss Ave. municipal building remains the police headquarters, following a deadline approved by the department’s supervisors’ union to be out of there by mid-March.
“WE ARE STILL HERE,” wrote Lt. John Maczko, president of the Policemen’s Benevolent Association Superior Officers’ Association Local No. 56. “Clearly no cares about our well-being, since no attempts have been made to find us a SAFE Environment to work in.”
Maczko sent that to Mayor Stephen Ellis and town council Jan. 27, announcing: “The Union has voted and we want to be moved out the building within the next 45 days: be it to Trailers or any temporary location, until the Police Department is built.”
Council is awaiting cost estimates from the town’s engineering firm, Van Cleef Engineering Associates, on the three options for relocating police, according to Ellis. One option is to gut and renovate 675 Corliss Ave., and another is to seek a second round of bids on converting the town-owned former Phillipsburg Armory at 441 Heckman St. into a public safety complex. The third option under review is to install a prefabricated structure beside the renovated armory to house new municipal offices.
Months Before Estimates Are Ready
Engineer Stan Schrek said Friday he was still awaiting Ellis’ approval of the contract to draw up the Corliss Avenue estimates. Ellis on Friday afternoon said he’d be submitting to council for approval Tuesday the Corliss Avenue contract along with contracts to revisit the armory property.
Once approved, Schrek said it would be a couple of months before the estimates are presented to council for approval.
The mayor has made clear his preference to move to the armory, Fulper said. As for Fulper, he remains open to whichever option is cheaper and still meets the police department’s needs.
“I don’t have much faith in that number being affordable,” Ellis said Friday of the Corliss Avenue rehabilitation and renovation.
The temporary trailer, Fulper said, is “not good enough.”
“I really would personally like to see them move to the Filmore Street facility or another facility,” he told lehighvalleylive.com.
After the discovery of the mold in town hall early in 2017, the municipal court was moved by March 2017, followed by the other municipal offices by that November.
“I wanted them out two years ago,” Councilwoman Danielle Degerolamo said during Tuesday’s council meeting. “They asked to be out, I want them out.”
Maczko on Friday declined to comment beyond the letter from the police supervisors’ union. The January letter notes the last time air quality had been tested in the building was Feb. 13, 2018.
“You should also be aware that our Attorney has directed our Membership to make Doctor’s Appointments, to get chest x-rays, speak with an Allergist, and if appropriate fill out a Worker’s Comp form,” he wrote to the town’s elected officials. “I want to fully disclose this information to you, since the Town was honest enough to disclose all the Environmental Issues with the Mold to us.”
Police Chief Robert Stettner on Friday told lehighvalleylive.com he’s read up on black mold but isn’t an expert, and couldn’t comment on whether officers have been sickened by the air quality.
“I think it’s under control right now,” he said. “When the rest of the municipal employees left it was probably at its peak. There’s been measures taken by an environmental agency to try and quell some of those issues but there’s some areas you just can’t go in because it’s terrible.
“Like nobody goes in the basement.”
“We just want the same for us”. From the union’s perspective, leadership just wants the officers out: “You did it for the rest of the Town’s Employees, and we just want the same for us,” Maczko wrote.
Stettner is careful not to wade into the rift between Ellis and council, which approved a vote of no confidence in the mayor last November.
A committee comprising the mayor along with council and police union leadership has been formed to foster communications on finding the police department a new home.
“We don’t want any silos,” Ellis said. “We want everyone to be in the same room talking about the same redevelopment.”
If he had his choice, Stettner said he would prefer moving to the armory because it’s south of Memorial Parkway (Route 22). That’s where the bulk of police calls are, he said, and it can be dangerous to cross the highway from the Corliss Avenue side.
Cost is a Major Consideration
“I’m the chief of police here but I’m also a taxpayer. I live in town here,” Stettner said. “I don’t want to see the town waste money.
“If you told me it would be cheaper to stay in Corliss Avenue and have everything we need to function, it is what it is. From a logistical standpoint, I would love to be over at the armory.”
Estimates Ellis released last July showed a cost of $4.5 million to renovate the existing municipal building, including $1.8 million for asbestos and mold remediation. That’s the same as the $4.5 million estimate at the time to retrofit the armory for police, fire and EMS to use 12,000 square feet and build a new 14,000-square-foot, one-story municipal building.
Bids for the armory project came in almost $1 million higher than that and were rejected by council, delaying the decision, officials said.
$1.76M Temporary Fix Proposed
Fulper said a more realistic estimate for Corliss Avenue is around $6.5 million, but officials won’t know for sure until Schrek prepares new bid-ready specifications.
Ellis has proposed a temporary fix of securing a 10,800-square-foot trailer park at an annual cost of $1.76 million for the armory property so police can begin working there, according to Fulper. But even that isn’t as simple as it sounds, Stettner said.
“You can’t pick up and move a police department,” he said. “Logistically there’s a lot of things that go into a police department that you just can’t put into a space. … We have to follow certain rules like with evidence, cells.”
Ellis said Friday he doesn’t think the trailer park is feasible.
“We have the bids and it still could be discussed, but it’s not the most efficient and effective way to move the police,” the mayor said.
Fulper also rejects the armory-trailer idea, saying that regardless of what the town does, it’s on the hook for the $1.8 million remediation at Corliss Avenue. If the town were to sell the property, it would have to deduct that from the price. And the building can’t just be demolished without remediation because the mold spores would spread into the neighborhood, he said.
Paying for the trailer proposal and the remediation could easily push the amount the town needs to borrow to around $10 million, according to Fulper.
“I can’t do that,” Fulper said. “That’s not fiscally responsible.”
Meanwhile, the mold remains one extra worry for police trying to do their jobs out on the streets.
“They need to worry about their safety when they’re out there,” Stettner said.