"Mr. Hess, you have ten seconds to ask your question" the Mayor exhorted me at the end of tonight's joint Commission-Board of Education public meeting on the proposed purchase of the Bancroft Property.
My question closed the meeting.
The Mayor opened the meeting by including her oft-recited admonition that she hoped people would observe proper "decorum" throughout the meeting and be respectful of others. As a resident, citizen, and advocate from day one of the public purchase of Bancroft I, too, would like to be shown a bit more respect.
This was a public meeting where the public was invited to ask questions and make comments. Please keep that in mind next time dear elected officials!
Rant over. Kind of...
Here is how I have conducted myself since 2006 when Bancroft first publicly announced its intention to sell the property at the East end of Haddonfield.
When asked in 2006, I joined with four others to officially sponsor a petition to add the Open Space Trust Fund to the ballot. Some of my fellow petitioners were on opposite sides of the recently ended "Dog Wars" of Haddonfield. No matter, the issue of Bancroft was big enough to allow us to overcome any prior disagreements - it was for the good of the Borough and our community.
On a day not unlike today (extremely hot and humid) I handed out free lemonade to residents and others shopping on Kings Highway while asking them to support a ballot initiative that would voluntarily raise their taxes. That November it passed overwhelmingly.
It was passed by a large margin five years later.
On at least one occasion I have heard the Mayor say something to the effect of "Never in a million years would I have imagined that Haddonfield voters would approve a tax increase on themselves". Well, they did. Twice.
In 2006 I created Haddonfieldaction.org. As much information as I could gather about Bancroft, funding open space, and the merits of Community Space were posted online. This took place years before the failed Heyer and Gruel effort which finally led our Commissioners to pay the second consulting firm to establish a community dialog online. Feel free to check it out. It's still online but has not been updated for many years.
In 2011 I dropped in to Boro Hall as the ballots were being counted to detemine if the Open Space Trust Fund would continue for another 5 years. A small handful of press were there as well as our Boro Clerk and the Mayor and a few politicians (also awaiting the outcome of the races that night). When the topic of Bancroft came up, our Mayor volunteered that she didn't think anything would happen with the Bancroft property for as far as she could predict.
Here we are less than a year later and we're heading toward a public purchase of the land.
Here's my point. If the public ownership of Bancroft is a worthwhile community goal, then we have to have the leadership and the vision to bring the community to that goal. The baton has been passed. Our elected leaders have presented a plan. It is clearly up to the residents to develop a vision and "sell" it to the larger community.
Starting today and every day until January 22, 2013 when the Boro goes to referendum on the purchase of the property, there has to be...
a vigorous debate on the merits of public ownership
a comprehensible and comprehensive financial plan presented detailing our future liabilities as well as assets and sources of income that can offset those liabilities (in short - what will residents really be paying and how will we afford it)
from my perspective, the recognition that things are not really run that well around here - including the BID (witness Haddon Avenue), Public Works, and our lack of commitment to harvest the 1,000 trees that are going to come down under emergent circumstances if we fail to act, among others. Why is this important? Because you need to show you can clean up your toys before we go to the store to buy that big Lego set you've always wanted. In other words - can we commit as a Boro and School Board to continue a rigorous self-examination in order to find ways to a) improve downtown ratables, b) support all businesses with the BID or just get out of the way c) continue to seek shared services and efficiencies such as the shared Municipal Court and privatized trash hauling and d) do we really need our own water department? Can we sell it and use proceeds to lower our debt?
Just like any family that undertakes a large investment (say college, a home, etc.) knowing that other choices need to be made (get a second job, forego a luxury vacation, etc.) we as the Haddonfield family need to find ways to pay for this investment that don't unfairly punish taxpayers least able to afford it. The transaction can take up to four years to close. Surely we can raise substantial private donations during that time as well.
a real recognition that the proposed turf fields are a non-starter with many in the community. Their entanglement with the proposed Bancroft purchase is bad public policy. The merits of turf need to be fully debated in a separate forum.
I look forward to the next 6 months. The Commissioners and Board of Education have done their jobs and brought us to a defining moment. While I can be critical I can also deliver praise and I do thank them for (finally) getting out in front of the parade that Haddonfield citizens have been marching in since 2006.
We were told tonight that if Haddonfield voters say "No" then Bancroft will likely remain and significantly improve their property. I can imagine many other scenarios playing out if we turn down this deal - especially if the real estate market substantially improves and if COAH still exists.
Looking forward to the debate - may the best ideas prevail and may Haddonfield win no matter what the outcome.