A local, Internet-based group has launched a campaign against the public purchase of the Bancroft property.
Haddonfield United, which describes itself as a "grassroots organization of local residents advocating responsible government," announced its opposition this week to a $16.8 million school board referendum for the purchase on Jan. 22.
“If approved, the school board’s $16.8 million bond will drive up our local property taxes at a time when many Haddonfield residents are struggling to pay their existing tax bills,” said Brian Kelly, a founder of the group. “Supporters of the bond referendum may claim that the property tax increases will be ‘small,’ but our town’s middle-class residents and seniors on fixed incomes would beg to differ, especially in light of the fact that they are already paying twice the state average in property taxes.”
But the Haddonfield United campaign is drawing criticism by other some other residents who are also active in civic affairs.
Bill Tourtellotte, a past president of the borough civic association, and Bill Reynolds, a former mayor who remains active in community affairs, both criticized Kelly's effort.
"The BOE is looking ahead and I am supportive of their efforts to protect our future and retain our position as the place to be in the region for excellent public education," Tourtellotte said. "A substantial portion of the funds are being identified to come from other sources that should keep the taxpayer costs to a reasonable level. I’m not concerned about future costs related to this land decision being unreasonable because such decisions, like with any bond initiatives, will be in the hands of the voters as required."
Borough officials said this month they believe at least $3.5 million in state and county grants and open-space tax funds will be used toward the $16.8 million price for the purchase and development of the property at 425 Kings Highway East, next to Haddonfield Memorial High School. Those funds are not likely to be secured before the final language for the bond referendum is approved on Nov. 27.
That means the referendum could be for more money than the school board will actually spend for the project. The borough and school board will jointly own the 19-acre property. Most of it will be owned by the BOE, which plans to develop part of it with an artificial-turf field and also resurface the existing football stadium with artificial turf. The borough will own open-space land adjacent to Camden County's Pennypacker Park and land on which affordable housing could be built.
“Local officials would have Haddonfield residents believe that this purchase is principally about preserving open space,” Kelly said. “However, the school board has made clear that it wants to develop portions of the property as an educational campus, which would put Haddonfield taxpayers on the hook for potentially tens of millions of dollars more in taxes above and beyond the initial $16.8 million bond. Haddonfield simply can’t afford such expenditures when our town has struggled for years to fix even potholes.”
Haddonfield’s average property tax of $12,088.88 is nearly twice the state average at $7,776, according to the state Department of Community Affairs. Haddonfield has the second highest average property tax bill in Camden County. It trails Tavistock, an exclusive enclave at the tip of Haddonfield, enclosed mostly in an exclusive golf course. Haddonfield's property tax bills are 27 percent higher than Voorhees, $8,777.41, third in the county.
Reynolds, a former borough mayor, member of the borough library board, and is still active with the Haddonfield Education Trust, said he welcomes Kelly's activism, but disagrees with his stance.
"To me, this kind of advocacy is what makes a small town like Haddonfield such a great place to live," Reynolds said. "I tend to favor the 'vote yes' crowd. But there are arguments on both sides, and Haddonfielders are in for an interesting couple of months as we weigh the pros and cons of the issue.
"I suspect we will see a 'vote yes' campaign starting pretty quickly."