Township, FD reach agreement on new building

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:50

    SPARTA-After more than six months of negotiations, township officials reached a long-term operational agreement for the new fire department building off Woodport Road. The township council authorized to transfer ownership of the building to the volunteer Sparta Fire Department for as long as the facility and property are used for the primary purpose of providing firefighting services. Transfer of ownership is contingent upon sale of the existing fire headquarters on West Shore Trail, for which the township will receive a portion of the proceeds. Under the agreement, the fire department will own both the property and the new building, which was constructed at a cost of nearly $3.3 million last year. The non-profit department, which had owned the land, kicked in about $1 million toward construction, while the remaining funds were derived from the township. Township manager Henry Underhill said if the building is eventually sold, proceeds of the sale will be divided between both the township and fire department. "They've always been in control of their building," he said. "The department wanted to be secure with their investment in the building." Marty Schweighardt, a former longtime New Jersey firefighter and now a retired Sparta resident, said the transfer was a bad idea. "I never heard of a town building a firehouse with taxpayer money and giving it away," he said. "You're losing a facility n and believe me I know n to a bunch of men. To give them a building on their own is a big mistake." Councilman Douglas Martin defended the transfer, acknowledging a history of assisting volunteer organizations in town. He cited, as an example, the township co-signing the mortgage with the ambulance squad for construction of its new building. "We're not giving the firehouse away," he said. "They (Fire Department) put up money that was raised toward this building. We're just allowing them to maintain the building for fire purposes and their own social events." Township attorney Tom Ryan said ownership of the building is subject to conditions in the agreement, most notably fire services and maintenance of the facility at no cost to the community. Councilman Scott Seelagy said the township participated in hard negotiations, looking at every aspect of what a firehouse should be and building in sufficient controls into the agreement. "The town is getting back what it put in," he said. "The issue of condemnation will always be there for us. That's a trump card for the town." School board member Paul Johnson warned the council about authorizing the deal without considering current public sentiment. Martin said he expects the transfer to draw criticism from some in the community who witnessed the council and board of education struggle to agree on a suitable location to build a proposed $80-$90 million high school. "We've been talking about financing the fire building for years," he said. "The firestorm will be a firestorm no matter what happens." The fire department created a stir recently when puddles of water greeted poll workers at 5 a.m. on Election Day in the firehouse bays where voting booths were to be set up. Township officials said a reception at the firehouse the day before pre-empted voting to be held at its original site near the building's entrance and prompted the move into the bays. "What happened with the election was unforgivable," said Martin. "It was childish," said Seelagy, but defended the practice. "Every fire department has a social aspect. Some people loathe it, but there's nothing wrong with that." Underhill said the agreement allows for the firehouse to remain a polling place among other township activities.