Hamilton stuck with Klockner Woods
HAMILTON -- A state court has again refused to void the township's agreement to purchase the 51-acre tract known as Klockner Woods, keeping taxpayers on the hook for the roughly $4.5 million land deal while township officials contemplate taking the case to the state Supreme Court.
A decision handed down yesterday from the appellate division of the state Superior Court ruled that the township must uphold its 2005 agreement to purchase the land, despite arguments that the township council never approved an appropriation to buy the property.
The township council says they never approved the funds for the purchase, so it isn't legal. Unfortuantely, the courts don't see it that way; they (repeatedly) state that the purchase was legal.
George Dougherty, the attorney representing Hamilton, said he would be recommending the township pursue the matter with the state's highest court.
"I think they absolutely missed the law," Dougherty said. "You can't make a solid commitment unless you have money set aside to do it. You simply don't spend money that you don't have."
Unfortunately, George, spending money we don't have is the American Way. See, right now you're spending Hamilton taxpayers' money to fight a fight you can't win.
But if the Supreme Court decides not to hear the case, or if it upholds the decision of the lower courts, there would certainly be implications for Hamilton's finances, according to interim township business administrator William Guhl.
Besides legal costs, which have climbed to about $30,000, the township will be on the hook for long-term debt payments on the $4.1 million price, plus interest, including a down payment of roughly $200,000, Guhl said.
The township has already paid Fieldstone about $380,000 in interest as part of the agreement, and further interest payments have raised the township's current obligation to about $4.5 million, according to John Buonocore, the attorney representing Fieldstone.
When asked his opinion on the decision, Guhl backed Dougherty's view.
"If you want to buy something, and it's a capital item and you want to" using a bond ordinance, Guhl said, a municipality must "specifically identify in the ordinance what it is you want to buy."
The courts, however, have ruled otherwise. The appellate court affirmed Superior Court Judge Linda R. Feinberg's opinion that a bond ordinance specifically appropriating money for the land purchase was not required in order for the purchase agreement to be binding.
In her decision, issued early last year, Feinberg pointed to other actions the township took that could have funded the purchase, including $5 million appropriated for open space and multiple public attempts by the township to secure outside funding for the purchase.
Feinberg also argued that the cost to taxpayers would be higher if she overturned the settlement to purchase the land, pointing to the cost of the litigation that could ensue.
Just when you thought this whole mess couldn't get worse...
"This has always been about Hamilton politics and it was never about the value of the land," Buonocore (of Feildstone) said.
(former Mayor Glenn) Gilmore backed that claim yesterday.
"The Republican council knew that they were simply wasting valuable taxpayer dollars in lawyer fees and interest cost with this appeal, but they wanted to keep the issue alive for the last election at taxpayer expense," he wrote in response to an e-mail asking for comment.
Add that comment to the (very short) list of things that Glen Gilmore got right.
A friend and Hamilton resident put it very succintly to me once: "Gilmore screwed us." Especially on this issue, you bet. But it's time for the new administration and town council to stop trying to fight old battles and move on to fixing the problems they were elected to fix. Meanwhile, legal fees and interest payments keep piling up, and guess who has to pay for those?
Yes, the land should be preserved. Yes, when the purchase agreement was made SOMEONE should have been looking out for the taxpayers' interest. We all agree to that.
Now is not the time for those arguements- that time was back in 2004 and 2005. Now is the time now for the council to stop shoveling more of the taxpayers' good money after bad and move on.