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Princeton Times

November 11, 2011

Princeton council sorts out city hall purchase

PRINCETON — Princeton City Council could take the next step toward purchasing a new city hall as early as next week.

According to a tentative building acquisition schedule reviewed Wednesday by the Council’s Finance and Administration Committee, the panel should take action to hire a bond counsel Monday night, during Council’s monthly session.

“It needs to be done at this meeting. Folks, we’ve got to get to work,” City Attorney Paul Cassell said, explaining that the city must have an attorney specializing in bond work in place before any further informed decisions could be made. “We would like to get a decision on this so we can get to work.”

During a special meeting Oct. 24, City Council voted 4-3 to purchase the former First Community Bank building on Mercer Street for the purpose of turning it into a new City Hall.

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According to a feasibility study conducted by Michael Griffith, of the accounting firm Griffith and Associates, the purchase price and assessment fees associated with occupying the building will top $2.5 million. That estimate was dramatically below the original $9.2 million Griffith estimated it would cost the city to purchase the building, completely renovate it, move city offices and the police department, and build a new fire department on the property.

When Council scaled the project back, opting only to focus on buying the property and bringing it into compliance with fire and structure codes, Griffith found that the city could manage such debt by paying $390,750 up front and financing almost $2.3 million of the purchase and assessment prices.

“Based on our study, we feel that the City could handle the initial purchase costs of the bank building and should continue in its effort to obtain the building from the bank and to obtain financing to do so,” Griffith wrote in an assessment letter addressed to Princeton Mayor Patricia “Pat” Wilson and dated Oct. 28.

Griffith recommended that the city and its Building Commission finance the purchase for a period of 20-25 years, but Council members have speculated the City could pay for the structure in a more expedient manner if it could sell the current City Hall property on Courthouse Road.

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In order to finance the purchase, the City of Princeton must first establish a Building Commission, which will actually oversee the purchase, financing and restoration of the new City Hall.

The bond, or loan, for the building will be in the name of the Building Commission, which will own the former bank building once the bonds are paid off.

“You can provide input, but the Building Commission will make all those decisions,” Cassell explained when Vice Mayor Marshall Lytton asked how City Council could communicate its restoration requirements to the Building Commission.

“The Building Commission has control,” Cassell said, prompting concern from the vice mayor.

“You could really run into some problems that way,” Lytton said.

Princeton City Manager Wayne Shumate explained that the Mercer County Courthouse Annex was built and is still operated in a similar fashion, with an independent commission overseeing the construction and operation of the building. Meanwhile, the Mercer County Commission leases the property from the commission and provides maintenance of the structure.

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Once a bond counsel is hired, the next step in the acquisition process will be to name five members to the City of Princeton’s Building Commission. The tentative schedule calls for approval of the commission members, along with the first reading of a bond/loan ordinance during a special meeting on Nov. 28.

Second reading of the proposed ordinance is tentatively slated for City Council’s regularly scheduled December meeting on Dec. 12.

A third and final reading of the bond/loan ordinance is scheduled for a special meeting Dec. 28.

If the tentative schedule deadlines are met, City Council could close on the property as early as Jan. 9, 2012, allowing the Council to authorize the building upgrade process  during its regular January session.

Once the upgrades are complete, Council members have indicated city offices and the Princeton Police Department should move into the new City Hall.

At this point, there is no solid plan for the relocation of Princeton Fire Department, which would be necessary if the city pursues a sale of its current City Hall structure. Wilson speculated that the Fire Department could move to the existing Princeton Police Department structure, if necessary, but no action has been taken to that effect.

— Contact Tammie Toler at ttoler@ptonline.net.

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