052520_nws_capemay CM Firehouse

A bond ordinance voted down last week by Cape May City Council was to fund a new public safety building, which would mean demolishing the existing fire station and replacing it with a larger building that would house the Police Department, the fire company and a firehouse museum.

CAPE MAY — The final word on whether Cape May will see a new multimillion-dollar public safety building will most likely come from the voters.

A petition drive has gathered enough signatures to put a referendum on the ballot in November.

After years of work and months of discussion, a $15 million bond ordinance set to fund the demolition of the current firehouse on Franklin Street and build a much larger building fell short of the four City Council votes needed to pass. The vote was 3-2, enough to introduce the bond, but not enough to enact it.

Even before the vote, supporters of the new building were laying the groundwork to bring the issue to a referendum.

At Wednesday’scouncil meeting, City Clerk Erin Burke said the group had gathered more than enough signatures under New Jersey’s citizen petition laws.

She said the petitions were submitted June 12. She said she examined the petitions, in consultation with City Attorney Frank Corrado and Cape May County Clerk Rita Fulginiti.

“The petition is valid,” Burke said. “So the next step is for me to formally present it to council tonight.”

The petitioners needed 88 signatures of qualified voters, she said. The organizers handed in 155.

At its next meeting, July 21, council can either approve the ordinance as the petitioners request or it will appear on the ballot in November.

Sometimes, the petition alone is enough to change a municipal decision. For instance, in Ocean City in 2018, a petition drive by the organization Fairness in Taxes was enough to scuttle a $9 million bond ordinance City Council had approved to fund the purchase of a former car dealership on Simpson Avenue, because the agreement with the owner expired before the bond could appear on a ballot.

In Cape May’s case, the petitions want to approve a bond, not overturn it. So far, the two “no” votes have remained solidly opposed. Council members Zach Mullock and Stacy Sheehan gave no indication at the Wednesday meeting that they were likely to change their minds.

They and other critics of the proposed public safety building argue it is far too large a building for the space, in a block that is already crowded. City Hall is nearby, and there are plans to transform the long-vacant Franklin Street School across an alley into a new branch of the Cape May County Library.

Also at issue is the future of the Fireman’s Hall History Museum at Franklin and Washington streets, which would need to be moved or demolished to make way for the building as proposed. The new building includes a firefighting museum as well as the Police and Fire departments.

Advocates for the new building, including Mayor Clarence “Chuck” Lear, say the new building is badly needed and that there are few other options in Cape May. Police are crowded into the same building as City Hall, which once served as Cape May High School, and the firehouse, dating to the 1970s, is plagued by mold, leaks and other problems.

If the bond still falls short after a public hearing July 21, it will head to the voters Nov. 3. According to Corrado, the certification by the clerk functions as the first reading of the ordinance.

“Council takes no action tonight on introducing the ordinance,” he said.

Another possibility, albeit an unlikely one, would be if three of the four members of the committee that gathered the signatures for the petition requested the question be removed from the ballot, Burke told council Wednesday.

The members of the referendum committee include residents Bill Murray, Dennis deSatnick, Meryl Nelson, Heather Turner and Robert Gorgone.

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