Public works is moving into the art room, City Commission meets in the gym, and city commissioners have their office in an old kindergarten.
It’s all part of the quick turnaround of Margate’s municipal government from storm-damaged City Hall to the closed Union Avenue School after Hurricane Sandy — and the move may turn out to be permanent.
“We haven’t begun to look at that yet,” said Mayor Mike Becker. “We’re waiting for reports from the engineer and architect to see what will happen with City Hall. When we get that information, we’ll discuss a long-term plan. … Everything will be considered as we move forward.”
While that happens, city workers are getting used to their new digs.
The Tax Office is set up in what was once the reception area for the school, which closed in 2010. For the moment, an old cubbyhole has been placed partially across an open door to create a makeshift window and table.
“Considering the circumstances, it went very smoothly,” said Tara Mazza, who is in charge of accounts payable. “Public works and the contractors were fabulous.”
“And the taxpayers are happy we’re here,” said Deputy Tax Collector Linda Morgan. “There are more parking spaces available. And it’s away from the hustle and bustle of Washington Avenue.”
The City Hall building at Ventnor and Washington avenues didn’t seem to have been too damaged by water in the first few days after Sandy made landfall on Monday, Oct. 29, getting just a few inches inside. But by Thursday, “the place was already beginning to smell,” said City Clerk Tom Hiltner. “That’s just how it starts, the process of mold and mildew.”
Hiltner, Emergency Management Coordinator Jerry Greenberg and Code Enforcement Officer Jim Galantino decided they couldn’t stay there, and by Friday — after getting cooperation from the Board of Education — they began moving to Union Avenue.
“We started moving everything,” Hiltner said. “And that was just the beginning of the process. Over Friday, Saturday, Sunday, we got everything physically moved in three days.”
By that Monday, the day before the election — for which the school also served as a polling place in lieu of City Hall — “by the most part, we were up and running,” Hiltner said.
The building itself was in “pristine condition,” he said, even after being closed for more than two years. But there were still infrastructure issues with phone and internet that had to be dealt with, and Verizon was understandably swamped locally — a waterlogged mobile station in Ventnor being just one of their problems.
So “IT guy” Fred Verna worked out a system to forward all calls to different cell phones in each office.
“And that was the key,” Hiltner said. “By Wednesday, we had phones.”
In the meantime, the last of the City Hall materials were being brought over, including tax assessor files — which in a building that had no working elevators, couldn’t be brought over in their fireproof, concrete, 1,000-pound containers, but bit by bit in smaller boxes.
The latest office to move over was the Municipal Court, which took longer because all court offices must meet stringent security requirements. A bulletproof glass window had to be installed in the school’s wall, and late last week the concrete around it looked fresh.
“We were in Longport,” and Monday was our first day back here,” said Deputy Court Administrator Deanna Krupp. “There’s still some work that needs to be done.”
Public works, which also saw its offices damaged by water, is scheduled to move into the art room, with a wall to be knocked down to expand into the technology room. The Construction Department, which had a lease about to expire, is also expected to move in.
The process of transferring the deed and title is already under way, and if the city does move in permanently, it has to begin to make the structure, with its many stepped entrances, ADA-compliant. Getting to the bathrooms is also a bit of a trek, with signs in place to guide people through a back hallway.
But for the most part, the building already feels like they’ve been there for years.
“I’m not patting ourselves on the back, but the move we made in two to three days, it was a Herculean effort,” Hiltner said. “To be ready that Monday morning for the taxpayers was a huge team effort.”
In the end, it’s definitely an improvement over the flooded City Hall in one respect. The school, long used as a parking lot for residents and city vehicles during storms, sits at the highest point in the city of Margate.
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