MILLVILLE - A divided City Commission on Thursday narrowly approved a $2.5 million contract award for a controversial Public Works project on 15th Street.

The 3-2 vote to award the contract to Aliano Bros. General Contractors Inc. of Vineland followed about an hour of debate over spending priorities.

City Commissioners Joseph Sooy and Lynne Porreca Compari argued that the money, which could result in a local-purposes tax increase next year, would be better spent on projects that would make the municipality better for its residents.

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"It will create no permanent jobs," Sooy said. "It's not going to lower the crime rate or clean up neighborhoods."

Porreca Compari said the project is "not fiscally responsible, and its scope is too large." The city already has spent $3 million on improvement at the site, and future upgrades could raise the cost of the facility to about $3.6 million, she said.

"I have not been able to get enough accurate information to make me comfortable" with long-term debt, she said of a project that was begun by the previous City Commission. "We must look at how this and future projects will affect the city's tax rates."

But Mayor Michael Santiago and City Commissioners Jim Quinn and David Ennis disagreed about stopping the project.

Quinn said that cost savings, shared services and other government efficiencies can be found to prevent the project from causing a local-purposes tax rate increase next year.

"I am not convinced that this will equate to a tax increase if we do what we need to do," he said.

Ennis argued that building the facility is another step in rebuilding pride in the city.

"In tough times, leaders lead," he said. "We can't always make people happy."

Santiago said that, given the conditions of the buildings at 15th Street, "We have to realize that if we don't deal with this now, we will be dealing with it in a few years."

"I think we are taking the proper measures to continue with this project," he said. "Let's move forward."

As for the disagreement regarding the project, Santiago said, "We're not going to agree on everything."

When completed, the facility will house the city's fleet maintenance, parks, and streets and roads operations.

City engineers said the facility was scaled down from its original $3.6 million plan. They also said the facility is needed to improve working conditions for city employees, streamline and improve overall operations, and prevent possible environmental problems related to some of the city buildings currently being used.

Porreca Compari argued that while something must be done at 15th Street, the project can be appropriately downsized. She also said she could find no letter or report to support statements that the city faces possible problems from state environmental officials if action is not taken.

Instead of approving the project, Porreca Compari said, City Commission should listen to the public.

"We need the public to tell us their concerns," she said. "Is money better spent on buildings or retaining our police or cleaning up our city or on our youth?"

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