The city council approved a two-year agreement to lease the second floor of the Paterson Health Department to the Partnership for Maternal and Child Health of Northern New Jersey for $24,000 despite objections from municipal employees on Tuesday night.
Under the agreement, the nonprofit organization will use 3,906 square feet of former lab space on the second floor of the Anthony J. Grossi Health Building at 176 Broadway. The nonprofit, which provides resources to mothers and children to prevent infant mortality, presently operates from a building on Ottilio Terrace at the border of Paterson and Totowa.
Ilise Zimmerman, executive director of the Partnership for Maternal and Child Health of Northern New Jersey, said on Wednesday morning the group intends to fully move into the health department by end of June.
Council members heard from representatives of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 430 and city health and human services director Donna Nelson-Ivy.
Nelson-Ivy told council members the former lab space has been vacant for more than a decade. She cleaned up the lab space and prepared to lease it to a mental health clinic that failed to materialize last year.
“This building laid dormant. We need to do something with this space. [I have] no hidden agenda,” said Nelson-Ivy. She said this is a chance for the city to generate revenue from a space that has been bringing in zero dollars to municipal coffers. She has faced criticism from health employees for leasing to an outside organization the only portion of the building that has a thermostat.
Robert Sawh, president of the union, said employees endure fluctuating temperatures inside the building on a regular basis that reduces productivity. He said often employees have to leave work due excessive heat or cold.
“Employees of the health department are working under extremely difficult environmental situations. There are leaks in the roof and ceiling. Temperature fluctuates widely. There’s no thermostat in most of the building,” said Kathy Mazzouccolo, attorney for the union. “We’re not opposed to the program. The needs of the employees should take precedent over that space.”
Council president William McKoy asked whether the union has filed grievances about the working conditions. Mazzouccolo indicated it has not. She said there have been informal complaints that employees have made.
Sawh said the city does little to address the issues at the building. Council members expressed concern about the conditions at the building. Alex Mendez, councilman at-large, asked what has been done to address employees’ concerns.
Nelson-Ivy said the building is very old and has no temperature control. “The building was built like that. The heating and cooling system has not been correct since it was built.” She said the cooling and heating systems have to be replaced.
Nelson-Ivy said when she gets complaints from employees she calls on the Public Works Department to shut down the heating system. “That’s what we have to do with a lot of our buildings,” she said.
The union listed a number of its concerns including lack of parking in a letter that was sent to council members and mayor Jose “Joey” Torres’ administration. Maritza Davila, councilwoman at-large, asked Nelson-Ivy whether she sat down with the employees to address their concerns.
“No, ma’am,” replied Nelson-Ivy.
Zimmerman said the nonprofit is securing 31 parking spaces from the Paterson Parking Authority for $27,000 for its employees. “This really increases the per staff cost,” she said. “We’re paying a premium to be located in downtown Paterson.”
Nelson-Ivy also faced questions about the per square foot cost of the lease agreement.
Michael Jackson, 1st Ward councilman, thought $6 square foot for the space, “far below market rate.”
“We should do things at a fair market rate. They can afford to pay market rate,” said Jackson. “Are we truly doing the best for our community?”
Kenneth Morris, councilman at-large, said the revenue can be used to make improvement to the heating and cooling system of the building. “I don’t think there’s people knocking down the doors to lease this space. It’s an opportunity to bring in some additional revenue.”
Jackson said the $24,000 per year is not enough for a HVAC system for the building.
Ruby Cotton, 4th Ward councilwoman, said the city needs the services the organization is providing.
“They still have to serve Paterson if they rent or not rent this space, right?” asked Luis Velez, 5th Ward councilman.
“Yes,” replied Nelson-Ivy.
Velez said the nonprofit has to serve residents whether it operating from the city or moves to Bergen County.
Morris has argued by keeping the nonprofit which serves Passaic County from the Paterson office will ensure the resources it provides are accessible for city residents who often do not have cars.
Jackson said the group conducts home visits. “We’re misleading the community by saying it’s about access,” said Jackson. “We’re underselling ourselves.”
Council members Cotton, Davila, Mendez, Morris, McKoy, and Shahin Khalique voted in favor of leasing the space.
“$6 per square foot does not cut it for me. I’m not ready to sell Paterson short,” said Khalique last week when he voted against the lease agreement. He reversed course and voted in favor of the lease agreement on Tuesday night.
Jackson, Andre Sayegh, and Velez voted against the lease agreement.
The lease agreement has brought to the fore the simmering conflict inside the health department. The inner politics of the department, whose building is named after the political power broker who built Passaic County’s Democratic machine, was laid bare, noted Morris.
The lease agreement runs from May 1st, 2017 through June 30th, 2019, according to city records.