New Jersey has agreed to start paying rent on a Statehouse it has owned since 1792.

The little-known State Capitol Joint Management Commission, a blend of executive-branch and legislative-branch appointees with jurisdiction over the State Capitol Complex, voted Tuesday to authorize the roughly $300 million renovation plan advocated by Gov. Chris Christie.

The resolution doesn’t authorize borrowing the money. That’ll be done later by the Economic Development Authority. But it does lease the Statehouse complex to the EDA, which will then sublease it back to the JMC, which will pay rent for as much as 30 years to repay the bonds.

“The action today, as you’ll read in the resolution, moves the project significantly forward in the lease/sublease situation that will happen with the EDA, with the cost up to $300 million,” said Kevin Drennan, the commission’s chairman and executive director of the Senate Democrats.

State Treasurer Ford Scudder declined to answer questions after the meeting, saying he was late for another meeting. Drennan referred most questions to the Treasury Department.

Treasury spokesman Willem Rijsken said it’s still being determined what other approvals the project might need.

“We continue to work with the Office of the Attorney General and outside bond counsel to ensure that all required approvals are secured as we advance this important and necessary renovation,” Rijsken said via email.

The commission’s vote wasn’t unanimous.

Mary Alice Messenger, executive director for the Assembly Democrats, abstained, saying she’s not yet fully comfortable with the project despite getting background materials last Friday.

“I’m also not sure that this commission is the proper venue for approving this project,” Messenger said. “With all due respect to all of you and myself, for that matter, we’re eight staff members. I don’t think when this commission was created it was intended that a group of staffers would be approving a $300 million project.”

Drennan said the resolution spells out the panel’s legal authority to approve the project.

Sen. Raymond Lesniak, D-Union, said that by going to the commission for approval, the Christie administration hopes to avoid needing approval from the Senate and Assembly. He says legislative approval is required and plans to go to court to void Tuesday’s approval.

“Gov. Christie has found a way to avoid legislative approval and go directly to the EDA for a vote, so he’ll control the entire process. I’m going to do my best to stop it,” Lesniak said.

Lesniak said he had filed an Open Public Records Act request with the Treasury Department seeking the materials used to support Tuesday vote. He said the state Monday told him it would need an extension until Friday to provide it – though it had been provided to commission members last Friday.

“They want to avoid me like the plague, but I’m not going away,” Lesniak said.

“There was collusion and deception and an OPRA violation in order to keep this information from the public prior to this meeting and this vote, and therefore the vote should be voided,” he said.

Lesniak is part of a group of candidates for governor who have criticized the project.

Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex, called Tuesday’s vote “a disgrace” that advanced “a deceitful plan” that ought to be put before the state’s voters. Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno vowed to scrap the plan if elected.

Architect George Skarmeas presents details about the Statehouse project to the State Capitol Joint Management Commission. (Michael Symons/Townsquare Media NJ)

The $288 million budget for the plan was published at Tuesday’s hearing, where architect George Skarmeas, partner and design director for Preservation Design Partnership, which was initially hired in 2013 to fix the building’s exterior, sought to justify the much-expanded project.

Skarmeas says there are “some horror stories” around the building, noting one of the Statehouse skylights is literally held together by duct tape.

“This is the most ingenious use of duct tape I’ve ever seen in my life. We have a few miles of duct tape that are holding together the skylight,” said Skarmeas, who also said a structural engineer was able to remove an anchor for a dilapidated exterior stairwell with her fingers.

“The existing stairs were about to fall off the building literally,” Skarmeas said.

Skarmeas said his firm has done many projects involving monumental national historic landmarks, including the Alamo and nearly 10 other statehouses, and understands the sensitivity of the budget.

He said when his firm starts a project, it makes two lists on a whiteboard – things that are necessary to have and things that would be nice to have.

“If we look at the budget and all of the line items that are included in the budget, I cannot think of anything that I would consider as frivolous or nice to have. Everything that is in place are necessary items to do the proper renovation of the building and operate the Statehouse as a 21st century facility,” Skarmeas said.

The $288 million budget includes $55 million for contingencies and surprises. Skarmeas said the projected cost “covered just about every eventuality” and is “reliable, makes sense and is going to hold water going forward.”

Drennan said he’s doesn’t think costs will exceed the amount approved Tuesday.

“We are very confident that the cost not to exceed $300 million is sufficient,” he said.

The budget for the Statehouse renovation plan is shown at a State Capitol Joint Management Commission meeting. (Michael Symons/Townsquare Media NJ)

The state will also extend a paved driveway by 370 feet alongside its existing parking deck, connecting a parking lot for the State Planetarium to the existing Route 29 entrance to the garage and an existing driveway that starts near the Trenton War Memorial. That will cost around $93,000.


New Jersey: Decoded cuts through the cruft and gets to what matters in New Jersey news and politics. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.


Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5 and the editor of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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