NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—The Middlesex County government closed down a cafeteria that was open to the public as part of a reconfiguration to accomodate $638,241 in "security upgrades."
The front desk where visitors sign in has also been relocated as part of the changes, and now there only one single chair available for public use in the area.
A new entrance to the "Freeholder meeting room," where many public meetings are held, also will be constructed to accommodate the security system, according to county officials.
"That's part of upgrading our lobby for security," said Freeholder Director Ronald G. Rios at the February 1 meeting of the Board of Chosen Freeholders.
Asked what prompted the costly upgrades, Rios said: "Just our changing world that we live in. We're concerned about public safety and the saftey of our employees."
The equipment being installed includes two X-ray systems, two walk-through metal detectors, additional hand-held metal detectors, cameras, and monitors, as well as turnstiles with card readers for employees, according to county officials.
County officials touted that the former cafeteria had been transformed into "new multi-purpose areas to be used by County employees and the public."
But, in reality, the former cafeteria space has been reduced to only a small room with a table that is closed to the public nearly all the time.
Under questioning, the officials admitted that "the multi-purpose areas are for use by County employees meeting with the public on issues, programs and services."
The "upgrades" are not cheap, with the county is paying EasTec $276,641 to provide the security equipment, and budgeting another $359,600 for related construction costs.
The largest chunk of that construction budget will go to Epic Interiors, a Piscataway-based business whose parent company has given thousands in donations to the campaign funds of Rios and the other Middlesex County and New Brunswick politicians in recent years.
The company, part of the "Epic family of companies," will be paid $132,875, including a $28,768 "contractors fee," for the demolition, flooring, general construction, clean-up and disposal work.
The budget also includes $10,000 for overtime and $53,400 in "contingency" costs.
Other companies paid to implement the changes include:
- All Action Glass, which is being paid $78,650 for "storefront & glass partitions"
- Maul Electric, which is being paid $61,075 for electrical work
- ABM Building Solutions, which is being paid $13,400 for heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) work
- AES Fire LLC, which is being paid $10,200 for installing a sprinkler system
- Nicholl Field Design, which has been paid $2,000 to design the new set-up
As the construction ramped up in February, the private security firm paid to run the front desk briefly implemented an unconstitutional policy against taking photographs or videos in the lobby.
The firm is paid $98,400 per year through the building's property manager, Pennsylvania-based Keating.
"You can't take a picture or a video," one security guard told this reporter on February 21, just one day after a different guard caused a commotion when a First Amendment activist walked up to the front desk while broadcasting live video from her phone
"Technically, you can't right now because it's under construction," said the misinformed guard, who works for SSC, a division of Connecticut-based SMG Corporate Services. "I believe there is a media policy."
At just that moment, Freeholder Director Rios walked past the desk and seemed to contradict the guard when he was put on the spot by this reporter about the legality of taking photos or videos in the lobby.
"I guess it is [legal for people to take photos and videos]," said Rios.
But the guard was not convinced, saying that Rios was "technically not [the boss] right now… They're telling me I can't have nobody recording."
The guard then got on the phone to report "a media member without a media pass recording."
Middlesex County Director of Communications Stacey Bersani was the next official to get involved in the situation.
"He can [take pictures and video] because it's a public space," said Bersani, who later clarified that there is no specific "media policy" or "media pass," as the guard had indicated.
About seven minutes after this reporter was told not to take photos, the apparent "boss," a woman named Katie who works for Keating, appeared and ultimately told the guard that it was OK for this reporter to take photos and videos in the lobby.
"We just have to make [the guard] clear on it. You're just looking to take photos of just the lobby area?" asked Katie.
This reporter explained the situation and the affiliation with New Brunswick Today, offering to show her a press pass.
"Yes, I've heard of you. We just had an incident so we just wanted to be clear," said Katie, before telling the guard: "He's OK, for in the lobby."
The administration building, which opened in October 1999, was part of a trio of new government buildings built by a pair of developers and leased to the county government for thirty years.
The county government is now nearly two-thirds of the way through their on the building that it calls home.
Among the arguments for hiring Keating and the non-profit New Brunswick Development Corporation (DEVCO) to build the structures, and then lease them back to the county, was that Keating's management company would manage the buildings and save money by privatizing the security services that were once provided by Sheriff's Officers.
Under a "complex financing agreement," DEVCO charges the county $1.46 million a year until 2029, when the county will take ownership of the building, according a report in the Star-Ledger.
One inside source told New Brunswick Today that the security upgrades could potentially include the return of Middlesex County Sheriff's Officers to the administration building.
The officers previously worked in a lobby that was shared by the building, when it was located on Paterson Street, and the adjacent Middlesex County Courthouse.
According to county officials, that possibility is still under discussion: "The decision is still pending."