MANTOLOKING, N.J. - Officials in New Jersey towns hit hard by Hurricane Sandy are grappling with many of the same questions as their residents when it comes to municipal buildings damaged in the storm.
Can the town halls be fixed, or do they need to be torn down? Should they be elevated or moved? How much is all this going to cost? And who's going to pay for it?
Mantoloking tore down its municipal building Monday, joining Lavallette and Sea Isle City. Others planning to raze their buildings and start over include Bay Head and Oceanport.
"I never thought I'd see this day," said Mantoloking Councilman Steve Gillingham, who climbed into a piece of heavy equipment, pulled a lever, and tore off part of the borough hall's facade. "But then, I never thought I'd see most of what has happened here in the last year and a half."
Mantoloking was the Jersey Shore community hit hardest by Sandy; virtually all its 521 homes were damaged or destroyed by the October 2012 storm. Since then, the borough has operated in temporary offices in a neighboring town, held its council meetings in schools and a yacht club, and housed its police department in a trailer.
Rebuilding plans are in their infancy, but Gillingham said a new structure could cost $5 million. That would include elevating it so it would not be flooded by future storms.
The question of fixing vs. rebuilding also is vexing Oceanport, whose low-lying municipal building was flooded by Sandy. The borough made some quick repairs and moved back in about three months after the storm.
"That turned out not to be the move we should have made, because there was structural damage," Councilman Joseph Irace said. "We wanted to get back in as quickly as we could to start helping people with their own recovery, but we had to leave again, too."
Oceanport's government now works in a senior citizen center, holds municipal court in a neighboring town, and has its police department in a trailer.
"We're like a lot of our residents, waiting to see what we can get from FEMA and whether we should rebuild or tear it down and move somewhere else," he said.
Rebuilding in the same spot is the worst option, he said.
"It constantly floods there," Irace said. "Even if we built it up high, no one would be able to get in or out. It would be like a moat."
Lavallette's municipal building took on two feet of water during the storm; the police department got twice as much, and the structure was torn down over the winter. A new building will cost about $4.6 million.
"It would have cost $2.5 million just to repair what we had and get back to the same thing we had before - which was not elevated and which would flood again," Mayor Walter LaCicero said. "Does it make sense to throw that good money at it and wind up exactly where we were before?"
The new building will be about five feet higher than the old one. A lease with the U.S. Postal Service for space in the municipal building will provide about $1 million of the project cost, LaCicero said.
Sea Isle City also tore down its storm-damaged municipal building over the winter. It broke ground last month on an $11 million municipal and public safety complex that is significantly higher than the old one. The city borrowed to pay for most of the work, and is seeking state and other financial help to defray part of the cost.
Bay Head, Mantoloking's neighbor, also plans to tear down and rebuild its storm-damaged municipal building at a cost of up to $4 million. The old building, two blocks from the ocean, took on four feet of water during Sandy. An insurance policy covered only $200,000 of the rebuilding cost.
Other New Jersey towns whose municipal buildings suffered varying degrees of damage from Sandy include Highlands, Moonachie, Jersey City, Beach Haven, and Ocean City, which just moved its first-floor workers back into City Hall two weeks ago after a $1.2 million repair. Other towns including Sea Bright saw damage to other town-owned buildings such as the fire department, which needs to be torn down and rebuilt.