As the town of Saugerties continues its effort to secure grant money and donations for the purchase of the Opus 40 bluestone sculpture, members of the town’s rec committee expressed opposition last week to recreation funds being used to maintain the property.
“The town will be acquiring a new town park that the recreation department will not be able to maintain, and which could become an expensive burden to taxpayers,” said Mike Tiano, a co-chair of the Town of Saugerties Recreation Committee. “I bluntly asked [Recreation Commissioner Greg Chorvas] if he could supply security there. Could he maintain the area with the people he has? He bluntly said no.”
Attempts by the Saugerties Times to reach Chorvas were unsuccessful.
But Vernon Benjamin, the president of the non-profit Committee to Create Opus 40, said he could not envision the town using recreation department funds for Opus 40 – and certainly not cutting funds to other recreation areas to do so.
Also disputing Tiano’s take on the town’s role was Deputy Supervisor Fred Costello, who said taxpayers will not pay for the acquisition and maintenance of Opus 40. If matching funds cannot be raised without burdening taxpayers, the town would have no choice but to return a $400,000 matching grant it received last year and drop the project, he said.
Recreation Committee Co-Chair Gladys Hutton said the committee has not taken a position on the purchase of the property, but confirmed that it has stated that no recreation funds should be committed to the park. “I believe a majority of the members are opposed to the purchase, but the committee has not discussed that,” she said.
In taking on Opus 40, the town is taking on a potentially expensive liability, Tiano said. If anyone were to be seriously injured or killed, the cost could be ruinous. He noted that Opus 40 creator Harvey Fite died in an accident in 1976 while working on the sculpture.
Tad Richards, the son of Fite and the current owner of the property, said the accident was not the result of any inherently dangerous feature of the property, but the, “malfunction of a lawn tractor. He got to the edge of an embankment, and when he put it in reverse, the tractor jumped forward.”
In the more than 40 years since, no one has been seriously injured, said Richards.
If the project moves forward, the town will form a partnership with a non-profit. The town will own the property and do maintenance, and the non-profit will manage and promote arts events.
The property is divided into five parcels: two owned by the family, and three by the non-profit. The town would purchase the two privately owned parcels outright. The price of the purchased lots will be determined by the findings of two independent appraisers.
The town has a grant that covers $400,000 toward the purchase, with matching funds from the non-profit or other entity to match.
The current non-profit, managed by Richards, would merge with the new non-profit, which would, in turn, donate that property to the town as part of a stewardship agreement. That property would be part of the “in-kind” portion of the town’s share of a matching grant. As Helsmoortel wrote last week, “The $400,000 grant that the town received required a “match,” and that match comes from the donated parcels.”
Further grant money could come once the property is declared a state museum, which Benjamin and town officials are confident will happen, and through private donors.
Tiano also cited cost estimates included in the town’s grant application, including planning and development costs of $23,000, appraisal and legal fees of $15,000, and an overall project cost of $1.46 million.
“Can we afford this?” he asked.
The actual cost of the property is unknown at this time because it will be based on two appraisals, Helsmoortel said.
Benjamin said the initial estimate of $23,000 for planning – mostly his time – was pared down to about $18,000, of which he actually billed the town about $12,000. The higher figure was based on an estimate he made last August, he said.
In a column in the newspaper, Helsmoortel points out that the town cannot pay more than the appraised value of the property, which will be determined by two independent appraisers. This is not likely to be as much as the maximum estimate, he states. Helsmoortel said at the Town Board meeting that the money the town spends in excess of the initial $5,000 is to be reimbursed by the non-profit corporation.
While acknowledging that Opus 40 has not turned a profit, Richards objected to Tiano’s characterization of it as a failure or a money-losing proposition. The family’s intention was not to make money, but to keep Harvey Fite’s legacy open to the public. Opus 40 has always brought in enough money to cover its expenses and maintenance costs, he said, adding, “I’m not a businessman, and I’m sure that someone who knows how to run a business could make it profitable.”