A public information session on the progress towards building a joint municipal center to house New Paltz town and village governments was held last Thursday, but many of the questions asked weren’t ones that could be immediately answered by members of the village and town boards, all of whom were present. The elected officials in fact significantly outnumbered the members of the public who were in attendance, and as a result much of discussion was with members of the town’s municipal space committee, who wonder if their committee has a role in the process any longer.
Town Board member Marty Irwin opened the session with an overview of new information about the project, which wasn’t a lot. Architect Joe Hurwitz did provide update sketches that reflect a new concept for the interior layout, namely putting the high-traffic offices such as building departments, clerks and executives on one floor; the footprint of the building is now expected to be 33,000 square feet, where prior estimates have been for 25,000 square feet or less. According to Irwin, Hurwitz has also recommended that the boards use a figure of $350 per square foot (up from $300) to calculate “hard costs,” those specifically associated with getting the building up, as opposed to the “soft costs” that include the $50,000 being paid to Hurwitz himself. Some specific financial information would be finalized in the near future, Irwin said, but he would not provide any cost estimates beyond those figures he’d already mentioned. Regarding the process of getting the legal documents in order, including an intermunicipal agreement to lay out how the two governments would pay for various costs, the by-laws of the local development corporation that would oversee both construction and management, and the leases between that LDC and the governments, Irwin said that they are nearing completion.
Irwin invited all residents of the community to e-mail him with questions and concerns — his address is firstname.lastname@example.org — and then invited people in the audience to speak after introducing themselves, and noting if they lived in “the village or the town.” The first person to speak, Michael Zierler, introduced himself as being a resident of “the village and the town;” he was highlighting the fact that Irwin had posed a false dichotomy, a common but inaccurate shorthand to distinguish between village residents, and those town residents who do not also live in the village. The complex interrelationship between village and town which makes that distinction difficult to describe remains a challenging bass note in the cooperative symphony the municipal center might represent.
One area of contention is whether or not the town community center should be included in the larger process or not. It and the old Town Hall stand on a single lot, and to exclude it would require subdivision of that land, and could complicate simple tasks such as emptying trash containers if the building were to remain town-owned. To include it leads to the question of whether village taxpayers should have to contribute something to offset the asset that they would own more of than they now do solely as town residents. Some Town Board members, such as Jeff Logan, feel that transferring the building to the LDC in exchange for a dollar — the closest thing lawyers are willing to get to “free” — would be unfair to those who don’t live in the village. On the other hand, village trustees like Don Kerr have wondered aloud if taking part ownership in the community center might be a bit of a boondoggle; he noted at a recent Village Board meeting that it wasn’t built to high standards. The community center was built as part of a deal to allow the medical center near the present Stop and Shop to be constructed, but it was not complete for some ten years after the medical center had opened its doors.
Irwin took exception to the idea that the community center was somehow substandard, and Logan wholeheartedly agreed. Irwin explained that it’s a wood frame structure built to commercial standards, which set a higher bar than the one set for residential buildings, calling its construction “better than a home.”
“People of good will agree to disagree,” said Kerr.
Mayor Tim Rogers attempted to intervene, saying that Kerr’s intent was “just a contrast,” and not “an attempt to put down” the community center.
“I can work with that,” said Kerr.
Logan, however, was not satisfied. “What are you basing that on?” he asked.
Kerr explained that it was “built by a party with no ongoing relationship with the building,” and that there is a “general sense in the community that it was not built as a 50-100-year building. I just don’t think that they’re equal in quality,” he added, referring to the existing structure and the one to be built.
“There are no structural or mechanical defects,” said Logan. “The people who built my house never planned on living in it and it’s very stable.”
Carol Roper, a member of the municipal space committee, said at one point, “Regarding the quality of this building, rumors have persisted since the beginning.”
David Lent, chairman of the municipal space committee, didn’t think that the community center should be part of the project, but if it is, he wants to see the village pay a fair share.
Municipal space committee member Josh Honig is one of those who feels that the community center’s “real value” should be determined with an appraisal, so that village residents can be made to compensate other town residents for the transfer of ownership. He also reminded board members that the town owns a scant .7% of the parcel upon which Village Hall now stands, and when that land is sold, the town government should get its due. Honig also took on some of the language, saying, “You confuse the issue by referring to ‘residents.’ The money goes back to two governments,” and it would be those two governments which will share expenses in this project, including those associated with the community center, if it’s included. “It’s government to government, not people to people,” he said.
Lack of turnout
The lack of turnout was itself a topic of conversation. Irwin said that he’d run a small newspaper ad and posted it on the town’s web site, but agreed that something “more noticeable” was needed to engage members of the public. Lent expressed concern in the lack of turnout, while Logan expressed surprise. Dan Torres recalled similar attempts to engage the public on the middle school renovation project while he was on the school board, and how after a certain point attendance spiked as meeting rooms were packed with people wanting to know why they hadn’t been informed. Resident Fran Wishnick suggested the future information sessions might be narrowed in scope to cover specific parts of the project, such as the financial information. Honig believed a display ad on public access cable would do the trick, reasoning that the same people who tune in to watch meetings live might also stay tuned in when there is no programming, and community notices are listed.
Honig pressed for a cost estimate, and Rogers explained that such a number would not be helpful, as it’s a “work in progress.” He noted that $10 million has been used in some reporting about this project, but added, “We’re not married to a $10 million project.”
Supervisor Neil Bettez said that the process will be to determine how much building the taxpayers can afford. “We’re not driving this,” he said.
“No, you’re not,” agreed Honig. He then provided his own estimate, of $16 million in hard costs alone. “It’s so much more building,” he explained. “I’m guessing. Tell me I’m wrong.”
Irwin did some quick math, and concluded that a 33,000-square-foot building at $350 per square foot would result in hard costs of $11,550,000.
In calculating costs, Lent suggested, the present state of affairs should be included. He reminded board members that the town offices are presently in trailers, which have costs including fairly expensive heating bills.
Honig proposed that three different potential building configurations be explored. In addition to the current joint center, he would like to see a town-only office building, and one that excludes the police and justice court.
Lent had a number of suggestions about the corporate structure and the nuances of various legal documents. His suggestions dovetailed with concerns Honig expressed that LDCs are notoriously opaque in their operations. Council member Dan Torres agreed, and said that the proposed by-laws are being drafted in the context of a New York State Comptroller report which was highly critical of the corporate structure. “We took the criticisms in that report, and implemented them into the by-laws,” he said.
Roper wanted to know if the committee she serves on is needed any longer. The municipal space committee is the same group that worked to find new space for the police several years ago, and have been exploring various options for town offices ever since. The decision to move forward jointly — which technically has not even happened, as the Village Board has yet to make a formal commitment to be part of the project — has left the municipal space committee with no clear mandate, and none of the new information being brought forth is being provided to them, she said. “Is our committee now defunct?” she asked. “Even if we’re in limbo, we should know what’s going on.”
While no formal action has been taken by the Town Board to dissolve the municipal space committee, its members were also given no clear charge moving forward. The next public information session, which will focus on economics, is scheduled for February 24, 6 p.m., at the Village Hall.