Two county lawmakers lost their bid to get a judge to order a change in the language of the ballot measure seeking voters’ permission to move Ulster County Family Court out of Kingston. But legislators Dave Donaldson (D-Kingston) and John Parete (D-Boiceville) say that evidence and testimony presented in court indicate county officials were aware of a potentially cheaper option to overhaul the current court facility, but never shared that information with lawmakers.
Last year in the wake of the county adding a third Family Court judge, the state’s Office of Court Administration handed down a mandate ordering Ulster to expand its current 18,000-square-foot facility by 10,000 square feet or move to a new, larger space. In August 2015, Syracuse-based engineering and architecture firm C&S Companies delivered a feasibility study to Ulster County officials. The report examined eight possible scenarios for the court expansion, including new construction at a vacant site, expansion of the current facility and using several vacant or underutilized county-owned properties.
The study concluded that the most cost-effective solution would be to move the court to the County’s Business Resource Center on Ulster Avenue, less than a quarter-mile over the city-Town of Ulster border. The former strip mall had housed a SUNY Ulster satellite campus, but has been largely vacant since the opening of the college’s new facility in Midtown Kingston. The study noted that the 31,000-square-foot building’s heating, plumbing and electrical systems were in good condition while the interior layout lent itself to relatively easy reconfiguration. The report estimated the total cost of the conversion at $4,965,000. One drawback of the site, the report noted, was that it lies outside the City of Kingston and thus would require voter approval to waive a law that the court must be located within the county seat.
The same study examined the feasibility of purchasing the Lucas Avenue facility, which is currently leased, and expanding it. The report concluded that an expansion would carry over many of the court’s existing deficiencies, including a long, narrow layout that restricts courtroom size, makes for less-than-ideal security conditions and creates issues with privacy for juveniles in custody. The study also concluded that critical systems in the Lucas Avenue building had “reached the end of their useful lives.” Perhaps most critically, the report found that it would be difficult or impossible to maintain court operations while the expansion was underway, necessitating a move to temporary quarters during the construction phase. The report placed the estimated cost of the Lucas Avenue expansion at $6 million.
According to Ulster County Legislature Chairman Ken Ronk, then-building owner the late Abel Garraghan set an asking price of $6 million before his death in 2015.
Based on the C&S report, county lawmakers voted earlier this year to seek voter approval for the Ulster Avenue plan via a ballot question. But the move has faced resistance from Parete and Donaldson, who say the move would deal a blow to Uptown Kingston’s economy and create a hassle for court clients. The pair also question whether the move was in fact the most cost-effective solution.
“I objected [to the relocation] immediately,” said Parete. “I voted against it because there was never a comprehensive plan of how Kingston was affected.”
Parete and Donaldson claimed that the wording of the ballot measure, which reads that the relocation would “improve services to the children and families of Ulster County, reduce the need to raise property taxes and satisfy state mandates.” The two lawmakers filed suit in state Supreme Court to force an alteration of the wording to more neutral language which simply asked voters whether the court should be moved.
Last week acting state Supreme Court Justice Denise Hartman rejected the two lawmakers’ claims that the ballot language was not supported by facts.
“We lost that battle, but we gained information,” said Parete. “This thing should be voted down.”
Among the revelations was a proposal by architect Scott Dutton to carry out a full expansion and overhaul of the Lucas Avenue building. According to Donaldson, Dutton testified that the renovation would have cost between $2.9 and $3.2 million, depending on whether union labor was utilized. The plan called for the building to then be sold to the county for $3 million. Donaldson said that Dutton testified he had developed the plan in close consultation with the state Office of Court Administration to ensure that it satisfied the agency’s mandate. An August 2014 email between Ulster County Legislature fiscal analyst Donald Quesnell and Deputy County Executive Robert Sudlow that was presented in court makes references to the plan. Sudlow mentioned a $7 million “draft renovation proposal” by the landlord that would create a “state of the art 2015 facility” that would reflect “the desires of OCA as well as the judges themselves.” Sudlow’s email ends, “Finally, be assured the County has not agreed to or participated in the design proposal completed by the OCA architect and the landlord’s architect.”
Donaldson said that he had never been told about Dutton’s plan and, based on conversations with fellow lawmakers, said no one in the legislature knew of the proposal.
“How can you make an informed decision if you don’t have all the specifics?” said Donaldson. “They knew that study was there and it was never shared with the committee, never shared with the legislature, we knew nothing about it.”
But Sudlow said Wednesday that Dutton’s proposal had never been formally presented to anyone in county government. Sudlow said there were other issues with Dutton’s proposal, including the fact that it would have reconfigured rather than expanded the footprint of the court. Sudlow added that Dutton’s proposal had not taken into account prevailing-wage laws that must be followed on government projects in New York State. Had the county purchased the building for use as a court after Dutton’s proposed renovation, Sudlow said, state officials would likely see the move as an attempt to circumvent prevailing wage rules.
“They would have been all over us,” said Sudlow, who testified at the court hearing about the proposal.
Sudlow added that the BRC plan had a number of advantages over Dutton’s stay-at-Lucas Avenue plan. Sudlow noted that the BRC’s location adjacent to the county’s Department of Social Services meant that DSS attorneys, child welfare workers and others would spend less time traveling and waiting for Family Court matters. As a county capital project, rather than a privately funded one, the BRC plan would also benefit from coordination with an OCA architect who would ensure that the plan would meet the agency’s exacting standards.
“You can’t compare work on a 32,000-square-foot vacant space as a county capital project … versus quite frankly a draft proposal done for an employer saying how cheap you could do it at an existing location.”
But Donaldson and Parete said that another revelation in the court hearing, cost estimates from Alfandre Architecture on the BRC plan, indicate that the county had lowballed the price of the relocation. While the C&S study estimated a $6 million price tag, Alfandre projection of $9.93 million when “soft costs,” including roof replacement are added in, the price tag rises to nearly $13 million. Meanwhile, the Lucas Avenue building was recently listed for sale at $2.5 million — far below the price Abel Garraghan had earlier quoted. Parete and Donaldson said that they believed the Dutton plan was still possible, if voters reject the November referendum.
“I’m appalled that we didn’t know about this,” said Parete. “So now we can let out this information and hope the public votes it down.”