Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Why Can't We Get This Done?

An observation made in frustration by Alderman John Friedman (Third Ward) and directed at Alderman Cappy Pierro (Fifth Ward) and former mayor Rick Scalera crystallized the situation at Tuesday night's Common Council meeting. Speaking of the plan to purchase and renovate 701 Union Street for a police and court building, Friedman said, "The problem is that it's not your plan, it's not Galvan's plan."

Throughout the months of discussion of the current proposal for the police and court building, Pierro has often harkened back to the glory days of building the Central Firehouse. Pierro holds it up as an example of how things should be done, but some remember it as a project beset with change orders and escalating costs and an incomprehensible financing scheme. Although it's generally believed that the City owns the Central Firehouse, that's not the case. The building is owned by Community Initiatives Development Corporation (CIDC), whose president is William Loewenstein. The City has a lease agreement with CIDC. It pays about $195,470 a year to CIDC, and in 2035, after paying nearly $6 million, the City will be able to buy the building from CIDC for a dollar.

There have been hints along the way that Pierro, who was part of the committee exploring the feasibility of adapting 701 Union Street for the police department and city court, might advocate for abandoning that plan in favor of building a new building. Back in May, when the Council believed the cost of the purchase and renovation could be capped at $2 million, Pierro was already opining that "we are approaching the point where we can probably put a new building up on city property." Now that a required addition to the existing building has bumped the estimated cost up to $2.53 million, Pierro's enthusiasm for new construction has grown. 

On Tuesday night, he started out bemoaning the fact that the City couldn't get local financing for the project and would have to go to the public bond market. "That's going to be a very lengthy procedure," he predicted, "and we have to pay everyone," making reference to lawyers and bond counsel. He based this dire prognostication on city treasurer Eileen Halloran's report to the Finance Committee that she had bid out the financing for the $500,000 firetruck being purchased for the Hoystradt Company to three local banks and had received only one proposal to finance it over 10 years not 15 years. Halloran's insistence that "we are not locked out of getting funding for the building from a local bank" held no sway with Pierro, who also chose to ignore another point made by Halloran: that the probable period of usefulness for the proposed police and court building, established based on information from the architect, had doubled from 10 to 15 years to 20 to 30 years, allowing the City to finance the project over 20 years, which could help offset the cost of getting the financing.

In a prepared statement, Pierro complained about the process, alleged that the cost had gone from $1.3 million to $2.53 million, groused that there were no renderings and color drawings, fussed that he wanted a new police and court building that is brand-new, and compared the project to the acquisition of Ockawamick.

Alderman Abdus Miah (Second Ward) then weighed in, fretting about the findings of the Phase II environmental study. "We see that Phase II has some problems," Miah said. "I don't know how to fix it." The problems are in fact minor. Radon has been detected under the slab on which the original building sits. This will be mitigated during construction by installing a vapor intrusion system, and the owner has agreed to take the cost of the system off the purchase price. The other environmental finding was metal in the fill used years ago, which is not a problem unless it is disturbed. After explaining this, Alderman Nick Haddad (First Ward), who has been the point man on this project, asked of Miah, "What have you read in the past three days that has made you turn turtle?"

Later, Miah asked the police chief and police commissioner, seated in the audience, "Are you happy with this project?" Before they could answer, Alderman Bob "Doc" Donahue (Fifth Ward) rephrased the question: "Would you be happy with a brand-new police station, built from the ground up? The cost would not be that much more."

Council president Don Moore, who several times had to gavel the meeting back to order, suggested that the Council consider only the bond resolution--to "move this one more notch"--and postpone considering the resolution to purchase the building for a couple of weeks. Since this was agreeable to all, the vote proceeded. Before casting his vote, Donahue asked, with the apparent expectation of an affirmative answer, "This can be used for a new building, too, right?" When Halloran and city attorney Cheryl Roberts told him no, he seemed flummoxed, uncertain of how to vote. A voice from the audience suggested, "Ask Rick," referring to former mayor and now Galvan "special adviser" Rick Scalera.

In the end, Donahue and the rest of the aldermen present (Wanda Pertilla [Second Ward] was absent) voted unanimously to move the bond resolution forward.

After the raucous meeting had gone on for an hour and a half, the Council went into executive session to review the latest cost analysis of the project. Before that happened, a representative from the New York State Office of Court Administration who was present at the meeting was asked to comment. "This is something we would like to go forward," he said, "and if not, there will be consequences." The consequences would be sanctions on any state funding received by the City.

Scalera declared that he was "offended that there is a threat from OCA." He asserted that in the past decade there have been two proposals to build a new building to house the court, the most recent being the one proposed by the Galvan Foundation, "Civic Hudson." He then took up Pierro's cant that the public has never seen a rendering that showed what the re-purposed building would look like. "The public has never been privy to any of this," he alleged.

It seems likely that in the next couple of weeks we'll be seeing a rendering--in full color--of something new that Galvan is proposing to solve the City's problem.

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