CARMEL, N.Y.— Contingent upon some last-minute amendments, county legislators officially approved both the lease for a controversial senior center last week, and an $800,000 bond during a meeting in which the lawmakers spent a good portion of the evening defending their position to an audience that, at times, got hostile.
Both the bond and lease agreement passed by a 6-3 margin at the Tuesday night (Sept 6.) meeting, with legislators Roger Gross (District 6), Kevin Wright (District 9), and Dini LoBue (District 8) voting “no” each time.
All three contended that the lease is a bad deal for the county and a boondoggle for taxpayers, saying that the senior center, located at the site of the former Butterfield Hospital in Cold Spring, should be a county-owned property, not a lease, and that county officials should continue to seek alternative sites.
“I support a senior center, there is no question about that, but there is a tremendous uproar on that side of county from people who don’t want it and I have people from my district who are opposed to it because of the cost,” said Roger Gross (District 6). “In 15 years we will have nothing. We’ve paid millions and we will have nothing. We will all be gone in 15 years but the project will still be there and we’ll have been on the hook for millions of dollars.”
The estimated cost of the lease is $4.3 million over the 15 years. The $800,000 bond is to pay for some of the $1.3 million in renovation costs. Lawmakers hope to pay for the rest with grant money.
“I think we need to look for another venue,” Gross said. “There is another venue there and I know it’s not popular; there’s an American Legion building and I know it needs work. We could modify and renovate that building for a lot less cost.”
But Legislor Joe Castellano (District 7) said the lease was actually a good deal for the county, which, he said, was getting the building—the Lahey Pavilion—for below market value.
“We are getting it for $13 a square foot, approximately, and it will be $17 by the end of the lease,” he said. “Market value is about $25 to $28 [per square foot]. [The developer] is giving us a significant discount over the 15 years. I think this is a great deal for us. It’s the only deal we have in front of us. We could walk away from this now, but it wouldn’t be fair to the seniors. It’s a senior center for that side of the county and it’s a shame we can’t do this together.”
Legislator Chairwoman Ginny Nacerino (District 4) gave an impassioned speech, saying misinformation was spread about the deal and insisted that the legislature has not undertaken any secret backroom deals.
“There has been a groundswell of inaccuracies in an attempt to indoctrinate the public to have them believe this project has been shrouded in secrecy and background deals,” she said. “That is not the case and I take issue that the integrity of the legislature has been challenged, especially that of Legislator [Barbara] Scuccimarra (who represents Cold Spring).”
Nacerino said that there have been numerous discussions about the Butterfield project held in open forums over the years.
“This project has been on the table for four years...affording the opportunity for public engagement over and over again,” she said. “The legislature recognizes the western side of the county lacks services for our increasing senior citizen population. We did our due diligence...into the possibility of building a center [and] after much deliberation [we decided] that this was the most cost-effective with the added advantage it would remain on the tax rolls.”
Nacerino said there were many reasons supporters of the project preferred a lease—one being that it was impossible to predict what the economic climate would be in 15 years.
“We did not want to tie the hands of future legislators by going by getting another building,” she said.
She said that it was important for the legislature to focus on the county as a whole, and not just their own districts.
It would provide no advantage to my constituents in Patterson or seven of my other colleagues to have a senior center in Cold Spring, but the fact is all taxpayers in Putnam County are going to pony up for this senior center,” Nacerino said. “That being said, I have not received one phone call or one email from any of my constituents voicing opposition. Our role as county legislators is to make countywide decisions, not isolated decisions based on our own districts.
“No one will argue that this is not an expensive endeavor but the cost is on par with our senior centers throughout the county,” she continued, “so the question is, do we want it or don’t we?”
The chairwoman said at the root of the public’s discontent was a lease contract that is a work in progress and largely misunderstood. She said the lease was released to the press last month by unknown county officials even though it was considered a confidential document.
“The lease the has been the source of debate and it was not divulged [because] it is confidential and attorney-client privileged,” she said. “This practice is not unique to Butterfield—union contracts, lawsuits, things like that are not disclosed.”
She said releasing the lease too early would make negotiations difficult and would “result in chaos.”
“As elected officials we have a fiduciary and ethical responsibility to represent our constituents and you have entrusted us to make informed decisions,” Nacerino said. “This is a senior center is something good for your seniors. I believe it is a good project that satisfies a dire need for seniors on western side of the county and they deserve it.”
Legislator Carl Albano (District 5) said county lawmakers have always been open to alternative sites, it’s just none as feasible as Butterfield presented them.
“We’ve always been open to address the situation for a better [location]—purchasing a property or leasing a property,” he said. “There was only one site identified that the legislature found appropriate and that was Butterfield and we pursued this option. Over the past few years we have had many meeting over the possible lease. There has been a lot of misinformation with regard to the lease. This was treated the same as any other legal document. No constructive negotiations could have been done if these documents had been released to the public before the execution.
“I believe there is an obvious opposition to this entire project that is politically motivated,” he continued, “and much of it is fueled by misinformation which is the result of [the lease being leaked to the press].
If we had purchased the building it would have been millions of dollars more, as it is we spent nearly a million dollars just to see if it was feasible or not.”
But LoBue contended that there has been little discussion of possible alternative sites.
“There was no discussion. It was always pushed through; always made clear there were no other options,” she said. “I remember that during the course of many Physical Services Committee meetings when I brought up an older building that would need renovating, no one would hear anything of it. [Years ago] we got out the leasing business because we learned our lesson. It’s a lose/lose situation. When you are stuck in a lease, it’s not cost-efficient. We need to own the facility…like the other three [county senior centers]. They can be used for different services, like in the times of emergencies.”
LoBue noted that during times of economic stress, county assets can be sold to offset budget issues. That can’t be done with a leased property.
“I don’t have any problem with giving services to the seniors, never had an issue with it, it just has to be done cost-effectively,” she said. “Everyone is paying for this. We took $8 million out of the general fund last year and we are heading down that same road again. This is spending that never seen anything like before. This is my eighth year in the legislature and this is reckless spending and very dangerous.”
Albano countered that the county’s finances are strong and that low interest rates make it the ideal time to float a bond.
“If you are concerned about our financial condition, please look at our most recent auditor’s report,” Albano said. “We had an outstanding report and are in solid financial shape. We are actually paying down our pension debt earlier than we have to pay it down. Bonds are at historically low rates and it’s the right time to do things. I would welcome an opportunity to purchase something if the [the situation] was right; it was not option and this is good alternative.”
Wright, Gross and LoBue all complained the lease, as voted on, was still in flux and was constantly being updated and amended.
Those amendments were to be voted on in a legislature meeting held Tuesday night after Mahopac News went to press.
One change calls for tightening up the language on how much property tax the county would be responsible for. The lease calls for the county to pay taxes on 52 percent of the space it would occupy in the Lahey Building. In an early draft of the lease, some believed that the county would pay 52 percent of the taxes on the entire Butterfield campus. Albano said updated language clears that up. Additionally, LoBue said, the lease will now require that seniors be brought to the center by county buses because the Cold Spring Planning Board felt the center’s access road would be difficult for the them to navigate.
“It’s a document that needs attention and some final details and that’s why it’s here tonight,” Albano said. “But there are not any serious changes to it.”
LoBue told Mahopac News the lease is “not even close to being settled.”
“There are things still pending with the [Cold Spring] planning board so this is not over by a long shot,” she said. “They are still working things out.”
Scuccimarra called the Buttefield project a “once in a lifetime opportunity.”
“Let’s not loose site over who this facility is for. It’s for people who have given years of their lives to support our community; these are family and friends,” she said. “[Seniors] should all have a place to gather with dignity and convenience. This is our chance to do something. Facts show we have a large population of seniors and that number will continue to grow. Most importantly it provides access to services provided by both the county and the town. For me the center represents the best part of what I do.”