22 July 2009

There is reason to be cautiously optimistic this morning . . .

Proposal leaves DSS in Hudson
by Francesca Olsen
Hudson-Catskill Newspapers
Wednesday, July 22, 2009

At a press conference Tuesday, Board of Supervisors Chairman Art Baer, R-Hillsdale, and Hudson Mayor Richard Scalera announced that they are considering a proposal “to allow the Columbia County Department of Social Services to remain in Hudson.”

The plan would entail the county’s purchase of the One City Centre building on the corner of State and Green streets in Hudson; departments currently in the County Office Buildings at 401 and 610 State Street would move to City Centre, freeing up room for DSS operations.

The total square footage of 401 and 610 State Street is 36,000 square feet, 24,000 at 401 and 12,000 at 610 State Street. Baer said that this was “significantly more” space than DSS currently has.

Baer called the proposal “a great solution for a difficult problem” and said “I’m looking forward to implementing it.”

“The logistics of the planning -- there’s a lot to discuss,” said Scalera. “The commitment to keep DSS in the city of Hudson is what we’ve been working for.”

DSS would stay in its current building on Railroad Avenue for the duration of its lease, which ends in 2011; plans to retrofit One City Centre and the County Office Buildings will be firmed between now and then.

Baer told the Register-Star on June 23 that the county was not interested in purchasing One City Centre. “When we were interested in that building, we did not own the Ockawamick School. At this point, we have no need for additional space,” he said.

The chairman said his change of mind came with the change in the real estate market. “At previous levels of pricing, what I said was true,” he said.

“One City Centre is no longer as costly as it was, say, a year ago,” said Scalera.

Though Baer said he was “not prepared to go into any numbers” regarding the county’s bid on One City Centre, the Register-Star reported on June 23 that the price on the building has fallen since the recession from $5 million to about $2 million.

One City Centre currently houses a few businesses, including a branch of the First Niagara Bank and the headquarters of Taconic Farms, a research laboratory. If the county owns property for county use, it is not required to pay tax on the property. Baer said that if the county were to purchase the building, the space being used by businesses would still be on the tax rolls.

One City Centre is being reassessed right now. “I think reassessment value will be lower than what it was,” Baer said.

“This is not a done deal,” the chairman stressed. “We are only in discussion with the bank. There are still many pieces that have to be put together in the puzzle.”

Other bids are out on the One City Centre property. Richard Koskey confirmed that he had made a bid on the property with the plan of leasing it to the county at “below market” value.

“The bank, we do believe, wants to move on the property,” said Baer. “We’re moving this on a parallel with the dormitory authority.”

The Dormitory Authority of the State of New York (DASNY) is being considered to act as a third party for work on the county’s capital projects. DASNY provides financing and construction services to non-profits higher education and health care institutions, certain state agencies and nonprofit organizations specified by law. Court facilities, social services and homeless housing programs are all eligible for DASNY financing.

Baer told the Register-Star that funds to buy One City Centre would probably come from a larger bond for several projects, including renovations to the former Ockawamick school building and renovations to the county courthouse.

Baer said he has gotten positive feedback from businesses located in One City Centre. “We are in very close touch with them,” he said.

If One City Centre is purchased, the Ockawamick plan would be “downsized”, according to Baer. “We would probably build out a little less than half, which would be absolutely necessary to make (this plan) viable,” he said.

Minority Leader Doug McGivney, D-Kinderhook, said he supported the plan. “I’m very enthusiastic that this will solve part of our capital improvements.”

McGivney said that years ago, One City Centre was the first choice in the discussion of where to move DSS. “Our original desires look like they’re possible. It’s pretty exciting,” he said. “The devil’s always in the details, but it looks pretty good.”

Supervisor William C. Hughes, D-Hudson 4, expressed his happiness on the plan to keep DSS in Hudson. “This is a great day. We’re certainly elated,” he said.

Supervisor Tom Dias, D-Ancram, said he wasn’t sure yet. “I don’t have enough information yet,” he said. “There’s too many numbers up in the air. What I hear so far is a lot has to do with the fact that certain tenants remain and I have a concern about that. I don’t think the county should be in that kind of business, but I’m keeping an open mind.”

“I think the devil’s in the details, but I think in general, One City Center makes sense,” said Supervisor George Jahn, D-Austerlitz. He called the building the only “Class-A” building in the city of Hudson -- meaning it is newer and needs much less renovation work than other options. “The current DSS building is currently a class-C building,” he said.

Reaction to the announcement

Local officials pleased with plan to keep DSS in city
by Jamie Larson
Hudson Catskill Newspapers
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Hudson officials responded favorably to the news Tuesday that the County Board of Supervisors Chairman Art Baer, R-Hillsdale, and Hudson Mayor Richard Scalera have reached an agreement to keep the Department of Social Services in Hudson after moths of sometimes contentious disagreement. The county had originally passed a proposal to move DSS out of the city to the old Ockawamick school building in Claverack.

While many details remain undecided, the proposal on the table, announced at a press conference at the 401 State Street county office building, would move county government offices to the One City Centre building, leaving the current 401 and 610 State Street county buildings open for potential DSS locations when the lease on the current facility on Railroad Avenue expires. Other options for DSS locations are also being considered, but to the delight of many in Hudson those options are also located within the city.

“I applaud Chairmen Baer and all those involved in the process,” Scalera said at press conference, standing beside Baer, “We are very excited that we will be sitting at the table.”

When the Ockawamick move was announced in the fall of 2008 an opposition to the plan sprung up immediately. Hudson politicians and citizens argued that DSS deserved to stay in Hudson as the city is the “county seat,” where all other major agencies are, and because such a high percentage of those in need of services live in or around the city.

Local activist, and Hudson Bottom Line Party founder, Linda Mussmann organized rallies and events to get Hudson residents out protesting the plan, and was pleased with the new county position.

Mussmann was still cautious at the press conference however, and asked Baer if the Board of Supervisors would keep looking for options for DSS in Hudson if the One City Centre plan didn’t pan out. Baer said that they would. Mussmann thanked them, saying she doesn’t enjoy the job of holding signs outside of government meetings, adding, “It’s nice to be a part of the process, and we look forward to working with you.”

Mayor Scalera thanked her. “I’m a true optimist, but don't put away those signs yet,” Scalera said, soliciting a slight grimace from Baer, standing to his left at the podium.

“They’re in the truck,” she said.

After the press conference Hudson Supervisor Rev. Edward Cross, D-2nd Ward, said he thanked Mussmann for all she did to get people behind the issue. He also thanked the supervisors who worked behind the scenes to put the new deal on the table after so much infighting on the issue. “We put down the swords and opened our ears,” he said, “I’ve never seen the board work so hard to accomplish something. It’s a very good day in the neighborhood.”

Fellow Hudson Supervisor William Hughes, D-4th Ward, said he was proud of the supervisors for their new position and happy for the people they represent. “Its been a long road,” Hughes said, “I’m glad to see there was an idea we could all go forward with and we can smooth out what was a contentious relationship. I think the city and the county needs that to move forward.”

20 July 2009

From the editorial page

Bricks, mortar and voter ire
The Columbia Paper editorial
Sunday, 19 July 2009

YOU DON’T HAVE TO vote this November. Sure, the ballot offers a chance to choose among candidates for local offices, and it frequently happens that races hinge on one or two votes. But this year it seems like just the thought that you’ll vote has generated the seeds of change.

What else could explain the sudden about face of the county Board of Supervisors. Only a few months ago, the supervisors voted decisively to purchase the old Ockawamick School building in Claverack and then to move the headquarters of the county Department of Social Services to that site. Almost the only supervisors voting against the plan represent the City of Hudson, where the department is currently headquartered. Never mind the protesters and the outcry from city officials, this was a done deal.

Election Day lay more than half a year away back then, and supervisors didn’t see a political liability in voting for a plan that promised to save the county money, with only poor people getting hurt. Some folks chuckled that maybe it would do the people receiving assistance from the social services department some good if they couldn’t make it out to Claverack to collect their benefits.

Maybe the chucklers forgot that some of the people eligible for benefits once made buttons until the button factory closed, made furniture until the furniture factory closed, made humidifiers until the humidifier factory closed. Maybe they didn’t notice that unemployment in the county has hit a high not seen in these parts for a quarter century or more. Maybe they have a job to offer the people they chuckle about.

But lots of voters have noticed these dismal signs, and so have candidates for county office. A theme is emerging for the fall campaigns, as supervisor hopefuls across the political spectrum have latched on to public dissatisfaction with the plan to move the Department of Social Services (DSS) out of Hudson.

That became clear last week when Claverack Supervisor and former Board of Supervisors Chairman Jim Keegan, a Republican, said he no longer supported moving the DSS out of Hudson. That amounted to a bombshell, because disagreements in the GOP seldom get aired in public and because Mr. Keegan, not somebody who goes around rocking boats, would seem to gain little from criticizing the current chairman, fellow Republican Art Baer (Hillsdale). Yet here he was contradicting the current chairman by reporting that DSS officials have told him they don’t think the move makes sense.

Mr. Keegan says that many of his constituents have told him they don’t like the DSS plan, something he voted for. In previous years his personal popularity and long record of service might have made the outcome of the town election a foregone conclusion. But he faces a challenge this year from Robin Andrews, a member of the Philmont Village Board, and just as few would have predicted a public split between Mr. Keegan and Mr. Baer, handicapping the outcome of local races has become a lot trickier.

The situation cuts across party lines. Kinderhook Supervisor Doug McGivney is a Democrat, and as minority leader of the county Board of Supervisors, he would likely become the chairman if the Democrats take control of the board in November. The party now holds a slim lead over the GOP in registration, so that goal is technically within reach. But Mr. McGivney faces a challenge from Republican Pat Grattan, a former mayor of Valatie, who has faulted Mr. McGivney for his support of the DSS move.

Now, all of a sudden, Mr. McGivney produces a plan that could yield welcome results: He has convinced his colleagues on the Board of Supervisors to explore having the state Dormitory Authority review all the county’s current space needs and recommend the best way to solve them. Imagine that—looking at the whole picture instead of the parts.

It’s such a good idea that its fate shouldn’t depend on the answer from the Dormitory Authority. If that agency can’t do the job, the county should find another entity that can. Until then the county should put its optional plans, including the DSS move, on hold until the evaluation is complete. It makes you wonder, if this much change is possible before the election, what would happen if more people actually did go out and vote.

10 July 2009

In the news

More reaction to the July 8 DASNY decision by the county Board of Supervisors
(Register-Star, July 10)

Reaction mixed on DASNY plan
by Jamie Larson

Reactions were mixed Thursday, on a resolution unanimously passed by the Columbia County Board of Supervisors Wednesday night to bring a powerful third party state authority into the discussion on a number of large county capital projects.

The resolution allows the Board to evaluate the possibility of bringing in the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York in to consult and possibly work directly on and help finance plans including the moving of the Department of Social Services out of Hudson to the Ockawamick school building in Claverack, homeless housing, county courthouse renovations and others.

The DSS move is currently the most publicly controversial plan on the list and officials discussed with the Register-Star what role DASNY could potentially play in the planning.

The resolution was proposed by Supervisor Doug McGinney, D-Kinderhook, who says the services provided by DASNY are almost too good to be true, adding they have expertise on all aspects of government projects. He says he is not looking to stop the Ockawamick project while they consult DASNY, but he feels the input of an objective third party may help put opposition to the Ockawamick move in Hudson and elsewhere to rest, as well as help prioritize the numerous other projects facing the county during difficult economic times.

“I still agree with the decision we made,” McGivney said, “I’m not flip-flopping on my position at all. There are other people that do not agree, people I have respect for, so I’m not opposed to other people coming in and offering their opinion.”

While the resolution addresses other projects as well, the fact that it involves taking another look at DSS possibilities is encouraging to some who are fighting against the plan. “Any request for an outside agency to intervene, I would be agreeable with that,” Hudson Mayor Richard Scalera said, “But I’m not sure yet what they are asking DASNY to do.”

Scalera, Who has proposed a plan that would keep DSS in Hudson, said McGivney’s position is somewhat counterintuitive. “I really have major reservations about having someone stop and look at it while the project is moving forward,” Scalera said, “it’s kind of like moon walking. I’m not sure how you do that.”

Scalera said it sometimes feels like the county decision making process moves too fast and is done on the spur of the moment. “There is nothing wrong with saying, ‘look maybe we should stop what we’re doing for a while.’ ”

As of last Tuesday, putting the DSS Ockawamick relocation on hold to asses other possible options is the new position of Supervisor James Keegan, R-Claverack. Keegan was on the Board in the early 1990’s when they used DASNY to help plan the still pending renovation of the courthouse and says while he would like to slow down the DSS plan he thinks DASNY is probably the wrong organization to look to for conflict resolution. “I don’t think it has anything to do with it,” Keegan said, “And I don’t want to spend any more money on consultants.”

Keegan did vote for McGivney’s resolution. “I voted yes because it doesn’t commit us to anything,” Keegan said, “My idea is to slow this thing down because of the economic situation. Let’s prioritize and then move forward.”

Board of Supervisors Chairman Art Baer, R-Hillsdale, said there is no reason to put Ockawamick planning on hold while consulting with DASNY. He said the county hasn’t broken ground on construction in Claverack yet and there is no reason to stop planning for a consultation, especially when no one yet knows what type of services can be made available through the authority. We’ve always said we’ve been willing to look at different options,” Baer said, “but we have deadlines and we’ve invested a lot in the proposal we have. All that needs to go on. If DASNY can see how to do that better, we welcome their input.”

Baer said where DASNY will eventually become helpful is when the county is looking for bonds for the renovations of the courthouse and Ockawamick. The chairman also wanted to make the point that the Ockawamick building will be used by the county for more offices than just DSS, so there is no reason to consider stopping work on the project because of the controversy over social service relocation.

“Until we sit down with DASNY we won’t know exactly what they can do,” Baer said, “That’s why I’m reluctant to throw the emergency break on.”

09 July 2009

Supes seek cover behind DASNY; prep to move DSS will not stop

From the July 9 edition of the Register-Star:
Supervisor Doug McGivney, D-Kinderhook, introduced a new resolution at the last minute at the Columbia County Board of Supervisors Full Board meeting Wednesday evening. . . .

'We have a number of projects we need to finance,' said Board of Supervisors Chairman Art Baer, R-Hillsdale. DASNY has worked with the county before. 'We’re not stopping anything,' he said, 'just having a third party look at options. By having this third party group, hopefully it will take some of the contentiousness out of the discussion going forward.'

. . . Baer said he hopes to look into bonding to fund projects such as the renovation of the County Courthouse, which is not handicap accessible, and the proposal to move the Department of Social Services to the former Ockawamick school building.

'That’s one of the areas I think they would provide us potentially with some assistance,' he said. 'I think we’re going to expose them to the process that the Board went through, let them take a look at the data, and if they can come up with some other option, then we’re certainly going to listen to it.'

'At the same time, we’re not going to pull the emergency brake and stop all our actions with respect to engineering and design with respect to Ockawamick,' said Baer. . . .

The resolution was presented to the Democratic caucus without prior notice, just before the full board meeting Wednesday night. The full text of the resolution (put forward by McGivney and seconded by Supervisor William Hughes, D-Hudson4) follows.

Whereas, Columbia County is faced with several capital projects involving space needs for offices as well as undressed historical needs. Those projects are:

1. Department of Social Services
This is a situation involving the expiration of a long term lease in 2011. The leased building is in poor condition, not capable of expansion and is too small for current operations. Through in-house expertise with some hired appraisers and engineering firms, phase 1 environmental studies and appraisals were obtained and analyzed on several alternative sites and buildings. No suitable buildings were found within the City of Hudson, but an unused school of 77,000 square feet with 20 plus acres of land was located about 6 miles from Hudson. It was purchased for 1.5 million dollars; with a view to renovation for the housing of DSS as well as other county agencies. A satellite DSS office was anticipated for the City of Hudson, based on a concentrated need.

2. Columbia County Court House
There has been an outstanding consent order to provide handicap accessibility. In addition, the NYS Office of Court Administration desires multimillion dollar improvements. We have the money for the handicap improvement but will have to borrow the money for the OSC improvements.

3. Office of the District Attorney
The District Attorney has, for years, been squeezed into an old jail building, which has been totally inadequate. This inadequacy is to the extent of being an embarrassment and danger to those using the building.

4. Homeless housing
The number of homeless has doubled in the last 2 years. The cost of temporary shelter obtained by renting hotel rooms is approaching 1.4 million dollars per year. The situation is growing. A temporary solution has been suggested by the DSS Commissioner -- through the mechanism of a long term agreement by which a guaranteed occupancy rate would be assured -- and a discounted room rate obtained. This solution was found undesirable by the City of Hudson leadership.

5. 610 State Street
Is a building owned by the County in the City of Hudson that may be sold and returned to the tax rolls if certain departments were relocated to the renovated school site.

6. Senior housing
There is a recognized need to address senior housing of all types for our aging population and our Pine Haven Nursing Home is a facility needing eventual (not immediate) rehabilitation to meet current senior needs.

Whereas, several plans and proposals have been put forth but have also generated public controversy leading to a divisive and sometimes contentious community atmosphere,

Whereas, the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York offers many services to municipalities concerning the office and building needs in the form of study, planning, advising, consulting and even building and financing of needed buildings.

Now Therefore, the Columbia County Board of Supervisors endorses the concept of exploring the obtaining and retention of the services of the DASNY for the purposes of review, study and recommendations concerning all aspects of building or capital needs of Columbia County.

[July 8, 2009]

07 July 2009

Call to gather Wednesday (full BOS meeting)

Join us at the regular meeting of the Columbia County Board of Supervisors meeting 7:30 p.m., Wednesday (July 8) at 401 State Street,
in beautiful downtown Hudson, New York.

The controversial decision to move the Department of Social Services away from Hudson (the county seat) to an abandoned school in Claverack, still stands. The so-called OCKAWAMICK PLAN, formulated by BOS Chairman Art Baer, and his select inner circle -- Doug McGivney, Linda Scheer, Roy Brown, Phil Williams and county Public Works Commissioner Dave Robinson -- is steadily moving forward.

We must continue to question and hold this gang of out-of-touch county bosses accountable for their decisions. They must be continually reminded that their actions have serious real-life implications for the people who put them there.

Under the OP, 64 percent of the department's clients (many without access to a private vehicle) will be forced to travel six miles to Claverack, located in the middle of a rural county without a public transportation system.

In the words of an unidentified social worker (one of many individuals who fear retribution for speaking the truth): They might as well be moving the office 600 miles away. The hardship this places on people who struggle against sizable odds to get services is already hard enough.

The continual attention and public resistance has had an effect -- we cannot give up. As a direct result of the public outcry and resistance, a key member of the Board of Supervisors has now reversed his position on the project. Longtime Claverack supervisor James Keegan announced his "change of heart" in the July 7 edition of the Register-Star:

"Keegan, who initially voted for the plan to move DSS, told the Register-Star that in light of the vocal opposition to the plan from the city and around the county, he now believes other options should be considered. 'I think we need to retool and pull back and study the situation,' Keegan said, 'I’d be willing to take another look at this thing.' …"

Keegan is not only an important member of the Republican caucus (and former acting BOS Chairman), he also controls 349 votes under the board's weighted vote system -- the second largest voting block in the county. (Minority Leader and Ockawamick supporter McGivney controls the largest block of votes with 433).

Unfortunately for the citizens of Columbia County, the DSS debacle is just #1 on the now all-too-familiar list of harebrained ideas formulated by the current county leadership. The most recent bright idea by the county bosses was to house the county's homeless in a historic landmark hotel located in the center of downtown Hudson. This stroke of genius brought the business community out in a rage and Chair Baer backed off the ridiculous idea just prior to the July 4th holiday, putting it on hold.

But the bad news just keeps coming. Recently, we learned that the Chair is faced with another significant facilities issue -- Albany is getting ready to "sanction" the county for its failure to make county courthouse accessible to the handicapped. And why is this an issue now? Because the county failed to comply with the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act for more than 20 years!

As a direct result of this significant failure in leadership, a capitol region news reporter was reduced to literally crawling up the courthouse stairs just to be able to do their job. The county now has to work overtime to fix the problem it let slide for far too long.

When this latest debacle came to light, Chair Baer was asked how the county planned to correct the problem. He told the local press, "… the county plans to obtain funding for this project [renovation of the courthouse] as part of a larger bond which combines other projects, including renovations to the former Ockawamick School, which is proposed as the new headquarters of the county Department of Social Services. The bond would be for around $20 million." (Register-Star, July 2, 2009).

So, even before county lawmakers "fessed up" to the true cost of the Ockawamick Plan, the price tag is growing. This is not how smart business is conducted. If the Chair was the CEO of a major corporation the reasoning behind his flawed decision-making would most certainly be questioned at this point. Ockawamick, Pine Haven, the courthouse. The man calling the shots is the same man who wanted to turn the only hotel in the county into a homeless shelter. When will it end?

Please come to this meeting. Your presence will send a message. Demand accountability from elected officials. Demand transparency. Although the county government continually slams the door in our faces, we can't give up.

Services should be located where the people are -- and that's in Hudson. We ask that you support the plan to KEEP DSS IN HUDSON, where it belongs. Join us. It is far from over.

7:30 p.m., Wednesday (July 8) at 401 State Street, Hudson

Any questions, please contact Linda Mussmann at 209-7966
Check back at http://dsswatch.blogspot.com to learn more.