Taxpayers question plan for emergency services building

TUPPER LAKE – Several locals questioned the village’s plans for constructing a new emergency services building at a forum Tuesday night.

At least three people said the taxpayers of Tupper Lake can’t afford to invest in such a project right now, and they and others expressed other concerns about the plans as well.

The forum was the final one before a public vote on the project, which is set to happen Tuesday, May 7. The village is looking to borrow $3.2 million to build a new fire and police station on Santa Clara Avenue to replace the two current facilities, and it expects $1.3 million in a mix of federal and state funding.

Several people were concerned about what happens if that grant money doesn’t come through. Local businessman Peter Day said he wants to see confirmation on paper so he doesn’t have to worry about taxpayers being stuck with the costs.

“You’ve got to have something in hand,” Day said.

“You can’t,” said Sean Foran, the consultant hired by the village to do a feasibility study on the project and bring it through a referendum. “They don’t work that way. I’m sorry. I wish they did.”

Foran said he’s gotten as many assurances as he possibly can that the money is coming, but he needs an approved project before he can get documents confirming it.

Day, local businessman Eric Shaheen and Dan McClelland, who is editor and publisher of the Tupper Lake Free Press, were all still skeptical. They all spoke at once, arguing that someone’s word doesn’t mean much in terms of government grants.

“That means nothing,” Day said.

“I don’t believe you’re going to get the grant,” McClelland said.

“It’s not guaranteed money,” Shaheen said.

Foran noted that the more support the project gets in the referendum, the more likely the project will get more money. Politicians want to support popular projects, but they are more skeptical of funding controversial ones, Foran said.

Besides that, Foran said there is no project without the grant money, so it doesn’t matter. The resolution the village passed for the project states that the village can only borrow up to $3.2 million for it, and it can only spend $4.5 million total including grant funding. It also states that the building will be about 14,500 square feet, which is not possible to build with $3.2 million, Foran said.

“So then, what’s the big deal?” asked Jason McClain, arguing that there’s no risk to taxpayers if the grant money doesn’t come through.

McClelland asked why the village didn’t give a choice in the proposition between supporting just a new fire station or supporting a fire and police station.

“I think Tupper Lake’s ready to support a brand-new fire station,” McClelland said. “I think your double proposition is going to fail.”

Foran said including the police department in the plans is driving the free government money. He said that without adding the police department to the building, it was estimated to cost around $3.2 million anyway. So by putting the two together, Tupper Lake is essentially getting a free police station.

He also said he has been told that either/or propositions are not allowed in New York.

Day asked how the price of the project would change for taxpayers based on fluctuations in the town’s tax base. If the town’s total assessed property value goes up, if the Adirondack Club and Resort sees a successful buildout, the burden on the rest of the taxpayers would be reduced, but if that doesn’t happen, the town’s valuation will likely go down, since people will continue moving out of town due to lack of jobs and opportunity, and each taxpayer will be responsible for more of the costs, he said.

Foran said it’s a reasonable thought process – why not wait until Tupper Lake’s tax base is stronger? But he said now is the time to build, with municipal bond rates the lowest they’ve been since the 1950s, more contractors bidding on projects than ever and the likelihood that costs will increase in coming years.

“Waiting one year on this project costs a half a million dollars,” Foran said.

“The problem is it still has to be paid for,” Day argued.

Day said he understands the construction costs increasing, but he said Tupper Lakers are already in a desperate financial situation, noting economic problems with the county and school district and other costs coming up for the village and town.

Foran said his job is to give the people of the community all the facts and let them decide if now is the right time for such a project.

“We all know the need is there for the fire department and the police department, but I think a lot of people in this community, a lot of the people I’ve talked to, believe that this is not the most cost-effective way to approach this,” Day said.

Several people argued that there is unnecessary space in the plan, like the “community space” in between the fire and police areas. Foran said that it will mostly be used for fire and police training, and it was cut down as much as the squads thought was possible.

Day was also concerned with the town’s share of the costs versus the village’s share. Foran explained that the town’s share would be paid through the town’s fire protection contract with the village. Day said he’s worried the village will be stuck with the full costs of the project if the town pulls out of its fire contract, which is negotiated annually. Next year’s contract is still being negotiated between town and village officials.

Foran said the town needs to do something for fire protection, and he’s not sure what other options it would have.

“There’s not a town in New York state yet that doesn’t have fire protection,” Foran said.

He said it’s the job of town and village officials to come to an agreement. He said it’s likely that town taxpayers will end up paying on average an additional $18 to $22 a year for a $100,000 home, a little more than $10 less than village residents.

Day said that should all be worked out ahead of time so taxpayers know what amounts they will be responsible for.

“It seems like you should have all of this figured out before we go to referendum,” Day said.

Shaheen asked about the possibility that the site on Santa Clara Avenue is environmentally contaminated. The neighboring site, a former Alaskan Oil station, was supposedly cleaned up, but Shaheen said Aubuchon Hardware was looking to buy that property and found that it still has environmental problems that are spreading.

Foran said he’s aware there might be problems, but there are contingency funds in the project’s budget that could deal with it. If there is a big problem, he said the federal government would likely give brownfield grant money to clean up the site, since he already expects it to fund part of the project.

Day was also concerned about the site. He said he owns property in the area, and drainage was a problem there when Demars Boulevard flooded two years ago. Foran said those issues could likely be dealt with in the design of the building.

Foran also addressed McClelland’s editorial last week, arguing that Tupper Lake should take a note from the Gouverneur fire station. Built about five years ago, the station isn’t up to any codes, Foran said.

Shaheen asked how they can get away with not meeting code, and if they can, why Tupper Lake can’t. Foran said he won’t be involved in a building that won’t meet codes, and noted that if it didn’t, it wouldn’t be covered by insurance, among other problems.

McClelland said the people who showed him the station there are proud of their station and stand by it.

“They’re pretty tickled with the building,” McClelland said.

Shaheen said Gouverneur built what it could afford, and he doesn’t believe Tupper Lakers can afford a nice building, either. Foran said Gouverneur’s building won’t last as long as the one planned for Tupper Lake, and he believes Tupper’s plans are the most cost-effective way to go about it in the long run.

Jim Frenette Jr. asked whether the new building would have a higher operating budget than the current two stations.

Foran said some of the other stations he has been involved with recently found their costs increased little due to the fact that new construction, appliances and other considerations are so much more energy efficient, “which I found kind of shocking, to be honest with you.”

Hope Frenette asked what happens if bids come in higher than expected. Foran said locals can help drive costs down by encouraging local workers to bid on the project.

Foran said over the next two weeks, supporters of the project plan to hold meetings with local community groups and at the Ivy Terrace and Don Smith’s apartment complexes to drum up support.

Contact Jessica Collier at 891-2600 ext. 26 or