To build or not to build?

TUPPER LAKE – On Tuesday, village residents have a big choice to make.

A public vote will decide whether the village will borrow $3.2 million to build a $4.5 million emergency services building to house the police and fire departments.

Both are now in buildings that are old, don’t have enough room and are not accessible to people with disabilities.

Tuesday’s vote is the culmination of a year-and-a-half process that started with the village hiring Hueber-Breuer Construction to study the feasibility of the project. A committee consisting of Hueber-Breuer project manager Sean Foran and members of the fire, police and rescue squads, town and village officials and taxpayers held 18 committee meetings and seven public forums since January 2012.

As a team, they evaluated nine options for the fire department, including the following: Renovate the current building, build a fire department-only station, or include either the police or rescue squads or both. Each option was scored, and the highest-scoring option was a new building for all three entities. The rescue squad, a group independent of the village, opted out, so the committee is working with the second-highest scoring option: fire and police.

Settling on the option of a new building, the group evaluated 15 different sites. In the end, they rated the highest a vacant lot on Santa Clara Avenue, between the Tupper Lake Civic Center and the former Alaskan Oil gas station.

The lot is owned by Tupper Lake Associates LLC, an investment group run by Norman Bobrow, a New York City-based real estate agent who also owns the neighboring Save-A-Lot plaza and the former Oval Wood Dish factory. The group is asking $80,000 for the lot, and the village has executed a letter of first refusal, giving it the first chance to buy the lot if it goes up for sale.

What to expect Tuesday

Village residents will cast their vote in the referendum on paper ballots Tuesday. Village Clerk Mary Casagrain said there will be some measures taken to ensure people can’t bring in fake ballots.

Voting is from noon to 9 p.m. in the lower level of Goff-Nelson Memorial Library at 41 Lake St.

The poll workers who normally run other elections for the county will work the referendum.

Each voter will sign into the ballot book at one of three stations, then take a paper ballot and fill it out at one of three private voting areas, Casagrain said. He or she will then deposit the ballot into a locked metal box, which will be checked before voting starts to ensure there aren’t any ballots stashed in it ahead of time.

The village’s attorney will be on hand to verify the vote with poll workers, Casagrain said.

Who can vote

Anyone who was registered in the village to vote in the November 2012 general election may vote in Tuesday’s referendum.

A number of people who live outside the village have complained about not having a say in the process, and many officials agree that everyone should have a say. The problem, though, is that the village would be the entity to borrow the money for the building, so it can’t legally let non-village residents vote in the referendum.

Town taxpayers outside the village will contribute to the building through the town’s contract with the village for fire protection, an agreement that is negotiated every year.

Last referendum nixed

This referendum has been a long time coming. In June 1994, voters rejected by a 3-to-1 margin a proposal to build a new municipal building to house the police and fire departments and the rescue squad. Even then, officials were calling the police and fire departments’ needs dire.

The town board drove that project, and it approved borrowing up to $925,000 for the building. Because it was a town project, all voters in town were allowed to weigh in.

That was a permissive referendum, forced by taxpayers who balked at the town’s plans and wanted the public to have a say. This time, village officials decided to send the project to a public vote without making the public petition for them to do so.

In 1994, town Supervisor Dean Lefebvre, one of the project’s biggest proponents, said it might not have been the best time for the referendum since other costs were going up and the nation was experiencing economic problems.

Survey results

That argument has been used by detractors of the current push for a new emergency services building as well. They say now isn’t a good time for such a project; Tupper Lake should wait until its tax base is stronger, or at least until developers get going with the large-scale Adirondack Club and Resort development planned for the edge of town.

They say Tupper Lakers can’t afford any more taxes, citing money troubles like next year’s school taxes, which are set to exceed the state-imposed tax cap, and Franklin County’s need to borrow money because it is low on cash flow.

Those who support a new emergency services building say now is the time to build, since the interest rates to borrow money are at a low that hasn’t been seen in decades. They say the police and fire departments have waited too long and can’t handle another setback.

It’s far from scientific, but a survey performed by the committee found some support for the project. The survey boxes were stationed at a few spots around the village, and 95 people voted in it, including five fire department members and 90 people who said they aren’t involved with the department.

Of those people, 74 said they support the idea of replacing the current fire station while 21 said no. Seventy-five people supported including the police department in the project, and 15 said no. There was less agreement on the site: 59 people said the Santa Clara site is the best for the building, and 24 said it isn’t.

Sixty-five of the people who voted in the survey said they are village residents, and 27 said they are town residents outside the village.

The Enterprise also conducted a non-scientific Web poll on the topic this week that showed less support. As of Thursday morning, 41 percent of people voting said Tupper Lake should borrow $3.2 million to build the $4.5 million building, while 53 percent said no and 6 percent remained undecided. This poll was offered to all Enterprise readers, no matter where they live.

The amount of support the project receives is important. The project is now currently slated to receive $1.3 million in grant funding, and Foran has said it could get more if there is overwhelming support. Politicians drive the grant money, and politicians like to support popular projects, Foran explains.

There has been some discussion over whether the police department should be included in the project. The grant money, however, would come from the fact that the police department is included in the mixed-use facility. That part of the project cost’s $1.3 million, so the village would essentially get a free police station to add to its fire hall.

If approved

If the project is approved, Foran’s plan is to have it ready to accept bids by July 1 and have contracts awarded by the end of July. He wants to see construction start by Aug. 1, which he says will be enough time to have an enclosed structure by the winter. He projects that the building will be finished by June 2014.

There are no final plans yet for the spaces the fire and police departments are currently in. Casagrain said she hopes to be able to move the village’s heavy archives, which are now on the third floor of the building, to the basement if the police department moves out. That would take the weight off the top of the structure – which was built around 1895, according to local historian Jon Kopp – and could free up some office space upstairs that could be rented out in the future, she said.

Casagrain said the village would likely look to sell the current fire station on High Street, and she imagines the town would look to do the same with the department’s building downtown as well. She said there has already been some private interest in the High Street building.

“We’d want the fire hall to go back on the tax roll,” Casagrain said.

A building that will last

Fire Commissioner Rick Donah has been the driving force behind keeping the committee going over the last year-and-a-half despite some controversy and support that has ebbed and flowed.

“It’s had to stay on track,” Donah said in an interview this week. “As far as my time goes, I’ve probably had to put, you know, who knows 800, 1,000 hours into it? Quite a bit of time.”

He said committee members also put tons of time into the project: both the original committee that worked on the feasibility study and a similar one that took the study from a concept to a real proposal.

“It’s been a tough road to travel, and we’re fortunate that we have a village board and a town board that can work together and try to accomplish this project,” he said.

Donah said he’s been talking to people in the community about the project, and he knows there have been concerns about the project’s budget, but he said the committee has scaled it back as much as possible so far and will continue to look for ways to cut it.

Some say the structure could be built in ways that could be cheaper, but the committee has stood behind the idea of a more solid building that will suit the community’s needs for 50-plus years. In the end, that would be more cost-effective, the argument goes.

“We just want a building that will last,” Donah said.

He said the project is well overdue, and he thinks the people of the community realize that.

Donah noted that some have been concerned that the village won’t receive the grant money Foran has said it will get. Foran said at the last community forum that he’s gotten every assurance he can get about the money, but he can’t get it in writing until the project is approved.

Foran told concerned taxpayers that, since the referendum only allows the village to borrow $3.2 million, the project will be dead without that grant money. There’s no way the taxpayers can be put on the line for that extra $1.3 million.

Donah said he’s confident the money will come through if the referendum passes.

“I think we’ve aligned ourselves properly,” Donah said. “Now we just need the community to come out and vote and support it.”

No matter what happens Tuesday, Donah is still committed to getting the fire department a space that fits its needs.

“I hope that it passes,” Donah said. “If it doesn’t pass, we’ll go back to the drawing board. We’re not going to abandon the idea. We’re going to keep working on it.”

Contact Jessica Collier at 891-2600 ext. 26 or