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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, March 4, 2010

Should the public vote on town’s purchase of the Westerlo School?

By Zach Simeone

WESTERLO — The town board told onlookers Tuesday night that the state has committed to a $125,000 grant for the town’s purchase of the old Westerlo School, and the town is seeking an additional $20,000 to cover the remainder of the purchase price. In addition, a petition was presented at the meeting, calling for a public vote on the purchase of the building; the audience was divided in its support of the purchase.

After a series of offers and counter-offers, the town board voted last month to purchase the Westerlo School from the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School District for $145,000. Not two weeks later, the BKW School Board voted unanimously to sell the building to the town. Current plans are to convert the 60-year-old building into Westerlo’s new town hall, which will double as a center for community activities.

The traditional brick Westerlo School had housed BKW students in kindergarten, first grade, and second grade since it merged with the Berne-Knox Central School District. With falling enrollment, BKW stopped using the Westerlo School in 2005, and began leasing the building to Helderberg Christian School on a yearly basis.

Westerlo’s town board had repeatedly expressed interest in purchasing the school from BKW because space is tight at the current town hall, which needs repairs. Helderberg Christian School offered last October to buy the building from BKW for $85,000, shortly after the building was appraised at $80,000; BKW wrote a letter to HCS in February, declining the offer. The Westerlo Volunteer Fire Company had expressed interest in purchasing the building as well.

(For full coverage on the Westerlo School’s history and recent offers to purchase the building, go to www.altamontenterprise.com and look under archives for Feb. 4, 2010.)

At this week’s packed meeting, the Westerlo Town Board heard views expressed by residents who were both for and against the purchase of the school: Some fear an increased tax burden if grant money were to somehow fall through; while others believe that, given the expanding town government, and the recently increasing public interest in governmental affairs, it’s an offer that should not be passed up.

On Tuesday, the board voted in favor of a negative declaration on its State Environmental Quality Review (SEQR) of the Westerlo School, meaning that its purchase of the building would not require stringent environmental review.

The board also voted to have Aline Galgay, the town’s attorney, evaluate and report to the board by Monday, March 15 on the legal accuracy of the petition. The petition, presented to the board by former town board candidate Anderson Smith, called for a public vote on whether or not the town should buy the Westerlo School. It was presented near the top of an hour-plus public discussion on whether or not the building should be purchased.

The petition cites New York State Town Law, which reads, “Upon the adoption of a resolution therefore, subject to a permissive referendum, the town board may…purchase, lease, construct, alter or remodel a town hall, a town lockup, or any other necessary building for town purposes.”

However, it goes on, “Any expenditure financed in whole from moneys appropriated from surplus funds shall not be subject to referendum.”

Concerns voiced

One resident began the discussion by saying that, because residents’ interest in government has increased over the years, the purchase of the Westerlo School is a wise choice.

“I can remember many, many years ago, coming to these town board meetings, and the front row was more than sufficient for us all to sit in,” the man said; Tuesday’s meeting packed the room, though many attended to discuss the Westerlo School. “Purchasing the school, that would give us that one advantage,” he said.

A few seats down from him, a woman stood to address the crowd.

“I think we have a small window of opportunity here that we will not see again, and we should move on it,” she said. “It’s a better location; the building’s in the heart of the town.”

Anderson Smith took the floor next, presenting the petition.

“We protest against such resolution,” said Smith, speaking on behalf of those who oppose purchasing the building. “In this instance, it must be up to us, the voters, to determine how our money is spent.”

As Smith took his seat, another woman spoke to the board.

“Where are the kids going to go?” she asked. “Do they have another school to go into? And why not leave it to the town to decide with such an acquisition?”

Councilman R. Gregory Zeh answered.

“Realistically, the responsibility of where those kids go resides with the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School District,” said Zeh. “They’re the ones who are…not renewing the lease with the Helderberg Christian School. It’s not this board’s position; it’s not this board’s responsibility, in terms of where the educational facilities are going to be…That’s between the Helderberg Christian School and the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School District.”

Councilman Edward Rash then spoke his mind.

“I’m going to tell you right now, I’m ticked off at the Berne-Knox District School Board,” Rash said. “There’re three people interested in that school: the fire department, the town of Westerlo, and, of course, Helderberg Christian School. For over two-and-a-half years, we’ve gone, and all we’ve asked for is the right of first refusal. We’re in no hurry; we didn’t want it right away. Just, ‘If you ever decide to get rid of it…we would like to preserve this for the town.’”

Rash said that the town board had not heard anything about the Helderberg Christian School’s offers to BKW until Joseph Amedio told the Westerlo Town Board at its February meeting that HCS had offered to purchase the school.

“The thing is, no matter who gets that piece of property, it’s never going to continue to be a school,” Rash said. “Helderberg Christian School are going ahead with their plans to build a new school, so, at some point in time, it’s going to be vacated as a school.”

Rash went on to say that he is often approached by town residents about the purchase of the school, and that, for every person who favors buying the building, there is another who opposes the purchase.

“Now, we’re not obligated by law to have a vote on this, but I would support a vote on it,” Rash said. “Being that the issue is forced, now’s the only opportunity.”

Rash added that, given his research into the cost of other properties in town, he discounts the two latest appraisals of the Westerlo School, which found it to be worth $80,000; a 2004 appraisal found the building to be worth $185,000, but the building now needs more than $100,000 worth of repairs, according to BKW’s findings.

Daniel Smith asked from the audience, “Is this town hall functional now? Is it a necessity to get a bigger building, or is it a wish to have a bigger building?”

“It’s a dual-edged sword,” Rash responded. “Yeah, we’re functioning. We’ve got two ladies in a small office in the back, where they have to get up and move their chair to open a file cabinet. I don’t know if you’ve been upstairs…but not everybody has their own office here. We’re two bays short in our highway department…We’ve got equipment that’s — half of it’s stored outside. When a breakdown happens — and it’s more than one during a snowstorm — we’ve got guys working outside on it. Yeah, we’re getting by, but when you sit here, you’ve got to look with a little bit of foresight down the road.”

He went on to reiterate that the town is seeking outside funding for the purchase; Zeh restated the first resident’s comment on the increasing participation in town government.

“You’re seeing more and more people around the country getting involved with government, and getting involved with what’s going on, and wanting to participate in the governmental process,” Zeh said. “So, I think we’re past the wish stage, and we’re into the need stage.”

Supervisor Richard Rapp addressed questions about the cost of repairing leaks in the current town hall’s roof; two bids came in offering to make the repair, both of which were over $120,000, he said.

“Then, we found out about the asbestos,” Rapp said. Asbestos abatement would have driven the cost up even more, he said.

One woman in the audience asked what led the town board to believe that the town’s desire to purchase the Westerlo School would be seen as deserving grant money. Attorney Galgay and Supervisor Rapp informed the audience that the State Senate and State Assembly had committed to a $125,000 grant, and that an additional $20,000 had been requested.

A member of Westerlo’s fire department — one of the three parties that expressed interest in buying the school — soon rose from the audience and encouraged the town to make the purchase.

Debbie Theiss-Mackey, a long-time emergency rescue volunteer in town, asked the board, if the town were to purchase the school, could it then lease the building to Helderberg Christian School? Councilman Zeh answered that this was a possibility, but there were questions as to whether or not this would affect the availability of grants, as the application for that funding is associated with the need for a new town hall.

To give the audience an idea of how much the cost of the school would have affected residents if the grant money were not available, he referred to the tax levy incurred by the town’s fire department.

“Let’s say the town had to fund 100 percent of the purchase today,” Zeh began. “What would the cost in taxes be? You can look at your tax bill, and you can either pick the rescue squad, whose tax levy is $94,900 for the year, or the fire company, who’s $180,000 a year.”

One man suggested that, in the event of a town-wide emergency, space available for shelter and storage of resources at the current town hall would be scarce.

“We need a place, in a natural disaster, to have a generator, water, health services, and all this,” the man said. “We don’t have it here. People out of electric — where do we go?” Further, he asked, “How many people could sleep [here]?”

Later in the discussion, Galgay detailed the potential costs to taxpayers.

“The purchase is costing the town, at maximum, $20,000,” Galgay said. “And, we’ve applied for that $20,000. We’re committed for $125,000; we have to bridge a gap of $20,000; and you’re closing costs may cost a maximum of $3,000 to $4,000.”

Galgay said of having a public vote, “By doing that, and assuming that you’re going to get a true representation of the town, you’re looking to possibly lose the building from a timing perspective with the contract, when, really, you’re purchasing it for $23,000.”

To those who support the Helderberg Christian School’s purchase of the building, Galgay said that the town’s declining to purchase the building would not have meant that BKW would offer to sell the building to Helderberg Christian School; BKW had explicitly declined Helderberg Christian’s offers in a February letter.

“The school district wants a contract; they need to know this is going forward,” Galgay said. “If we lose the legal opportunity to sign the contract, that doesn’t mean that the Helderberg Christian School is going to be given the opportunity to purchase it…And, if we withdraw the offer, we withdraw the grant applications as well.”

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