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Hilltown Archives The Altamont Enterprise, May 20, 2010
State grants only good for Westerlo School purchase
By Zach Simeone
WESTERLO The Westerlo School, considered a treasure by some town residents, may cease to be an educational institution next Wednesday, May 26, when the public votes on whether or not the school should become the new town hall.
Senator Neil Breslin and Assemblyman John McEneny have secured a total of $225,000 in state grant money for the town to use in the purchase of the school.
“This purchase would be more timely now, and I think there will be more interest in the purchase taking place right away because of the failure of the budget last night,” McEneny said Wednesday, the day after BKW residents voted down the $19.7-million budget proposal for the 2010-11 school year. “I think there’ll be a renewed interest in having the payment for the [Westerlo School] go to the school district…I would suspect that the people who were indifferent to the issue will see that as a source or revenue.”
The two lawmakers also elaborated for The Enterprise this week on the flexibility and reliability of the grant funding.
The public will vote between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. next Wednesday. If a majority of residents vote “yes,” they will be authorizing Supervisor Richard Rapp to sign a purchase-and-sale agreement with the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School District for the $145,000 purchase. The town board has held a series of workshops to assemble information to be presented to voters before May 26.
In recent years, the town had repeatedly expressed interest in purchasing the 60-year-old school from BKW because space is tight at the current town hall, which is also in need of repairs. 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.
HCS 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.
On Feb. 2, the town board offered to purchase the school from BKW so it could be converted into a new town hall. Not two weeks later, the BKW School Board voted unanimously to sell the building to the town. Then, at a March 2 town board meeting in Westerlo, a petition was presented, calling for a public vote on the purchase of the building; the audience was divided over support of the purchase.
The deadline for closing on the purchase from BKW has been set for June 30, the day the Helderberg Christian School’s lease expires.
At a meeting in April, the town board voted against allowing absentee votes in the special election, and voted in favor of a one-year bond anticipation note with the Bank of Coxsackie, at an interest rate of 1.6 percent, in anticipation of grant money to cover the cost of the Westerlo School.
McEneny, a Democrat who represents the Hilltowns, told The Enterprise in March that he approved a $125,000 “discretionary capital grant for community enhancement” to the town for the purchase of the Westerlo School as its new town hall.
And, in March of 2009, the town made a request to Senator Breslin for a $130,000 grant, of which he was able to secure $100,000 last year, a spokesperson at Breslin’s office told The Enterprise earlier this month. That money, Breslin told The Enterprise this week, was granted specifically for the purchase and renovation of the Westerlo School for its conversion into a new town hall and community center.
This money is to be obtained on a reimbursement schedule from state’s Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, according to Breslin’s office.
There has been some speculation at recent town board meetings as to whether or not the town could put the grant money towards improving the current town hall, which has a leaky roof in need of repairs. Supervisor Rapp said recently that the two bids received for the repair came in at over $120,000.
“No, that was specific,” Senator Breslin said when asked if the $100,000 grant from his office could be put towards anything other than the purchase and renovation of the Westerlo School. “The grant is for that specific building. So, it would seem to me that any alteration of the specifications in the grant would rule it null and void.”
Further, if the purchase of the school is voted down, Breslin said, “There’s a distinct possibility they would lose that, and it would be redirected for another positive government project elsewhere.”
“Westerlo would lose it,” he said. “They could re-apply, if and when we ever have it, but the way the economy is going now, we may never have these capital grants again.”
Letting Westerlo use that money for anything other than purchasing and renovating the Westerlo School would be “unfair to other people who’ve applied,” said McEneny. “This was their best shot.”
However, while this grant money might not be as flexible as some townsfolk had hoped, both Breslin and McEneny said that the town could, indeed, count on that funding if the vote passes next week.
“I don’t believe they will lose their grant money,” Breslin said. “Grant money is secure.”
Though McEneny agrees with Breslin, he would still like to see the contract “signed, sealed, and delivered as quickly as possible,” he said.
“This is the last of my old-money grants; so far, none of them have been interrupted,” said McEneny. “They might have a delay in payments or something till the budget is passed, but that’s a cash-flow issue. It takes time for the money to get there.”
At a May 6 workshop, the town board presented information from the Helderberg Christian School on annual costs of operating the building. According to that list, the total cost for heating and electricity:
Was $15,276 in 2007;
Was $15,313 in 2008;
Was $13,327 in 2009; and
Is projected at $19,640 in 2010.
Tim Tryon, president of the Helderberg Christian School Board, explained the near-$2,000 drop in heating costs from 2008 to 2009, as well as why the school is projecting a $6,000 jump in costs this year.
“In December of 2009, we didn’t have enough money to pay our fuel bill,” he said. “So, that’s why it’s down further, because we didn’t pay it until January of 2010.” Since the payment was made in January, the school had made up for 2009’s drop in costs by increasing the projection for the 2010 calendar year.
“But, we’ve got to leave in June anyway,” he said, as that is when Helderberg Christian’s lease with BKW expires. “So it would be less than that.”
In addition, BKW’s former business administrator, Timothy Holmes, said in late 2008 that the building would need $108,500 worth of repairs, which have still not taken place, before it could be re-occupied.
This total, according to Holmes, would include:
Repairing brick on the building’s exterior damaged by water and salt erosion, costing $30,000;
Repairing the exterior doors, $25,000;
Repairing the pillars at the front of the building, $5,000;
Repairing the water-damaged wood trim around the building’s exterior, to be painted or wrapped with aluminum, $5,000;
Repairing the gutters at the front of the building, $4,000;
Re-pointing the chimney, $3,000;
Repairing the gymnasium floor, $3,500;
Removing an abandoned underground water-storage tank, $8,000; and
Connecting to the municipal water supply, as requested by the Albany County Health Department, the cost of which could range between $15,000 and $25,000, Holmes said then.
“None of the repairs have been completed,” said James DeForest, vice president of the Helderberg Christian School Board, this week. “Since then, the building has been aging, so any of the things that were listed for repairs are only more in need of repair at this point,” he said.
DeForest went on to explain why the repairs have not yet taken place.
“We had received that list as the basis for offsetting the cost of our lease with BKW,” DeForest said. “So, in 2008, they gave them to us for our 2009 lease, and we had considered doing some of the work; we thought that we could get volunteers, and that contracts would offer services, so we had some quotes on some of the repairs, and the quotes were all the same as quoted by BKW, so there wasn’t any advantage to us pursuing it.”
The school had, however, attempted to fix the gym floor earlier this spring, he went on.
“The gym floor actually had a little bit of an eruption; one of the heat pipes was leaking moisture and buckled the floor,” said DeForest. “The heating line was leaking moisture. Initially, we thought there was water infiltration from one of the exterior entrances. So, they opened the floor to repair it, and that’s when they discovered that one of the heating pipes was giving off moisture, and the pipe had asbestos on it.”
Since New York State prohibits the disturbance of asbestos other than by a specifically licensed contractor, the school closed the floor back up.
Whether the town votes in favor of purchasing the building or not, Helderberg Christian will have to find a home elsewhere.
“We’re pursuing another location, and that’s our main focus,” DeForest concluded. “If I was the town, and I resided in the structure they’re inhabiting now, I’d be looking out the window as well. They are kind of squeezed for space, so I understand all their motivations trying to move ahead with that.”