ROTTERDAM — A pair of lawmakers who voted last year to spend $1 million in coronavirus-relief funds to relocate town operations to the former Kmart space at ViaPort admitted Wednesday they did not know all the facts before reaching their decision, and that they no longer support the move, which is projected to cost taxpayers millions in the coming years.
During a special meeting, Town Board members Evan Christou and Samantha Miller-Herrera said they are no longer in favor of the current plan to relocate Town Hall, police and court facilities to the shopping mall after learning new details about the cost of retrofitting the shopping space.
The shift comes eight months after the pair voted to pay a $1 million security deposit for the space using American Rescue Plan Act funds. The Town Board had approved a 10-year agreement to lease the 50,000-square-foot facility for $33,000 a month — a move that has been widely criticized by residents over a lack of transparency and a perceived waste of spending.
Christou, who was deputy supervisor when the Town Board approved the lease agreement last November, said he did not fully read the contract prior to his vote, and instead relied on information about the contract he gleaned from the town’s former attorney, Kate McGuirl, whom he accused of misleading him.
He said he believed the contract included an option to buy the retail space, which was the only reason he voted in favor of it. He apologized for not knowing all the details and assured residents that previous decisions were made with the best interest for residents in mind.
The contract gives the town the first right of refusal to purchase the Kmart center should the ViaPort owners decide to sell the space during the 10-year agreement. An option to purchase would have included a negotiated price to buy the space at the end of the lease agreement.
“A challenge as a part-time government official is that you rely on your full-time, six-figure employees to be doing the right thing for you,” Christou said. “There was no option to buy in this lease. That changes my position completely.”
Christou’s admission is the latest development in an effort that began under the previous Town Board to consolidate facilities in an attempt to save on overhead costs and building upgrades at the current Town Hall and the police and justice center along Princetown Road.
A majority of the board, including Supervisor Mollie Collins, Jack Dodson and Joseph Mastroianni, were elected last year and seated in January and had nothing do with the town’s decision to lease the space.
Collins, who declined to comment on Christou’s remarks, said the current Town Board is in the process of deciding how to move forward with the lease agreement and is trying to get as much information and feedback from residents before making a final decision. Collins has been critical of the move in the past.
But on Wednesday, Collins said she didn’t have a position on the move, noting it was her responsibility to gather as many facts about how the move would affect taxpayers and opinions from residents.
Collins added that the town’s legal department is currently reviewing the lease agreement and any decision on how to move forward, including amending or terminating the agreement, will be made with the best interest of residents in mind. The hope, she said, is to have a decision by September.
“I have to make sure I don’t do anything that harms the town,” Collins said.
Talks to relocate town facilities began last July, when the Town Board hired Barton & Loguidice, an Albany-based engineering firm, to begin developing designs to retrofit the old Kmart space.
In August, board members approved a resolution to allow former supervisor Steven Tommasone to begin negotiating a lease agreement for the space after preliminary estimates showed consolidating town services could help reduce costs. Tommasone signed the lease in November and the $1 million security deposit was paid a month later.
In January, the Town Board contracted Barton & Loguidice to complete a cost analysis to determine the price of retrofitting the ViaPort space.
Results of the analysis, presented Wednesday, put the cost at approximately $9.2 million — nearly double the original estimate of $5 million.
Donald Fletcher, senior vice president for Barton & Loguidice, said soaring inflation played a factor in the increased price, but noted that the plans include items not previously discussed, such as a secure carport that would be used by the Police Department when transferring prisoners.
The added features were included following interviews with officials from police, court and town departments.
“We obviously dug deeper doing a lot of work on specifics on what departments needed, expectations and we finalized a plan that we really thought the town would want and need for the next 30 years,” Fletcher said.
The firm also determined the cost to upgrade the existing facilities would come in at an estimated $14.4 million, including $5.4 million to upgrade Town Hall, and $9 million to upgrade the police and court headquarters, which includes plans to double the 15,000-square-foot space and bring the facility into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
In addition, the firm estimated that the 30-year-cost to operate the renovated buildings would come in at approximately $34.8 million — $20 million less than the $54.7 million price tag to lease the ViaPort space over the same period. The town would pay $37.1 million over 30 years to maintain the Kmart space if the town were to purchase the facility. It also remains unclear if the town would be able to purchase the facility.
Miller-Herrera said she can no longer support the move due to the increased cost, and said the town needs to consider paring back the scope of the project.
A full cost analysis was not completed prior to the town entering into the lease agreement.
“My concern moving forward is that this went from a $5 million project to a $9.2 million project in a matter of six months,” Miller-Herrera said. “That is not what was contemplated under the prior administration and not what we were looking to do. I don’t know if I can support an almost double-the-price-tag move.”
Residents, meanwhile, blasted board members, calling the move a waste of federal funding that could have been used to upgrade aging water and sewer infrastructure throughout town. Others pointed to rising taxes and questioned how the town would pay for the monthly lease payments.
“We cannot afford this move,” said Brenda Torosian, who has collected dozens of signatures from residents opposed to the move. “You’re not being fair to residents of Rotterdam.”
Others demanded the town hold a referendum over the move and questioned why the town would move into ViaPort, which they said should be used to attract business and not further strain taxpayers.
“I would hope the Rotterdam mall could be used to bring in money, not just take money,” said Rhonda Becker.
Contact reporter Chad Arnold at: [email protected] Follow him on Twitter: @ChadGArnold.