Weeks after voiding ViaPort agreement, Rotterdam officials still silent on $1M deposit

Rotterdam Deputy Town Supervisor Jack Dodson speaks to a resident about the proposed $34 million water infrastructure project with Town Supervisor Mollie Collins at right on Wednesday.

Rotterdam Deputy Town Supervisor Jack Dodson speaks to a resident about the proposed $34 million water infrastructure project with Town Supervisor Mollie Collins at right on Wednesday.

ROTTERDAM — Nearly two months after lawmakers voted to nullify a contract to move town operations into the vacant Kmart facility at ViaPort, officials remain quiet on whether a $1 million deposit paid out last year to secure the space will be returned.

Supervisor Mollie Collins on Wednesday said the town has held conversations with representatives from ViaPort regarding the security deposit paid out last December using federal coronavirus relief funds, but would not comment on whether the funds would be returned or give a potential timeframe for future negotiations.

“We’ve had a conversation with the representatives from ViaPort,” Collins said. “That’s all I’m going to say about it.”

In August, the Town Board voted 3-0 to nullify a 10-year lease agreement approved by the previous administration to relocate the Town Hall, Police Department and Town Court operations into a 50,000-square-foot space at the old Kmart store located in the shopping mall, a move that blindsided the mall owners.

Representatives from ViaPort did not return a request seeking comment.

The uncertainty surrounding the funds is the latest in what has been a widely criticized saga to relocate town facilities and comes as the town prepares to enter into budget negotiations and tackle a series of water and sewer infrastructure upgrades.

The town’s previous administration entered into the lease agreement last November as a way to save on costly upgrades needed at the Town Hall and police station and courthouse, despite criticism from residents who raised concerns about a lack of transparency and argued the town should own, not lease, its facilities.

Some also accused lawmakers of misappropriating federal coronavirus relief funds the town received under the American Rescue Plan Act, which were used to pay the $1 million security deposit.

A slate of newly seated lawmakers, including Collins, Jack Dodson and Joseph Mastroianni, voted to nullify the lease due to a procedural issue with state law that requires municipalities to advertise a permissive referendum when relocating town facilities — a step not taken by the previous administration.

Board member Samantha Miller-Herrera, who was on the board during the previous administration, abstained from the vote over concerns of a potential lawsuit between the town and shopping mall owners over the $1 million deposit. Evan Christou, who also served on the board during the previous administration, was not in attendance for the vote but stated previously he was still in favor of the move, but only if there was an option to purchase the space, which the voided lease did not include — a fact Christou previously admitted he was unaware of. 

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It’s unclear what the town plans to do with its current facilities, which need millions in repairs and in some cases do not comply with the American with Disabilities Act.

An engineering study the town paid to complete earlier this year estimated it would cost $14.4 million to upgrade the facilities and could cost $34 million to maintain the properties over 30 years. The study also determined it would have cost the town $9.2 million to retrofit the Kmart space and $54 million to maintain over a 30-year period.

Mastroianni also declined to comment on the future of the $1 million deposit.

“We’re not able to disclose anything at the moment,” he said. 

The uncertainty surrounding the $1 million in ARPA funds comes as the town prepares to enter into budget negotiations and tackle a series of longstanding water and sewer upgrades — projects the federal dollars were approved to help pay for.

Lawmakers, earlier this month, approved $34 million in borrowing to make upgrades throughout Water District No. 5, and approved an additional $3 million in borrowing for upgrades at its wastewater treatment plant. The town is in the process of securing additional funds to offset the costs, but water rates could potentially double if funding is not secured.

Residents on Wednesday raised concerns about the borrowing and pressed lawmakers on the $1 million security deposit, which they pointed out could be used to pay for some of the infrastructure upgrades.

“The $1 million, our hard-earned tax dollars, not just in our community but nationwide that was intended to invest in local communities to get them off their feet and take care of some of these infrastructure problems like water and sewage and such,” said Tim Keenan. “But at this point all this money is sitting at the ViaPort.”

The town is currently looking for public input on how it should spend its remaining $1.1 million in ARPA funds. The town received just over $3.3 million under the law, and has spent $428,000 to purchase land along Phillips Road for a new park and has earmarked $500,000 for the Carmen Road sewer project, in addition to the $1 million to secure the ViaPort space.

Collins said residents are welcome to make suggestions on how the funds should be spent by speaking during public comment periods and sending emails to Town Board members. She added that she has not dismissed the idea of using the funds to pay for the pending infrastructure upgrades either.

“It would lessen the tax burden for the people and that’s one of the things it was supposed to be used for is infrastructure,” she said. “So yes, I have no problem with that.”

The Town Board will host a tentative budget meeting at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday at Town Hall.

Contact reporter Chad Arnold at: [email protected] Follow him on Twitter: @ChadGArnold.  

More: All NewsEverything Rotterdam

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