HUDSON—The county Board of Supervisors has officially approved a plan that calls for the Department of Social Services to move out of its headquarters in the city to the old Ockawamick School building on Route 217 in Claverack, which the county now owns.
The plan also calls for a “satellite” office of the department to remain in the city and for a shuttle bus to transport clients to and from the new site seven hours a day.
The plan triggered an outcry in Hudson from the moment it was introduced last year, because over half the agency’s clients live in the Hudson Zip code, which includes the city and parts of several surrounding towns. Opponents of the move say it will put barriers in the way of people who most need the services, because the Ockawamick building, which the county will renovate and remodel, is six miles from downtown Hudson.
That sentiment was much in evidence Wednesday evening even before the board’s regular monthly meeting began. A restive crowd of about three dozen people waited in the hallway outside the board’s chambers while supervisors met behind closed doors and determined that the protesters would have to leave their signs outside before entering the meeting room.
The motion that drew the audience came up amid a series of mostly routine measures. Blandly, it called for a “consensus on the configuration of county buildings and county departments,” but neither opponents nor supporters had any illusions about the meaning of the generic language. Hudson’s delegation of supervisors has been united against the move, and Supervisor Joseph Finn Jr. was the first to speak as the motion came to the floor. He praised the county’s work in reviewing the various options for the Department of Social Services (DSS), but said the move would create “a drastic change for the people who use [DSS] services.”
He also predicted that “100% of the people in Hudson are going to need transportation” to the new site.
Expressing his dismay with the plan, Supervisor Ed Cross (2nd Ward) asked his colleagues, “What gives you the right… to turn a deaf ear to the people?”
Supervisor William Hughes (4th Ward) said he was aware of “various alternatives” to the proposed move. “The whole thing is putting a sour taste in my mouth,” he said, adding that he had not heard from anyone aside from members of the Board of Supervisors who supported the plan.
Supervisor John Musall (1st Ward) was absent, and Supervisor Bart Delaney (5th Ward) was the last of the city’s representatives to speak. He said he would have to know more about the services at the satellite office before he could vote for the motion.
The same theme was picked up by Supervisor Elizabeth Young, the majority leader of the Republican-controlled board. She said she would abstain. “I want to know more about the satellite office, and until I know more, I can’t go along with it.”
That brought a response from Kinderhook Supervisor Douglas McGivney, who said he had been a part of the committee that investigated options for housing the DSS once its lease on a privately owned building on Railroad Avenue expires in 2011. He said he would vote for the motion and cited the “pressing need of DSS” for more space.
There is general agreement that the DSS has outgrown its current building, with projections indicating the size of the agency is likely to increase in the near future. And while the county has other buildings in Hudson, officials are also under pressure to find new space in the city for the cramped offices of the district attorney. The Ockawamick building is large enough to accommodate the DSS and other county departments, which would open up space in Hudson for the DA’s office.
Mr. McGivney said that one of the goals of the search for new DSS office space had been to avoid removing any more property from the city’s tax rolls.
But those fighting the plan have proposed a “Plan B,” which calls for the county to construct a new office building in Hudson for the DSS and move other agencies to Claverack. Its supporters say Plan B would not affect people requiring assistance from the social services department and it would save money for county taxpayers.
Mr. McGivney disagreed. He said the Plan B alternative would cost $3- to $5 million more than the Ockawamick project, would not have adequate parking and would not address the needs of the District Attorney’s Office. “We cannot spend more than we have to,” he said.
As board Chairman and Hillsdale Supervisor Arthur Baer called for a vote, some people in the audience asked when the public would have a chance to speak. Mr. Baer said that the board had already held a hearing on the plan and that the committee had reached out to the public during the planning process.
As the roll was called, two more supervisors voted no, Raymond Staats of Clermont and Margaret Robertson of New Lebanon, but the measure passed by a comfortable margin with the weighted vote system the board uses.
That didn’t satisfy the citizens who came to witness the debate. As they filed out of the room, one person said in a loud voice, “It ain’t over.” Another said, “We’re gonna get a lawyer.”
And in a coda to the debate, at the end of the meeting Supervisor Hughes rose to speak, and then yielded his time to Hudson Mayor Richard Scalera. Taking issue with Mr. McGivney’s cost comparison of the county’s plan and Plan B, Mr. Scalera said, “Doug, your numbers are real, real wrong.” He said the county had not fairly evaluated the alternative of a new building in Hudson and because of that, “the community feels disenfranchised.”
Clearly upset by the decision to endorse the move to Claverack, the mayor said it would “affect people’s lives … for years to come.”
The mayor also reminded Mr. Baer that when the state took steps last year to close the prison in Hudson, Mr. Baer had joined those calling for a more thorough analysis of the reasons for the closure. Mr. Scalera said the chairman was taking the opposite position on the DSS move. Then the mayor offered yet another alternative: “Keep DSS in Hudson and move the satellite office out to Ockawamick.” But by then the vote was over and supervisors were ready to adjourn.
After the meeting Mr. Baer dismissed the likelihood that the county’s plan would be derailed by a lawsuit. “I don’t see any basis for it,” he said. He also disputed the assertion that a new building in Hudson would be cheaper than using the Ockawamick building. While acknowledging that the basic structure of a new building in Hudson might be less expensive, Mr. Baer said that costs would increase as the interior was outfitted to meet the county’s needs. “It simply did not hold up,” he said of the Plan B proposal.
He confirmed that funds for hourly shuttle buses between Hudson and the Ockawamick building are part of the cost associated with that project and that “no charge” for riders is anticipated for that service.
As for the concern that the county has ignored the needs of people who require help from the DSS, Mr. Baer said the county has listened to the public and was attempting to minimize the dislocation the move to Claverack will have. “The satellite was what came out of that process,” he said. But he cautioned that people should not expect too much from the satellite office, saying, “We can’t create two DSSes.”