HUDSON—The Columbia County Board of Supervisors wants to lease the St. Charles Hotel as an “enhanced satellite office” for the county Department of Social Services and an emergency housing facility. But the idea has drawn only scorn from the mayor.
The concept of a satellite office was proposed several months ago by board Chairman Art Baer (R-Hillsdale) in response to protests from city residents, officials and others opposed to the plan to move the Department of Social Services (DSS) to the old Ockawamick School building in Claverack, six miles outside the city. A press release issued Monday, June 15, from the department announcing the proposal for the St. Charles also said that using the hotel for emergency housing would save the county hundreds of thousands of dollars compared to the present system, which relies on paying to house people in motels around the county and in Greene County.
Mayor Richard Scalera, who said he learned of the proposal a little over an hour before it was released to the public, called it a mind-boggling example of “planning on the go,” with no input from city officials. County officials say leasing the building would benefit the city.
The release said the plan, which is subject to “further committee review and… approval by the Board of Supervisors,” would involve a lease agreement with owners of the St. Charles Hotel at 16 Park Place for the next seven years. The deal would give the county more than 3,000 square feet of ground-floor office space for the satellite office for the Department of Social Services once the department moves to Claverack from its present home on Railroad Avenue.
Social Services Commissioner Paul Mossman said in the release that leasing the hotel from East Coast Realty, LP, would reduce the county’s temporary housing costs by more than $400,000 a year.
DSS currently rents more than 60 hotel and motel rooms around the region at a current annual expense of $1.5 million. Those rooms, rented on a nightly basis in Columbia and Greene counties, provide emergency and immediate temporary housing for some 90 individuals.
The mayor said there are 34 rooms at the St. Charles.
Mr. Mossman did return a call to his office late Monday, but was on his way out and was not available for comment until Tuesday. County officials say they learned of the availability of the first floor space during discussions with George Richardson of East Coast Realty, LP, regarding renting existing hotel rooms.
The cost of providing mandatory services for temporary housing, food and transportation has more than doubled between 2006 and 2008, with expenditures projected even higher for the current year, according to the county’s release. In the three years from 2006 through 2008, the Department of Social Services spent more than $2.6 million to provide emergency housing. An additional $53,000 was spent for transportation and more than $37,000 for food.
The release did not say offer the spending assumptions for using the St. Charles to house homeless families.
“One of the major advantages of this proposed agreement is that by centralizing program recipients DSS will be able to provide greater monitoring and assistance options, and at a lower cost,” Commissioner Mossman said in the release.
And Mr. Baer cited concern for the safety of children at multiple hotels, saying that county could not know who else was staying at those facilities. He said the St. Charles would offer greater security, with DSS staff at the building and hotel staff “following department-developed protocol for handling safety and security issues.”
The mayor challenged that assertion, saying that county officials told him that the real estate company brokering the deal would provide security and other services for the people sheltered at the hotel, but he said officials could not tell him what qualifications the firm has to provide such services.
The lease on the building the DSS currently occupies expires in two years. The space is already overcrowded and county officials determined that working with the private owner to expand it was not an option. So last year Chairman Baer initiated a search process by a bi-partisan committee of county officials to find a new home for the agency, and that committee settled on the old school building. The county has since bought the building and the surrounding land, but concern over the impact the move would have on the people the department serves has only grown.
The mayor has proposed that the county construct a new office building in Hudson, a proposal rejected by the majority of the board. But recent questions about the costs of remodeling and renovating the old school instead of tearing it down and constructing a new building have caused the supervisors to do additional research on how to proceed.
Though he pledged to establish a satellite office in Hudson that would provide an unspecified number of services offered by DSS once the move takes place, Mr. Baer has cautioned that the satellite office would not duplicate services available at the main office. But the proposal to use the first-floor at the St. Charles Hotel adds a new wrinkle to that debate, because the hotel space is larger than the space originally envisioned by county officials for the satellite office. The county says the plan would create an “enhanced” satellite office, but does not indicate what those enhancements would be.
The hotel was extensively remodeled and upgraded earlier this decade, and the first floor has been used as a restaurant and for meetings. At present there is no restaurant operating in the building.
The county expects to receive a reduced rental rate as the sole tenant at the St. Charles, and officials believe an expanded DSS satellite office means the county would also cut the anticipated costs to transport DSS clients between Hudson and Claverack. Mr. Baer and the supervisors have promised to establish a regular weekday bus service from the city to the new DSS headquarters.
Mr. Mossman said in the release that housing families with children at motels outside the city and paying by the night was not cost effective. “When families are placed in an emergency and then need follow-up DSS services, they have to pack their belongings, check out of the motel and take a cab or DSS transport to the social service office,” the commissioner said in the release, adding that this transportation was an additional expense for the county.
Another advantage the county sees in the proposed lease of the hotel is that the deal would keep the St. Charles Hotel on the city tax rolls.
But despite all the plusses listed by the county, the mayor remains deeply skeptical. He said that county officials say they are eager to promote tourism to bolster a damaged economy, yet the St. Charles plan move would remove 34 rooms that could be used by the public. He said the only other overnight accommodations in the city are the Warren Inn, a motel on Warren Street north of Seventh, and a few bed and breakfast establishments. The St. Charles is the one facility offering what, by county standards, is a large number of rooms. “That’s all we have,” Mr. Scalera said.
Another aspect of the St. Charles plan that rankles the mayor is what he calls the “covert planning,” a process that gave the city no input on the proposal. “Wouldn’t it be a good idea to include some Hudson officials?” he asked.