MY, MY. IF THIS COUNTY gets any more efficient it will make more money than it spends, and everybody who lives here will get a big fat dividend check at the end of the year instead of a tax bill. Sounds like paradise.
You might think the county is well on its way to this mythical goal based on the crowing this week from the leadership of the Board of Supervisors over its latest proposal. Board Chairman Art Baer (R-Hillsdale) and his supporters believe the taxpayers could save as much as $400,000 a year to house, feed and transport our neediest neighbors if the county leases the St. Charles Hotel—the only sizeable hotel in the county—as an emergency housing facility. The hotel would also become a satellite office for the Department of Social Services (DSS) after that department moves to Claverack in 2011.
That’s a big savings, and the figures have a basis in fact. But the way this proposal surfaced suddenly out of nowhere gives it a nasty odor that won’t go away anytime soon.
The St. Charles proposal establishes a concrete link between two challenges facing the DSS: the controversial plan to move its headquarters out of Hudson, where the people who need the department’s services are concentrated, and the growing number of people in the county who need the emergency shelter services provided by the DSS.
Start with the statistics: in 2008, the county averaged 51 people living in 41 different rooms scattered around Columbia and Greene counties paid for by the DSS. In March of this year, the census was 88 people in 69 rooms rented by the county. Comparing one winter month to a full year’s average can be misleading, but the general trend reflects these hard times.
It cost the county $1.2 million last year to house, feed and transport people who need emergency help, and the costs this year will undoubtedly go up. The costs are driven in part by the price of the motel rooms used for emergency shelter. Right now the county pays between $65 and $95 a night for rooms at private motels.
The county estimates it could lease all 34 rooms in the St. Charles for less than $43 a night, a big savings. And the price includes the first floor, which the DSS would turn into an office space. That’s where the DSS would put its “satellite” office when the department leaves Hudson for the Claverack countryside six miles away. The satellite office is supposed to cushion the impact of the move on people who need emergency services but who won’t have an easy way of getting to the new DSS headquarters. An added benefit to the first floor of the hotel is that it’s six times larger than the space in another building the county originally intended to use for the satellite office. That means more services would be available to people in Hudson.
So what’s not to like about a proposal that officials promote as safer, more convenient emergency housing at a lower cost?
For one thing, it’s not clear how warehousing roughly half the county’s population of people in need of emergency shelter will affect them, the neighborhood, the business community and city schools (many of the homeless “people” are children).
The impact isn’t clear because this proposal was hatched in such secrecy that the mayor and other city officials knew nothing about it until an hour or so before the county released it to the public. Think about the arrogance it takes to propose a major infrastructure change like this without any input from the citizens of Hudson, who must live with the result. What breathtaking contempt for the public. County officials call it only a proposal, but no matter what they call it, the plan is now tainted as a deal done behind closed doors.
Though the proposal to convert the only hotel rooms in the county into an emergency homeless shelter comes packaged as a higher good, it feels like a betrayal of the public trust. It dictates what must happen before the people hear a full and open airing of the facts. Our elected leaders assure us they have the best of intentions, but their actions exhibit disdain for the people they’ve sworn to serve and reveal their willingness to abandon the messy process of democracy for methods that smack of authoritarian rule.