EDITORIAL: What’s that echo?

GET OUT YOUR CALCULATORS and remove your ear buds. (If you don’t know what ear buds are, just grab a pencil). Now here is your first summer school math problem: Columbia County is buying a 125,000-square-foot building to serve as the office space for 150 people; how many square feet does each person get? (You can round your answer to the nearest whole number.)

If you said 833 square feet per person, congratulations. You now know what the county wants to do with $6 million of your money, as it buys the building on Fairview Avenue/Route 9 that Walmart vacated when it moved up the road to a new shopping center.

The first and possibly only tenant of the building would be the Department of Social Services. So let’s do another fun math problem: If each one of those DSS employees got his or her very own office, and if a cozy government office is, say, 12 feet wide, how long would each office be? Did you get an answer of 69 feet each? Right again. Gee, you could bowl there and still have room for a desk and chairs.

In the last couple of weeks a subcommittee of the county Board of Supervisors has been evaluating proposals by architects to convert the old Walmart building into a county office facility. In the longer term some supervisors see the building as a place where the county can move several county agencies now in separate buildings around the city of Hudson, placing up to 450 employees in that one space. This works out to a still-comfortable 278 square feet per person, but who’s counting?

The county believes, probably with good reason, that its older buildings in Hudson are inefficient. Proponents of the change think they could save money by consolidating lots of workers at the vacant Walmart site and make some money by selling those three or four old buildings. But even though the Board of Supervisors has voted to proceed with the purchase of the Walmart building, it turns out county officials have no idea yet whether they actually would save money by sending 300 more employees to Greenport after the DSS gets there.

Supervisor Art Bassin (D-Ancram), who serves on the Walmart building subcommittee, acknowledged that faith not facts lie behind the grand scheme for a county Pentagon at the old Walmart site. He said in a three-page memo circulated this week that the facts on that part of the plan would take “another couple of months” before the county has the financial analysis to support (or disprove?) the wisdom of such a large relocation.

Mr. Bassin, a bright and capable person, devotes several paragraphs of his memo to the single issue that has animated this latest rush to find new county office space: the expiration of the lease on the office building currently used by the DSS. He recaps the facts, including to observation that the county may be paying three times the rent it would pay in the current market. But that’s kind of meaningless point, since you have to assume the county would already have rented more affordable space if it were available.

More reasons than space and price affect the decision to move the DSS. Mr. Bassin mentions in his memo that the building now leased for the DSS sits on a former “oil depot” and the landlord would not permit the county to independently assess whether there is contamination there. The county has, wisely, not pursued purchasing that building.

A couple of weeks ago I expressed support for the county’s decision to hire a professional manager, although the appointment should not be made until a newly elected board is sworn at the beginning of next year. But if the reason for a manager is that the problems facing county government are too big, complex and expensive to manage with the part-time approach used now, then why not put a manager in place and make it his or her first task to sort out the county’s need for space in an orderly manner.

The supervisors will still have the authority to approve any plan the manager suggests, but the trajectory the supervisors are on right now will have us once again spending a whole lot of money on a piecemeal plan. It’s one more rushed project that could well leave the rest of us taxpayers holding a very expensive bag.

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