EDITORIAL: Hey, big spenders…

BREAKING NEWS: THE COUNTY has put binders on a soon-to-be-vacant supermarket in Chatham, the empty market in New Lebanon, the old school in Copake, a barn, two campers and a cave in Germantown. Have a garage with a rotting roof? A tent that didn’t sell at the yard sale? Hurry down to 401 State Street in Hudson. There’s no recession at the Board of Supervisors.

Yes, I’m exaggerating. The Germantown cave isn’t available until after the hibernation season. But you’ll forgive me for thinking that county government hasn’t met an empty space it doesn’t like after purchasing the old Ockawamick School in Claverack a few years ago, talking about buying the City Centre office building, laying out tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars for an option on the former Walmart building on Fairview Avenue and then agreeing last month to purchase the office building it leases at 25 Railroad Avenue in Hudson, but only after paying more to extend its option on the old Walmart site.

One of these places actually might make sense, and it’s not the tent. It’s the office building at 25 Railroad Avenue just off North 7th Street. It was the one that started this recent public real estate feeding frenzy after county officials decided that the building was too small for its occupant, the county Department of Social Services. Among the reasons cited for the move was that stored records had led to cramped quarters.

That’s like deciding you have to move to the basement because there’s too much stuff on the first floor: the problem isn’t the stuff, the problem is you need to change your medication. I’m not suggesting DSS staff behave like hoarders; I am asking why county leaders couldn’t solve the problem in a more rational and less expensive way. In a digital age storing records requires an investment in technology not floor space.

There was the concern that the site and the building at 25 Railroad Avenue might harbor pollutants that made people sick. And recent tests reveal some potentially health-threatening chemicals were released into the air in the building. But this pollution didn’t come from the structure or the soil around it; the pollution was coming from ink used to print the records. If you made this stuff up, nobody would believe you.

To determine whether hazardous materials still lurk at that site, the owner has agreed to conduct a thorough environmental review before the county buys the property. If the study uncovers pollution the county can either pull out of the deal or negotiate a reduction in the cost equal to the price of the cleanup. That second option is dicey because environmental remediation, which usually requires hauling nasty materials to somebody else’s backyard, usually costs more than anticipated. But let’s assume that the building at 25 Railroad Avenue can be used and that it will save the county money comparing to paying rent.

If that’s true, why does the county need shovel more money into the pockets of Walmart for a vacant box store in Greenport? Supporters may say they still don’t know about pollution at 25 Railroad Avenue. But if there’s reason to believe employees aren’t safe, why is any county employee required to work there?

Maybe they’ll say that they have to move ahead before some savvy developer snaps up that empty box store, which has more space than the county will need for the next century. If so, they should drive a quarter mile north to the new plaza, where all chains big enough to occupy a store the size of the old Walmart have opened new stores. Maybe somebody in county government who thinks the old Walmart property is so hot we have to squander our tax dollars to preserve our option to buy it should ask Walmart why it moved to a new location.

The disregard that the current county leadership has for our money takes your breath away. It makes it difficult to trust that buying the 25 Railroad Avenue site might actually be a good deal for the county. It makes you worry that just as they’re about to close on the office building some clever character will whisper in the ear of our big spenders: “Hey, I’ve got an even larger space over here…” at which point the spenders will grab the county checkbook and follow him off a cliff. 

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