CHATHAM–Governor Cuomo announced this week a new tax “freeze” plan that would provide property tax rebates to homeowners in communities that stay within the state’s tax cap limits. The plan would also require local governments to reduce costs by consolidating municipal services. The announcement came just as the Chatham Town Board and Village Board held an unusual joint session to discuss an existing consolidation program that needs work.
The two boards met Tuesday morning, January 7, at the Tracy Memorial Village Hall for the first time that anyone present could remember. The agenda was limited to one item, a discussion of improving the safety of the second floor courtroom used for Town Court. The Town Board left no doubt it will install a special bulletproof door at the entrance to the judges’ chambers and village Mayor Tom Curran assured the town that the village will improve the rickety fire escape. From that point on, though, it gets complicated, an indication of the complexities that may lie ahead as local governments try to lower costs through consolidation.
The deed to the Tracy Memorial, as the village hall is known locally, was given to the village in 1913, and a trust was set up to handle the maintenance, according to the village website. But over the intervening years the trust, administered by a foundation with a board of its own, has acted like a landlord. For decades it has collected rent from the town, which uses the Tracy Memorial as Town Court. The town had a lease on the courtroom from the foundation, but the last lease agreement expired in 2006.
Town Justice James Borgia-Forster, who attended Tuesday’s meeting, said that Chatham Town Court is one of the busiest town courts in the state, handling as many as 80 cases on single evening docket. But Justice Borgia-Forster and the other town justice, Jason Shaw, have told the Town Board that courtroom facilities do not meet modern safety standards and they are worried that at certain times clerks or judges may be alone in the building now that the Chatham Police Department operates on a part-time schedule. So the Town Board adopted a resolution last month, informing the Village Board that the town will install the new door and pay for it from the $1,500 monthly rent checks it normally pays the foundation.
Justice Borgia-Forster said that a similar bulletproof door cost New Lebanon $5,000, although he was not certain whether that included installation. He said that Chatham Town Court has applied to the state for a grant to pay for the door, but the state Office of Court Administration has not yet announced whether the grant has been approved.
And then there’s the matter of the fire escape, an open metal frame from the second floor attached to the south side of the Tracy Memorial. Mayor Curran said he’d recently climbed the fire escape and found that in places it wobbles. “I jumped up and down on it, and it has issues,” said the mayor, adding that it is too narrow. He said he shared the concerns expressed by others in the room that the ability of the fire escape to withstand his jumping did not indicate that it could handle many people at once, as would be the case in a fire emergency. He said he had had scheduled a meeting with a someone knowledgeable about fire escapes this week.
Mayor Curran, a member of the foundation board, said that the foundation has enough money in its account to pay for repairs to “shore up” the fire escape, which he estimated would cost between $2,000 and $5,000. If it must be replaced, it would have to be an enclosed structure and the cost would be much higher.
Village Attorney Alexander Betke said he is working on a new lease agreement to present to the town. As for the money in the foundation account, Mr. Betke said his firm has been reviewing the records and “we think we’re at a number,” though he did not give an amount.
During the meeting Mayor Curran said a “pending settlement with the Tracy for ownership of the building” would resolve any question about control over the building and give the village the flexibility to make other arrangements, possibly an agreement that leads to the village and the town having joint ownership of the building.
“Would that mean we wouldn’t pay rent?” asked Town Councilwoman Maria Lull.
The mayor said the village was open to discussing that and other arrangements, like having the town pay some of the maintenance expenses for the building.
Town Councilwoman Jean Rohde was not willing to discuss that type of commitment. “We need to start with baby steps,” she said, injecting a note of caution echoed by other town officials during the hour-and-a-half meeting.
Mayor Curran had opened the session by outlining the positive impacts that would come from developing the Tracy Memorial as a single center of government for both the village and the town. He cited, among other things, the convenience of having one place where residents could go for many local services. He said the consolidation would strengthen the central business district of the town and there would be a political benefit from showing voters that government improve services to the public.
But town Supervisor Jesse DeGroodt tamped down expectations, saying that a decade ago the town purchased a relatively new and “easily maintained” building on state Route 295 for a new Town Hall along with 100 acres and ample parking. “What does it cost to be here?” he asked, referring to the Tracy Memorial. “We really don’t know much of anything.”
Ms. Lull suggested that an architect evaluate the building and offer suggestions about the ways it might be modified or expanded to fit the needs of the two municipalities. And she brought up another point, asking, “When do we bring in the public?”
Village Trustee Michael Wollowitz urged the two boards to form a committee to come up with ideas for using the Tracy Memorial so that residents would have something to consider. But he also said it was important that no decisions be made before hearing from the public.
“I don’t know whether this is a giant opportunity,” said Mr. DeGroodt, “because I don’t know what the plan is.”
Mr. DeGroodt said the Town Board would discuss the Tracy Memorial at the next Town Board meeting January 16.
After the meeting Mayor Curran circulated an email memo proposing a committee that would “look at the various aspects of Joint Town and Village Halls.” He said the committee should include representatives “from both Town Board and Village Board, and members of the community.” Formation of the committee is on the Village Board agenda this week.