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County takes lead in Walmart project

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HUDSON — Though county officials haven’t officially decided whether or not to pursue a proposal to consolidate county offices in the empty Walmart store on Fairview Avenue in Greenport, the Board of Supervisors voted last week to take over the role of lead agency in the project.

County officials now say a final decision on the project is likely in the fall, with the overall price tag for the project reaching as much as $16 million, an amount that could lead to a tax levy increase of up to 1.5%

Until now the Walmart project was in the hands of the quasi-governmental Columbia Resource Corporation (CRC), which proposed purchasing the property, overseeing the redesign and construction of the space and leasing it back to the county. The CRC made a $50,000 refundable deposit in January to secure a six-month option to buy the property while it performed a space study to determine the project’s feasibility. The six-month period ends June 8, at which time an additional payment of $30,000 will be due Walmart.

In February, when the county Finance Committee rejected a proposal that the county fund a preliminary $78,000 space study because of concerns about other capital improvement projects the county is committed to and because of a lack of cost estimates for the project during an economic downturn. At that point it looked like the project might be put on the back burner, and the committee asked county controller to determine an estimated tax levy increase resulting for consolidation of the offices.

But last month at the annual Chamber of Commerce legislative breakfast Roy Brown (R-Germentown), chairman of the Board of Supervisors, announced that the county would go forward with the Walmart project, though board had not yet approved the plan. County Commissioner of Economic Development Ken Flood said at the time that the tax levy increases were not yet known and the space study was no longer considered necessary.

At its May meeting, the Finance Committee recommended that the county take over the CRC’s contract with Walmart. In a later phone conversation Mr. Flood said that the county will reimburse the CRC for the $50,000 and ask Walmart for a two-month extension of the option at no additional cost to give the county time to survey the condition of the vacant structure and conduct an environmental review. The county also intends to have the property appraised and will solicit bids for architectural design services.

“If all goes well they may pass a resolution to buy in fall,” Commissioner Flood said.

Art Baer (Hillsdale), a member of the Finance Committee, balked at funding the proposed $78,000 space study and wanted to know how much the tax levy would rise. He said this week that the reason for the board’s decision is twofold.

“First, the county has a better bond rating than the CRC and would pay a lower interest rate on a general obligation bond. The difference amounted to $3 million in interest over 20 years,” he said. “The second reason was that we were unable to determine through due diligence that working through the CRC would provide significant enough savings on construction costs.”

Mr. Baer said that the CRC has enabled local not-for-profit institutions like Columbia Memorial Hospital to realize substantial savings on construction costs of certain types of buildings but, he said, “the complexity of this job did not lend itself to that type of savings.”

In the coming year, he said, the county faces “very significant interest and principal payments on a number of capital improvement projects, including a major renovation of the County Courthouse.

On the question of the tax impact, Columbia County Controller Ron Caponera, said this week, “You can’t know the exact cost of building until you bid out…. It costs $2.1 million to buy, but construction could cost $8- to $12 million. That’s a big variable.” He also said bond interest rates could change substantially from their present low levels.

His best guess at the moment is that the whole project might cost as much as $16 million. But some of that would be offset not having to pay $400,000 a year in rent for the building in Hudson that currently houses the Social Service Department, and Mr. Caponera anticipates additional savings from having more county workers in a more efficient space, for a cost reduction of $550,000.

But then there’s the cost of as much as $100,000 a year for an express bus from Hudson to the new building for social service clients, a suggestion of Chairman Brown’s. So the net gain for the county might be in the range of $450,000.

Departments that might move to the new facility in addition to Social Services include  Environmental Health, Mental Health, the Healthcare Consortium, Office for the Aging, Planning and Tourism, the Youth Bureau, Central Services, the Department of Public Works, Columbia Economic Development Corporation, Probation, Public Defender, County Historian, and the Backup 911 Center.

All of these calculations, including the projection of principal and interest payments, would translate into a tax levy increase of up to 1.5% for a $16-million building.

Meanwhile, the exact costs for the courthouse renovation aren’t known either, but $4.4 million was set aside for that project in this year’s capital budget. 

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