HUDSON DEMOCRAT ED CROSS was the embodiment of a patient man Wednesday evening as he rose to speak toward the end of the county Board of Supervisors meeting. Addressing board Chairman Art Baer (R-Hillsdale), Mr. Cross asked whether the board would listen to a proposal from Hudson Mayor Rick Scalera, who has a plan for keeping the county Department of Social Services (DSS) in Hudson.
Maybe Supervisor Cross made a mistake by prefacing his question with a statement about how we all make mistakes. That’s not something a roomful of politicians wants to hear, and it may explain why he got no answer. So a short time later, in the same calm, dignified voice he asked again: Would the board listen to the mayor’s proposal?
This time Mr. Baer replied that the question had to go to the board’s Facilities Committee, not the full board. That was it. No further discussion. It sounded like a routine procedural issue, except that it wasn’t, a point emphasized by the 30 or so protesters who gathered outside the county office building before the meeting began. They were there to object to the plan to move the DSS offices to Claverack, six miles east of the city. And the exchange between Supervisors Cross and Baer underscored one reason why people have taken to the streets on this issue—the dismissive way county leaders have treated the needs of the county’s poorest community.
The mayor was fuming as the meeting ended, saying that county officials never gave him the opportunity to present his “Plan B” to the committee. Instead, the Board of Supervisors voted last month to move the social services department to the old Ockawamick School building on Route 217 in Claverack. The county did offer Mr. Scalera a seat on a committee that determined which county agencies would move to the old school building, but he declined because he wanted to discuss how to keep all the offices within city limits.
The county bought the school building for about $1.5 million and estimates that upgrades, modifications and environmental remediation will cost another $13 million. Officials believe using the building will yield an overall savings for the county equal to what the county plans to invest in it. The controversy now involves how the county will use the place.
DSS has too little room in the leased space it now occupies in Hudson. The lease on that privately-owned building expires in 2011, and the department needs somewhere to go. County officials who investigated the options settled on the Ockawamick building, because it was available, had room for expansion and sits near the geographic center of the county. Using it allows the government to consolidate several functions at one site at less cost to taxpayers.
That calculation omits the human costs. Over half the people served by DSS live in or very near Hudson, and they will have a harder time accessing services. The county has said it will transport people by shuttle bus. But even if that is feasible, how does it improve the delivery of services to the families who need them?
Mr. Baer reaffirmed last month that the county would open some sort of satellite social services office in Hudson, though he emphasized that it would not duplicate services offered in Claverack, and the absence of specifics on the satellite office reinforces concerns that the move will hurt the people DSS is supposed to help, many of them children and the elderly.
What’s missing from the debate so far is a sense of fairness.
A bipartisan majority of the board approved the purchase of the Ockawamick building. It’s a done deal, and some parts of county government will eventually move there. But what if Mayor Scalera’s Plan B really does offer an economical means of keeping DSS functions in Hudson? In that case both taxpayers and those who need social services win. If the plan won’t work, then certainly the bright folks who came up with the Ockawamick plan can explain why.
By failing to give the mayor’s proposal a fair and open hearing, the board only fuels speculation that it overlooked a less expensive and more effective option. The county has made a commitment to its new Claverack campus, but it has ongoing responsibilities to protect taxpayers’ money and alleviate hardships where it can. It’s not just a courtesy to listen carefully to Plan B. It’s common sense.