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Lewis legislators continue to be split on office project

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LOWVILLE — Despite having more concrete numbers, Lewis County legislators remain split on whether to proceed with a proposed $10 million office building project on outer Stowe Street.

“We’re caught between a rock and a hard place,” Legislature Vice Chairman William J. Burke, R-West Lowville, said at a meeting Monday morning, noting that both pro- and anti-construction arguments are compelling.

Following about an hour’s worth of discussion on the matter, Chairman Michael A. Tabolt, R-Croghan, encouraged his fellow lawmakers to “play with the numbers a little more” and admitted he wasn’t sure exactly when the board will be ready to make a final decision.

Low bids for construction of the project came in last week at about $9 million, resulting in a $10 million price tag when contingency and project management are figured in.

According to projections compiled by county fiscal adviser Venesky and Co., state Department of Social Services funding would cover $5.2 million of the project, or more than one-third of the $14.7 million cost in principal and interest over 20 years.

In the first year following completion of the project, the state would cover $411,000 of the $735,000 debt service payment, but that reimbursement would be reduced over time, County Treasurer Patricia L. O’Brien said.

County Attorney Richard J. Graham said that a state Environmental Quality Review and bonding resolution should be able to be completed in time for the Legislature’s Oct. 1 meeting. However, even if those actions are approved, the project would not move forward unless the board chooses to award construction contracts, he said.

Legislators in March voted only 6-4 to put the two-story office building project out to bid. And while most lawmakers expressed that the bid total was a good outcome, several suggested it hadn’t changed their minds on the feasibility of the project.

“I voted no before, and I’ll vote no again,” said Legislator Philip C. Hathway, R-Harrisville.

Mr. Hathway said he believes the building project and an ongoing emergency radio system project both could be feasible, with extra revenue from a planned sales tax rate hike — now being threatened by a bureaucratic snafu — to cover the costs.

However, county property taxes still may have to go up at the maximum amount allowable under state tax cap constraints to keep up with rising regular expenses, and the county already is carrying a large debt load given recent capital projects done by it and the municipal hospital, he said.

“I think it would be more appropriate to do either one project or the other,” Mr. Hathway said.

When Mr. Tabolt asked her opinion, Mrs. O’Brien offered a similar sentiment, cautioning lawmakers about incurring too much debt.

Legislator Paul M. Stanford, D-Watson, who long has opposed the project, contended that more work must be done to address some village concerns, including possible Stowe Street upgrades.

“Our sole job is to do what’s right for the county for the long haul,” countered Legislator Richard C. Lucas, R-Barnes Corners. “I think this is prudent.”

Mr. Lucas said the county continues to lease space that, in many cases, is inadequate for its needs, and rental costs continue to rise each year.

“All we’re doing is passing on to future boards the responsibility to do something to house our departments,” he said.

The radio project could be done in phases, as grant money becomes available, to avoid a hefty county expense, Mr. Lucas said.

Legislator Jack T. Bush, R-Brantingham, chairman of the legislative Buildings and Grounds Committee, said he believes the county won’t ever get a better opportunity to build, adding that there may be some opportunity for “value engineering,” or working with contractors to seek cost reductions.

“With that in mind, that $10 million figure will hopefully be less than that,” he said.

Legislators on Monday did agree on one thing. They voted 8-0 to appoint Deer River Republican Craig P. Brennan to the vacant District 3 seat to effectively replace the late Legislator Charles R. Fanning, R-Copenhagen, who died while in office in July.

Legislator Jerry H. King, R-West Leyden, was excused from the meeting for jury duty.

Mr. Brennan was the lone candidate left on the general election ballot in District 3 after defeating Gerald S. Snyder, Mr. Fanning’s nephew by marriage, in a GOP primary.

“Your first assignment is to get us out from between a rock and a hard place,” Mr. Tabolt told Mr. Brennan.

The new lawmaker promised only to educate himself on the issue as quickly as possible to make an informed decision.

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