Town hall work unearths municipal dispute

A sign outside the Tupper Lake Town Hall advises guests to use the rear entrance since the front one is under construction. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

TUPPER LAKE — Construction on the town hall entrance is approaching an end, bringing the building to federally required compliance, making the walk up to the municipal offices safer and putting a 400-square-foot addition on the Demars Boulevard building.

Discussions about the project in village board meetings and on social media have shown village trustees — most vocally Ron LaScala — are unhappy with the town’s decision, not necessarily because of the $437,774 price tag but because there had been theoretical ideas of the town and village joining offices in the 20,000-square-foot empty building next to the current village hall to create a one-stop municipal shop and improve the town and village relationship.

Town Supervisor Patti Littlefield said while she liked the idea of sharing a space with the village, the town did not take the village up on its plan because the front door and entryway desperately needed to be addressed and they did not have time to wait for the research and updates required for the new building.

“There’s not enough information on that for right now. By the time it was brought to our attention we were already into this,” Littlefield said. “We could have stopped, but we had already spent some money.”

She said the town already had bids out for the design and an architect.

The addition to the Tupper Lake town hall is under construction in this photo from September, the vinyl floor has been installed. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

This construction was first pitched because the front door on the old entrance was warped and bent. If the town were to replace the door and stairs, the entire building must be brought to compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“This building was not accessible. We are the code office and force people to be accessible and follow the code and we aren’t fully accessible properly ourselves,” Littlefield said. “We used to watch people come in those stairs. My God, they’d hold on to the rail like they needed to pull themselves up because they were steep and awkward.”

The town board made the decision to make an addition on the building with a lift and enclosed staircase, though the project went over the original estimate by $43,474. Town Councilman John Quinn was the only “nay” vote. Littlefield said the update was “long overdue.”

“This is a big thing that the town undertook, but we have an opportunity to get it done for a reasonable expense at the end of it because of the grant money that we have and what we’re expecting to put into it,” Littlefield said. “We’ll have this debt for a minute, and once we get all this funding squared away, the actual debt for this building isn’t going to be that much.”

The project is funded with $173,000 in grants: $100,000 from the state Dormitory Authority, provided by state Sen. Betty Little, $18,000 from the Justices Grant Fund for court-related improvements and $55,000 from the Water District 3 improvements grant. That leaves around $264,774, which will be paid for by adding to the town debt and the taxpayers paying that off out of the general fund over the next few years.

The town has a bond resolution for up to $394,000, which will be paid off with the grants, which will kick in throughout 2019. Littlefield said the project has an estimated date for substantial completion of Dec. 1.

Town/village tension

At the Sept. 19 village board meeting, LaScala took issue with the town project costing around $1,000 per square foot.

“Here’s an example on why your taxes are so high,” LaScala said. “I understand a lot of it is grant money, but just because it’s grant money doesn’t mean it’s free money. That money comes from somewhere; it comes from private businesses.”

“Some officials are so eager to build something to attach their name too (sic) they forget what they were put into office to do,” LaScala later wrote in a text to the Enterprise. “Which is to be a good steward of taxpayers money and plan for future generations not to put your name on some memorial plaque on the wall of something you built.”

Littlefield said the project as expensive because it was required to bring the whole building to ADA compliance, not because it is extravagant.

“It’s not glamorous or glorious,” Littlefield said. “There’s noting exorbitant in this room, in this addition.”

She pointed to the addition having vinyl flooring, drywall walls and wooden railings.

LaScala disagreed that the town needed to make the upgrades immediately and said it could have waited to see how the former Rite Aid building next to the village hall looked before making the decision.

“Their backs weren’t up against the wall. There wasn’t a gun to their heads,” LaScala said. “It was the easiest option.”

Littlefield said before any of the construction discussions started, she saw article in a local paper about village plans to build a new electric department and highway garage. She said she talked with village T­­reasurer Mary Casagrain about the possibility of expanding that building to include a shared town and village office. She said that idea didn’t go anywhere, and LaScala said he had not heard about it.

LaScala said this combined office idea is still a possibility, though Littlefield said it would be foolish for the town to put so much money and effort into the town hall, only to move out.

“This combined building was and still is a great opportunity for the community to combine/share services under one roof and actually end up with a better easier user experience as taxpayers,” LaScala said in a text. “Imagine everything being under one roof both Town and Village they would be forced to create a new culture one of a combined government not the stupid Hatfield and McCoy style Town versus Village.”

In September, town and village board members got heated in a Facebook thread about a photo of a Tupper Lake Free Press article on LaScala’s comments at the village board meeting.

“This is ridiculous!!! The town hall needed this,” town Councilwoman Tracy Luton commented. “So the village came in with this proposal about the village and town working under one roof. Get real! I said that 20 years ago. I bet the town and village will still be in different building for the next 20 years.”

“If you truly have been saying this for 20 yrs it certainly it has not been at the town board meetings or at in any other public information platform (social media new articles ect…) that I know of in your elected capacity and really that where your opinion and action matters the most!” LaScala replied.

“It’s funny how no one ever showed to the public meeting,” Luton responded. “If you take what I say personal that is on you. I always will and do have the best interest of Tupper Lake at heart.”

For LaScala, the town hall issue is just part of the larger issue he has with the town and village governments. He says Tupper Lake does not need two governments and questions how much service the town provides to the village, whose residents pay both town and village taxes.

“The basic necessities of modern life come out of the village, not from the town,” LaScala said in a phone call with the Enterprise.

At the village board meeting, he said the two municipalities often do not know what the other is doing, and Trustees Leon LeBlanc and Clint Hollingsworth voiced agreement.

In the phone interview, LaScala said Tupper Lake does not need two forms of government with offices less than 2 miles apart, and said “village taxpayers have subsidized modern convenience for the town taxpayers for a long time.”

“Anybody that believes that we need two forms of government in a community the size of Tupper Lake really has the IQ of lunch meat,” LaScala said.

He pitched the idea of making the village and town a coterminous government body, meaning the two municipal bodies essentially function as a single unit of government. It is different than dissolving the village into the town because it would combine things like the water and electrical districts of the village, and the highway and sidewalk districts of the town.

Five village-town municipalities in New York are coterminous: Mount Kisco, Harrison and Scarsdale in Westchester County, Green Island in Albany County and East Rochester in Monroe County. There are four methods of combining the town and village, each with different ways of starting and ending the process. LaScala referred to one that would expand village boundaries to meet the town line, which would require approval of both boards and voters in a town-wide referendum.

Littlefield’s interest was piqued by the proposition of coterminous governance. She said it would take a while and need a lot of research. She suggested starting with the state Department of State, which she said is where consolidating starts.

LaScala said coterminous government was studied in Tupper Lake 20 years ago and was tabled because municipal workers were worried about losing their jobs, and that nothing has changed. He said Littlefield, nor the other Republicans on the town board, have brought up the idea to move it forward.

“They’re fake Republicans,” LaScala said. “They all don’t want to talk about making our government smaller.”

LaScala said besides the heated comments on Facebook, he wants to make it clear he does not want to start conflict with the town for nothing. He was disappointed in the outcome of the town’s construction plans and hopes that the two governments can work toward working together more closely.