BLOOMINGDALE - Town of St. Armand officials are concerned about the prospect of a public vote on a new Highway Department garage.
If petitioners force a referendum on the $750,000 project, Supervisor Joyce Morency said the earliest that vote could happen is August, which means construction of the new garage, even if it's approved, would have to be pushed back to next year.
"If we're not able to start building by July 9, then I don't know what we're going to do," Morency said.
St. Armand Councilman Charlie Whitson stands inside the town’s highway garage on Thursday. He said that when plows and sanders are placed on the Highway Department’s trucks, the vehicles barely fit inside the building.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
Morency, town Councilman Charlie Whitson and Highway Superintendent Roger Oliver met with the Enterprise Thursday at the town hall to try to head off a potential public vote by correcting what they described as rumors and misinformation that are circulating about the project.
The town board voted 3-2 at a special board meeting on May 8 to authorize construction of a new, 7,200-square-foot garage with masonry walls and a wood truss roof. The building would be located on the same site as the current, 70-year-old highway garage on Main Street (state Route 3), which is in disrepair, is too small for the department's vehicles and has been hit by highway department trucks several times over the years. A brace recently had to be put on the building's front right corner to satisfy concerns about its structural integrity raised by the town's insurance company.
"It's been holding on by a wing and a prayer," Morency said.
The new garage is scheduled to go out to bid on June 2, with work scheduled to begin on July 9. If the project starts then, Morency said the building should be closed in and able to house the department's trucks by December. But whether the project follows that timeline remains to be seen.
The board's May 8 decision was subject to permissive referendum, meaning town residents can put the issue on the ballot if 5 percent of the people who voted in the last presidential election, in 2008, sign the necessary petitions. Morency said only 517 people voted then, so it would take just 26 signatures of registered town voters. Some town residents have been pushing such a petition lately.
The signed petitions would have to be turned in to the town clerk within 30 days of the May 8 vote, or within the next two weeks. If that happens and there are no issues with the accuracy of the petitions, under town law the special election still couldn't be held for another 60 days, meaning it wouldn't happen until August at the earliest. That's what has town officials concerned.
"If we have to wait for the 60 days and then have a general vote, then that, in itself, automatically means we ain't doing it this year, period," Whitson said. "Then what are we going to do with the vehicles? Our insurance company isn't going to cover those vehicles if they're parked in that building over there. If we have a roof or a wall fall in, I'm sure the insurance company will say, 'We told you this building is unsafe.'"
"The trucks will have to be outside all winter," Oliver said. "They'd start alright, but your hydraulics would freeze. When you go to put down your plows and stuff, you'd be blowing hoses steady."
But will town voters force a referendum on the project? Morency said she's heard some residents are considering starting a petition, although she noted that only a few people have come to the board's meetings to ask questions about the project.
In a letter to the editor of the Enterprise published Thursday, Bloomingdale resident John P. O'Neil urged town voters to sign petitions and force a referendum. He said he agrees that a new garage is needed, but he questioned whether town officials have looked at other options and said the people should have "a voice on the project."
Bloomingdale real estate broker Sandy Hayes, in a letter submitted to the Enterprise Friday, also called on town residents to sign petitions and bring the issue to a vote. He noted that two members of the board - Donald Amell and Earl J. Dakin Jr. - voted against the proposed garage.
"If the full board of five members cannot agree even one time on this project, doesn't it make sense to let the taxpayers have some input and maybe make some reasonable suggestions?" Hayes wrote. "Let's slow this train down. Study all options and make the right decision. Don't believe that the building can't be built this year if we don't start immediately."
The town is basing the design of its new highway garage on a recently built garage in the town of North Hudson, but town officials say that isn't the only option they considered. Whitson and Oliver said they looked at other recently built highway garages in Schroon Lake and Brighton, and Oliver visited a new garage that's privately owned in Tupper Lake, before they recommended the North Hudson design to the town board.
"It's been suggested we haven't spent enough time studying on this, but I feel that we have," Whitson said.
The project has an estimated cost of between $700,000 and $800,000, Morency said, although O'Neil suggested that extra costs will bring it closer to a $1 million. The town is planning to finance the project using a 25-year bond. If the amount the town borrows is $800,000, the annual interest and principal payments would average $53,000, which would increase the tax bill for the owner of a $100,000 home by $35 each year. For the owner of a $150,000 home, the increase would be $53 a year. Morency stressed that these figures are only estimates at this point.
"We've always been conservative in our spending, but this is to the point that we have no choice," she said. "We can't go backwards. Our roads are in good condition, and if they're not, you're going to have some awfully unhappy people if we can't be out there doing the roads in the same manner we have been. If we don't have a garage to put our vehicles in, that's going to be a disaster for road care."
Whitson said he would gladly answer any questions town residents may have about the project. He can be reached at 518-891-0703.
Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.