SARANAC LAKE - Orange traffic cones and "Road Closed" signs at every turn. The constant beeping from heavy equipment backing up. The pungent odor of freshly laid asphalt.
Those have been some of the sights, sounds and smells this summer and fall throughout Saranac Lake - one of the busiest construction seasons this village has seen in decades.
A small army of village employees and private contractors have been working on millions of dollars in repairs and upgrades to village infrastructure, including miles of new sidewalk and pavement, replacement of a major sewer line, the completion of a new village water system and at least a half dozen other projects.
A crew from Luck Brothers puts in a new concrete curb along the north side of Lake Street in Saranac Lake on Tuesday, one of numerous infrastructure projects that took place in the village this year. The same side of the street will also get a new sidewalk.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
"We've kind of been going crazy to get everything done," village Manager John Sweeney said this week. "Truthfully, I have to take my hat off to all the guys and girls that work for us, because everybody has had their hands full."
Village officials say much of the work had to be done, either because it was state mandated or, in the case of the sidewalk upgrades, long overdue.
But what is all of this work costing the taxpayers? And where is the village coming up with the money? Here's a closer look at each of the projects that have taken place this year.
By the numbers
The village's $18.8 million debt load:
|$1.4 million||Sidewalk and equipment bond|
|$10.4 million||Water system upgrade|
|$4.8 million||Riverside Drive sewer/Bloomingdale lift bond (2006)|
|$2.2 million||Wastewater treatment plant bond (2000)|
(Figures as of June 1, 2012)
Sweeney said available funding is the reason why so many things happened at once.
"For the first time in a long time, we've had money to work with," he said. "We've borrowed, used money we've had on our own, from our reserves or from FEMA. We've had a lot of money to work with, which is something different."
The village secured a $2 million grant and a 30-year, no-interest loan to finance the $12.5 million overhaul of the village water system, which involved the drilling of two wells, construction of a 1.15-million-gallon water storage tank on the side of Mount Pisgah and installation of a new water transmission main.
To take advantage of the zero percent financing, village officials tacked other work onto the project, namely water distribution system upgrades throughout the village. Contractors ripped up the roads, replaced aging water mains then repaved the roads.
While all that work caused a few headaches, local residents said they learned to live with it.
"Was it frustrating? Yeah, a little bit, but construction is construction," said Park Avenue resident Rudy Palyswiat. "You put up with it, and I think the crews were as helpful as they could be under the circumstances."
Sweeney said there's still some additional work to do, but he expects the final price tag on the water system upgrade will be under the project's $12.5 million budget.
The burden of paying that debt will fall on all of the village's water customers, not just village taxpayers. The first big payment, $345,000, will be due next year. Village Treasurer Paul Ellis said he's planned for it by putting $245,000 in one-time capital projects in the water department budget this year, along with $95,000 in debt service.
"What I've been trying to do is one-shot repairs in the water department to build up to that point," Ellis said. "Everything else being equal, we should slide into it from an expenditure point."
Village water rates spiked dramatically this year, but Ellis said the 29 percent increase was due largely to the switch to a completely metered water system, which led to a big loss of revenue for the village.
While the water project continued, the village's $1 million sidewalk improvement project got under way in mid-May. Crews from the village and Luck Brothers, which was awarded the contract on the project, set to work on sections of Main Street and Broadway, tearing out and replacing sidewalks and curbs.
The work took place at the start of the busy summer season for village merchants. Blue Line Sports owner Matt Rothamel said he, his employees and his customers took it in stride.
"Everyone's really excited, in terms of business owners that I've spoken with, that that got done, and it got done really well," he said. "It had its points of frustration, but that can be with any construction project. Overall, it was a very positive thing to have that done."
Village Mayor Clyde Rabideau said the village worked hard to keep downtown merchants informed about the project.
"We really had a lot of communication and contact," Rabideau said. "That was the biggest thing, and I really can't recall a complaint."
After the downtown sidewalks were done, crews later moved to St. Bernard Street, then Academy Street, Helen Street, Shepard Avenue, McClelland Street, Charles Street and Lake Street.
Sweeney said the village has so far spent $926,000 out of the $1 million. Actually, a total of $1.4 million was borrowed over 10 years: $1 million for the sidewalk work and $400,000 for equipment and vehicle upgrades.
Ellis said the bond payments will come from the general fund. The first-year payment is $238,162 in principal and interest, which Ellis said he's already included in the current village budget.
As new sidewalks were going in downtown, another village-funded project was taking place just up Main Street. Crews hired by the village completely renovated the three-story former village office building at 3 Main Street, which the village has leased to Myriad RBM, one of two biotech companies moving here from Lake Placid.
The village spent about $780,000 to replace windows and upgrade the heating, air conditioning and elevator in the building. Ellis said the village paid most of that bill with $520,000 in fund balance, with the rest coming from community development funds.
Myriad moved into the building in mid-July. By then, work had started on 17 Main Street, the village's former water department building, to prepare it for the second Lake Placid biotech company, Active Motif. The building got a new heating, ventilating and air conditioning system, handicapped-accessibility improvements and new interior walls.
Ellis had set aside $263,000 from the water fund in the 2011-12 budget and another $100,000 in the current budget to pay for the upgrades. However, unforeseen costs pushed the project over budget by $112,000. The village covered the deficit by deferring other water department-funded projects that had been budgeted this year.
The renovations to 17 Main Street are scheduled to be complete by Nov. 1.
Lake Colby sewer
As if the village didn't have enough going on, it launched another major project in mid-July: replacement of 2,200 feet of deteriorating sewer line on Old Lake Colby Road and upgrades to a nearby sewer pump station. The village has been under a state Department of Environmental Conservation consent order to do the work after the lift station malfunctioned in March 2010 and spilled about 6,000 gallons of untreated wastewater onto the village beach at Lake Colby.
The project, most of which has been completed, has a $850,000 budget. The village has spent $660,000 so far and Sweeney said he's hopeful it will come in under budget.
The village is tapping its sewer reserve fund to pay for the Lake Colby work. Ellis said the village had been putting money in reserves to repair a sewer line that runs under Lake Flower Avenue when the state Department of Transportation upgrades the road, which is part of state Route 86.
"Since that project has been pushed to, I've heard different dates, 2017 and 2022, we literally have a million dollars we've been setting off to the side for the Lake Flower project," Ellis said. "It doesn't make sense to borrow money to do Lake Colby when we have the money in the bank."
Another $1.3 million in repairs to roads, buildings and other village infrastructure damaged in the spring 2011 floods was also on the calendar this construction season. Some of that work, involving a combination of village forces and private contractors, has been done, while other projects are just getting started.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is funding 75 percent of the flood restoration work. The state and the village will split the remaining 25 percent. Ellis said the village's share would come from reserves.
In addition to the paving associated with the water project, the village has also been paving other streets around the village, including Canaras Avenue and Fairview Avenue, using $250,000 in funds from the state Consolidated Local Street and Highway Improvement Program.
Village officials said it's been a busy and stressful construction season, but they believe they've accomplished a lot.
"I think all of us were running in multiple directions to keep the plan moving forward and address the issues that were coming up as we had to deal with them," Sweeney said. "Truthfully, I have to say that everybody did a great job.
"It was very challenging, very daunting," Rabideau said, "but we rose to the occasion and the proof is in the pudding. Take a look around. Saranac Lake is looking pretty darn good."
But how much debt has the village incurred from all of this work? It's become an issue in the Harrietstown supervisor race, which has quieted down since Tuesday's announcement by village Trustee Tom Catillaz that he has suspended his active campaign due to a family medical issue.
Before that, however, Republican town Councilman Bob Bevilacqua and his supporters had raised concerns about the village's debt, compared to that of the town.
"Residents do not want a massive debt structure built up by bonding that will hold the budget process hostage for years to come," Bevilacqua said in a Sept. 28 press release. "The town debt is $157,800. And that will be paid down in just three more years. By contrast, the village debt is approximately $18 million. It will take many, many years for that debt to be paid down, creating a continuing burden for the taxpayer."
Ellis told the Enterprise that the only debt to be paid from the general fund is the sidewalk and equipment bond, the rest will be paid by water and sewer users.
"I don't have any concerns about the level of debt the village has because it's not money that's being wastefully spent, it's for true infrastructure needs," he said.
"Ninety-two percent of (the $18 million) is state-mandated water and sewer upgrades or consent orders," Rabideau said. "Yes, sometimes because of state mandates you've got more debt, but we've managed it very well."
Yet the village has clearly dug deep into its reserves to pay for some of the projects that took place this year. Asked if he felt that leaves the village vulnerable moving forward, Ellis admits he does have some concerns, given the state's 2 percent property tax cap.
"What's happened is our ability to handle a large unknown expense has diminished," he said. "Where I used to plan for unknowns, I'm not as able to plan for them because, in order to meet the 2 percent tax cap, your budgets are running much much leaner.
"My only concern is that if the economy doesn't recover, the natural tendency is to deplete reserves, deplete fund balance. If we don't get new revenue sources and the governor insists on a 2 percent tax cap for an extended period of time, the village, along with many other municipalities across the state are going to suffer severe financial problems."
Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.