But legislators keep agreement under wraps
By Holly Toal
Many seniors in attendance applauded while other members of the audience booed when the Putnam County Legislature on Sept. 6 approved a lease to operate a senior center at the Butterfield property in Cold Spring and an $800,000 bond to help pay for renovations.
The county plans to rent 6,000-square-feet in the Lahey Pavilion at the site of the former Butterfield Hospital on Route 9D from developer Paul Guillaro for 15 years. The project originally included a $500,000 donation from Roger and Elizabeth Ailes of Garrison with a condition that the center would be named after Roger Ailes. But after Roger Ailes resigned as chairman and CEO of Fox News following allegations of sexual harassment, and many residents protested that it would be inappropriate to name the center after him, he withdrew the pledge.
Barbara Scuccimarra, who represents Philipstown and was among the legislators who voted to approve the lease and bond for the $1.3 million project, said at the Sept. 6 meeting that the project was “not about partisan politics. It’s about a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have a senior center in the heart of the village. We cannot let this opportunity pass us by.”
Prior to the 6-3 vote — and after it was determined that public comment would not be allowed until the end of the meeting — Chairwoman Ginny Nacerino (R-Patterson) addressed what she called a “groundswell of inaccuracies” circulating about the lease that she claimed were designed to leave the impression that the project was shrouded in secrecy and “backdoor” deals.
“That is not the case,” she insisted. “This is something good for our seniors.”
While a copy of the lease that was approved in May was leaked to the media, the county has never released a version of the document, which Nacerino said is “confidential” and subject to” client-attorney privilege simply because it is a living document.”
However, when asked to weigh in, legislative counsel Clement Van Ross said that, in his opinion, “any resolution that has been passed by the legislature becomes a public record.”
Nacerino said that, despite criticism from those opposed to the terms in the leaked version of the lease, “it is not as cost-prohibitive as people would like to believe.”
Toni Addonizio (R-Kent) argued that the proposed Cold Spring center will cost taxpayers less annually than centers in Mahopac, Putnam Valley and Carmel. Citing census data and dividing the cost of each center by the number of county residents, she said taxpayers pay about $28 each per year for Putnam Valley, $36 for Mahopac and $28 for Carmel. By this formula, the Cold Spring center will cost $22, she said.
Joseph Castellano (R-Southeast) said he believed the county was getting a good deal from the developer, who will lease the property at a rate of $13 per square foot, rising to $17 by the end of the lease. Other tenants will pay as much as $25 per square foot, he said.
“It’s the only deal we have in front of us,” Castellano said. “We could walk away from it now, but it would not be fair to our seniors.”
While the lease, with unspecified amendments, was approved on Sept. 6 by the legislature, it is likely the agreement will continue to be tweaked. In fact, an updated version was given to lawmakers a few hours before the meeting but did not make it to the floor.
Albano maintained that the Butterfield lease has been treated “no differently” than any legal document and suggested opposition to the project has been “politically motivated.”
“If we had purchased a building it would have been millions of dollars more,” he said at the Sept. 6 meeting, adding that the American Legion building, where Philipstown seniors currently meet, is insufficient. “It was not an option,” he said. “It never came before us.”
Roger Gross (R-Brewster), who voted against the lease agreement and bond, said the dynamics of the proposed project have changed too much. Besides the loss of the Ailes money, he noted the county has not received confirmation that it would receive $500,000 in state grants. Also, he said, by borrowing the money to complete the project and paying rent, the county will have nothing to show for its expenditure when the lease ends in 15 years.
“This is a mess we’ve gotten into,” he said. “We’ve been told a lot of things, but nothing in writing. That’s why I think we should back out and look at something different” such as renovating the American Legion. “The seniors have a place in Cold Spring,” he said. “They don’t like it, I know. But they are meeting there.”
Dini LoBue (R-Mahopac Falls) noted that the county used the same “build-out formula” to estimate the cost of the senior center that had been applied when calculating the costs of renovations at Tilly Foster Farm in Brewster. The farm costs were underestimated by $1 million, she said.
Kevin Wright (R-Mahopac), who also voted no, said that while he believes taxpayers in Philipstown are underserved, he was “turned off” after the location of the proposed center moved from a newly constructed building to the Lahey Pavilion, calling it a “bait and switch.” He added, “I do not believe it is a choice between this or nothing.”
Further, Wright said the county didn’t make an effort to consult real-estate agents to investigate whether anything else was available.
Scuccimarra, however, said seniors in Philipstown have been looking for an alternative spot for years. She pointed out that the U.S. Post Office, which is also expected to lease space at the Butterfield property, has been operating out of a trailer for two years because there is no other space available in the village.