LOWVILLE — A special meeting of the Lewis County Board of Legislators Tuesday evening quickly devolved into a heated disagreement about which was the cart and which was the horse: discussing options or making a decision.
The meeting was scheduled as the next step to determine whether or not to build a new county building by going over options and, ideally, to decide a way forward in a public forum.
District 10 Legislator Jerry King has been taking the lead in resuscitating the county building project designed by architectural firm Bernier and Carr six years ago to replace the 30-year-old Department of Social Services structure near the county Public Safety Building.
“If we do a new building, we solve a lot of problems and if we don’t, we have other problems,” Mr. King said to start the discussion, but it was District 5 Legislator Richard Chartrand’s inquiry as to how many of the legislators want to build a new building that cut to the core of the board’s division.
District 3 Legislator Ron Burns and Board Chairman District 8 Legislator Lawrence Dolhof said that while they are open to a new building, they’re not convinced the old design would be the best option for what is needed now.
“Since that building was designed, needs have changed,” Mr. Dolhof said, bringing up an ad hoc committee to look deeper at the options. “It makes more sense to get some input from the community.”
District 4 Legislator Brian Moser was adamant in his support of building a new building using the old specifications.
Mr. Moser said instead of “flapping our gums for six months,” a decision should be made as to whether or not they would move forward with a building.
He made a motion to commit to building a new structure, however the ensuing discussion emphasized the deep division between those who wanted to discuss options before committing to construction and those that wanted to commit to a new building then figure out if the existing design was the best option or not.
In a previous capital project workshop, the board decided to form an ad hoc committee to consider the current needs of the various departments and the county as a whole, which would include department heads and members of the public. However, the committee was never formed.
Mr. Dolhof, Mr. Burns, District 2 Legislator Randy LaChausse, District 9 Legislator Thomas Osborne and District 6 Legislator Andrea Moroughan all spoke in favor of more discussion, pulling the ad hoc committee together and consulting their constituents before committing to new construction.
Mr. Moser rejected consulting the public, stating that the board members were elected to do a job and should be able to make up their minds without going back to the public.
While Mr. King said he is open to discussion, he feels legislators need to either commit to a new building or let the idea go and focus on something else.
In addition to Mr. King and Mr. Moser, Mr. Chartrand, District 1 Legislator John Lehman and District 7 Legislator Gregory Kulzer supported the new building motion.
The weight of Chairman Dolhof’s vote broke the tie and the “discussion first” group defeated the “decide first” side.
Almost immediately after the vote, Mr. Moser made another motion to close the meeting, saying it was a waste of time to discuss anything further if the board wasn’t committed to a new building.
Because members of the public were asked to wait for the public comment period until after the board discussed its options, the motion to close the meeting was put on hold.
“There seems to be a lot of disagreement,” county resident Mike Strife observed of the board and asked if the county has the money to build the building, if it would have to be financed or paid for with taxes.
Mr. Moser and Mr. King said that $800,000 in wind farm PILOT payments would be used for bond payments on the building and said tax money would not be used for the project. However, the rationale for raising taxes 1.99 percent in 2019 was to put the additional income toward this project.
Mr. Strife also asked if the county already had a loan from the hospital, which the board members denied, explaining that the county had loaned the hospital money, who then paid it back to help the county meet the unanticipated $2.5 million increase in the cost to building the Lewis County JCC Education Center last year.
The board, however, passed a resolution in October to enter a zero interest bond agreement with Lewis County General Hospital for $6 million of the $6.2 million used to build the Lewis County Education Center; $4 million had already been set aside for the project, but building costs went over by $2.2 million.
The $4 million already set aside was to be put toward the capital project.
Jimmy Jackson, who said he comes from the “southern end of the county,” spoke out against construction of a new building and was engaged in debate by Mr. Moser and Mr. King, who didn’t agree that people in Mr. Jackson’s area near Lyons Falls were against a new building as Mr. Jackson had stated.
The motion to close the meeting passed after the public comment period.
In the tense meeting’s aftermath, Mr. LaChausse said he felt strong-armed by Mr. Moser, but if the motion had been to research a new building more thoroughly, he would have supported it.
Mr. Osborne and Mr. Burns agreed.
“We’re divided,” Mr. LaChausse said, “It’s obvious.”
District 1 Legislator John Lehman listens intently to the heated debate about the decision to build a new county buildilng versus discussing the options before making a decision at the special Lewis County Board of Legislators meeting held on Tuesday night in Lowville. Julie Abbass/Watertown Daily Times