Public answers are needed on Helderberg Lake proposal

To the Editor:
I have received a lot of questions about the proposed dam work and the Helderberg Lake Special Tax District Petition that the Berne Town Board is expected to act on. I could only answer questions related to the very basic intent of the project as I understand it.

I attempted to ask some questions as a board member at the August meeting but instead of receiving any answers I was insulted by the town attorney. I asked him to repeat his insult on my recorder and he would not.

This is a very complex and very serious matter of public safety and finance. My conversations with state officials indicate that Berne needs a very proactive attorney, preferably with considerable experience in municipal law in specific situations like this. We are not well represented in this matter in my opinion.

Having worked in the civil engineering business for decades, I have been involved in scoping some complicated projects of my own and, while working in design quality assurance, I have reviewed many project reports for local, state, and interstate projects.

These reports typically reveal the scoping of project alternatives and justify the choosing of one of those alternatives to move the project forward and begin the design phase. That type of information has not been made available in this project yet.

I have been grilled in public meetings about the scoping of my projects and I think a public-information meeting would be appropriate as a first step here. Then people can make better informed comments during the hearing process and the board will better understand the town’s apparent financial role. I don’t understand it at this point.

Based on the information provided with the petition, I see potential problems with the scoping of this project. The estimate of the actual costs should ideally be based on the scope of a chosen alternative for the project and a preliminary estimate.

It appears that the alternative chosen is to attempt to stabilize a very old, concrete structure with symptoms of significant deterioration and instability. Was an itemized project estimate done?

A proposed height increase could clearly increase the load this old structure sees if the intention is to impound more water. This needs to be better explained in a public meeting.

What the projected service life of the chosen alternative would be compared to a full dam replacement should be explained and a comparison of the estimated costs could explain a lot about the engineers’ decision to rehabilitate this old structure instead of replacing it.

Public answers are needed. I would expect a lot more actual subsurface data presented and explained in such a meeting.

And one would expect the dam would have been monitored for movement if concrete components are no longer plumb or level. It appears these conditions have been known for years.

It appears a considerable amount of stone fill is proposed and the placement of this dense, heavy material on embankments could destabilize a slope. Record plans and as-built plans are important. Are any available? Why not?

Was this dam properly designed in the first place? I would expect to see a public explanation of why the engineer feels the added weight and dam rehabilitation will result in a more stable situation.

You need to know how it was built, what the dam is sitting on, how much it’s moving, why it is moving and how deteriorated the concrete is before scoping the project sufficiently, in my opinion. Documentation of subsurface data and how it was collected and analyzed should be part of a public discussion.

Maybe these issues are addressed adequately somewhere, but I see only evaluations cited. The extent or detail of the evaluations is not well documented in the petition document. Evaluations stamped by a professional engineer are not provided. Who is responsible?

Poorly scoped projects are more subject to “scope creep” and this can wildly increase costs as the project progresses. A petition to create a special tax district needs to be based on a very carefully prepared cost estimate.

You need to know the financial impact on those properties within the proposed tax district and the town’s role as a preliminary step in my opinion so this estimate and a public project presentation are critical.

Finally, it appears to me that there are some serious transparency and legal questions. There has been no public town board discussion of this project until very recently, yet the town supervisor and attorney appear to have been long involved in the financial logistics of a proposed project on private property. 

Town Law Article 12 section 193a outlines situations where “the town in which the district or extension is located shall finance the cost thereof by the issuance of bonds, notes, certificates or other evidence of indebtedness.” But the context is publicly owned infrastructure improvements as I see it; maybe I’m wrong.

I think it was inappropriate to discuss such an agreement involving private property without open board discussion and public knowledge. Based on an email (provided), it certainly appears the supervisor and paid attorney have long been involved in covert discussions with the town’s insurance broker of record regarding the issuance of a dam project bond for some reason.

This broker of record was appointed by this supervisor without town board knowledge. Why is everything a secret with this company? This situation and the town’s actual proposed role in this costly project need public explanation.

General Municipal Law Section 100-a declares a state policy that the use of public monies shall be for the benefit of all inhabitants of the state. This proposed special tax district is for the benefit of a private organization?

Can the bond that the supervisor and attorney is discussing with the broker of record make all the taxpayers in the town responsible for the project to some degree? Who picks up the tab when residents within the special tax district default on the special tax?

In my opinion, everyone needs to know a lot more about this situation before a hearing is scheduled for this proposed tax district.

Joel Willsey

Berne Town Board

Editor’s note: See related story.

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