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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, February 4, 2010

Will school bell ring in the new town hall?

By Zach Simeone

WESTERLO — As of Tuesday night, the town is set to offer the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School District $145,000 for the Westerlo School, which it hopes to use as a town hall.

The BKW School Board met Tuesday morning in an executive session to discuss the status of the Westerlo School. That night, the Democratic majority of the Westerlo Town Board voted to make its offer to BKW; Councilman Jack Milner abstained, saying later that he felt he had been kept out of the loop.

Interim BKW Superintendent Kim LaBelle said Wednesday that, while she could not comment on Tuesday morning’s executive session, “We’re very happy about that offer, and very happy for the town of Westerlo.” The district, with falling enrollment, has not used the school since 2005.

Westerlo’s town board has repeatedly expressed interest in purchasing the Westerlo School from BKW and converting it into a new town hall, because space is tight at the current town hall. The building would also serve as a center for community activities, along with youth and senior programs, town board members have said.

The building’s current occupant, the Helderberg Christian School, has offered to buy it, as has the Westerlo Volunteer Fire Company.

Asked how the town will afford the $145,000 payment, Attorney Aline Galgay said after the meeting, “I would think we’ll seek grants,” as this would be the best way to purchase the building without burdening the taxpayer.

Built more than 60 years ago for Westerlo students, the traditional brick building just outside the Westerlo hamlet had housed BKW students in kindergarten, first grade, and second grade since it merged with the Berne-Knox Central School District.

Not long after the school closed in 2005, the Helderberg Christian School began leasing the building for classroom space on a yearly basis, and currently has 38 students there.

The Westerlo School Advisory Committee had estimated that closing the school would save BKW over $100,000, not including what the district could make by selling the building.

This past December, the BKW School Board unanimously approved a title search on the Westerlo School after Helen Lounsbury, then president of the school board, recalled hearing of a promise made, back when Westerlo merged with Berne-Knox to form BKW, that the building would always remain a school, even if it were to eventually change hands. The title search, however, turned up no such promise.

Both BKW and the Helderberg Christian School had the building appraised in 2009, and both found that the building was worth $80,000, according to Timothy Tryon, president of the Helderberg Christian School Board. In October of 2004 — just five years before the latest appraisal — the building was appraised at $185,000.

“The appraisal is also based on comparative market values, as well as the structural condition of the building and the need for repairs,” said James DeForest, vice president of the Helderberg Christian School Board. “So, it takes into account the condition of the building.”

BKW’s former business administrator, Timothy Holmes, said in late 2008 that the building would need $108,500 worth of repairs before it could be re-occupied. This total, according to Holmes, would include: repairing brick on the building’s exterior damaged by water and salt erosion, costing $30,000; repairing the exterior doors, $25,000; repairing the pillars at the front of the building, $5,000; repairing the water-damaged wood trim around the building’s exterior, to be painted or wrapped with aluminum, $5,000; repairing the gutters at the front of the building, $4,000; re-pointing the chimney, $3,000; repairing the gymnasium floor, $3,500: removing an abandoned underground water-storage tank, $8,000; and connecting to the municipal water supply, as requested by the Albany County Health Department, the cost of which could range between $15,000 and $25,000, he said.

Westerlo Supervisor Richard Rapp declined to comment on why the town offered BKW more than 180 percent of the building’s latest appraised value.

But Councilman R. Gregory Zeh told The Enterprise Wednesday that the town “did do a market assessment — like a real-estate type assessment,” which involved Supervisor Rapp making a trip to the Westerlo School, along with Edwin Lawson, the town’s building and zoning administrator and code enforcement officer, and Lewis Buckman, the town’s engineering consultant.

“They felt that [$145,000] was a fair and reasonable price for the building…But, we did not do a formal appraisal to review the value of the property,” Zeh said.

Westerlo’s assessor, Peter Hotaling, could not be reached Wednesday for the assessed value of the property.

Zeh went on to say that he did not know until Wednesday, the day after the vote, that the Westerlo School’s appraisal had dropped by more than $100,000 since 2004.

“If I knew that, I might not have made the decisions I made,” Zeh said Wednesday. “There are houses in the village a quarter that size that are worth more than $80,000, so that just doesn’t make sense to me.”

Councilman Edward Rash said that, while he had not heard the results from last year’s appraisals, the building’s $80,000 value is irrelevant, as it is of far greater value to the town.

“If there was an $80,000 appraisal done on it, I certainly wouldn’t want that appraiser doing my house,” Rash said. “We were figuring costs of repairs and costs of expanding the current town hall, and we came up with a price of what we thought that building would be worth to the town…The town has a lot of feelings for that building; there’s been a lot of donated time, property, tree-planting done for that building… It has a lot of meaning for the townspeople…And the multi-use factor in the building is terrific, too. It’s got a small cafeteria, it’s got an auditorium, it’s got office space.”

Last June, the BKW School Board authorized the appraisal of the Westerlo School by Bauer Appraisal Group of Albany. In August, BKW approved a lease agreement with the Helderberg Christian School for the 2009-10 school year, as it had in previous years.

In a letter of intent dated Oct. 9, 2009, Helderberg Christian offered to purchase the building from BKW for $85,000 once its lease expires.

“Helderberg Christian School seeks to maintain the original intent of the building, constructed in 1948, to serve the Westerlo community as a school,” read the letter.

Joseph Amedio, a member of the Helderberg Christian School Board and chairman of its building committee, told the Westerlo Town Board Tuesday night that, if Helderberg Christian were to purchase the Westerlo School, the building would be left as is, other than the needed repairs.

“I haven’t spoken with the other board members; we want to consider what information is in our interest to release, and what we want to do next,” DeForest said Wednesday of his fellow Helderberg Christian School Board members. “The meeting that took place last night, that was kind of a game changer.”

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