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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, March 18, 2010

Petition forces public vote on school sale

By Zach Simeone

WESTERLO — The town board has agreed to hold a special election this May on the purchase of the Westerlo School from the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School District.

Last month, the town board offered to purchase the school from BKW for $145,000 so it could be converted into a new town hall. Not two weeks later, the BKW School Board voted unanimously to sell the building to the town. Then, at a March 2 town board meeting in Westerlo, a petition was presented, calling for a public vote on the purchase of the building; the audience was divided in its support of the purchase.

State Assemblyman John McEneny, a Democrat who represents the Hilltowns, told The Enterprise this week that he approved a $125,000 “discretionary capital grant for community enhancement” to the town for the purchase of the Westerlo School as its new town hall.

“You have a certain number of these discretionary grants that are strictly capital, and that was one of the things that Westerlo needed,” McEneny said this week. “So, I talked to [Supervisor Richard] Rapp and some other people up there, and made that money available to them.”

The town board’s four-Democrat majority voted in favor of the purchase on Feb. 2; Republican John Milner abstained, and has since voiced his opposition to the plan for a new town hall.

Some Westerlo residents have said that, rather than turning the school into a new town hall, it should be sold to Helderberg Christian School, which has leased the building from BKW since the district stopped using the school in 2005. However, James DeForest, vice president of the Helderberg Christian School Board, said this week that HCS will take no further action with regard to acquiring the building, in light of the recent announcement of the $125,000 grant.

Other residents have raised concerns about the cost of, and need for, converting the school into town office space.

In addition to covering the remaining $20,000 of the price of the building, town taxpayers would have to pay an estimated $3,000 to $4,000 in closing costs, and between $3,000 and $5,000 to cover election expenses, according to Westerlo’s town attorney, Aline Galgay.

On whether or not his office could provide the $20,000 remainder of the school’s $145,000 price, McEneny said, “That’s not going to happen.”

There will be a special town board meeting on Thursday, March 25, at 7:30 p.m. to hold a public hearing on and set a date for the special election, followed by a workshop to discuss the costs of renovations and repairs needed in the Westerlo School.

The board is currently unsure of how much it would need to spend on converting the school’s classroom space into office space, but Timothy Holmes, BKW’s former business administrator, reported in December of 2008 that the building needed $108,500 worth of repairs.

At a special meeting last Thursday, Galgay told town board members that the recent petition left them with two options: Proceed with the resolution to purchase the school, which, in light of the petition, would mandate a special election, or vote to withdraw the resolution, and let the school go up for public bid, thereby invalidating the petition.

By law, the special election cannot be held within 60 days of the filing of the petition, nor can it be held after 75 days have passed, Galgay said, meaning that the election will have to take place in mid-May.

“Well, if people want to vote, we should vote,” Councilman Edward Rash said at the meeting.

But there were two questions on the minds of audience members and board members alike: If the town holds an election, thereby delaying the purchase of the Westerlo School by at least two months, will BKW’s offer to sell the school for $145,000 still be on the table? And, how will this affect the availability of grant money?

“Should the vote be negative, the day’s over,” Galgay said. “Should the vote be positive, you certainly want to continue to preserve your position. However…that’s not unilateral, and I don’t know that anyone is going to be willing to wait until May…to know whether or not the purchase could even occur,” she said of BKW.

Further, of the available grant money, Galgay said later, “The legislature’s looking for a contract from us, to show that we are under contract to purchase the building. Our grant application indicated we were purchasing the building for the town hall and community-purpose center…We don’t have a contract to give them.”

One audience member inquired, as others had in the past, about whether or not the school could be leased to Helderberg Christian School — the building’s current occupant — once it’s purchased by the town. But, while those who had asked previously were told that this was a possibility, the board’s response was different this time: If the town wants the grant money that it has been promised, then the building cannot be used as an income property.

“You also have to understand,” Galgay added, “you’re then taking a municipal property, renting it to a religious organization, subject to criticism from people who are not involved in the Helderberg Christian School.”

Another onlooker commented from the audience that she wanted to know roughly how much it would cost each taxable household to hold the special election.

“The mission of the petition, which, I will tell you, I did sign, was to save the taxpayers money,” she said. “If it’s going to cost the taxpayers a lot of money to hold an election, it would seem ridiculous.”

Councilman R. Gregory Zeh said that the special election would cost each home $1.74 per thousand of assessed value, and that the estimated $23,000  — for the remainder of the school’s price, plus closing costs — would cost each home about $8 per thousand of assessed value. Westerlo has not revalued its property in decades, so many homes are assessed at just a few thousand dollars.

But, regardless of how the public feels about the cost, the town is now forced to hold an election, as the board opted at the meeting not to rescind its original resolution to purchase the building.

“A petition was filed, and, unless objections were made, or, unless this board chooses to pull back its resolution to purchase the building, we don’t have a choice,” Galgay said.

State law says that, in the purchase of a town hall, if more than 5 percent of the voters in the last gubernatorial election petition for a referendum, one must be held. This means that, of the 1,314 Westerlo residents who voted this past November, 66 would have had to sign the petition to bring about the special election; 98 voters signed the petition.

“The issue of whether or not the board can give you information…we’re beyond that point now,” Galgay told the audience. “You’ve invoked a provision of law, and we’re required to continue with it. And, if this board feels it’s a prudent decision to go ahead with that purchase, we have no choice but to expend the money for the special election.”

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