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County Executive Says Not Surprised Because Estimates Track With Former Scuttled Hi-Tor Re-Build Project; But Some Public Officials Express Shock
By Tina Traster
It seems we are back where we started – sticker shock for taxpayers who will see tax bills rise to support the future build of an animal shelter.
Howard Phillips, Chairman of Rockland Green (the former Rockland County Solid Waste Management Authority) has revealed that the purchase and retrofitting of a warehouse building the Authority is buying for a future county-wide animal shelter is now going to cost up to $15 million or more. At earlier meetings and in public, he had been saying it would cost around $4 million to buy the vacant warehouse building, and “another couple of million” to retrofit it.
“Mathematically, there’s no denying it,” said County Executive Ed Day. “Given the fact that the county government had already gone through this, we’re not surprised to hear the new numbers.”
This latest estimate, however, seemed to come as a great surprise to some Rockland Green board members, as well as to residents, attending a chaotic board meeting on Thursday when Phillips was asked for an update on the shelter status.
The $15 million estimate was shocking because only a year ago the Rockland County Legislature balked at spending $18 million to build a state-of-the-shelter that had been planned for four years. Several legislators at the time said they opposed the “skyrocketing costs,” that were due to supply-chain issues and inflationary construction costs.
At that time, the County along with Hi-Tor Animal Shelter in Pomona through grants and fundraising had already set aside $8 million, and the County Legislature was asked to sign off on an additional $10 million. At the eleventh hour, the vote was tabled and several legislators believed it was worth exploring less costly options.
A handful of legislators said the new estimates are disconcerting.
“We knew this was trouble,” said one Legislator who asked not to be named. “So where are the savings? You’ve got a new building, employees. This whole thing got out of control via deception. We were supposed to get another vote as to whether this would have legs. This whole thing moved forward based on a lie.”
The Legislator was referring to the action’s the State took on amending Rockland Green’s Charter last year, without sending it back to the County for another vote.
Phillips has confirmed that “contracts have been signed” to purchase the warehouse building for $3.8 million to retrofit into an animal shelter. He told residents that Rockland Green has hired architects to retrofit the one story, windowless building that many have expressed concern over.
“I was surprised to hear that amount last night myself, although to be fair Mr. Phillips did say he wanted to wait until he had a better idea of the costs before actually stating any dollar amounts,” said Orangetown Town Supervisor Teresa Kenny and a board member of Rockland Green.
Once Rockland Green took over animal management services last year, it vested itself with absolute power to decide where to site a shelter, how much to spend to buy a building, and what to levy taxpayers. There is no County oversight from either the Executive or Legislative branch.
Day has repeatedly said that the Town Supervisors, acting through the Board of Rockland Green, have wanted to take over the responsibility of animal management services for some time, and were instrumental in upending a four-year effort to rebuild Hi-Tor at its current location.
The towns have the responsibility to provide animal management services. Rockland Green’s efforts to take over were effectively sealed when the County agreed to lease the shelter’s current building to the Authority for $1 a year, so long as it found an operator for the shelter. Hi-Tor by default is the operator because no other entity stepped up for the job when the county put out an RFP last year.
In the meantime, Phillips has moved ahead to purchase the warehouse building on Beach Road in the Town of Haverstraw that has many residents upset due to both rising costs, and environmental and logistical issues. Issues include the proximity of the Joint Regional Sewer Authority and odors that emanate from the site, the location being in a flood zone, inaccessibility to county residents, and the proposed 450,000 square-foot warehouse on an uncapped environmental landfill that would site a 24/7 trucking depot in range of animals living in the shelter, as well as employees who work on site.
At Rockland Green’s meeting, animal activist Arlene Kahn said the community does not believe the planned location is suitable for a shelter and hopes it will remain at the current site where it has been for 50 years, even though a new building is needed.
“A group of us, including [Gordon] Wren went out to the site,” said Kahn. “Three of the four people got nauseous from the fumes, we got headaches, and we all smelled the stench immediately,” she added, alluding to the foul odors that waft from the Joint Regional Sewage Authority that is next door to the proposed animal shelter.
Kahn pointed out to Phillips that there is not a logical place to walk the shelter dogs, who need exercise and fresh air, because they are otherwise cooped up in cages.
“Where are the dogs proposed to be walked?” she said, having asked that question multiple times at Rockland Green’s meetings. “I still haven’t gotten an answer for that. These dogs need walks.”
Phillips in response said, “We believe there is room there now and we will contract for another area that is co-terminus to the site.”
When Kahn said she had no idea what that meant, Phillips told her to call his office.
Wayne Finkelstein has also returned to the board to point out that Rockland Green has gone about this process backwards, buying the building first and subsequently attempting to seek estimates to retrofit, considering this is being done on the taxpayer’s dime.
“This makes no sense,” he said. “It’s backward.”
None of Rockland Board members weighed in but Kenny in a statement said, “At this point, I think it is prudent to wait until we have real numbers on the costs before making any judgment calls. I will say, however, that if it ultimately nets a savings of $3 million dollars over the county proposal, it is still a significant cost savings to the taxpayers.”
That remains to be seen because in the rebuild plan that was scuttled, $8 million had already been set aside through state and county grants, Hi-Tor fundraising, and county bonding. Going forward, a shelter re-build of $15 million, and likely more according to Phillips, will fall squarely on the shoulders of taxpayers. In the end, it looks like the sticker shock price tag of last year will become a reality.
When Phillips mentioned that estimates were heading toward $15 million, he also erroneously said the county had planned to spend upwards of $20 million plus for the new shelter. That had to be clarified by Rockland Board member and County Legislator Lon Hofstein who said the county’s revised ask had been capped at $18 million.
“I’m very concerned about this,” said another county legislator. “This was not what we’d heard. This was not what we were expecting.”