KEESEVILLE - A proposal to shut down the Keeseville Civic Center is sparking heated debate among village residents and officials.
The village of Keeseville held budget workshops April 5 and 6, reviewing a proposed 2010-2011 budget that includes plans for the village to close the Civic Center Oct. 1 and move its offices to another village-owned building.
The proposal is aimed at cutting expenses and reducing the tax burden within the village, but not all are welcoming it with open arms.
The Keeseville Civic Center, which was built in 1936 as the former Keeseville Central School, has housed the village offices since the mid-1980s. It has also served as a satellite office for the New York State Police, meanwhile, and space there has been leased or rented to a variety of civic organizations.
If the Civic Center were to close, those organizations would all need to find new spaces. Some have expressed concern about what effect a reduced police presence could have in the village and what might happen to the historic building if it's left cold and empty.
"It's a building that's just not generating the revenue to keep it going," said village mayor Meegan Rock.
According to Rock, the village spends roughly $70,000 each year to operate the Civic Center while taking in less than $20,000 in rent from the organizations housed there.
One renter, the Adirondack Architectural Heritage, announced April 6 that they will vacate the building after this month, reducing rent revenues by another $5,000 annually.
"We knew that was coming for a while," she said, "but it is what it is."
The $55,000 annual operating loss represents about nine percent of the town's general fund appropriations and does not include costs to repair the aging building, which Rock said "continues to deteriorate due to decades of neglect and disrepair."
One of the main issues, said Rock, is the village's expense for heating the Civic Center. Between $15,000 and $17,000 is spent annually to fuel the building's wood furnace. That cost could rise if inmate labor used to cut the wood is not available next winter.
Removal of those expenses is the main contributor to a budget that reduces the tax levy by 9.51 percent, resulting in a decrease in the tax rate from $8.16 to $7.50 per thousand.
Rock sees a much different picture if the building were to remain open.
"Instead of decreasing taxes one percent, you would probably be raising them three or four percent," she said.
If the Civic Center were to close, village offices would relocate across the street to the former youth building, which Rock said has gone underutilized despite having been renovated last year.
Rock estimates it would cost the village only $3,000 per year to heat and maintain the smaller building. A $10,000 line item is included in the tentative budget that would fund those operations, as well as up-front costs of moving and installing needed equipment there.
Few deny the financial benefits of closing the Keeseville Civic Center, but some argue they may not outweigh the costs. Closing the Civic Center would not only mean the loss of the State Police station there, but also the home of the building's other major tenants.
Ron Allen is president of the Anderson Falls Heritage Society, a nonprofit that has operated at the Civic Center for nearly 25 years. He learned of the plan to close the building just last week when the tentative budget was first released.
"Granted, it needs some work, but to close something of this importance without putting it to a public vote is unheard of," said Allen.
AFHS maintains an extensive collection of items representing Keeseville's history on the second floor of the Civic Center, in the library of the former school.
"It's a unique and important collection," said Dr. Gordon Pollard, an Anthropology professor at SUNY Plattsburgh, noting how the museum and library has served as a vital resource in his research of Keeseville, Clintonville, and other nearby communities.
Still, the cost of housing the collection there has largely been borne by the taxpayer. AFHS has leased the space for a nominal $1 annual fee for the past 25 years.
"We really have no funds to pay rent anywhere," said Allen, explaining how the organization has always operated on a very minimal budget. "We'd have no place to go."
Other building tenants include a Senior Nutrition Center, local Boy Scout and Girl Scout councils, and the Northern New York American-Canadian Genealogical Library.
"If I had places in this village, I would give them all one," said Rock, suggesting the organizations could look to share space with other local nonprofits or move into one of several vacant buildings in the village.
As for the State Police, Rock is confident there will be few ill effects of pulling up their roots in the village.
"They will still be patrolling Keeseville whether or not they have a satellite office here," she said.
Public opinion sought
Still, others argue abandoning the Keeseville Civic Center will ultimately do more harm than good.
"The building itself is an icon of our village," said Mary King, a village trustee who expressed opposition to the tentative budget.
King argued the Civic Center is still structurally sound and said the presence of the organizations it housed, especially the State Police, represented great value to the community. She urged the board to appoint a committee that would study the possible effects of closing the Civic Center, and then put the issue to a public vote.
"Put it to a vote of the people of Keeseville," King said April 5. "This is a million-dollar asset and they have the right to say what happens; end of story."
Rock said she consulted with the village attorney, who said a budget issue such as closing the Civic Center could not be put to a public vote.
"You are here to represent the taxpayer, and it is your responsibility to act on their behalf," Rock told the trustees. "You don't have to pass the budget."
A public hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, April 13, 6:30 p.m. at the Civic Center, where the village board will hear comments on the proposed budget.
Trustee John Casey noted his desire for the public to weigh in on the issue.
"I want to be informed by the public as to who wants to close this building and who wants to keep it open."