As opposition persists, Kulpmont close to start on new borough hall
KULPMONT - As time continues to deteriorate the former Wilson Grade School, given a second life as the borough's administrative home more than 30 years ago, municipal officials have been busy with plans for a new borough complex.
They move ahead despite concerns about a jump in property taxes needed to pay for construction and the impact that will have on an elderly population. Critics say it would be cheaper to rehabilitate the current facility along Spruce Street, but borough officials say - in the long run - construction will be cheaper.
A new 4,000-square-foot building and 5,000-square-foot maintenance garage, which could be occupied by September, will be located on Fir Street between Seventh and Eighth streets near the Holy Angels Picnic Grounds.
Councilman Stephen Motyka, a construction supervisor by trade who is overseeing the project, said Kulpmont is about a month away from having final plans reviewed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. USDA has given the borough a $1.47 million loan guarantee for design and construction costs that will be paid back over 40 years.
Motyka is hopeful the price won't be too high.
"We are working very hard to meet our needs for less than what we were approved for," he said.
KPI Technology, which has an office in Elysburg, and Shaffer Design Associates, Gettysburg, are working on plans, and everything appears to be on schedule.
The original plan was to construct a 3,000-square-foot building in which the police department would be in the basement. To cut costs, however, the basement was eliminated and the building expanded to 4,000 square feet.
Motyka said council is hoping to further reduce the price, to about $1 million.
To help pay for the building, Kulpmont increased property taxes by 4.5 mills, or 20 percent, for 2014. Three of those extra mills will generate $37,000, enough to pay what would be a payment of $36,750 a year, or $3,062 a month, on a $1.47 million loan over 40 years. If the cost is $1 million, payments will decrease to $25,000 a year, a savings of nearly $1,000 a month at $2,083, and council members have said they could revisit the tax rate if the price tag falls.
Council also plans to save money by switching the heating system from oil to natural gas and by having more LED lighting. Estimated 2014 heating costs are $28,000 for the current building.
Too much to repair?
Council members discussed repairing the current facility, but estimated in August 2012 it would cost approximately $750,000, including $400,000 to fix roof leaks, which have already caused drywall damage to several rooms; $250,000 to repair masonry, including areas where walls are bowing and where exterior steps are cracking and falling apart; and $100,000 to revamp the heating system.
Motyka, a member of council for about two years, said those numbers were discussed before he came on board.
"I know they have talked to enough engineers about the work that those figures are pretty close," he said in responding to critics' claims that the figure is inflated. "I think the roof estimate is a little high, but I don't know what material is needed."
Member Clarence Deitrick said previously the two-story building has one thermostat that's in the meeting room, which is on the second floor, and that it has to be turned up to 90 in order to adequately heat the Kulpmont Senior Action Center, which is on the first floor.
"The heating system in the current building can't be zoned," Motyka said. "That's the reason a stairwell can have a temperature of 80 degrees and a hallway 40 degrees."
No more 'peeling'
Deitrick said architects and engineers have looked into the building numerous times and advised not to put any more money into it. Motyka used the phrase, "peeling an onion" in describing the pitfalls of undertaking renovation.
"We know what is visibly wrong," he said. "What scares me is that if you start peeling back the layers, who knows what other problems we would find."
Council President Bruno Varano said last year an engineer representing the Mount Carmel Area School District, which still owns the building, agreed with the borough engineer in offering this advice: "Go get the wrecking ball."
'Take a breath'
Resident Walter Lutz, disputes the $750,000 renovation estimate.
"Where did they come up with that number when there is no written proof of it?" he asked. "We are taking the word of a council that has shown incompetence in the past with the police debacle with insurance and the entire David Dubbs affair with the property not being cleaned up in over a year," he said in referencing borough controversies from 2013.
Resident Bob Chesney believes council members moved too quickly with little input from citizens, and suggested last fall they "take a breath" and consider options. He feels the same today, and though he recognizes council's efforts to reduce the cost of the new hall, he said, "It's still too big an amount for Kulpmont."
He cited an earlier estimate of $340,000 just to prepare the low-lying new site with a pond system to collect rainwater and runoff as enough reason to look for an option. But Motyka said the plan now is to move the building closer to the street, allowing an underground rainwater retention system that will lower the prep costs to about $100,000.
Chesney, Lutz and others have suggested the borough look for other vacant buildings that could be used. Resident Joseph Pancerella added specifics to that idea by suggesting in a recent letter to the editor that West End Fire Company, which is struggling financially, merge with East End, opening up West End's facilities for the new borough hall.
But Motyka said the letter has turned into a call to action for West End.
"When I read the letter, I went up to the fire company to join, and saw a pretty full social club and members there," he said. "They are doing pretty well up there."
Meanwhile, Lutz says the borough has contradicted itself.
"Council has repeatedly sold us on the building on how much money they are going to save the taxpayers because the new building is more efficient, but then there is a increase in taxes," he said.
Motyka is hopeful the tax rate can be lowered.
"If we have a lower cost (for construction) and see some energy savings, I would have no problem lowering the millage in future years," he said.
The average property owner will pay $35 to $40 more in 2014 based on the 4.5-mill increase.
Motyka released drawings of the complex last week, with larger versions expected soon for public display.
The buildings will house administration offices, maintenance and street departments, borough vehicles, the police department, code office, mayor's office, board room, community room, food pantry, outside recycling Dumpsters and equipment, Motyka said.
The expanded police station, which would take up about one-third of the building, features an interrogation room and evidence locker, something that doesn't exist in the second-floor police station today, a classroom-sized room adjacent to council chambers. Police will also have a separate entrance at the end of the building, away from the administrative offices.
The maintenance building will have four bays, which take up most of the building, along with two offices, a break room, utility room and restroom.
A 30-space parking area that will feature trees and shrubs will separate the two buildings, and there will be covered porches at the police and administrative entrances.
Motyka noted council's has rejected the USDA architect's suggestion there be five workstations in the main office. "We only have a full-time and part-time secretary," he said at a recent council meeting. "What do we need five for?"
The USDA also notes there is no room for expansion, but Motyka said the complex will have everything the borough needs.
Motyka said contract drawings, the sketches that will be given to contractors, will be completed by mid-February and the project bid by the end of the month. Bids are scheduled to be opened at the end of March and, after review, council could award the contract and construction could start by the end of April.
The goal is to be in the complex by September, Motyka said.
Meanwhile, Chesney is undeterred. He says he's collected 300 signatures on a petition to halt the project and study alternatives.
"Everyone I've talked to agreed with me and signed the petition. We all need to sit and talk a little more about it," Chesney said. "I know they don't want it to be exotic and they have been trying to cut corners, but it is still too much money for Kulpmont to absorb on an elderly and low-income tax base."
Lutz's vocal stance prompted suggestions he run for council last year, but at the time of the primary election, he didn't meet the residency requirements because he has a second home. But he plans on getting a slate of citizens together to run for council next year.
Asked if there was any way he could be in favor of a new building, Lutz said there would be one key requirement.
"If no money was borrowed."