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County mulls possible $30 million tab for new highway garage

LOCKPORT – The Niagara County Legislature will be hearing a presentation as soon as this month on a proposed new highway garage that might cost $25 million to $30 million.

County Manager Jeffrey M. Glatz said he expects the cost of the project would be scaled back about 40 percent from the $42 million proposal the Legislature shelved in 2008.

That would equal a cost of $25.2 million, and Public Works Commissioner Kevin P. O’Brien confirmed last week that $25 million is a good estimate of the price.

However, Legislator John Syracuse, R-Newfane, chairman of the Public Works Committee, said the word he’s hearing from the engineering firm Wendel is that the cost might be $28 million to $30 million.

In August, the Legislature hired Amherst-based Wendel for $18,500 to produce a floor plan and exterior renderings of the proposed garage.

That’s on top of the $545,740 consulting contract the firm was awarded for the design of the earlier project the Legislature dropped because of what Syracuse called “sticker shock.”

O’Brien said a 60-acre parcel of county-owned land on Junction Road in Cambria is the probable site for the project, which would replace the 90-year-old garage the county uses on South Niagara Street in the City of Lockport.

The county bought the land in 2008 for $180,000, expecting to construct a new facility there.

Although “Junction Road is the ideal site,” according to O’Brien, other sites, some not currently owned by the county, were considered by Wendel and will be discussed in the presentation to the Legislature.

Syracuse said he wants a full analysis of what it would cost to rehabilitate the existing garage, or the former state Department of Transportation garage standing vacant on West Avenue in Lockport.

The DOT offered the building to the county for $1, but the county declined, citing asbestos and mold issues. Syracuse said he also has been told there is a “hot spot” of chemical contamination near one corner of that building.

Nevertheless, Syracuse said, “I’m staring at $28 to $30 million versus $1,” and he wants details on the cost of fixing up the old DOT site, abandoned when the state built a new garage on the Lockport side of Junction Road, almost directly across from the county’s parcel.

“We have to make sure we exhaust everything for the taxpayers,” Syracuse said.

He added, “We’re trying to hold Wendel’s feet to the fire to hold the cost down.”

The Cambria site is clean, but has other issues. Wendel has reported that $5 million to $7 million of the $28 million cost might have to be spent “just to get it ready with infrastructure, to get the site ready for construction, to put utilities in,” Syracuse said.

The 2008 plan included not only a Public Works Department garage and offices but also space for storing the county’s voting machines, headquarters for the sealer of weights and measures, and other extras. Those are not part of the plan this time.

“It’s just strictly highway,” Glatz said.

“We’re trying to get back to the core functions of highway and fleet,” O’Brien said.

Lawmakers toured the old garage again last year to be fully briefed on its deficiencies.

O’Brien said, “It’s antiquated. It was built back in the 1920s. It’s too small for present-day equipment. It’s just a drafty old building that has problems all over. We’re going to outline that in the presentation.”

The county stores some of its highway equipment outdoors because it doesn’t have room for its entire fleet of trucks.

“The lighting is poor. It’s just way past its prime. Nobody disagrees with that. It’s just that they had a question of what to do here. We’re just trying to lay out some options,” O’Brien said.

But the county hasn’t stopped maintaining the old garage as best it can. “We still have all the problems we had before. We still spend money on it. We just put a new heating system in one area. There are things we can’t ignore,” O’Brien said.

Syracuse said he wants the county to have a plan for reuse of the site of the South Niagara Street garage. “We don’t want to leave that site like the state left the DOT site,” he said.

Legislator Randy R. Bradt, R-North Tonawanda, is chairing an ad hoc space utilization committee that will weigh in on the project.

Bradt said, “I do not want this to turn into a Peace Bridge situation, where a lack of consensus and vision has brought the project to a virtual standstill.”

But Syracuse said he’s not feeling a big push from fellow legislators to build the new garage. He and Bradt said they wanted to hear the views of legislators of both parties and even of county employees.

Syracuse said, “If I’m not sensing a huge uproar that we need to do something, then I’ll conclude we can get along the way we’re going.”

O’Brien’s heavy involvement in the new garage project is one of the reasons Glatz is asking the Legislature to create a separate Buildings and Grounds Department, instead of continuing to have those tasks under the Public Works umbrella. A public hearing will be held Feb. 17 on an administrative code amendment that would include the change.

For years, buildings and grounds, which includes parks, has been governed by Deputy Public Works Commissioner Robin DeVoe, who retired in September because of ill health.

Glatz said he has been filling in since then and will continue to do so until the Legislature passes the amendment that includes the new department head position, after which the job will be posted and advertised in the usual way.

O’Brien declined comment when asked his opinion on creating the new department.

Glatz said besides working on the new garage, O’Brien will have a key role in expected work on a new telecommunications system for county offices.

The county attempted to purchase a new phone and data network last year, but the bidding went awry when Information Technology Director Larry L. Helwig openly favored Cisco Systems hardware, and vendors selling other brands cried foul.

After several months of hassling over the bids, the Legislature dropped the whole project.

But that didn’t make the county’s phone system any newer, and Glatz said an upgrade is still on the table.

Helwig said last week, “Phones are part of Public Works. The infrastructure for the phones is under IT.”

Asked how the process might be different this year, Helwig couldn’t say. “This is just getting off the ground,” he said.

Syracuse said Glatz still wants a voice-over-Internet phone system.

To facilitate a more streamlined process for the telecommunications project, the county’s committee format is to be changed as part of the same resolution that would create the Buildings and Grounds Department. It would place the IT Department under the purview of Syracuse’s committee, and its name would be changed from Public Works to Infrastructure and Facilities.

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com