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West Seneca waiting for answers on library/community center

It's two months before the projected opening of West Seneca's library/community center, and now that the town has halted spending on the project, what happens now is anybody's guess.

"The board understands there are questions that folks have going forward," Town Attorney John J. Fenz told residents at Monday's Town Board meeting. "There are answers to your questions, but it's best answered by our professionals."

Among the questions:

• How did the library expansion become a $14.93 million library/community center?

• What happens if the the latest bond issue is turned down by voters?

• Did Town Board members violate the Open Meetings Law by attending regular construction meetings.

The board expects answers to the money questions within two weeks with a report from the town attorney and consultants on the status of construction and its cost, and what could be modified or deleted. The report also will consider options in case borrowing is voted down by the voters.

Pausing the financing for the project was prompted by residents filing petitions forcing a public referendum on borrowing $5.1 million, which was approved by the board in January.

The Erie County Board of Elections has determined there are enough valid signatures to put the question of borrowing $5.1 million on the ballot. It is expected the special election would take place the same day, April 24, as the special election for a new representative in the 142nd Assembly District, which includes West Seneca.

West Seneca petitions are valid, Board of Elections says

Town Board members said they will not comment until they get the status report.

They will be watching the referendum closely, because without borrowing, according to the board, expenses would be paid out of the general fund, which would significantly increase taxes next year. The board also authorized the town attorney to issue stop work orders if he deems it necessary.

Supervisor Sheila M. Meegan said in a news release that the project expanded from its initial scope as a result of the demolition of the Kiwanis Youth Center and the closing of the Burchfield Nature & Art Center.

The Kiwanis center was demolished in 2016, and the Burchfield building closed for safety reasons in January, 2017, seven months after the Town Board approved the first bond resolution for the 30,600 square feet of library, cafe, open space and office space.

Planning started at least four years ago for a renovation and expansion of the library. The board approved borrowing $8.43 million for the project in May, 2016. At that time, the total cost was estimated to be $9.93 million.

During an update at a board work session Oct., 2, 2017, the cost of the library/community center was announced as $13 million, and its full scope was detailed: library, community meeting rooms, recreation offices with half-court children's space, and two-story office area including some town offices.

The board approved change orders totaling more than $300,000 in December and January, contracting for the build-out of the first floor space. The town had planned to have town crews perform so the work, but wanted the work completed in time for the opening in May.

When the board approved borrowing the $5.1 million in January, the project was estimated to cost $14.93 million.

The town engineer said the town did not expect to borrow the entire amount, but the bond counsel recommended that amount. Town officials said in February that the actual cost was still about $13 million, and that the higher estimate included $1.4 million in contingency funds. The actual cost to taxpayers will be lower because of  about $3 million in state grants and energy performance contract savings that will be applied, town officials have said for months.

They also said that the second loan was for cash flow purposes, to cover payments to contractors until state grants, which have already been approved, are received.

Board members were grilled by several residents Monday night, including one who wanted to know who attended meetings on the project. Town Board members got regular updates from the town attorney, engineer, architect and contractors when they attended construction meetings on the project, the supervisor said.

"When the council meets, isn’t that an open meeting?" resident Karen Lucachik asked them at Monday's board meeting

While two board members constitute a quorum, town attorney Fenz said the board members attended for informational purposes and did not conduct or discuss any public business nor take any official actions at the meetings.

That type of meeting is not considered a public meeting under the law, according to Kristin O'Neill, assistant director of the New York State Committee on Open Government.  But she said this is a "gray" area.

"We're taking their word for it," she said. "We have no way knowing what occurred in that meeting."

She said board members would be able to ask questions, but they should not deliberate or discuss town business with each other at the meeting.

"If they did, it would be inconsistent with the Open Meetings Law," she said.




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