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Possible school loss renews Lewis County office building talks

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LOWVILLE — The potential loss of space at the former Catholic school has renewed interest among Lewis County legislators in erecting a new office building.

“We don’t have much of a choice anymore,” Legislator Paul M. Stanford, D-Watson, said during a Monday morning work session on county space needs.

“I really think it’s the right thing to do,” said Legislator Jerry H. King, R-West Leyden.

Lawmakers directed County Manager David H. Pendergast to gather updated financial and space-need information for a new building, to be located next to the Public Safety Building on outer Stowe Street, that could eliminate the need for leased space.

At the start of Monday’s session, Legislature Chairman Jack T. Bush, R-Brantingham, reported that the Jefferson-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services had expressed interest in the former St. Peter’s Catholic School on Shady Avenue, which houses several county offices.

“We’re in the very early discussions on that,” John J. “Jay” Boak Jr., BOCES district superintendent, said Monday afternoon.

District engineers and other officials, including BOCES board member and St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church attorney Michael F. Young, recently looked over the old school building as a possible site for its alternative education program, Mr. Boak said.

The 41-student, full-day program is now housed in a building at the rear of the Howard G. Sackett Technical Center in Glenfield, but that site has no cafeteria or gymnasium space, he said.

The BOCES district erected a new building at its Watertown campus to better accommodate the program, but the former Catholic school here is being explored as an alternative to new construction, Mr. Boak said.

“We have a long way to go to sort through the cost benefit,” he said, noting his board likely will discuss the matter at its meeting today.

The district, if ultimately interested in the space, likely would seek to lease the building with the option of buying it because such a purchase would require approval of all member school districts, Mr. Boak said.

St. Peter’s Church, citing declining enrollment, closed its parochial school in summer 2007 and began leasing part of it to the county for office space in 2008.

The county now uses nearly the entire building for the Office for the Aging and highway, solid waste and election departments at an annual rental cost of $74,645. Double Play Sports and United Cerebral Palsy also are tenants.

However, church officials in 2011 put the building up for sale, leading to some trepidation among county officials about finding alternative office space if a sale were to happen.

Rapid relocation would be particularly difficult for the Board of Elections, given state requirements concerning space and conditions under which voting machines are stored.

“There are some pieces of real estate that are for sale, including St. Peter’s,” Mr. Pendergast told legislators Monday.

He requested a short executive session to discuss such options, suggesting that an open discussion could affect property values.

However, legislators afterward focused on the new building concept, appearing dissatisfied with any purchase possibilities.

On the county’s behalf, Bernier, Carr & Associates, Watertown, in 2011 designed a three-story building with an unfinished top floor dedicated solely to future needs that was to cost roughly $10.4 million. However, that project, along with a proposed $2.1 million renovation project at the nearby Department of Social Services building, was effectively put on hold in early 2012 as ongoing budget difficulties and projects such as an emergency radio system upgrade took precedence.

A radio system upgrade likely also will require a larger dispatch center than the one at the Public Safety Building, so other arrangements will be needed if a new building isn’t built, Mr. Pendergast said.

Lawmakers on Monday also discussed the Public Health Agency’s idea of moving out of Lewis County General Hospital into the Lowville Commons building on South State Street after it turns over certified home health aide and Hospice programs to the county-owned hospital Jan. 1. However, they were hesitant to sign off on such a move, requiring costs for engineering plans and renovation, if it is needed for only a short period.

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