NEW CITY — The long-awaited construction of a multimillion dollar Hi Tor animal shelter is on temporary hold after bids for the work came in exceeding the budget. Some town officials are also having second thoughts about the location.
Rockland committed $7.7 million to the construction, plus $500,000 for architects and engineering. The Hi-Tor Shelter Fund added an estimated $472,578 through donations and fundraising, while Assemblyman Kenneth Zebrowski secured a $500,000 state grant.
The nearly $10 million seemed to place the decade-long project on solid ground. However, bids from five contractors recently came in consistently in the $14 million range, said County Executive Ed Day, who has led the charge for the new shelter despite the problems.
Officials lamented that time only increased the cost for the proposed 14,000-square-foot modernized facility on county property across from the Rockland Fire Training Center and Ramapo baseball stadium bordering parkland off Route 45.
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Day said he’s not pleased by the additional delay and noted the current shelter is archaic for the animals’ health and on its last legs.
“The costs are what they are and they are not going down,” Day said of the five bids. “It’s only going to get more expensive with the delays. The time is long past to get this done..”
But Legislators, while supporting the facility, balked temporarily last week to adding Day’s proposed $10,000 to the construction budget − either through additional bonding or from the county’s contingency fund.
Some legislators said they had second thoughts about the price and location near the Ramapo baseball stadium, which features fireworks and excessive noise that advocates say are unhealthy for dogs and cats. There’s also an issue of area traffic on game nights.
Legislature leaders said they are awaiting planning and financial information from the town supervisors, who oversees the shelter and pay the costs in fees per animal. The shelter is run by a volunteer board of directors and has paid managers and volunteers.
Legislator Minority Leader Lon Hofstein, R-New City, said he’s concerned about the higher costs, who will run the facility, and the location.
He and other legislators hope the supervisor can provide answers within the next few weeks. Only four of the five towns now use the shelter for homeless dogs and cats. Orangetown Supervisor Teresa Kenny pulled out the town last year, citing the costs and management issues.
“This is a significant increase from the initial costs first proposed,” Hofstein said. “I made mention to the administration and supervisors during our meeting that before we commit to such a project we should know who will be running the facility. I don’t want to take on the position of a field of dreams that we build it and they will come.”
The county is not legally responsible to care for the animals, a responsibility that falls on the five towns. But county government officials have long maintained taking care of the animals is the right policy.
Cost, leadership a concern
Legislator Michael Grant, D-Haverstraw, said the new price is too rich for him. He noted the first proposal in 2018 came in at $2.2 million. He said he swallowed hard on the $7.7 million figure in 2020, realizing the costs go up and the pandemic times.
Grant also wanted information on who will run the shelter – the Rockland Green agency that handles the county recycling and garbage programs or a private contractor. The state has approved Rockland Green changing its charter to deal with the animals. The Legislature has not yet voted, as officials awaited guidance from the agency board, which includes the five town supervisors and some legislators.
“At no point in 2018 and 2020 were we led to believe the cost would be $14 to $18 million,” Grant said. “Somebody has to do a better job explaining how we got here. I am not comfortable spending that kind of money on this facility. For $18 million you can build a five-star hotel.”
Legislator Aron Wieder, D-Ramapo, who chairs the Budget & Finance Committee, and Legislature Chairman Jay Hood, D-Haverstraw, said the governing body is waiting on the supervisors. Hood hopes by month’s end there will be progress and the Legislature will reconsider the project.
“I am disappointed this has hit another snag,” Hood said. “I want the building. We all do. But we have taxpayers to think about. No one wants to spend an enormous amount of money.”
Haverstraw Supervisor Howard Phillips, who heads the Rockland Green board, said he and the supervisors will provide the answers. Phillips said he too was taken back by the doubling of the cost.
Phillips said the size of the building and internal improvements would be reviewed. The plans call for sound-proofing the building to spare the animals the explosions from fireworks at the stadium.
The proposed shelter is designed not only to provide a healthy home for the animals but also to promote and facilitate pet adoptions in a warm and welcoming environment. The design would help dogs and cats be more visible to visitors and there would be an area for exotic pets and small mammals.
“We are taking a moment to pause and see if there’s a way to scale it down,” Phillips said. “We have to prioritize taxpayer money. We don’t have a full shelter for homeless people or for battered women in that price range.”
Phillips and other officials want the shelter’s loyal volunteers to stay confident and continue to support the shelter.
Phillips said the “door is wide open” on who will run the shelter. The board president, Debbie DiBernardo, faces criminal charges involving forging documents as the District Attorney’s Office continues to investigate. She’s not guilty.
As for a potential new location, Phillips said Ramapo’s isolated Torne Valley has been suggested, as well as the former Rockland Psychiatric Center in Orangetown and property in Haverstraw.
Location prompts debate
Day said the delays only exasperate the costs and problems. He hates the 11th hour call for changing the location after the supervisors signed a share service agreement on construction and includes using the county property near the old shelter.
Day said changing locations and schematic not only further delays the shelter but burns $500,000 spent on architects and engineers. He asked if the supervisors have locations ready for construction. He also noted the assumption is the county will purchase the property, adding another expense.
“This is unconscionable,” Day said of the thirst for a new location and overall delay.
“The money is coming from the county, not the towns. They are playing with fire,” Day said, “The old shelter is not long for this world. We’re trying to hold it together and keep it open. I am not comfortable this (new shelter) will get done at the end of the day.”
Steve Lieberman covers government, breaking news, courts, police, and investigations. Reach him at email@example.com. Twitter: @lohudlegal.
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