County may be sued over government center renovation

| 11 Mar 2015 | 04:10

By Edie Johnson
— Goshen attorney Michael Sussman has threatened to sue Orange County if it persists in its plan to spend $64 to $74 million to renovate the government center while other infrastructure projects essential to the welfare of county residents go begging.

He said at a press conference this week that several people have stepped up to join the suit if the county continues its present, flawed course. He presented some issues that could form the substance a suit:

Destruction of an historic building

The current renovation includes removing significant aspects of a building designed by an important American architect, Paul Rudolph, in violation of the New York Preservation Act of 1980. "Demolition and denuding of a building such as this is precisely what the State Historic Preservation Office is intended to prevent," Sussman said.

Conflict of interestLegislator Leigh Benton, who as chair of the Physical Services Committee made decisions about the building, was offered a job at Clark Patterson Lee, the architectural firm picked to do the renovation. Benton left CPL after a few weeks, when ethics questions were raised, and paid a $1,000 fine. Yet, he has remained active in the decision-making process. "When you have the leader of the Physical Services Committee championing the company he is going to work for, added to the many campaign contributions of area contractors, including Clark, it raises the question: Was this veto bought and paid for?" asked Sussman.

Abuse of fundsOrange County Executive Steve Neuhaus, in blocking sale of the center for $5 million to New York City architect Gene Kaufman, "ratifies the illegal use of public funds," Sussman said.

The proposed renovation abuses public funds because state law prevents "collusion against the public interest," he said. Early estimates compared the Orange County Government Center renovation to Rudolph's Carney Library at the University of Massachusetts, which cost about $50 million to renovate. Legislators approved renovation plans based largely on the Carney project, and the expectation that its architect, Bob Miklos, and the DesignLabs team, would be prime contributors. They left abruptly last fall, citing vague ethical and professional reasons.

Meanwhile, Clark's most recent estimate of $64 million may jump another $4 million because demolition bids are coming in 100 percent above estimate.

"State law makes it clear that there is a limit on wasting funds, especially when there is a smell such as there is with the Benton ethics probe," Sussman said.

Neglect of infrastructureAs the county is preparing to overspend on the government center, other infrastructure projects have gotten no resources at all, said Sussman.

Consider, for instance, the Wallkill River, which has flooded at least seven times in the past decade, devastating local farms and wiping out whole crops.

"This is not a liberal or conservative issue," Sussman said. "Nor is it a Democratic or Republican issue. The lawsuit would be filed to gain space for important municipal purposes."

He said it would be a struggle.

"I know it looks bad," he said. "It has looked bad before, and we have gone to court, and we have won."