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For Whom the (School) Bell Tolls

Village Board Approves St. Paul’s Demolition; Public Bond Referendum to Be Held on April 27

The death knell has officially sounded for the main building of St. Paul’s School and Ellis Hall after the Garden City Board of Trustees voted 5 to 3 to approve the demolition of the structure last week. During the last board meeting of his tenure, Mayor Robert Rothschild, along with Trustees Dennis Donnelly, Nicholas Episcopia, Laurence Quinn and Brian Daughney, voted to approve demolition and Mayor-elect Donald Brudie and Trustees John Watras and Andrew Cavanaugh voted against the proposition.

Prior to the vote, Trustee Andrew Cavanaugh reminded the board that once the item was passed it could not be undone. “I would like this board to recognize that these findings lead to a path which is irretrievable and irreversible, that demolition, if effected, cannot be undone. That is what we are voting on now. There is no going back. There is no alternative that we are voting on. We are voting on an irretrievable and irreversible action as described in these findings,” Cavanaugh stated.

Trustee Nicholas Episcopia responded by saying the decision should be left up to residents. “The conclusion of the board was we’re putting it out to the people to see if they wish to spend the money, the debt service over a 10-year period for this project. That’s the reason why we are doing it,” he said. “We understand it’s irretrievable and irreversible. That decision is really pretty much up to the people,” he added.

Mayor-Elect Donald Brudie, a vocal advocate for preserving St. Paul’s, stated that the board should not rush to judgment about demolishing the structure. He said, “Once you take this building down, you can’t put it back up…I realize work has to be done. I realize costs are involved but this is part of the history of this village. You are losing a huge gem in this village…the building is not hurting anybody and not doing any harm,” Brudie added.

According to Mayor Rothschild, through a 17-year effort, the residents now have to decide what to do with the building. “This village has been hurt by this process. I think we’ve finally gotten down to the point where the residents have made a decision that they didn’t want a number of things to be at this site. They also have I think said they didn’t want to spend a lot of money on preserving,” he said.

Rothschild emphasized that the board had considered many uses for the building including village municipal offices, a community center, classrooms, administrative offices, an assisted living facility, an age-restricted residential development and condominium housing.

“I am a little disappointed that we’re denigrating the idea of giving this vote, this final vote, back to the residents...We’re asking the residents for one final time to take this building down and return it to a flat piece of dirt with grass on it and look at it as open park space. At that point in time, we can then make a decision to put something there,” Rothschild said.

One of the most frequent comments, the mayor said he has heard from residents over the years is that they don’t want tax dollars spent on something that they cannot use. The village has already spent $2,300,000 on maintaining the building, which doesn’t include consultants and reports, according to Rothschild. He stated further that if residents don’t want to spend the money on the bond, they need to be ready and understand that if they want to build something else there, it’s going to cost more than demolition.

While Trustee Laurence Quinn noted St. Paul’s is a “beautiful building,” he said the time has come for the residents to make a decision about demolition. “I’m glad we are at the point that the residents are going to have the option to make the decision,” he said.

Village Council Gerard Fishberg clarified that the decision to take the building down is a board decision not a voters’ decision. “The residents are not being asked to make the decision to take the building down or not, that decision rests with this board. The residents will be asked, via the bond referendum, as to whether they want to approve the use of the bond money, floating bonds, to take the building down. Let’s make it very clear, it’s solely the village board’s decision to make the decision to take the buildings down or not. That decision cannot rest with the voters,” Fishberg said.

What will be put to the voters is whether they want to authorize the issuance of serial bonds to pay for the costs of the demolition. During the meeting, the board also voted 6-2 in favor of adopting a bond resolution authorization. The proposition required a super majority of six votes to pass and Brudie and Watras were the only nay votes.

The mayor announced that the bonds issued to finance the demolition may not exceed $3.75 million and shall be subjected to a mandatory public referendum to be held on April 27, 2011. The mayor also stated that the vote will contain only one yes or no question: Do you approve the request of raising bonds to demolish St. Paul’s main building and Ellis Hall?

Whether the residents are for preservation or demolition, board members stressed the importance of getting the word out about the vote. “If you don’t want that bond to pass, get the vote out. That will be evidence to this board or future boards that you don’t want to do it. That’s great; that’s fine; that’s not a problem. As we’ve said many times, I don’t think anyone on this board wants to see it demolished. It’s just time to make a decision and the residents need to be a part of that and this is a way for the residents to be involved,” the mayor said.

Brudie asked council at what point the board would be voting on approving demolition and whether it would take place before or after the bond vote. Fishberg explained that the board had already taken a vote to ‘adopt the findings’ of the Final Environmental Impact Statement, which, he said was essentially the same thing as voting in favor of demolition.

Brudie maintained that even if the public voted against financing a bond, the building could still be demolished in the future. “If we end up with enough money in our operating budget and reserves, we don’t have to go to the public. We then just take that money from the reserves and the operating budget and take it down. So that vote is almost meaningless,” he added.

Fishberg said that while using the board’s reserves to pay for demolition is a possible course of action, trustees have said there are no such monies available in the operating budget. “If the bond resolution is defeated the board will be unable to go forward to fulfill the decision,” he said.