Guest Spot: I will vote ‘no’ on justice court bond

On March 14, 2018, the Southold Town Board unanimously adopted resolution 2018-261 authorizing a $5 million bond to purchase the former Southold Savings Bank building, now called the Town Hall Annex. Three members of our current Town Board — Supervisor Scott Russell and board members Jill Doherty and Louisa Evans — voted in support of the bond resolution. Before casting his “yes” vote, Supervisor Russell explained that “the specified purchase price [of the property] is a little under $3.2 million and the estimated cost of the renovations to create a Justice Court is $1.8 million.” Later that year the estimate was adjusted to $5.5 million: $3.1 million for the purchase, $1.9 for the renovation, and $500,000 for contingencies. This purchase was to resolve our Town Justice Court dilemma. It did not.

Now, almost exactly 4 years later, the Town Board is set to approve a new $6 million bond to fund the construction of the still unbuilt Justice Court in a completely new location on Peconic Lane, after wasting more than $200,000 of the previous bond to determine the actual cost of renovation was $18 million and not $1.9 million, as we were initially told by the Supervisor! 

They also determined that the annex was too large for just the court and it was impractical to share the building between the court and other town offices. Although Supervisor Russell is now attempting to move the goalposts and claim we needed the space and parking spots anyway, the bottom line is that the Southold Bank purchase was not the answer to our needs and it’s now an underutilized encumbrance. Yes, it’s a beautiful historic building, but it was never appropriate for a court building or for our larger municipal needs. Although we were told hidden flaws at the site and other unforeseen problems were to blame for the increased budget, looking at the proposed first floor plan submitted by L.K. McLean Associates on June 29, 2021 — which I only received from a fellow board member after our March 1 Town Board work session — suggest otherwise.

“I can’t sit quietly by while the board, just as before, runs headlong into spending our hard-earned tax dollars on a project that hasn’t been fully vetted.”

Greg doroski

From the beginning of my time on the board two months ago, Councilperson Doherty has been pushing hard to build support for the new bond and attempting to distance herself from the ill-conceived decision to purchase the bank building. As I said during our last work session, I plan to vote “no” on this bond. In the meantime, I can’t sit quietly by while the board, just as before, runs headlong into spending our hard-earned tax dollars on a project that hasn’t been fully vetted or considered in the context of our townwide municipal building needs, which have only grown worse over the past 16 years as the board has continually failed to solve the problem. It is also problematic that the proposed location on Peconic Lane violates general smart growth principles and expressed community priorities of fostering walkable downtowns and avoiding sprawl.

The last thing we need is another bond issue without a solid plan. We’ve been through this already with the purchase of the bank. We don’t need another hasty mishap. 

Instead of moving forward with approving this new bond, the Town Board should immediately convene a Southold Town municipal building task force to conduct and produce a current “needs” and “wants” assessment, a future “needs” and “wants” forecast, and a building and property utilization study. To start with, and at minimum, this task force should include the town engineer, the town building maintenance supervisor, the chief building inspector, a senior member of the Planning Department and members of the Town Board. Eventually, it should include an architect who is well-versed in municipal architecture, and potentially other experts with clearly defined and needed skills. Every effort should be made to actively engage relevant county and state agencies, for example the Office of Court Administration, on questions related to the justice court. 

We should agree to hold ourselves accountable and to shepherd the necessary resources to start executing a townwide municipal building plan within the next 12 months. We don’t need to start building everything at once but we must lay out a plan, budget and timeline to get the job done. Current and future residents of Southold Town deserve better, and so do our hardworking town employees. 

Mr. Doroski is a member of the Southold Town Board.