The views stated here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the staff of this newspaper.
I attended the May 1, 2019 public hearing on the possible purchase of HES. First, kudos to new Town Planner, Bill Warner, for an excellent presentation (and to First Selectman Milardo for hiring a quality person in this important role!). For 20 years and after numerous studies we have been repeatedly told that sewers were the only answer to development of Higganum center. His out-of-the-box thinking found that the HES property can support a large septic system and solve the problem at a realistic cost. That opens up a lot of new options that were presented at the hearing. That said, I think his enthusiastic presentation is a bit optimistic and voters should have their eyes open as they consider purchasing HES. Some personal thoughts on points presented at the hearing:
The purchase price is presented as $450,000 (plus legal fees, etc.). But that money will be paid to RSD17 and any money RSD gets is used, directly or indirectly, to reduce the assessment the towns pay to RSD-17. Haddam pays almost 60% of RSD-17’s cost so in effect 60% of the purchase price will come back to Haddam. With about 60% of the price coming back I think it can be argued that the net price is just over $200,000 (plus fees).
While waiting for a permanent solution it will only cost about $55,000 per year to “mothball” the building. That figure is 60% of the current cost of electricity and fuel oil used at HES. But you can’t keep a building presentable by just dumping electricity and fuel oil into it. The mechanical systems have to be maintained and repaired, the building has to be kept clean, grass mowed, snow plowed, broken windows replaced (that will happen) and possibly bigger items like roof repairs. I think double the $55,000, maybe more, is more realistic.
For just $450,000 (or $200,000 – see above) we are getting a building worth over $4,000,000. I think that is misleading and depends greatly on your definition of “worth.” Valuing commercial property is very complex, public buildings even more so. Most people think of “worth” as what you can get for something if you sold it. A used car is worth $5,000 or a house is worth $300,000 because that’s what one can get if they sell them. RSD-17 put HES on the market and, while there were several parties who looked at it, only one presented a proposal and that was to buy it for $465,000. Anyone thinking that if all else fails we can just sell HES for a large sum is likely to be very disappointed. We would probably be lucky to get our original investment back.
There are a lot of potential uses so almost everyone sees something they would like – reuse it as a school if the RSD restructuring plan fails, luxury housing, elderly housing, retail type space, new municipal headquarters including a town garage, etc. Keep in mind that use other than a school would be expensive for the new user. I understand that use other than a school would require bringing HES up to current code along with other modifications to make it suitable for its new purpose. I’m not aware of any cost estimates but in other towns where schools have been repurposed the cost has been some number of millions.
Also keep in mind that most of these possible different uses are exclusive and conflict with the others. Mixed use could be done but makes any deal much more complex and therefore less likely. If you expect the RSD restructuring to fail and hope to reopen HES as a school, will you be happy if it is sold for apartments or retail and the school option is lost? If mothballed pending its reuse as a school or if repurposed for municipal headquarters, are you OK with paying that considerable new tax burden for mothballing or the conversion cost? And with those uses no property tax dollars will be returned to the town by a new owner.
Finally, if the town buys HES and develops a municipal septic system on the property the “no sewers” excuse would be gone but that doesn’t mean there is a long list of eager buyers/developers just waiting to move ahead. It may well be a long time and a lot of hard work before HES is repurposed.
Particularly given the alternative of letting RSD-17 control HES and make the choice for Haddam, purchasing HES may be a good decision. But the citizens of Haddam need to be realistic, patient and willing to bear some extra costs if they vote yes on the purchase.
Harlan is a member of the Haddam Board of Finance.