By Michael Kaufman
I have often wondered how much it has cost the taxpayers of Orange County to pay for the various plans put forward regarding the storm-damaged Government Center in Goshen. The controversial edifice designed by renowned architect Paul Rudolph has been closed “until further notice” since September 8, 2011. A partial answer came Monday when Legislator Roseanne Sullivan asked County Executive Steve (What, Me Worry?) Neuhaus why he had never seriously considered a proposal by architect Gene (not my brother with the same name) Kaufman that would save taxpayers “approximately $26 million.”
The reply by Neuhaus, as reported by Chris McKenna in Wednesday’s Times Herald-Record, was astounding: “Neuhaus responded that the county has spent $2.6 million so far on Clark Patterson Lee’s plans….” So far? Is he suggesting the county may be paying them even more for plans before a single shovel hits the soil? Until recently Clark Patterson Lee’s plans called for a renovation that would cost an estimated $73 million. Cost-conscious legislators were recently able to pare the figure down to $68 million by removing a proposed façade that was included simply for cosmetic reasons. (Some people hate the Rudolph design so much they were willing to spend millions of dollars of taxpayer money just to cover it up.)
Neuhaus seems to be saying that it would be a waste of at least $2.6 million in design costs if the county doesn’t move forward with Clark Patterson Lee’s $68 million renovation plan. But as Sullivan and other level-headed legislators have pointed out, it doesn’t make any sense to waste a lot more money when there is an alternative that can save $26 million dollars. This seems like a no brainer but Neuhaus told reporter McKenna that “nothing has changed in the status of the current project to justify further discussions with Kaufman.” Some may be tempted at this juncture to question the county executive’s math skills or even his intelligence, but Neuhaus knows exactly what he is doing. He is, after all, a cunning and ambitious politician with an uncanny ability to talk out of both sides of his mouth. (For an excellent illustration of this phenomenon, see the Feb. 26 post at Orange County (NY) Outlook by Auntie Alibi.)
Sullivan, a Democrat who represents residents of Crawford and Wallkill in the 18th Legislative District, says that Clark Patterson Lee’s high-priced plans have “thoroughly convinced” her that their project will be a disaster. “They should have been fired when they offered a job to the legislator who was chairman of the committee that had oversight on the project.” That would be one Leigh Benton, a Republican who has represented the Town of Newburgh in the 16th Legislative District since 2005. It was Benton who pushed the Clark Patterson Lee plan through the committee before revealing that he had accepted a job offer from the firm. A subsequent investigation found that although his behavior was questionable, there was nothing in the code of ethics that specifically forbade it.
In the end Benton regretfully turned down the lucrative job offer. Of course the honorable thing for him to have done was resign. Instead he unapologetically remained in the legislature, was later re-elected by the few who turned out to vote on Election Day, and has continued to cast votes on the Government Center issue with head held high. In his mind he was exonerated. Note that Sheldon Silver says he will be “exonerated” if it is ultimately determined that his acceptance of millions of dollars in “consultant fees” is not evidence of criminal behavior. But this is a misuse of the word. One is exonerated if one is wrongly accused and found innocent of wrongdoing. Someone who does something sleazy and unethical but manages to avoid being convicted of a crime is not innocent of wrongdoing. They are just damn lucky they got away with it.
Michael can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.