Give newly-minted county executive Pat Ryan kudos for acting decisively to remediate county-owned properties in what officials are now calling “the former Tech City” (the sprawling former IBM site in the town of Ulster). He’s brought in the DEC, the EPA and who knows, maybe even attorney general Bill Barr, but it all comes down to forcing that stubborn, devious, elephant in the living room, fellow by the name of Alan Ginsberg, to do something.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency has the muscle and the money and what amounts to a personal interest in restoring this half-vacant, decaying industrial site for future development. Former assemblyman Pete Lopez, who represented Saugerties (and points north by northwest) before being appointed EPA region director in late 2017, knows well the frustrations of dealing with a property owner who, in the words of former Congressman Maurice Hinchey, “was just impossible to deal with.”
As outlined at Ryan’s Wednesday morning press conference at the site of the former Bank of America building once leased from Ginsberg, EPA has committed $500,000 to demolishing one vacant building, securing another partially demolished structure nearby (behind the iconic IBM clock on Enterprise Drive) and capping a 25-foot lingering pile of debris from another, to remove the public health threat of asbestos contamination. A dozen others await similar remediation, in addition to ground and water pollution.
While those buildings are now owned by the county after foreclosure last year, EPA officials say Ginsberg will be held personally responsible for what it calls public health remediation. Really? Blood from a stone doesn’t begin to describe an owner who flaunted authority, sued the town, school district and county collectively for millions in assessment reductions and wouldn’t even pay his utility bills, thereby placing 14 of his tenants at risk of shutdown by Central Hudson last December until Ryan interceded.
There will be legacy costs. Town supervisor Jim Quigley estimates the county will be responsible for about $15 million in delinquent taxes Ginsberg refused to pay. Ryan puts the figure at closer to $12 million. Either way, it represents about 15 percent of the county’s current property tax levy. EPA will be in the mix only briefly; public health cleanup is scheduled to be finished by April. Retrofitting huge, empty buildings will be on the county’s dime.
Those tax rebates, now on county books, also come at a time when the executive, in the face of potential crushing clawbacks from a cash-starved state government, is asking department heads to curtail all unnecessary spending.
“Guns and butter?” I asked Ryan as we walked up the stairs to the press conference in the county-owned Bank America building. “We’re just going to have to re-prioritize some things,” Ryan, ever the optimist, replied.
This is a bold strategy, but does the executive have other choices? Under the status quo, tax debt will only increase, vacant buildings will go from bad to worse, dreams of redevelopment will remain just that.
Over time, the EPA may get its pound of flesh from the elusive Ginsberg, but dislodging the parasitic property owner will be Ryan’s greatest challenge, or as Quigley, a major real estate developer in another life, put it, “The only way forward is in the hands of a stronger owner.”
It’s a start, but as Winston Churchill once said at a critical point in the war, “this is not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning.”