Erica Miller / Recorder
Fulton County Sheriff Richard Giardino at his office in Jonestown on Thursday.
Northampton – While no criminal behavior has been found, a report by the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office Thursday was highly critical of Fulton County’s 2021 purchase of land near Lake Sakandaga Great for the purposes of building a museum and visitor center.
The report, following an investigation launched by Fulton County Sheriff Richard Giardino after receiving public complaints about the deal in November, concluded that the county overpaid for 35.15 acres, was not transparent enough in concluding its deal and ignored a condition in accepting federal COVID-19 relief funding that It requires projects not to incur future costs.
For its part, the county maintains it got a fair price for the land and stands by the $1.2 million Great History Museum of Sakandaga Lake project — which will include a visitor center, boardwalk and lake view — as a future boon to the county’s tourism revenue, according to John Stead, county director. Fulton.
The mayor’s report requests that the Fulton County Board of Supervisors have put plans for the museum on hold until some of the concerns raised are addressed, but at this point there is nothing stopping the board from moving forward with the project, Stead said.
Fulton County officials announced that the county was purchasing the package in October using money from $10.4 million in federal funding it received from $1.9 trillion from the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) passed by Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden in March. The Fulton County Board of Supervisors voted 16-1 in August to endorse the “Destination: Fulton County” strategic plan for how federal money would be spent, which included $1.2 million to build a new state-of-the-art museum and recreation facility to showcase the history of the modern engineering marvel that created the Sakandaga Reservoir. The great.
The central conclusion of the mayor’s report is that the county paid too much for the land as a result of a hasty process that did not include an adequate public contribution.
Fulton County purchased more than 30 acres of land on Highway 30 in the town of Northampton near the lake on September 30 for $520,000. The county justified the purchase price using a 2016 estimate of the land at $721,000, “with speculation by the county regarding the value of the unapproved subdivisions,” according to the report.
The sheriff’s report notes that the county relied on an outdated valuation, according to American Association of Appraisers standards, and an overpayment. The mayor’s report concluded that the $350,000 valuation could have been more accurate.
The report stated: “The county purchased the museum property for $520,000, which is arguably in excess of the fair market value as measured by the 2017-18 Multi-List Service Price, and the value of the property as assessed on the county’s website and comparisons as is. Listed to sell real estate in the region during 2021,” the report states. “The only thing that’s clear about the value is that it’s not clear what the actual fair market value was in September of 2021. So valuations for the months around the 2021 close will clarify this issue.”
Stead said county supervisors received the mayor’s report, and they disagree with Giardino’s conclusion on the purchase price, especially since real estate prices have skyrocketed in recreation areas during the pandemic.
“When they made the purchase last year, it was after several meetings to discuss it and discuss the value,” Stead said. “They looked at the evaluations they had and the documents they had at the time. Putting those together they felt the purchase price was reasonable.”
Sharif’s report also questioned the speed of the real estate deal.
The report stated: “The property was closed only two weeks after the decision was issued approving the negotiations and purchasing the property.” “Three buildings were convicted, razed to the ground and properties cleared within a month of closing. This is interesting because the buildings were included in the assessment and listed as having a ‘fair average’ status,” the report reads.
Stead quickly recognized the deal as a way to grab a coveted piece of land.
“He was well positioned for the goals of this project. So this part of it moved fairly quickly.”
Giardino also criticized the county for using federal funding to pay for a project that might incur future costs.
The county has set aside state and local fiscal recovery funds — part of ARPA’s funding — to pay for the $1.2 million project costs. Such money “should not be spent on projects that would incur recurring costs” without offsetting revenue. The operation of the museum will necessarily incur recurring costs for staff, operation and maintenance without offsetting revenue,” the Sharif reported.
However, maintaining project costs will be offset by future tourism revenue, specifically in the form of occupancy taxes from hotel and motel reservations. Stead said the museum project is part of a three-pronged plan — including a $1 million Parkhurst field project and an $8.65 million sewer infrastructure corridor — to boost tourism.
“The Board of Supervisors looked at this project as part of that plan, and that plan is to increase revenue through tourism,” Stead said. “This will be part of the tourism development program that we have built along the way. We hope to manage the majority of the revenue through the costs we get through the tourism program and hotel/hotel tax.”
Regardless of future promises, residents are concerned about the way the deal has been carried out.
said Bob Campbell, Chairman of the Greater Lake Sakandaga Advisory Board.
Stead, who said the public had had the opportunity to influence the project starting with public hearings last June, acknowledged that some of the property negotiations took place in private.
“The actual purchase of the property, it was something that had to be done in part in an executive session due to concern about pricing and price escalation with a very bad reputation,” Stead said.
As someone who grew up in the area, Campbell questions the county leadership’s priorities in building a museum and tourist center when the county has so many pressing needs.
“I think there should have been more community involvement, and at the end of the day I think there’s a lot more fish to fry in Fulton County than building a museum,” Campbell said.
Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.