Lawsuit says ballot misleading
The suit argues ballot claims about Family Court are not substantiated by facts
KINGSTON >> Attorney Daniel Heppner on Wednesday accused county officials trying to sway the vote on moving Ulster County Family Court with a misleading ballot proposition intended to tip the scales in their favor.
Heppner, who is representing county Legislators David Donaldson and John Parete in a lawsuit against the county, argued before acting state Supreme Court Justice Denise Hartman that the ballot to go before voters in November makes claims that can’t be substantiated by facts.
Rather he said, the claims are “totally subjective and speculative.”
But Michael Cook, the attorney representing the county in the lawsuit, argued that the county has done numerous cost studies related to Family Court over the past two years and that the ballot language was decided upon by the majority of county lawmakers.
“There’s nothing misleading about the statement,” said Cook.
Donaldson, D-Kingston, and Parete, D-Boiceville have filed a lawsuit against County Executive Mike Hein, Legislature Chairman Ken Ronk, RWallkill, Legislature Clerk Victoria Fabella, and the county’s elections commissioners over the language of a proposition asking voters whether Fam-
ily Court should be moved from it’s current location on Lucas Avenue in Kingston to the Business Resource Center in the town of Ulster.
The county has come under intense pressure by the state Office of Court Administration to upgrade its Family Court facilities, which the state has called “wholly inadequate.”
County leaders have said it would be more cost effective to move the court operations to the county-owned Business Resource Center than to buy and renovate the Lucas Avenue building the county currently leases for Family Court.
Moving the facilities out of the city, which is the county seat, can only be done with voter approval.
On Wednesday, Heppner questioned Ulster County Deputy Executive Robert Sudlow about a series of seemingly inconsistent cost estimates for renovating the Lucas Avenue building and moving the operations to the Business Resource Center.
One estimate, prepared by architect Scott Dutton for GD Realty, prepared in
June 2014, pegged the cost of renovations at roughly $3 million, while a study done for the county by another firm in 2015 put the costs of those renovations at $6 million, including the cost of purchasing the building.
The same 2015 study estimated that moving court operations to the Business Resource Center would be about $5 million, while a study done in April 2016 by a third firm put those costs at roughly $9.987 million and another done a month later put the projected cost, if construction began in 2018, at $10.43 million.
“So your own expert said it would cost $6 million to stay at Lucas Avenue?” asked Heppner.
“At that point in time, that is correct,” Sudlow said.
Under cross examination, Sudlow said that in conversations with the property owner, the county was informed that the cost to the county to purchase a renovated Lucas Avenue facility would be closer to $8 million, which he said, didn’t include the costs associated with the needs for the third Family Court judge that was seated in January 2016.
The building was listed for sale on Oct. 5 for $2.5 million.
Sutton, who was also called to testify Wednesday, said he worked closely with the state Office of Court Administration in designing renovations for the Lucas Avenue building.
He said the cost estimate did include the third courtroom, but did not consider the costs associated with paying prevailing wage.
In oral arguments before the judge, Heppner said the county had done nothing to support its claims that families would be better served, that property taxes would be lowered or that the Business Resource Center was a “more suitable” location. He called on Judge Hartman to force the county to change the ballot language, saying that voters deserve the opportunity to decide without being swayed.
Cook argued that much of Wednesday’s testimony was “a smokescreen” to deflect attention from the issues. He said the county spent two years studying the various options for court facilities and said the language approved by the Legislature gives the public “the best opportunity to know the consequences of their vote.”
Judge Hartman is expected to rule this week on the ballot language.