SARATOGA SPRINGS – Inside the gymnasium, on the south side of the city, a basket and backboard tower over a long row of white tables. Sturdy swivel chairs and a mesh of computer wires stretch across the foul lines. A filing cabinet stands at the top of the circle abutting a bookshelf that extends to center court.
“All the inner workings of City Hall,” says Mayor Meg Kelly, gesturing across the 30,000-plus square feet of gymnasium space where city employees are busy at work. These new temporary quarters will act as their offices for the next 12 months.
A Friday night lightning strike upon City Hall in mid-August acted as the catalyst for the change, after a drainage pipe on the roof was struck and melted, causing heavy rains to pour into the building which has served as the center of Saratoga Springs’ government since 1871.
The city’s new and previously untested emergency management plan was put to a real-life test.
“The Emergency Management Plan was put into effect immediately when the lightning struck,” Mayor Kelly says. “As soon as it went into effect, we had all the people converge. Everyone’s got a job to do and everybody has their role.” City Fire Chief Bob Williams was designated incident commander. Marilyn Rivers, director of risk and safety, and Assistant Police Chief John Catone had boots on the ground – a job they basically took over for 24 hours, Kelly says. The city's emergency dispatch center was relocated to the county's facility. “We moved it that first night, because we just didn’t know how much damage there was going to be. The water just kept coming, all over the place.”
The commissioner of public safety is charged with developing and periodically updating the city’s Strategic Emergency Management Plan. In 2016, assistant Police Chief Catone completed the near-two-year project of compiling potential disaster concerns in Saratoga Springs and how to best address them. The plan is comprised of approximately 500 pages of documents and annexes and was the first new comprehensive plan for the city in a decade. It includes risk preparedness, response, and recovery in the aftermath of potential catastrophic weather events, terrorism incidents, school shootings, workplace violence, and public exposure to hazardous materials, among other things.
“The plan worked very well,” Mayor Kelly says. “The biggest thing with our plan was – number one - that we had a plan. A lot of cities don’t, and I would recommend that if you are a city you do need to get one. We’re not under that plan anymore, because now we’re up and operating. We were up and running in six days.”
Like any first-time implementation, there are lessons to be learned, Kelly added. “You do learn. A lot of things worked, some we’ll go back and look at. One area we need to improve was the court system, which wasn’t in the plan. We need to get that in there because they’re in our (City Hall) building.” Court sessions are currently being held in the Lincoln Bath building on South Broadway.
City workers were initially displaced in a variety of locations across the city, with DPW officers at the Canfield Casino in Congress Park, legal staff and commissioners of Finance and Public Safety at The Mill on High Rock Avenue and Risk and Safety located at the Lake Avenue Fire Station. There is a move to consolidate most of the workers at the Recreation Center on Vanderbilt Avenue, which when fully relocated will house about 65 employees.
The $6.5 million recreation center – which faced some public opposition as well as an unsuccessful court action prior to its development – opened in 2010 and was wired to be computer-friendly.
“We have the fiber in this building, which made it easy for people to just come and plug right in: bing, bing, bing and we’re up and running,” said DPW Commissioner Anthony “Skip” Scirocco. “That’s important because it’s not all over town. When they built this, they put infrastructure in here to accommodate the new technology.”
“We did look at several places all around the city, but very few are large enough to hold us, and if they were they didn’t have the fiber,” Kelly says. “It would take four to five months to get the fiber (for communications) to the building, and it’s so expensive to have that happen. So, that’s why we’re staying here.”
The city is working with the YMCA, Skidmore College, and the Saratoga Springs School District to relocate as many of the city programs that had been held at the center as possible. “The programs are going on if they can, if not then they’ll be brought back in a year when we’re moved out of here. This is an emergency situation,” Kelly says. To that end, the city Recreation Commission will host a Recreation Master Plan Public Meeting at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 4, at the Mabee Building, 2nd floor Community Room, on 31 Church St.
While the gymnasium section of the building is for employees only, a separate section of the building holds offices the public is likely to need, such as those seeking licenses and other information. A “greeter” has also been placed at the center to help direct people where they need to go and is something that has officials thinking there should be a similar point person installed when City Hall reopens.
The work environment at the rec center – essentially a city government without walls – has gone well moral-wise, Kelly says. “I think everybody seems to work a lot more together in this environment. I’ll tell you, we have a very strong group of employees here to pull this off, because it doesn’t happen easily. Everyone we asked for help has jumped right in.”
THE STATUS OF CITY HALL
“We’re shooting at re-opening in a year from now,” Scirocco says. “We met with engineering architects last week and we’ll be moving forward on our master plan for City Hall. Right now, we’re in the process of doing demolition and there is some testing on where the asbestos is. Once that happens, we’ll get an abatement contractor and we’ll probably do the abatement and any other demo work that needs to be done.”
The configuration of offices at City Hall is anticipated to change. A second courtroom, which is required, is targeted for the second floor where currently a single courtroom is located. That would effectively force the relocation of the public safety offices and the law library. The Saratoga Music Hall, which is located on the third floor and sustained the most damage, will be reconstructed and will remain a music hall. Cost estimates regarding the damage is anticipated before the end of this calendar year.
“It’s a good opportunity to make changes – some which we’re obligated to do, some to be more efficient and safer. So, that’s the goal,” Scirocco says.
UPCOMING MEETINGS, which will be staged at the Saratoga Springs City Center. The City Council holds a pre-agenda meeting 9:30 a.m. Monday, Oct. 1 and a full meeting 7 p.m. Tuesday; The Design Review Commission meets 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 3, and the Planning Board meets 6 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 4. Additionally, at 2 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 3, the city will publicly open and read sealed bids for preliminary and final engineering for the Complete Streets Saratoga Greenbelt Downtown Extender as it relates to Lake Avenue bike lanes.