Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Quantifying the unquantifiable: relocation of county offices

Two months ago, Columbia County floated a proposal to move most of its operations, currently housed in four separate buildings in Hudson, to an empty Walmart building on Fairview Avenue. The proposal was widely criticized, although perhaps not as much as an earlier proposal to move social services to the Ockawamick School in Claverack. More recently, the county issued a Request for Proposals to attract a qualified firm to formally study its spatial needs and recommend how and where county offices (save for those legally mandated to remain in Hudson) ultimately ought to live.
 The Ockawamick School in Claverack [photo from ]
I briefly considered throwing my own hat into this ring, but quickly realized I would not be capable of the objectivity required. I am partial to county offices remaining in Hudson and I wouldn't be able to conduct a study that might have to conclude they should move out. Too, I think any formal study of the matter is automatically stacked against Hudson on two crucial counts:
  1. Parking. Any suburban site wins against Hudson, unless someone figures out how to get a parking garage built in the city for short money. Although there are probably few fans of parking garages in these parts, Hudson may have reached the point where it needs to get serious about building onefor the county, for police vehicles (in concert with a new police station), for seniors (if/when a senior center is built), for visitors to Club Helsinki and TSL, for our general tourist population, and for us. Presumably a number of these players would fund it, but garages don't come cheap. I plan to blog on this in detail soon.
  2. Culture. Hudson wins a cultural face-off against any suburban location, in no small part because suburbs don't have and don't desire to have cultureat least, not of the shoe-leather-meets-the-pavement variety. A properly located and well designed county headquarters in Hudson could be a great help to Hudson's culture, and also would bring the cultural benefits of Hudson to many of its employees. (Although I suspect a fair percentage of county employees are hardcore suburbanites that see no benefit to being in Hudson.) But how does one objectively measure culture?
The objective measurements such studies have to use are important, but they may work against Hudson. "Efficiency" has been trotted out repeatedly by the county to justify its previous proposals to move to the suburbs, and the word appears five more times in the RFP. Implicit in such usage, I believe, is a simplistic notion prevalent in American culture for decades, that a suburban building is inherently more efficient than an urban one. There's something about that unfettered, freestanding building in the middle of a parking lot that leads too many decision makers to conclude that real work is being done there, while the same operation in an urban setting is believed cluttered with irrelevancies that compromise operations. I found it telling that at the county's December 5 presentation on possibly moving to Walmart, "efficiency" was used dozens of times as an ostensible justification for the move, even though no data of any kind was provided to back up the argument. Suburbs are efficient, urban places are inefficient, is the assumption.

Efficiency is an important consideration, but it's very easy for those who control the things being measured to leave out factors that are oblique but nonetheless important to the efficiency equation. In this case, I am wondering if and how the needs, costs, and inefficiencies that a suburban location will visit upon departmental clients will be measured. Hudson mayoral aide Carmine Pierro (via Gossips of Rivertown) states that forty-six percent of Health Department clients and fifty-five percent of Department of Social Services clients live in Hudson. What costs and inefficiencies will they incur in driving or schlepping to a suburban location? This alone would seem to cancel out the efficiencies presumed inherent in a suburban location, and that's before we get to the fossil fuel burning and air polluting and paradise paving aspects of the picture. 

Ken Flood, Columbia County's Planning and Economic Development Commissioner, was careful to note in my conversation with him on Monday that the county will not use bottom line cost as the sole basis for making a decision on relocation. The county knows there are benefits to being in Hudson that aren't about efficiency. So keep your eyes and ears open as to whom the RFP is awarded, and make sure you get on them to include in their study all the stuff they might not know how to measure, but that we Hudsonians know are important to both us and the county.

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