A letter sent to the Voice, this week, by a group calling itself the Louis Piantino Library Book Discussion Group, questions the potential sale of the former Forest School Building to a city developer as well as the future of the facility in the borough.
The city recently accepted a $325,000 bid for the building at 1 Forest Road by the Acorn Group, headed by developer David Beckerman. Beckerman and Acorn have been at the forefront of Allingtown’s recent revitalization. His group has constructed The Atwood, at 222 Boston Post Road, and is currently completing the Parkview, which is on Cellini Place.
The letter states:
“We are terribly concerned about what is happening to the West Haven Library. The proposed Library budget for 2021 has been slashed by $200,000, and we do not know why. The City Council voted on April 27 to sell the Allingtown Library building (The Louis Piantino Library) at 1 Forest Road to The Acorn Group without any public forewarning or input that we can find, and without a plan in place to relocate the library.
“It is unclear what Acorn plans to do with the library building, but there is a rumor that they plan to demolish the building to create a parking lot. Is that ill-founded? We also would like to know who decided to sell that building and why. When did it go out to bid? What were the bids, and by whom were they made? And, is the rumor true that the City Council turned down a $500,000 bid and agreed to sell to Acorn for $325,000?
“As avid users of the Allingtown/Piantino Library, we are deeply concerned about the potential loss of this vital community resource. We hope someone can find the answers for us.”
The Voice sent a series of questions to Mayor Nancy Rossi, Chairman of the City Council Ron Quagliani (D-at-large), Ken Carney, who is helping in negotiations, and representatives of the Village Improvement Association, the governing body of the city’s library system. Executive Director Collen Bailie responded for the VIA, while Corporation Counsel Lee Tiernan responded for the council.
During those postings, information provided to the Voice indicate the VIA did offer a $500,000 bid for the property; however, city officials said the Acorn Group had “first refusal” on the building, prompting the acceptance of the lower bid.
Mayor Rossi reported the Acorn bid was accepted, but the contract is still under negotiations.
“The city accepted a proposal from Acorn for the Allingtown Library for $325,000. The contract has not yet been finalized,” she said.
However, she indicated while the sale might go through, the library’s location will remain unchanged for the time being.
“Under the agreement, the library may stay at its current location for three years and then potentially relocate to another space within the Allingtown section of the city,” she said.
According to sources involved in the discussions, the William T. Blake Building, former headquarters of the city’s school system, will be refurbished as a possible location.
Rossi indicated one of the primary goals of the sale is to put the former municipal building onto the tax rolls.
“Once transferred, the library building will be back on the tax rolls and generating commercial tax revenue,” she said.
As far as the cut in budget, Rossi indicated her original plan was to keep the library at status quo in the new fiscal year.
“My budget recommendation for fiscal year 2021 held library funding flat at $1.421 million, the same amount that was appropriated for fiscal year 2020. The library board had requested $1.758 million, an increase of more than 20%, which was not possible under our city’s current financial condition,” she said. “The City Council held $100K pending the results of a requested library study and cut another $100K based on information from the library governing board, the Village Improvement Association, that it received a federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) forgivable loan for more than $100K.”
Rossi said her administration is committed to keeping and improving the library system.
“The library is not operated by the City of West Haven. The Village Improvement Association, a 501(c) (3) non-profit organization, runs the day-to-day operation. The city does not have a seat on its board, although city taxpayers fund most of the library operating budget,” she said. “My administration is committed to a state-of-the-art modern library system and would like to work with the board to ensure the city has a first-class library operation in Allingtown for future generations to enjoy.”
Rossi ended by saying the city charter delineates the control of the library and how it is funded. Given those strictures, the administration is trying to work with the VIA.
“The Village Improvement Association has complete control over the West Haven library system per the West Haven City Charter. The city charter requires the city to fund the system. The Board of the Village Improvement Association will decide, based on resources available from the city and their endowment funds, how the library system will operate,” she said.
Bailie, responding to our inquiry, said the VIA became aware of a potential sale late last year, and determined a bid was in order.
“The VIA became aware that its Allingtown location was up for sale when members read the city’s RFP (Request for Proposal) notice in the New Haven Register in December of 2019,” Bailie said. “The VIA immediately began the extensive process of preparing a bid to purchase the building. Our bid was designed to not only to maintain a library presence in Allingtown, but to expand it, as well. The VIA was disappointed to learn in March that our bid was not chosen and that the property was sold to a developer who has, to date, not articulated the intended use for the property.”
Bailie indicated talks have begun with city officials as to future locations for the library, which has an extensive constituency. She said those talks will help determine future plans.
“We are now engaged in a dialogue with the City of West Haven in order to find and pay for alternate space in Allingtown so we can continue to provide our critical services to the community. It is clear that the continuation of library services in Allingtown will require a committed partner in the city and likely the need for the city to reconsider its recent $200,000 cut to our operating budget. Otherwise, it is difficult to see how sustained library services in Allingtown will be possible,” she said.
Bailie said the VIA is looking forward to the discussions ahead with an open mind.
“The VIA looks forward to an open, transparent, engagement with the city in determining how its critical public services will remain at home in Allingtown,” she said.
Carney, who is helping the city negotiate Allingtown projects, said one problem with the library’s bid was the fact it did not attach a deposit check, which is part of any purchase bid. He sent documents showing the bids and Acorn check.
“Part of the process is giving a surety deposit on any purchase bid of this kind. Acorn attached a check. We got a piece of paper from the VIA. They were disqualified.”
Carney reiterated the mayor’s concern the building be put on the tax rolls. The decision was a matter of dollars and cents.
“Part of the plan was to put the building on the rolls,” he said. “I can take a $500,000 bid that gives me the price, but I’ll never get taxes from it again, or I can sell a building for $1 and have $60,000 in taxes each year.”
Carney, meanwhile wanted to assure the public of two things the process was open, and the building’s future is assured. Included in the packet was assurance the library would remain in the building for a period of up to three years.
“I was involved in the entire process and I can provide solid proof that everything was done correctly. The building is not being demolished. Thank you for the opportunity to respond,” he said.
In his response for the council, Corporation Counsel Tiernan said sale talks have been going on for some time.
“Prior to Nancy Rossi becoming Mayor, the Acorn Group Development plans for the Allingtown Center included acquiring at some point the Allingtown Fire Station home at 20 Admiral Street, and 1 Forest Road the home of the Piantino Library. The Development of that area progressed to a point that the Developer requested that the City start the process to sell the property and building at 1 Forest Road. The City published a public request for proposal (RFP) to sell the site. Two entities bid. One entity was the Village Improvement Association one entity was the Acorn Group. The Acorn Group’s private commercial appraiser valued the building at $300,000. Obviously, the true value of a piece of real estate is what someone is willing to pay for it,” he wrote in his response.
Tiernan said he review the bids, and when the council voted, he had all the available data. In the VIA’s bid of Dec. 17, Tiernan gave the following response.
“ They needed seven months to apply for and obtain a mortgage.They want to rent space to UNH, the City and other entities including the West Haven Black Coalition. The coalition currently uses space in the building at no charge and it would appear that the Director of the coalition is the spouse of the head of the Village Improvement Association. However, Mr. (Ted) Brown did not attend the meeting to authorized the bid.If they (Village Improvement) obtained a mortgage, they would pay the city $500,000.
Tiernan noted that while the city is providing the space at no additional costs to the VIA, there was no explanation as to how the group would pay the annual costs to operate the building, estimated at $100,000.
“Federal law mandates that they Village Improvement Association file annual tax returns with the IRS and those filed returns are public information. As part of due diligence, I reviewed those returns. In short, the City Council was reviewing a purchaser with a declining endowment, declining interest and dividend revenue and a declining City budget allocation, who was asking to potentially take on a significant new expense. If this purchase proved financially unsustainable for the Village Improvement Association, would the City be forced to basically buy back the library or use the purchase funds to back stop the sale?” he asked.
“The Acorn Group bid $290,000, but there was no mortgage contingency, they would pay property tax and the occupants of the building would generate personal property tax for the city. How much? $25,000 to $40,0000 a year. They would donate $5,000.00 to the Village Improvement Association if the association vacated the building, but they would be willing, in good faith to negotiate a lease arrangement for up to three years and invest up to $25,000.0 in improvements to the library space conversely. The Acorn Group would agree to invest at least $1.5 million and up to $2 million in improvements to the building which would generate $10,000.00 to $20,000 in permit fees for the city.
After review, the Council authorized a contract for sale to the Acorn Group for $325,000 with all the terms listed in the prior paragraph, the final details being negotiated by the mayor and myself with the attorney for the Acorn Group. Because of the interest this has generated I have asked the chair(man) of the City Council to hold an addition public review of the sale when the details are finalized. During this COVID period it may be best to provide the public with an additional review.
“Like it or not the city simply has limited resources and overwhelming pressure to find revenue. In addition, the city is pressured encourage development to assist in revenue growth. Sale of the PIantino Library building to the Village Improvement Association would have ended any future development by the Acorn Group. However, the Mayor and the Council were adamant that the Village Improvement Association have space in the Allingtown area. That is why the City negotiated with the developer of the “Blake Building” 66 Tetlow St., for the possibility of the Village Improvement Association locating a long-term lease, a branch there with a coffee shop. Again, the Developer agrees to pursue this option in good faith. The site is in Allingtown, close to UNH, a public school and public bus.
“The City Council had a choice concerning the sale of the Piantino Library building. Give the Village Improvement Assoc. the option to try to get a mortgage, (maybe they would, maybe they would not no guarantee) and kill development in Allingtown, fail to realized prop. tax revenue and permit revenue or sell to the Acorn Group. The Mayor and the City Council stand as a fiscal trustee of City funds. The Mayor has proposed and the Council has mandated the most fiscally responsible course concerning this topic.”