Volunteer labor could repair fire-damaged town building

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO Riverhead's building department headquarters on Howell Avenue might be rebuilt using volunteer labor.

Supervisor Sean Walter said this week that he has found two to three contractors willing to construct a second story on the fire-damaged town building department offices for free.

Some local building supply companies also have offered to donate materials to the cause, according to Mr. Walter, who did not identify any of the volunteers.

The building, which was damaged by a fire earlier this year, is now one story tall. While the cost of rebuilding the first floor is covered by insurance, Mr. Walter said in August that he would ask local contractors to donate their labor towards putting a second floor on the rebuilt building.

But now, other members of the Town Board say they’re not sure using volunteer labor is such a great idea.

“I’m just dumbfounded,” Mr. Walter said at Thursday’s Town Board work session, where the idea was discussed. “I mean, I thought this was the greatest thing since sliced bread, that somebody would do this. I’m just dumbfounded.”

Councilman Jim Wooten said he supports constructing a second floor on the building, but wants confirmation that it’s legal for the town to use volunteer labor.

Municipalities are required to bid jobs and pay workers prevailing wage rates, under state law.

“It’s not that I’m opposed to contractors and lumber yards donating all those things to the town,” Mr. Wooten said. “I just want a legal opinion that this is appropriate. Because it just lends itself to scrutiny right off the top, for obvious reasons.”

“Buyer beware,” Councilwoman Jodi Giglio said. “If you’re asking someone to do something on a volunteer basis and they have an opportunity to go get paid somewhere else, how much time are they going to be investing in fixing up our building when they can go somewhere else and get paid. It could delay construction. There are a lot of other downsides to it.”

“I don’t see one downside to getting a second floor of the building done for free,” Mr. Walter said. “As long as it’s legal.”

“Regardless of how you look at it, it’s still going to cost us more than if we just did the first floor,” Ms. Giglio said. “We’re laying people off, we’re in a deficit, we’re raising taxes and we’re spending money on a second story for 2,500 square feet of additional space for which we’ll have to put in an elevator,” she said adding the elevator will cost about $60,000 alone.

“I think we’re being a little naive here,” Councilman George Gabrielsen said. He said contractors who bid on the first floor and offer to do the second floor for free are going to include the costs of the second floor job into their first floor estimates.

Councilman John Dunleavy thinks it will be cheaper to build a two-story building now than in the future and he supports having free labor do it.

“The way the town approaches these things, it’s not advantageous for someone to say they want to donate something, because we knock them right out of the box, ” he said.

Mr. Dunleavy said that several years ago, Riverhead Building Supply wanted to donate its Ostrander Avenue property to the town for free and the town declined the offer. Riverhead Building Supply later gave the property to the Riverhead Fire District, which is now planning to sell it for $1.3 million.

Mr. Walter said if the board doesn’t want to accept the free labor, “then I’ve wasted two months trying to do this.”

The board plans to hire a consulting firm to perform a detailed cost estimate of what a one-story building would cost versus what a two-story building would cost. The board initially planned to only have the firm study a one-story building, but added the two-story study in response to concerns over having volunteers do the work.

[email protected]

This post was originally published Oct. 28, 2010