AUBURN — The 121-year-old Historic Post Office building on Genesee Street is a local landmark in the Romanesque Revival architectural tradition, widely admired for its turrets and stone facades.
It’s also a money pit, and Cayuga County officials, the reluctant owners, don’t know what to do about it.
In the most recent piece of bad news, Buildings and Grounds Superintendent Michael Pawlenko said the building needs a new roof, with a projected price tag well into the six figures.
The existing roof is in two parts. The front is slate, and Pawlenko said he can find no record of it ever being replaced.
“We have no idea how old it is,” he said. “It might be the original.”
That part is not leaking at the moment but has in the past, Pawlenko said.
The back of the building has a rubber roof that’s about 15 years old and is in more immediate need of replacement.
Larson Engineers, a private company the county hired two years ago to assess its building needs, is working on bid specifications for the replacement work on both parts of the roof.
If the slate is replaced with new slate, it will cost about $760,000.
If artificial slate is used, the price tag will be closer to $504,000, the engineering company estimated.
The county may not have a say in that choice, though, because the building is listed as a historical landmark, earning it protection from the New York State Historic Preservation Office.
Legislators speculated Tuesday night at a Public Works committee meeting that the historic preservation office would not approve a synthetic slate roof.
What is more, any substantial renovation would require a search for asbestos. If any is present – and Pawlenko said he guesses there is – there will be an additional expense for removing it.
“It’s hard to blame us for now,” Public Works Chairman David Axton said. “I have to blame past legislators for (buying the building).”
The roof is the latest in a series of problems that have plagued the county since it acquired the building for $115,000 in 1984.
Later in the 1980s, more than a million dollars of federal, state and local money went into a host of renovations.
Several years ago, county workers discovered a sumac tree growing on the roof near a gutter. It was removed, but that appears to have caused the masonry to crumble, and the county recently approved a $132,000 fix, with construction scheduled to begin April 25 at the latest.
Buildings and grounds employees patch the roof on a fairly regular basis. The window sills inside the building are rotting, and the vaulted court room ceilings make it difficult to hear.
The 2011 county budget predicts a $148,963 loss on the aging structure this year. In 2009, the actual hit was $295,634.
“It’s a beautiful building to look at, but not at an expense to the taxpayers,” Legislator Daniel Sincebaugh said.
As a result, the county is analyzing its options, but finding few.
The building currently houses three county departments – Mental Health, the county historian’s office and the Women, Infants and Children program – as well as Family Court and Auburn City Court.
The Mental Health offices will be vacated this spring as those employees move into the new building on North Street. The county legislators have also discussed transferring the WIC program to an independent provider when the current contract runs out in 2014.
At that point, if the small historian’s office were moved elsewhere, the county would be free to raise the rent on the courts without hitting itself in the pocket book.
“Once we get our agencies out of there, we need to do what we need to do to break even on that building,” Axton said.
The city currently rents 6,327 square feet of the building – about two-thirds of the available space – for $13.75 per square foot. That lease will expire in 2012.
County officials said they believe the city needs more space and would be happy to provide it.
Auburn City Court Judge Michael McKeon could not be reached for comment.
The county has also expressed interest in selling the building to the city outright, or even transferring it for free.
“If you win mayor, the first thing you can do is take that building,” Axton said to Legislator Timothy Lattimore, referring to Lattimore’s not-so-secret deliberations over a City Hall campaign this fall.
“You fix it up, I’ll take it,” Lattimore responded.
The state Historic Preservation Office’s website lists grant opportunities for municipalities with historic landmarks, but County Administrator Thomas Squires cautioned that those grants often come with strings attached about future use.
As for the roof, Axton directed Pawlenko to find out how much it would cost to repair only the rubber section, which needs work more badly.
“We don’t really have an out,” he said. “It kind of stinks.”
Staff writer Justin Murphy can be reached at 282-2237 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at CitizenMurphy