By Anne Hayden
GUILDERLAND — Although it was a politically calm year within the town, there were sparks of controversy regarding the abrupt firing of Guilderland’s asssessor, and a man fighting an arrest for animal cruelty after refusing to euthanize a cat.
Meanwhile, citizens continued to push for positive changes in their neighborhoods, including the possible formation of a McKownville drainage district, the completion of the Westmere firehouse, and improvements to a neighborhood bordering Crossgates Mall.
Outside of Guilderland, larger forces were also affecting the town, particularly a hotly-contested Senate race that could have changed the leadership of the State Senate, and still isn’t over, and rising Medicare and Medicaid costs, leaving town and county nursing homes struggling to manage difficult patients and finances.
John Macejka was abruptly fired from his position as the town’s assessor at the beginning of March, and, in July, he sued the town, in county court, seeking reinstatement to his position, full pay for the months that he was unemployed, and reimbursement of the costs related to the case.
Macejka, The Enterprise learned this week from his attorney, Robert Beebe, settled with the town.
“He was satisfied with the settlement,” Beebe said. “He is now the assessor in Rotterdam.” Beebe said there was a confidentiality agreement on the settlement, and would disclose no further details.
In December, the town board had met in closed session to discuss a permanent appointment to the Guilderland post.
Nine months earlier, on March 6, the town board met in executive session after a regular meeting, and, on March 7, Macejka was called into Supervisor Kenneth Runion’s office and told he was being fired.
“It came totally out of nowhere,” he told The Enterprise.
He said he was not given a reason for the termination, other than a vague allegation of complaints made against him, of which he said he had no knowledge. He did not receive any paperwork, or even a letter of termination.
Macejka immediately retained counsel, and used the Freedom of Information Law to obtain the written resolution from the town board’s executive session.
The town board, the resolution showed, spent two hours deliberating, before unanimously deciding to “terminate the employment of the town assessor, John Macejka, for cause, effective immediately.”
Macejka was appointed to the assessor’s position in the fall of 2008, when long-time assessor Carol Wysomski retired, after she came under fire from two newly-elected Republican board members, Warren Redlich and Mark Grimm. Macejka said he knew he was being brought in at a tumultuous time, and was even informed that part of his role was to placate Grimm and Redlich.
“I was not told that, when their terms were up, my term would be up; that part was left out,” he said.
After the all-Democratic town board decided to fire Macejka, it moved to appoint Carol Wysomski as acting assessor.
Wysomski said she knew nothing of the assessor’s termination until March 8, when she received a phone call asking if she would be willing to fill in as temporary assessor until the town found someone to hire permanently.
Macejka said he took great pride in the work he had accomplished as Guilderland’s assessor for three years. When he was hired in 2008, the state-set equalization rate was down to 79 percent; he had managed to bring it up to 92 percent, without doing a town-wide revaluation, and working with half the staff. He also streamlined the grievance process and cross-trained the staff.
Beebe said that state law provides the assessor a six-year term of office, and there was no basis for his client’s dismissal.
“He was just summarily dismissed – he was not notified of any charges against him and he was not given the opportunity to be heard,” said Beebe.
Macejka said he has suffered consequences in terms of his reputation as a result of the firing.
He said he “had made inquiries seeking alternative employment pertaining to real-property tax administration, only to learn that prospective employers are reluctant to consider me because of the reports of my termination.”
Runion would not comment on the reasons for firing Macejka, or on the resulting litigation.
Wysomski continues to act as the temporary assessor, and the town board is in the process of hiring a new, permanent assessor. The board met in executive session in mid-December to discuss candidates.
An unusual case in town court involved a Guilderland resident, Gerard Sagliocca, fighting his arrest because he wants to prove he is not guilty of animal cruelty. He was charged because he refused to euthanize a cat belonging to his sister.
“There is no law that says you have to euthanize an animal,” said Sagliocca, 61, a retired engineer who is now a landlord.
Holly Cheever, DVM, who owns the Village Animal Clinic in Voorheesville, agreed with Sagliocca; it is not illegal to keep a pet alive after a veterinarian recommends euthanizing it.
But, she said, that was not central to Sagliocca’s arrest.
Sagliocca brought the cat, Charmer II, to Cheever’s office, and the vet said the animal was “desperately suffering.” The cat had feline immunodeficiency virus, which caused it to have liver failure; it was jaundiced, vomiting, and dehydrated, and should have been receiving care long before it was brought to the office, said Cheever.
The vet said she tried to explain to Sagliocca that the cat needed to be euthanized, and he told Cheever that the cat would be brought home to die.
“He became hostile and aggressive,” Cheever said.
Cheever told The Enterprise that Sagliocca had a history with her clinic; in March 2011, Guilderland Animal Control was called about a cat, Charmer I, which was also a pet of his sister, that was found wandering outside and appeared to be abandoned. The cat — which was emaciated, dehydrated, could barely walk, and had untreated diabetes — was traced back to Sagliocca, and, after some discussion and debate, was euthanized, Cheever said.
Sagliocca said Charmer I was not abandoned, but had escaped into the yard, and a neighbor looking to make trouble called animal control. He only agreed to euthanize the animal because he did not want Cheever to report him.
“I think it was all about the money,” said Sagliocca. “In order to euthanize the cat, I had to pay $285; when she wanted to euthanize the second cat, and we said no and she didn’t get paid, she called the police.”
“We made an arrest on information and belief,” said Captain Curtis Cox of the Guilderland Police Department. “Just like any other case, we found probable cause and made an arrest.”
Sagliocca was arrested, rather than his sister, who owned Charmer II, because, according to the police report, he made it clear that he was the one who would be making decisions regarding the cat. Sagliocca said he claimed no ownership of the cat.
An officer, after receiving a call from Cheever, drove to Sagliocca’s residence, spoke to him, and his sister, and both parties agreed to turn the cat over to be euthanized if necessary.
“The concern was that the cat had been suffering and that they had willfully neglected the cat by delaying and refusing medical treatment,” said Cox. “Under the Ag and Markets Law, it is a misdemeanor to fail to provide proper sustenance.”
Sagliocca maintained that Charmer II was fine, and, although his sister knew that the cat had FIV at the time he was adopted, the animal was not ill until just before he brought it to the vet.
“If you are a cat lover, you would have wept at the sight of this cat,” said Cheever. “He was dying cell by cell.”
Sagliocca said the agency his sister got the cat from shouldn’t have adopted out a cat that had a known medical problem. Charmer II came from a rescue organization called Noah’s Kingdom, housed at PetSmart, and it was documented in his paperwork that he had FIV.
Sue Mahar, a volunteer with Noah’s Kingdom, said there was a big difference between a cat testing positive for FIV, and actually being sick.
“FIV is an immunosuppressant disease, but, with proper veterinary care and nutrition, there is no reason a cat that tests positive can’t lead a perfectly normal and healthy life,” said Mahar.
Noah’s Kingdom educates adopters about cats that have tested positive for FIV and provides them with information about the type of care that is required, she said.
“Let’s not get into that,” said Sagliocca, when asked if the cat had been receiving the proper veterinary maintenance.
Both Cheever and Mahar said the cat could not have declined to the condition it was in over a matter of days.
One of the major reasons Cheever said she decided to report Sagliocca for animal cruelty was to prevent him, and his sister, from being able to adopt another pet.
Sagliocca maintained, however, that Cheever “manipulated an obscure law” to force him to do her bidding.
The only humane thing to do in the situation was to euthanize, said Cheever, and it wasn’t about the money. If someone who was passionate and cared about his or her pet couldn’t afford to pay, she said she would euthanize and worry about the money later. In fact, after the police removed the cat from Sagliocca’s home and brought it to the Village Animal Hospital to be euthanized, Sagliocca was not billed for the service.
“After the police took the cat away there were no bills; they just disappeared, because she got what she wanted,” said Sagliocca.
Sagliocca was fighting the case in town court, and the judge offered to let him plead guilty to a lesser crime. He said he would keep fighting and ask for a jury trial.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” he said.
Sagliocca’s attorney, Louis-Jack Pozner, said this week that a jury trial is scheduled in the Guilderland Town Court for the end of March.
An all-Democratic town board was sworn-in on Jan. 1, 2012, and the year was marked by no dissension, unanimous votes, and short board meetings.
Not all local politics went so smoothly. A hotly-contested race for the newly-created 46th Senate District pitted Republican George Amedore against Democrat Cecelia Tkaczyk, and it took more than six weeks, many of them spent in court, to determine a winner, although that is being challenged.
On Dec. 26, Tkaczyk filed an appeal to the court decision the week before certifying Amedore as the winner.
The district was drawn by Republicans and encompasses parts of five different counties – Albany, Schenectady, Montgomery, Greene, and Ulster.
Amedore, a Guilderland resident, the vice president of Amedore Homes, and a member of the State Assembly since 2007, hoped to win the seat and help the Republican Party keep its slim majority in the Senate, which, in 2012, it held at 33-29. He ran on a platform of using his business experience to create jobs, eliminating unfunded mandates, cutting taxes, and studying hydraulic fracturing in-depth.
Tkaczyk, a Duanesburg resident, sheep farmer, and school board member, who worked as a legislative aid, wanted to help the Democratic Party gain control of the Senate. She ran on a platform of focusing on small businesses and farms, making sure rural and small-city schools get their fair share of state aid, banning hydraulic fracturing, and advocating for equal pay for women.
Tkaczyk started out with what she called a “grassroots campaign” for the September primary, and, after she won that, she said she felt she was at a “bit of a disadvantage financially” because Amedore had more funding available to him. She said one of her focuses would be getting the money out of politics.
During the last few weeks of the general election, Tkaczyk received funding in excess of $500,000 from Democratic super Political Action Committees. The money was used to mail flyers with negative messages about Amedore.
On election night, both Tkaczyk and Amedore declared themselves the winner of the race, and both gave victory speeches.
“We feel confident that we are the strong winner,” said Amedore, shortly before 11 p.m. “I’m glad to be the next senator for the 46th District.”
“Frankly, I’m reporting victory,” said Tkaczyk at midnight.
Unofficial results from the boards of election in the five counties represented in the 46th District showed that Tkaczyk had a lead of 139 votes.
The day after the votes were tallied, Amedore’s campaign filed a show cause order to “protect and substantiate each and every ballot.” The campaign team said it had implemented an ambitious absentee program early on in the face, and believed that once absentee ballots were counted, Amedore would be the official winner.
In addition to the show cause order, both sides filed objections to ballots – Amedore’s campaign filed 660 and Tkaczyk’s campaign filed 210.
Tkaczyk’s campaign manager, Gary Ginsburg, called many of the objections filed on the Republican side “frivolous,” while Amedore’s campaign manager, Kris Thompson, called them procedural.
The procedural objections were related to things like invalid signatures and confirming that voters who submitted absentee ballots actually had addresses in the proper county.
Ginsburg said the frivolity of some other objections disturbing, describing an objection to an absentee ballot for a woman who is disabled, blind in one eye, and unable to drive. Amedore’s campaign, said Ginsburg, did not feel that the woman should have been allowed to file an absentee ballot, because she lives within the county she was voting in.
Ballots from all five counties were counted in front of Montgomery County’s Supreme Court Justice Guy Tomlinson, who decided to allow an appeals process to go forward at the request of Amedore’s campaign.
Tomlinson did not open ballot envelopes at first, and judged their validity based on the applications only. He set aside the unopened envelopes of the ballots he decided were invalid and counted the rest of the ballots, announcing on Dec. 18 that Amedore was the official winner, by a margin of 37 votes.
A win for Amedore no longer decides the Senate majority, because, early in December, a “historic bipartisan partnership” was announced. Now, due to the coalition formed by Dean Skelos, leader of the Republican Conference, and Jeff Klein, leader of the Independent Democratic Conference, even if Tkaczyk won, her party would not have a chance at taking the majority.
Ginsburg said this week that the paperwork for the appeal, filed on Dec. 26, specified more than 330 ballots the campaign wants opened and counted, and states the reason they were not counted, as well as the reasons they should be counted.
“It’s not willy-nilly; it’s not like we’re down by 37 votes so we’re going to ask them to count 50 to get the win,” Gisburg said. “It’s a point of law.”
Amedore’s campaign had until Dec. 28 to refute the appeal, and
Tkaczyk’s had until Dec. 31 to respond to that response. The arguments will be heard in court on Jan. 7.
The cost of caring for the elderly, along with continued cuts in Medicaid, for the poor, and Medicare, for those over 65, has affected local nursing homes.
Our Lady of Mercy Life Center, off of Western Avenue in Guilderland, has been forced to look at admitting “sub-acute, short-term patients, who are receiving higher reimbursements from Medicare, versus people who have behavioral issues, and who will be long-term and on Medicaid,” said Wesley Hale, who has been director of the facility for 19 years.
An average Medicare payment, he said, is over $420, whereas the average Medicaid payment is about $195.
“We’ve admitted more people and are trying to meet the needs of the community in terms of patients who can no longer be maintained at home because of declining physical conditions, co-morbidities and dementias,” said Hale.
“It all boils down to economics,” said Mary Rozak, spokeswoman for Daniel McCoy, the Albany County Executive.
The previous county executive, Michael Breslin, had recommended closing the nursing home, due to the strain on the county’s budget. During his campaign, McCoy said he would not consider closing the nursing home.
McCoy, when proposing the 2013 budget for the county, said the Albany County Nursing home would be leased to a private company, Upstate Services Group, but the legislature failed to approve that.
The county executive insists that the nursing home still needs to be privatized.
“That is the only way we will be able to craft a budget that comes in under the tax cap, while ensuring the long-term stability of our finances,” he said in a statement early in December.
The adopted budget puts millions of dollars in an additional year of contingency funding for the nursing home.
“When you consider the cost of care, the reimbursement factor, and then add in the type of patients that nursing homes are now working with, it is very expensive,” said Rozak.
The Guilderland Center Nursing Home was on the verge of bankruptcy in April, but was bailed out when McCoy struck an agreement with the owner of the facility. The Guilderland Center Nursing Home owed the county $1 million in back taxes, and the deal allows the owner to pay the delinquent taxes in monthly installments.
McCoy indicated the bail-out was a better option than forcing 127 residents to find a new facility.
An April report in The Boston Globe raised concerns nationwide about the overuse of antipsychotic drugs in nursing homes, citing data it said came from the United States Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, that, on average, 16.7 percent of residents in nursing homes are receiving antipsychotic drugs they don’t need, making difficult patients less costly to tend to.
The Globe report said 39.6 percent of residents in the 160-bed Our Lady of Mercy Life Center were given such drugs without psychosis-related conditions.
Hale said that figure is not accurate, and he said, it is important to note that half of the residents currently on antipsychotic drugs were already taking them when they were admitted to the facility.
Patricia Bendl, whose mother, Dolores Moffett, has been a resident at Our Lady of Mercy Life Center for over two years, said she has never felt pressured by anyone at the nursing home to consider putting her mother on antipsychotic drugs.
“I’ve never encountered it,” said Bendl.
The Globe report said the Guilderland Center Nursing Home was providing 37.8 percent of residents with drugs when it wasn’t necessary. The Guilderland Center Nursing Home, over a period of two months, would not comment.
In mid-December, the state’s Department of Health found violations at the Guilderland Center Nursing Home, including three “immediate jeopardy” violations, the most serious citations, meaning the home has issues that could cause serious harm, injury, or death to a resident.
The nursing home is owned by Guilderland Realty Holdings Corp.
The violations had to be resolved immediately, and the nursing home was fined $5,050 per day for 15 days, as well as $250 per day for other, smaller infractions.
The Guilderland Center Nursing Home was required to submit a plan of correction, which will be reviewed by the department of health, followed by another inspection.
There are a variety of things to look at and consider to improve the state and finances of nursing homes, said Rozak, including changing programs or introducing new programs to keep people in their homes longer.
Hale said Our Lady of Mercy Life Center has introduced new measures to try to cut down on the use of antipsychotic drugs in cases where they aren’t strictly necessary.
“We use a lot of non-pharmacological approaches, like validation therapy, sensory stimulation, massage, aromatherapy, re-direction, and decreasing stimulation in the environment,” said Hale.
Dolores Moffett is benefiting from those techniques, said Bendl.
“I like the hands-on approach they have; the residents are not just put off somewhere to look around and be by themselves,” Bendl said.
It’s the law
The Guilderland Town Board voted in July to ban hydraulic fracturing in town – a place where there is no interest in hydrofracking.
High-volume hydraulic fracturing is a drilling process used by oil companies to reach shale deposits, “done in multiple stages, typically using 300,000 to 600,000 gallons of water per stage,” according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
The DEC released a copy of its supplemental generic environmental impact statement for hydrofracking in Sept. 2011; the document reviews the potential environmental impacts of the process and how to minimize the impacts.
Hydrofracking has become a controversial issue, as some studies show that the drilling could hit water sources, causing chemicals to be released into water supplies, and the gas extraction could also release methane.
The DEC has responsibility for granting permits for drilling, but some argue that municipalities can exercise some control over hydraulic fracturing by using their zoning laws. Local towns, including New Scotland and the Hilltowns, explored that option, since they sit atop the Marcellus Shale formation. Guilderland does not.
The Marcellus Shale formation is the largest source of domestic natural gas discovered in the United States, and drilling has already occurred in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Although Guilderland is not on the Marcellus Shale formation, or any shale formation, Supervisor Kenneth Runion said, “It is better to be proactive than reactive.”
He noted that the Watervliet Reservoir, which provides drinking water to Guilderland, must be protected.
The town law, passed on July 3, prohibits prospecting, geophysical and geologic seismic surveying, and sampling techniques, including core and rotary drilling.
In May, the town board amended its ethics law, originally passed in 2002.
The change to the code of ethics makes the town court subject to the ethics laws, which it previously was not.
Under the code, town officers and employees are required to sign an annual disclosure statement, which Runion described as a questionnaire, meant to determine whether an individual has conflicts with a certain position.
The town court employees did not fall under this requirement with the former ethics code, but, with the amendment, all court employees aside from judges are now required to sign a statement annually.
Part of the reason the courts are now subject to the disclosure agreement is a conflict of interest that flared when former town board member Warren Redlich, an attorney, wanted to represent clients in Guilderland Town Court.
The ethics board found that Redlich could not represent clients in Guilderland Town Court, because, as a member of the town board, he was responsible for making decisions related to the court, including salaries, benefits, hiring, and firing.
Runion said that, although there had never been lawyers before Redlich employed by the town who wanted to practice in the town court, including the court in the ethics code builds an extra layer of protection.
The amended code also changed the number of members of the same political party allowed on the board from two to three, and removed a stipulation that New York State employees could not serve on the board.
In the community
More than 400 residents of McKownville petitioned the town board for a taxable drainage district, and, in November, the board voted to hire Delaware Engineering to draft a map outlining a potential district.
The drainage district, explained Donald Reeb, president of the McKownville Improvement Association, would allow the town to take over the maintenance of the sewer systems in the neighborhood, for the cost of 26 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation for each household in the district.
Some houses have sewer systems that are maintained by the town, but others have systems that are self-maintained, and those sometimes get neglected. Since the town-maintained and self-maintained sewers are interconnected, said Reeb, when the self-maintained systems aren’t cleaned, it leads to blockages throughout the whole district.
McKownville has been plagued with flooding and drainage problems for more than 30 years, and Reeb said that establishing the drainage district could be the first step toward fixing the extensive water problems.
If the drainage district were established, the town would collect the tax for it at the same time it collects other town taxes, on the first of the year. The highway department could spend the money only in the drainage district.
More than a dozen residents spoke at the public hearing in November, most in favor of the district, and a few with questions and concerns.
Several residents talked about their basements flooding frequently, overburdened sump pumps, and fire department pump-outs. Most mentioned that they felt their home and property values were significantly lowered by the flooding problems.
Maureen Wren, who bought her house in McKownville two years ago, is one of the residents who has not experienced flooding, and she did not sign the petition. She said she had not decided if she was against the drainage district because she had several questions and concerns.
She said she was disappointed that the town had not pursued options for a long-term fix.
“I believe this town is absolving itself of its basic, financial responsibilities to repair or replace this aging infrastructure,” said Wren.
Supervisor Kenneth Runion said the entire system would need to be replaced eventually.
“Maintaining the current drainage system would be a stop-gap measure,” Runion said.
The cost of replacing the entire system could be upwards of $6 million, but, according to the supervisor, establishing the drainage district could put the town in a better position for receiving a multi-million dollar grant.
At the close of the public hearing, Runion made it clear that hiring Delaware Engineering to draw up a map did not mean that the drainage district would be approved in the long run.
Another public hearing will be scheduled in the new year, after the engineering company finishes the map.
Nearly three years after residents approved a $5 million bond for a new firehouse, the Westmere Fire District still hasn’t been able to move into the new structure on Western Avenue.
At a special meeting last January, the board of fire commissioners voted to terminate the contractor, DooleyMack Co.
The contractor was fired based on a number of issues with the project, including inadequate paperwork, failure to pay subcontractors, and problems with the quality of work, according to Sean Maguire, fire commissioner.
The new firehouse was proposed early in the winter of 2010, and, in March 2010, 254 people, out of the 377 who voted, approved the $5.27 million bond required for building the firehouse. The bond resulted in a tax increase of 24 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation for those who live in the fire district. The increase went into effect in January 2011.
DooleyMack Co. was required to put up bonds and have the backing of an insurance company, so when the fire district made the decision to fire the contractor, it triggered the obligations of the insurance company, which guarantees that the project will continue to have financial backing.
The new firehouse is an increase in size from 15,000 square feet to almost 22,000 square feet, and is built several feet further back from Western Avenue. The new bays are 14 feet wide rather than eight feet, and the building has energy-efficient heating and cooling systems, more office space, modern meeting rooms, and separate men’s and women’s showers.
The garage behind the firehouse has already been completed, and serves as home base for the district until the building is finished.
“It’s disappointing to have delays on the project,” said Maguire, “but this is nothing too alarming.”
Maguire told The Enterprise this week that the district was granted a temporary certificate of occupancy from the town and can run the station from the garage while the interior office work is finished.
The goal, he said, is to have the entire project completed within the next 30 to 90 days.
In October 2011, residents of a neighborhood near Crossgates Mall became concerned when they noticed houses owned by Pyramid Companies were being boarded up.
At the time, Joseph Castaldo, the general manager of the mall, said that Pyramid, which owns the mall, owns 14 properties in the residential neighborhood fronting the mall, which it had been leasing to tenants.
Castaldo could not be reached for comment this week.
After a complaint from a tenant living in a house on Gabriel Terrace, about cracks in the basement walls, Pyramid had an engineer inspect the rental houses, and found multiple issues, said Castaldo. He said the tenants were asked to move out, and the houses were boarded up for security, until the company could decide whether to demolish or repair them.
“It looks like holy hell here,” said Stephen Cadalso, in 2011. Cadalso owns a home on Rielton Court. “The plywood went up and the ‘Keep Out’ signs with no explanation.”
In November 2011, a neighborhood meeting was held at the home of Judith England, who lives on Gabriel Terrace, and the group of neighbors drafted a letter to send to Michael Shanley, a partner in the Pyramid Companies, detailing their concerns. They sent a copy of the letter to Supervisor Runion.
Runion scheduled a meeting between himself, the neighborhood residents, Castaldo, and Shanley for later that month. After the meeting, crews driving Crossgates trucks showed up in the neighborhood, took down the boards, and cleaned up the lawns of the vacant properties.
The answers received at the meeting, said England, included Shanley’s assurance of no expansion plans for the mall; a promise to evaluate each of the evicted properties in order of condition, starting with the worst; a commitment not to demolish any structure without replacing it; and an agreement to be more accessible to members of the community in the event of future problems.
However, said England, Shanley did not commit to any time frame.
At the end of the meeting, Runion asked Shanley if he would commit to demolishing the two houses in the greatest state of deterioration, as a show of good faith to the residents.
Shanley, according to England, would not take a stand, even when pressed, except to say that the “no demolition without rebuilding” would not apply to those two houses.
This past November, one year after the meeting, England wrote an e-mail to Castaldo stating that not much had changed over the past 12 months. She expressed concern over the possibility that a resident in the neighborhood wishing to sell a home would not be able to recoup his or her investment because of all the vacant properties.
Cadalso said this week that the two properties fronting Route 20, in the greatest state of deterioration, were demolished, but nothing else was done.
“Cutting the grass was pretty much a one-time thing and they haven’t cleaned up the leaves at all,” he said. “The only thing they’ve done recently is put up some cheesy wreaths and a wooden reindeer at some of the houses.”