By Marcello Iaia
WESTERLO — Town officials in 2012 focused their energies on maintaining buildings, studying hydraulic fracturing, and repairing roads still damaged after Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.
The costs of allowing private haulers to dump at the transfer station were called into question by a former councilman. The cost of fixing the leaking roof above the old town hall, however, was put front and center when the state-set tax cap was broken for its repair.
Tracey Zetsche was charged with the murder of her son in the apartment they shared above the P&L Deli this summer. The crime stunned those who knew her for the brief time she lived in Westerlo.
The year concluded with two councilmen resigning and a new highway superintendent appointed just before the Jan. 3 re-organizational meeting for 2013.
The town board passed a law in April to deal with buildings deemed unsafe, while the highway department has been kept busy in the aftermath of tropical storms Irene and Lee with repairs or with processing paperwork for recovery projects.
In February, building inspector Edwin Lawson told the town board there was no adequate legal means of dealing with unsafe or abandoned structures in town, including one building with accumulated garbage and another that had been burned out.
“What they have is people in there vandalizing the property, taking out all the copper pipes, and the heat, and the rest of it — destroying the property more,” Lawson said at the meeting. “This law is an attempt to address those types of situations and hopefully give us a mechanism to take care of those situations.”
Town Attorney Aline Galgay said the current relevant local law required state Supreme Court action, and was basically “useless.”
Local Law #1, discussed at the February meeting, is titled the “Unsafe buildings, collapsed structures and burned out buildings” law.
The law defines an unsafe structure, and specifies the actions of the board in response to a report from the building inspector. Board members may visit the site themselves, and can resolve to have any unsafe buildings demolished or repaired, with costs to the town collected in real property taxes.
Regarding one current property Lawson noted at the meeting, Galgay said the insurance company was waiting on the town.
“The town hasn’t stepped in and made any declaration as to the severity of the damage to the structure, so the insurance company is waffling on what they’re willing to pay out,” said Galgay.
The town’s own roof above the old town hall on County Route 401 is leaking, and its $150,000 repair increased the 2013 tax levy beyond the 2-percent cap set by the state in 2011.
Supervisor Richard Rapp told The Enterprise in December that the levy would be around 5 percent, and that the cap was overridden last year because of bond payments on trucks for the highway deparment.
The $2.69 million spending plan for 2013 was passed 4-0 by the board in November.
The old town hall, since the town offices have been moved to the former Westerlo School, is now used for the town court, as a State Trooper satellite office, and for the highway department, where water has swollen areas of the ceiling after rainfall.
Reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency have not all been received, Rapp said. He estimated that $600,000 in FEMA funds for damages sustained in 2011 during tropical storms Irene and Lee have come in, with more on the way. Repairs to Lobdell Mill Road and Tan Hollow Road have been completed, but further work will be done this coming spring.
“I want them to run on it in the winter, pack it down, and then put more stone on, then pave it,” said Rapp, speaking about Lobdell Mill Road after the Dec. 4 board meeting. “That’ll be a good road when it’s done.”
Keith Wright is the new highway superintendent, appointed recently to replace John Nevins, who retired in October. Wright said large repair projects on both Tan Hollow and Lobdell Mill roads were done by Callanan Industries Inc., which filled in the washed-out roads and restored their banks.
Paving on Tan Hollow, Wright estimated, would cost $140,000 and, on Lobdell Mill, $17,000.
Other storm damage from over a year ago, on Boomhower Road, will be repaired by Callanan’s installing two large culvert pipes.
Funding for repairs needed after Irene and Lee is 75 percent reimbursable through FEMA, with the other 25 percent coming from the state.
Additional road maintenance and repair was done after the storms by Wright’s eight highway workers.
“Our ditches and the streams were all fixed from Irene, so everything held up real well when we had that heavy rain,” said Wright of storms this past November.
Resign and appoint
Board members Gregory Zeh and Edward Rash submitted their resignations on Nov. 7.
Zeh was deputy supervisor and praised for his budget savvy and computer skills. He is vice president and chief information officer at Golub Corp., which owns Price Chopper Supermarkets.
Rash was the board’s most senior member, after Rapp, having worked in town government for 25 years.
Zeh’s resignation was effective the day he submitted his letter, because he had sold his Westerlo residence that day to live in Loundonville and be closer to his wife’s family.
The job description for the town highway superintendent should be changed, Zeh told The Enterprise after his resignation, so that a commissioner of public works could be positioned to oversee the parks, water system, and building maintenance. He added that shared services and consolidation among these costly aspects of government should be examined to contain spending.
Rash served through December. He told The Enterprise he was spread thin with his board obligations as he is a full-time marketing and sales manager at Hannay Reels, Inc. and wants to enjoy his time camping with his wife and fly-fishing.
With a year remaining in his term after December, Rash said he also hoped to offer the chance for another, younger person to come to the board by appointment.
“I got in that way,” said Rash. “It’s good to have a trial basis. It gives the appointee and the town more time to get to know each other.”
The all-Democrat board would advertise the positions in The Enterprise, said Rapp, adding that he planned to approach two different people about their interest in filling the vacancies.
At the November meeting, the board named Lawson as deputy supervisor. Lawson does not have a vote, but the designation allows him to assume procedural responsibilities, like signing checks, in case Rapp is unable.
The board voted on Dec. 4 to appoint Wright, a highway department foreman, to replace Nevins, who retired as highway superintendent in October.
Unopposed, Nevins was re-elected to the post in November 2011.
Former councilman Jack Milner spoke at the December meeting, announcing that he would assume chairmanship of the local Republican Part Committee and hoped to see bi-partisanship on the board.
Death above the deli
Tracey Zetzsche was arrested for second-degree murder at the end of July when it was discovered that she had been living with the dead body of her disabled 22-year-old son for days, police said.
The body of Gabriel Philby-Zetzsche was found beaten and stabbed in their apartment above the P&L Deli, at the corner of routes 143 and 401. While searching the apartment, investigators found a hammer, a knife, and blood-soaked clothes in the garbage.
Zetzsche had lived in the Hilltowns, coming from Long Island, for only a few months, working various jobs, always her son’s caretaker, her employers told The Enterprise. She brought Philby-Zetzsche with her to work at the VanWinkle Inn where she cleaned rooms. In just the few weeks before her arrest, Zetzsche also worked in Greenville as a chambermaid in the Hollowbrook Inn.
Leading up to the end of July, Zetzsche was having trouble paying rent and, according to VanWinkle Inn co-owner Holly Tobin, she was doing her job less and “acting strange.”
A release from the Albany County Sheriff’s Office said she told investigators that “she could not remember what had happened or how she obtained the bruising and lacerations to her hands and body.”
Albany County public defender James Milstein, who is representing Zetzsche, told The Enterprise both parties would share discovery materials on Jan. 4, 2013. He would not comment further on the case.
Transfer station accusation
Milner, a Republican who was ousted from his board seat in the 2011 election after raising concerns about scrap metal being taken from the transfer station, asserted in June that revenue from the transfer station was driven down by private haulers dumping garbage from homes and businesses outside of Westerlo.
While on the board, Milner stressed that, not only were goods being traded at the transfer station but that the manager was taking scrap and selling it for his own profits, losing the town money in the process. Despite the town’s brief investigation into the matter and its stricter amendments to the solid-waste law, the revenue numbers from the Westerlo station continued to remain lower than other towns’.
In 2011, Westerlo got $4,235 for 58 tons sold to Rensselaer Iron and Steel — an increase over three years ago, but only a fraction of what other similar towns recoup now.
Milner said the two private haulers, Ronald Stipe and MJ Westerlo Rubbish Removal, should take their loads straight to the Rapp Road landfill used by 14 area municipalities.
Private haulers are sometimes given keys to town transfer stations, and pay a small fee. At Westerlo, they pay $50 a year to use the station. Their tonnage is not calculated separately from the rest of the garbage that town residents bring in on their own. The town has to pay to dispose of the garbage.
In 2010, Westerlo, with its 3,500 residents, spent $92,097.72 hauling 1,771 tons of garbage. That same year, Berne, with its 2,900 residents, spent less than half of that, at $44,148.52, hauling 849 tons of garbage. And Knox, with its 2,700 residents, spent $54,254.72 hauling 1,043 tons.
Rapp said that he is “not convinced” that private hauling adds any significant cost to the town.
Committee for caution
At its first meeting of 2012, the town board voted unanimously to establish a committee to study the potential impacts of the controversial gas drilling process of hydraulic fracturing.
Neighboring Rensselaerville and Berne have both produced reports from designated research committees on the process, called hydrofracking.
Alfred Field, the newest board member, volunteered to represent the board on the committee.
High-volume hydraulic fracturing is a drilling process used by gas 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.
Westerlo is located on the edge of the Marcellus Shale formation.
While the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation has authority to grant permits for drilling, and state law gives it regulatory power, municipalities have looked to leverage moratoriums and zoning laws as a means of deterring drilling.
Lawson said drilling in a different town could potentially affect Westerlo.
“The chemicals used to do the hydrofracking with high-pressure water are proprietary chemicals,” said Lawson. “If you had to clean up the spill, and you don’t know what you’re dealing with, I think you’re in a little bit of trouble.”
The board later passed a law in August to establish a one-year moratorium on gas drilling, and to “suspend administrative review, approval process and/or drilling activities associated with the production of natural gas.”