By Marcello Iaia
RENSSELAERVILLE — The most southwestern town of Albany County ended 2011 and began 2012 with a bang.
In the wake of tropical storms Irene and Lee in the fall of 2011, residents voted to oust board Democrats, resulting in the resignation of the supervisor in January 2012.
Valerie Lounsbury, the newly appointed Republican supervisor, led the town through a budget that narrowly kept the tax levy within the state-set 2-percent cap.
While much clean-up had been done, a Rensselaerville resident and emergency services expert voiced concerns that the town’s waterways were not adequately prepared after Irene for more extreme flooding.
The campus for the non-profit Rensselaerville Institute became the new home of the Carey Center for Global Good, funded, before he died, by a long-time trustee of the institute and Rensselaerville resident.
A committee cited the town’s adherence, in its comprehensive plan, to preserve agriculture and water resources. Created to research potential impacts of the controversial drilling process of hydraulic fracturing, the committee recommended that the board ban heavy industry with updates to zoning law.
amid stormy waters
For the first time since 2007, Democrats did not dominate the town board. Voters in Rensselaerville are enrolled as Democrats by more than double the number of Republicans.
The new board voted in January to remove the position of town attorney, held by Democrat John Catalano, and appoint the firm of Tabner, Ryan, and Keniry of Albany as attorney to the town. Catalano, a town resident, was chosen to replace the Albany firm in 2008.
Later that month, Supervisor Marie Dermody, a Democrat, submitted her letter of resignation.
“The ‘culture’ created by the present town board majority has made it almost impossible for me to continue making forward progress for the town of Rensselaerville,” Dermody wrote in her letter.
With a majority in October, the board’s Democrats voted down a motion to allow public comment after an update on roadwork and a vote to make the board the lead agency handling the Irene aftermath. It dealt a blow to Democrats, which Conservative Councilman Robert Bolte said led to the power shift in the November election, when he won his seat.
Democrat Victor La Plante had retired for medical reasons after 24 years as town judge and accepted the position of deputy supervisor in January. But when Dermody resigned, he left as well, calling it a “matter of ethics.”
“If the person who appointed you resigned, shouldn’t the new supervisor have the same opportunity to appoint a deputy?” asked La Plante.
La Plante spent 25 years working for the New York State Police before being elected to the town bench. Public service, he said, was a value instilled in him growing up on a dairy farm in Rensselaerville.
His advice to other town judges was, “Be who you are.”
“The town elected you for your capabilities and your intellect, to carry on,” he said, addressing judges Gregory Bischoff, and Timothy Miller.
Board members said in February that a special election for a new supervisor, which could cost $5,000, was not feasible for the town, which needed leadership quickly.
Republican Lounsbury was appointed as deputy supervisor immediately following the resignations of Dermody and La Plante.
The board appointed her as supervisor at the following meeting in February. Lounsbury had served a four-year term as councilwoman in the 1990s, and worked as a private accountant for years. She gave up a job as a receptionist to work for the town.
“She knows accounting, and I think she’s got the town’s interest at heart,” Bolte said of Lounsbury. “You really need to have someone who’s well versed in accounting, and most people that are well versed in accounting are out in the private sector working.”
At the February meeting, Albany County Comptroller Michael Conners spoke about his office’s ability to train the new supervisor and other town employees in the Municipal Information Systems accounting software. The comptroller’s audit of the town in 2011 reported an inadequate accounting system.
“You guys were at a critical point to have somebody leave,” Conners said of Dermody’s resignation.
Lounsbury was unopposed in the November 2012 election, following weeks of her warnings that the inherited fiscal condition of the town could push the tax-levy increase beyond the state-set 2-percent cap, which requires a supermajority of the town board.
The board voted to override the cap in October, but passed the 2013 budget in November with a tax-levy increase just under the cap.
Lounsbury’s pay was increased when the other four board members chose to each contribute $500 of their $3,500 annual salaries for her $2,000 raise.
Board members defended their decision when residents criticized it at a hearing just days before the budget vote.
“We wanted to do that last year and there was some councilman that did not want to do it,” said Deputy Supervisor Marion Cooke, a Conservative. “She [Lounsbury] gave up a job to be here, to get these books straightened out.”
Many residents suggested the newsletter that was abolished in the new spending plan was a vital exchange of community information for seniors without computers, and for library and fire company events.
Irene, Lee, and Sandy
In her first order of business at the February board meeting, Lounsbury said the town’s flood insurance would not cover repairs to the Preston Hollow park, which was severly washed out during Tropical Storm Irene, because it lies in a flood plain.
Highway Superintendent Randall Bates said another site in Preston Hollow, which sustained $244,000-worth of flood damage, is eligible for government funding.
Commonly referred to as the Honor Roll because it once displayed a list of local war veterans, the site sits along the Catskill Creek and was used to fill fire trucks with water.
When the prospect of severe flooding was on the horizon with Hurricane Sandy forecasted to make landfall at the end of October, Brian Wood, Albany County Emergency Medical Services unit coordinator, told The Enterprise of his concern that the Honor Roll, and other local sites of Irene damage, were still vulnerable.
“The additional problem is nobody wants to sell their homes for what FEMA wants to give them,” he said of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “Now if we get any type of substantial water tomorrow, this house here will be under water,” Wood said as he drove down route 145 along the creek in October. “We tell people, look, you should get out of your house, and they go, ‘No, no no no no.’ And then water goes around their house and they’re stuck in it.”
In July, the Albany County Department of Public Works estimated the total cost of public assistance projects from Irene was over $12 million.
Borwegan Excavation and Repair in Greenville donated a day’s worth of work to restoring the Preston Hollow park in February. The company’s owner, Ralph Borwegan, estimated its was $3,500 of work, filling in its eroded banks and laying large stones to restore them.
Borwegan owns a car wash in Preston Hollow and said he is friends with Lounsbury and her husband, Joel.
Additional work was done to the park when a group of inmates from the Albany County Correctional Facility helped clean it of debris in April for the second time.
“Trees, brush, they cleaned that up; raked up the picnic area; and we got the picnic tables cleaned up and got them set back out,” said Gerald Wood, then the town’s critical incident officer. “They went through the field, picked up all the stone, and they picked up all the fencing that lay along the creek.”
Close to home
In October, the committee to research the controversial drilling process of hydraulic fracturing presented its findings, after a year of weekly meetings.
A review of the potential impacts of the process, known as hydrofracking, led the committee members to consider its costs and risks a poor match for the committment to rural character and agriculture stated in the town’s comprehensive plan. They recommended a ban on heavy industries in Rensselaerville.
According to state law, town laws must be consistent with their respective comprehensive plans.
“What people out here generally like are cottage industries, businesses that restore the historic culture of the community,” said committee member Jeanette Rice after the committee presentation in October, noting the increased diversification of agriculture in the Hilltowns.
The committee’s research, led by chair John Mormile, was broken down into four parts: impacts on water; impact on roads and safety; potential impact on community character and quality of life; and impact on property values and economics.
Lounsbury told The Enterprise she would likely be opposed to gas extraction in town.
“I think I would lean towards no hydro-fracking for the town of Rensselaerville and I couldn’t have said that before this morning,” she said after the committee’s presentation.
At its December meeting, the town board voted to establish a year-long moratorium on gas-drilling in town. It was an updated version of a similar resolution for 2012.
The Carey Center for Global Good obtained a new Rensselaerville home in February to continue the tradition of the Rensselaerville Institute. The former called itself “the think tank with muddy boots.”
The campus was sold for $1.5 million to a trustee of the institute for more than 20 years, William Polk Carey.
He died at the beginning of January 2012, just as the institute was preparing to announce the sale. He was 81.
“He knew we could no longer manage the financial burden of the center, and he had long wanted to have some programs on the campus,” the institute’s president, Gillian Williams, said of Carey. “He’s got a home in Rensselaerville, he loves the town, loves the campus, had invested heavily in it over the years as a board member, and he established this Carey Center for Global Good sometime this past fall,” she told The Enterprise.