To cheers, Westerlo completes contract with Mid-Hudson Cable

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Ned Stevens questions councilman Richard Filkins on why he said Westerlo should undergo townwide property revaluation.

WESTERLO — The town has agreed to a contract with Mid-Hudson Cable and has also convinced the volunteer fire company to forego $11,000 which it had planned to use for a building fund.

Councilman Joseph Boone said at Tuesday’s town board meeting that he, along with Councilman Anthony Sherman and William Bichteman, who did not get re-elected, had met with the fire board in what he described as “a very open and candid meeting.” Boone said the fire board’s acquiescence was “greatly appreciated by the town board.”

“The taxpayers thank them too,” said a man in the gallery.

Supervisor Richard Rapp said it was too late to change the town’s budget total. “The bills are printed and mailed out,” he said, adding, “It will be worked out, I’m sure.”

Rapp said an interest-bearing account would be set up for the $11,000. “It’s going to sit there till next year,” he said.

Anita Marrone, a Westerlo resident, asked from the gallery if the fire company had been aware the town was hiring a grant writer for $10,000. “It seems like you say you need money for one and then hire another,” said Marrone.

“I believe the grant writer was done after that,” said Boone, noting talks with the fire board started in early December.

Commenting on the need for a grant writer, rather than the town getting state funds through local representatives, Edwin “Ned” Stevens said, “Now we’re involved in the Upstate Hunger Games. Now we all have to beg the governor.”

Boone also said he had talked with the town attorney, Aline Galgay, with Rapp and with Rapp’s assistant, Patty Boyce, about the town’s contract with Mid-Hudson Cable. “What we have here is a complete and final copy,” said Boone, commending the “yeoman’s work” done by the town’s cable committee.

“Then it has to go to the PSC for their approval,” said Dorothy Verch of the Public Service Commission. Verch chairs Westerlo’s planning board and serves on the Broadband Research Committee.

“We’ll take those actions promptly,” said Boone.

“Yay!” responded Verch and the audience applauded.

Although Boone said no resolution was needed, Sherman made one. “That way we’re done,” he said, and the other board members approved it.

“Everybody?” said Boone to the crowd of several dozen.

“Aye!” came the cry from the gallery.

“You’ve gotten as much as you possibly can for the town,” said Sherman to the committee members.

“Wait till we get the franchise fees,” said Verch.

On Wednesday, Leonard Laub, a member of the Broadband Research Committee, credited Verch for her persistence in getting a good contract with Mid-Hudson. “We effectively negotiated with Mid-Hudson, getting them to do things they initially had no interest in doing,” Laub told The Enterprise. Because Mid-Hudson wanted a 15-year contract, Laub said, that became “the means to get them to expand coverage and cough up the money they had not sent to Westerlo.”

He explained that the company had neglected to pay the required funds for residents who lived in Westerlo but had addresses naming other municipalities like Greenville or Berne. “That’s almost $4,000 for one billing period already. It will amount to quite a bit of money,” he said.

New year, new board member

Richard Filkins was sworn in as Westerlo’s newest councilman on New Year’s Day. A Republican newcomer to politics, he had ousted Bichteman, a longtime Democratic councilman, in the November elections. Democratic incumbent Boone was the top vote-getter.

Filkins joins another Republican on the board; Aimie Burnside was elected two years ago in a town long dominated by Democrats.

During the annual reorganizational meeting, which preceded Tuesday’s regular town board meeting, the board sailed through a long list, setting schedules and salaries, and making routine appointments.

The only vote that wasn’t unanimous was the vote to make The Altamont Enterprise the town’s official newspaper. After Councilman Sherman said “nay,” scattered applause from the gallery followed.

“Rich, I want to say congratulations and welcome,” said Rapp.

Filkins replied by thanking the voters who’d elected him and said, “I hope I do a good job and make you proud you put me up here.”

He later came under scrutiny by Ned Stevens, a planning board member who was reappointed. Referring to a pre-election profile in The Enterprise, Stevens said to Filkins, “You said we need new assessments.”

“A lot of people in town haven’t been surveyed,” said Filkins. He said some people have been on the same farm for five generations and, although no longer farming, are “still getting farm status.” He asked, “How is that fair to anyone else?”

“Every year we send out renewals,” said Claire Marshall, a clerk to the assessor, speaking from the back of the gallery. “They have to prove” they are farming in order to get an agricultural exemption, she said.

Stevens asked Filkins what he thought revaluation would do to the town.

“You don’t know unless you try,” answered Filkins.

“Our land is very low,” said Marshall. In the event of revaluation, she said, “Most people in town will see an increase in taxes … Very few people would be lowered,” she said, noting she had worked in the assessor’s office for 20 years.

The town of Westerlo hasn’t been reassessed in decades so the state-set equalization rate for Westerlo is less than 1 percent of full-market value, the lowest by far in Albany County.

What tends to happen without regular town-wide revaluation is that land which has been in a family for years, even generations, often doesn’t get assessed at the same value as new property is sold for. This means newcomers to town frequently pay an unfair share of taxes, a situation commonly known as “Welcome stranger.”

If a municipality revalues property fairly, it doesn’t mean that more taxes will be paid; rather, the taxes will just be distributed differently.

Stevens also said he was “tired of all the bashing in the newspaper,” referring to “three people” who have written letters to the Enterprise editor. “I see how the elections go down,” Stevens said, regretting Bichteman’s ouster.

Stevens also recommended posting all town reports and payments on the internet. Town Clerk Kathleen Spinnato responded, “For security reasons … I don’t want it all over the internet.”

Rapp took offense at the implication his government wasn’t above board. Referring to bills the town board pays and reviews monthly, Rapp said, “Every time for 45 years, they lay right there.” He gestured to the board table.

The objection was also raised that posting to the website would take staff time.

Lisa DeGroff, Westerlo’s Republican Party chairwoman, spoke from the gallery, suggesting a middle course. Rather than posting financial records on the town’s website, she recommended that Westerlo’s new accounting firm print out QuickBooks records and have them available for citizens to look at before meetings.

“How long have you been in town?” asked Stevens.

“From April 2007,” responded DeGroff.

“I’ve been coming to these meetings for 20 years,” said Stevens.

“Write a letter to the editor saying that,” suggested Betty Filkins, the councilman’s wife, from the gallery.

“This is not open comment,” said Boone.

Stevens also questioned Councilman Filkins on a statement he had made in his Enterprise election profile. “You said you’d work on internet access,” said Stevens, asking what Filkins had done since being elected two months before.

“Nothing yet,” said Filkins, adding of the Enterprise editor who conducted the interview, “Maybe she didn’t put down what I said.”

“They never do,” chimed in Rapp.

“He got sworn in yesterday,” said Betty Filkins from the gallery.” She went on to quip, chiding her husband, “You’ve had 24 hours.”

Boone called for “decorum.”

“A guy that did a lot of work behind the scenes isn’t up here anymore,” said Stevens, referring to Bichteman.

Later in the meeting, two women who have had letters to the editor published in The Enterprise, spoke.

“I’m against bullying and sour grapes,” said Marrone. “I think The Altamont Enterprise is great … I believe in democracy, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press.”

Diane Sefcik said that Westerlo was starting the new year with a board that has “more political diversity.”

She said, “We have to learn as people to work together.” She also said, “If people don’t agree with you, that doesn’t mean they are wrong.”

Finally, she suggested that the board invite Robert Freeman, the executive director of the state’s Committee on Open Government, to speak with the board. She said he was willing to come and would do so for free.

“We’d all have an education … we could bring to our meetings,” Sefcik concluded.

On Wednesday, Laub, who regularly attends board meetings, said he was “thrilled” with how the first meeting of the new year went. “Things are not so bitterly divided,” he said. “The interaction between the town board and the audience was fluid.”

“Positive proposal”

DeGroff told the board she would like to organize a “Get to Know Westerlo” community event on March 10, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. She chose the date to coincide with the fire department’s breakfast and envisions residents that day visiting the firehouse, the library, the museum, and the town hall.  Tables would be set up at the town hall, staffed by various groups and officials in town, to explain what they have to offer.

“I’m willing to organize it,” said DeGroff. “It should be a minimal cost … My hope is employees might give an hour or two … to share with residents what they do.”

DeGroff described it as a “feel-good community event.” She also said, “I just want to do something nice for the town, to bring the town together..”

She concluded, “I’ll do the work. I just want support.”

Sherman responded that it could be a violation of the state’s Open Meetings Law.

“It’s not just a feel-good event. There is some officiality,” said Boone, noting residents might ask officials about policy.

DeGroff said the event wouldn’t be a meeting and, to avoid having a board quorum, members could staff a table in shifts.

Praise

Members of the gallery broke into enthusiastic applause twice more to show approval. The first time was for an announcement made by Kelley Keefe, president of the Westerlo Volunteer Fire Company.

After noting the calendars had gone out and envelopes for contributions will follow, she said there would be a contest for people to guess the identities of firefighters and auxiliary members from long-ago pictures printed in the calendar.

Then she announced that six new firefighters were in the company’s ranks after completing over 100 hours of training. Four of them are busy high school seniors, she said of the two young women and four young men: Samantha Filkins, Sarah Swack, Will Creter, Ryan Haller, Liam O’Connor, and James Dutton.

“We’re lucky to have them,” said Keefe.

Dutton was present at the meeting and broke into a wide smile when the crowd clapped.

Keefe told The Enterprise afterward that Dutton’s father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had all been members of the Westerlo volunteer company. She also noted that Samantha Filkins was a fourth-generation member of the department.

On Wednesday, Keefe emailed The Enterprise more information on Samantha Filkins, showing generations of family commitment for both genders: “Her parents are Donald and Debra Filkins. Don is a past chief and Deb is a lieutenant. They met as members of the company. Don’s parents, Ralph and Rosemary Filkins, are Life Members of our company. Deb’s father, Bill Haller, who is also Ryan Haller’s grandfather (making Ryan and Samantha cousins) was a Life Member. Additionally, both Deb’s and Don’s grandparents were firefighters ... Samantha’s younger sister, Nicole, is a junior member now and joined just a smidgen too late to be in this class, but she will be in the next one.”

“We really are a big family,” Keefe concluded.

The second round of enthusiastic applause came after John Sefcik praised Spinnato for her work allowing Westerlo residents to pre-pay property taxes after the governor had temporarily amended state law so that New Yorkers could claim deductions that the new federal tax law otherwise doesn’t allow.

“It was my whole staff,” said Spinnato.

Boone named Gertrude Smith, Carla Weaver, and Claire Marshall “and some family members” who pitched in to get the job done. On Wednesday, Spinnato added Peter Hotaling who “got the tax rolls ready.”

Other business

In other business, the board:

— Passed motions to formalize initiatives that had been agreed upon during the December town board meeting — hiring a new accounting firm, Marvin and Company, and hiring Nicole Ambrosio as a grant administrator, for $10,000;

— Heard from Rapp that bathroom upgrades at the town hall are complete. “It’s a lot better than going outside in this weather,” he quipped;

— Heard from Boone that public hearings will be held on Jan. 16 for establishing a Cold War veterans’ exemption, and for the extension of the water district;

— Heard from Rapp an update on the heating system at Town Hall. “The furnace is down cellar,” he said. “Some of it is hooked up; some isn’t.” He said there were problems in getting needed parts;

— Heard a report from Virginia Mangold who chairs the zoning board, saying no meeting was held in December and the board will meet next on Jan. 22. Boone read her report since she was sick;

— Heard a report from Verch, who chairs the planning board, about two public hearings on Dec. 20 for two new solar applications. Borrego’s project to build solar arrays at Shepard Farm was approved, 4 to 1, with Ned Stevens dissenting because he didn’t get an answer he sought. No negotiations have been conducted as yet, said Verch. (see related story)

Cyprus Creek’s project lacks access from Route 405, said Verch, and the public hearing on that application will resume on Jan. 13. On that date, the Clean Energy Collective will also have its arrays commented on by the public;

— Had a free-ranging discussion with members of the gallery about problems with waste disposal in town as outsiders use Westerlo’s transfer station, and as the cost of garbage disposal increases. Stevens said putting in a scale for garbage and making people pay by weight would “slow to a crawl” activity at the transfer station.

“You put a scale up there, it will look like the line at the marijuana dispensary in California,” said Stevens.

DeGroff recommended forming a group with citizens and a board member to develop a long-range plan. “Now’s the time to start that discussion before the budget,” she said.

Spinnato noted residents may apply for permits to use the transfer station;

— Heard from zoning board member John Sefcik that it would make more sense to stagger zoning-board appointments to “get it back on cycle.” Both Guy Weidman and Chairwoman Virginia Mangold were up for reappointment. Mangold was appointed for a term to end in 2022, and Weidman for a term to end in 2019. Because Wilfred Van Iderstine resigned mid-term, James Gallogly was appointed to serve until the end of 2021;

— Heard from Rapp that the town is no longer using Delaware Engineering;

— Appointed Councilwoman Burnside as the appeals officer for Freedom of Information Law requests. Spinnato is the town’s FOIL officer; and

— Heard from Boone that, with Bichteman’s absence, no one has stepped up to chair the Water District Board. According to law, the three board members must live in the district.

The town board agreed to mail a letter to the 80 or so water-district residents, seeking a new board member.
 

 

More Hilltowns News

  • After town board members expressed concerns about insurance and other issues in posting banners to honor veterans, someone representing the town committee working on the project wrote letters critical of the town board.

  • Scott Green who was fired by the town of Berne two years ago following a dispute over health insurance, was charged with harassment last month after apparently visiting town hall.

  • As some Berne-Knox-Westerlo parents use a Facebook group to discuss bullying in the school, Superintendent Timothy Mundell announced that he would be working with community members to review the district’s code of conduct and other disciplinary measures.