Fifty protesters march on Berne Town Hall

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Holding his own: Robert Bashwinger III, who is 9, joined his father, a part-time Berne highway worker, at Wednesday’s protest. The march started at his school, Berne-Knox-Westerlo, and ended at Town Hall. His father, a single dad, was unable to work when two full-time workers were laid off and he got no compensation, he said.

BERNE — Randy Bashwinger, Berne’s highway superintendent, led a procession of 50 down the town’s main street under darkening skies Wednesday evening. On the march from the school to Town Hall they shouted, “Berne lives matter.”

When that chant petered out, they started calling “Crosier needs to go.”

Kevin Crosier is the town’s Democratic supervisor. On March 11, he abruptly fired two of the six-man highway crew. Crosier told them they could have their jobs back if they agreed to a five-day workweek. He says townspeople don’t like their highway crew working just four days a week.

Bashwinger was out of town at the time and, like his workers, had no inkling there would be layoffs since Crosier had praised their work and the department was under budget.

Bashwinger had just announced, with the longer daylight hours, he was configuring the 40-hour workweek into four 10-hour days. Bashwinger, a Republican who took office in January 2015, says the longer days make for more efficient work and points to thousands of dollars of savings in overtime pay in the last year.

The Enterprise broke the story last Thursday. On Friday, Crosier called the laid-off workers, telling them they had their jobs back and to start work again on Monday. Crosier said, because a union contract is pending, he couldn’t comment to The Enterprise further. The workers had previously turned down a 2-percent raise for this year because they preferred the four-day workweeks.

Among those gathering for the march on Wednesday evening were several men who work part-time for the Berne Highway Department. They are not allowed to work unless the full-time crew is employed.

One of the part-time workers, Mark Young, said he came to the march because he was fed up with “political nonsense,” and he said the Taylor Law had been violated.

Another, Dave Harnett, said he came in support of the full-time workers. A third, Bob Bushnell, said he was a single father and it worried him to have his job threatened.  “It’s not right to lay guys off,” he said. “We couldn’t work then either. We had to sit home and weren’t compensated.”

The union contract stipulates that full-time workers have to be given 10 days’ notice if they are laid off; if notice isn’t given, as in this case, they are to be paid for 10 days. Crosier told The Enterprise, since the two workers were reinstated, they will be paid for just five days. The workers make $19 an hour and Crosier said that, including benefits, the town pays about $40 an hour.

 

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer
Getting ready to march, Scott Lyons of Berne, left; Sue Fusco of Knox, center; and Tom Farry of Schenectady gather for Wednesday’s protest. Farry heard about the march on a talk radio show. “I believe in fair government,” he said of his reason for coming.

 

Bushnell’s 9-year-old son marched with him. He carried a sign that said, “Bully politics” with a circle around the words and a slash through them. The corners said ABC, which stood for “Anything But Crosier.” He proudly gave his name as Robert Bushnell III.

“I know what Crosier did,” he said of the supervisor. “He laid off my dad.”

Crosier said the town had been considering hiring Bushnell full-time. “We’re not going to make a full-time job if we’re not open five days a week,” Crosier told The Enterprise after the march.

Others on the march were less directly involved. Tom Farry of Schenectady heard about the march on a talk radio show. He wore camo and carried an American flag. “I believe in fair government,” he said of his reason for coming.

Several people came from nearby highway departments in a show of solidarity. Jeff Proper, the highway superintendent for the town of Wright, said his department works four-day weeks, except in the winter.

“We’re just concerned citizens,” said Nancy Michaels, of East Berne, who came with her husband, Doug.

Betty Filkins, of Westerlo, whose son-in-law is a highway worker, took offense at Crosier being quoted by The Enterprise as saying about snow plowing, “It’s not rocket science.” She held a sign that said the phrase in capital letters.

“Rocket scientists couldn’t work the plow and the wing,” she said. “There’s no wingman anymore.” Filkins works 10-hour days at Albany Medical Center and said more work gets done with the longer shifts. “There’s less chitchat and less lunch,” she said.

Some in the crowd had filled out a form for the state’s attorney general, asserting that Crosier had acted illegally in laying off the workers.

Bill Keal and Sean Lyons, Republicans who have run unsuccessfully for office in the Democrat-dominated town, had made many of the signs that the marchers carried. “We had a brainstorming session last night,” said Lyons, to come up with slogans. “This is a breaking point,” he said of the layoffs. He also said he would be running for office again.

Asked why he wanted a march, Bashwinger said, “We had to let the residents of Berne know what’s going on behind closed doors and stop the threatening politics.”

Bashwinger said of Crosier, “He has the town hall; I have the highway garage.”

 

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer
On the move: Berne Highway Superintendent Randy Bashwinger leads 50 people down Helderberg Trail to the Berne Town Hall on Wednesday evening.

 

The march to Town Hall ended at 7 p.m. Two sheriff’s deputies were stationed in front of the building. “They just want to make sure nothing happens,” said one, when asked why he was there.

After the chanting subsided, the marchers filed into town hall.

The town board was scheduled to conduct a public hearing on an updated comprehensive plan. Few of the protesters fit in the small room; most of them stood in an adjoining room.

Crosier told them they had to leave their signs outside. Scott Lyons kept his on his lap.

“Take the sign outside or I’ll get the deputy,” said Crosier.

“Sorry, your majesty,” retorted Lyons as he exited with his sign.

The public hearing proceeded with James Cook, who had chaired the committee that updated the plan, making some comments along with a committee member, Tim Lippert.

Another resident praised the plan. “I would love to see it used and implemented and not just sit on the shelf,” he said.

A farmer questioned the need to keep cows away from creeks that were already polluted by people. One of the laid-off, now re-instated, highway workers, Peter Becker, asked, “Can we get a Stewart’s?”

And Michael Vincent, a member of the original committee that drafted the inaugural plan in 1992, said he was “speaking for people not here.”

He named an iconic Berne farmer, Harry Garry, among them and said, “We have to protect that farmland…We really care about our community character.”

The hearing closed in less than half an hour, as quietly as it had begun.

No word was spoken, on either side, of the protest.

Afterwards, The Enterprise asked the board members their reaction to the protest.

“It’s America, why not?” said Deputy Supervisor Joseph Golden.

“I could get 50 people to march for a ham sandwich,” said Crosier. “Most of the people were not from here; they’re not paying the bills.”

Crosier said neither the media coverage nor the protest had changed his mind. He reiterated that he had offered the highway workers up to eight weeks of four-day weeks. “Seven months is unacceptable and abusive,” he said.

Golden said, “Calling someone a scumbag is harsh.”

He was referring to a comment Bashwinger had made, quoted in The Enterprise. Bashwinger had said at the fall budget hearing, there was no discussion of cutting two highway employees.  “I was the only one that showed up at the budget hearing,” Bashwinger said earlier. “They moved that money without my knowing it.” Further, he called it, “a dirty, lowdown, scumbag action” and said he would not have agreed to two of his workers being cut.

“That’s not what we call civil discourse,” said Golden, who has been on the town board for 15 years and is a retired social studies teacher. “It’s hateful.”

He went on, “It’s deteriorated to the point where it’s difficult to recover. It changes the tone.”

Crosier added of Bashwinger, “He’s besmirched the town’s name.”

“I’m embarrassed for Randy Bashwinger,” said Golden. “If he wants to look me in the eye and insult me — that’s different.”

“His budget number stayed the same, at $1.5 million,” said Crosier, explaining why Bashwinger may have missed the board’s cutting two employees at his first-ever budget hearing.

“He didn’t realize we controlled the budget,” said Golden.

“The thing about a small town is we are all neighbors and we work together,” said Councilwoman Karen Schimmer. “If there is an issue, we talk about it. When you start name-calling, it becomes divisive.”

“It hurts everyone,” agreed Councilwoman Dawn Jordan.

 

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer
Shouting outside Berne Town Hall, Betty Filkins holds a sign taken from a quote in The Enterprise. She was offended that Supervisor Kevin Crosier said snowplowing is “not rocket science.” Filkins said, “Rocket scientists couldn’t work the plow and the wing.” The nearby sign, “Berne lives matter,” takes off from the “Black lives matter” movement, a campaign against violence to black people.

 

“If you say we play politics and you go to the media, who’s playing politics?” asked Golden.

“We’ve been very pleased with what Randy has done,” said Schimmer. “He’s brought the department up to snuff. We were very aware of what a great job he’d done. We supported half-a-million dollars for equipment because we knew he was doing a great job.”

“We cannot please everybody with the limited resources we have,” said Golden.

“We’re debt-free,” said Crosier, pointing to the fact that taxes haven’t been raised in three years and stating he planned to do that again for two more.

“You show me another town,” he concluded, “that reduced property taxes five years straight without reducing services.”

More Hilltowns News

  • The Berne Town Board held a public hearing on a new animal-control law this week and received mostly minor suggestions for alteration from a public that seemed largely pleased with the proposed regulations. 

  • The Albany Water Board, steward of the Basic Creek dam in Westerlo, has received $100,000 from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to come up with a design for a rehabilitation project for the high-hazard dam, which is in substandard condition.

  • A digital equity map, put together by a coalition of organizations including the New York State Education Department and the New York State Library, shows that approximately 15 percent of Hilltown households don’t have internet access, whether because they don’t have an internet subscription or because they don’t have internet-capable devices.

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