Knox Election: Two vie for supervisor while concerned citizen takes on 2 town board incumbents

KNOX —This fall, Knox residents will select a new supervisor — with a choice between Kregg Grippo, not previously involved in town government, backed by the Republican party, and Democrat Russ Pokorny, the town’s former assessor who ran for supervisor in 2019 but lost.

For town board, voters will choose among the two Republican-backed incumbents, Ken Saddlemire and Karl Pritchard, and Brigitte McAuliffe, who, on her own Accountability Party line, is making her first run for office.

The last two local election cycles have been dominated by Vasilios Lefkaditis who, after getting in place a board he backed, is not running for a third term as supervisor; he has thrown his support to Grippo.

The Enterprise reached out to all candidates to ask them questions about the issues most pressing this election cycle. All agreed except for Grippo, who would not do a phone interview.

The general questions touched on three main topics: 

Business: After many years, the Knox Town Board has managed to rezone the junction of 156 and 157 as a multi-use recreational district, which makes that area more business-friendly. However, it took as long as it did because the change was unpopular with some residents, who were worried about the impacts of commercial development on their quality of life. 

Do you support the zoning change? Has it accomplished anything yet? If you support the new zone, how will you try to attract businesses there? If not, will you try to change the zoning again, and are you interested in attracting businesses elsewhere in the town; 

Solar: With renewable energy development on the rise, towns like Westerlo and Berne have revisited and revised their solar laws and taken other steps to make sure that local government officials know how their constituents feel about solar farms and wind turbines so they’re prepared to make informed decisions about future projects. A solar project in Knox proposed on Thompsons Lake Road upset some nearby residents.

Do you think Knox needs to create new laws around renewable energy development or update old ones? What are your thoughts on renewable energy development in the town more broadly?; and

Revaluation: Knox’s last townwide revaluation was in 1997, and property assessments are currently at about half of full-market value, which can cause newcomers to pay an unfair share of taxes. But because revaluation can raise taxes for those who have lived in the town longer, it can be an unpopular endeavor.

Do you think the town should undertake a full revaluation? Why or why not?

 

Supervisor race

Russell Pokorny, 73, is a prominent community figure, whom many may know from the 14 years he spent as Knox’s assessor or the just-over-five years he spent as co-owner (along with his wife, former town board member Amy Pokorny) of the former Knox general store. 

Beyond that, he’s spent 23 years as an active member of the Knox Fire Company, and 20 years as a member of the Kiwanis Club of the Helderbergs. He’s a member of the Knox Masonic Lodge and currently owns, again with his wife, the Octagon Barn, which serves as an event space in the town. 

Now he’s running for town supervisor, as he did in 2019, when he went up against Republican-backed Democrat Vasilios Lefkaditis, a hedge-fund manager who was seeking re-election to his second term. Lefkaditis ultimately won by 60 votes, or about 6 percent of the total votes cast between the two. 

For reasons that are yet unclear, Lefkaditis isn’t running again this cycle, so Pokorny’s opponent is Grippo, a contractor based in Schenectady County. 

Grippo was, ostensibly, a last-minute choice for the Knox Republican Party after its first pick, former party chairwoman Michelle Viola-Straight, had to withdraw because her candidacy put her in violation of the Hatch Act, which aims to minimize overlap between the federal government and elected public officials. Viola-Straight works for a veteran-oriented not-for-profit that handles federal grant money. 

After Grippo was endorsed this summer, Viola-Straight, who resigned from her position as Republican Party chairwoman shortly after she learned that her job precluded her from running for office, told The Enterprise that she wasn’t very familiar with him. Lefkaditis, however, praised Grippo in an email to The Enterprise around the same time, stating, “I have known Kregg personally for several years and he has volunteered and lent a hand on various Town events/projects. He’s never refused a request.”

Court records from Schenectady County show, though, that Grippo has a long history of financial mismanagement, which he refused to explain at the time. After dodging calls and emails on that and questions about whether he really lived in Knox when he declared his candidacy, Grippo filed a harassment complaint against the Enterprise Hilltown reporter. 

The Enterprise reached out to Grippo once more since then to ask him for an interview on campaign-related issues. He responded, but he did not ultimately agree to the interview.

All that puts Pokorny in fairly good standing this cycle — better, at least, than if he were to again go up against an incumbent whose leadership turned every seat on the town board into a Republican-backed one, despite the majority of town being enrolled as Democrats.

When asked why he’s running this year, Pokorny said that, given his experience in various town functions, the job would be “interesting on a personal level” and that he can “bring something useful” despite the inevitability of being a party-minority on his own board should he win.

“I think that I can get along with people pretty well,” Pokorny said. “And, actually, if we kept the current board … I don’t see why I couldn’t work with them successfully. I know they’re good people. Several of them have been friends and acquaintances for many years.”

Pokorny said that he’s noticed an increasing level of division within the town, which he’d like to fix, in part by making non-partisan appointments. 

“People have complained about [partisan appointments] over the years,” Pokorny said, explaining that, in leadership positions he’s held at various banks back when he was doing data-processing in the private sector, he always sought to “find people who were smarter than I was.”

“I’m really not threatened by having people who are smarter and might have a different opinion [than me],” Pokorny said, “and I think it’s a good way to go … I think that would bring some good to the town, to have people who are smart and capable, regardless of their party affiliation.” 

He would also “like to open up the town board meetings in such a way that people can come to the meeting … and I’d like to say to people, ‘Why are you here? What are you interested in?’ Then you hear what their concern is — and maybe it’s peevish, maybe it’s a good idea they have, who knows? But I’d like to be able to turn to the other board members and say ‘Well, what do you think?’

“I think that would be a tremendous improvement over what we’ve seen [recently],” Pokorny said. 

Of the multi-use recreational district, Pokorny said that he disagrees with the means by which the new zoning was enacted, arguing that it did not sufficiently account for the perspectives of those who would be most impacted, but that he is not against the zone per se. 

“I wouldn’t be looking at reversing the zoning, no,” Pokorny said. “I don’t think it’s harmful, what happened. I think it’s too bad that it wasn’t being done in a way that would be more satisfying or pleasing, or less threatening, to the people who live there, because they weren’t really included properly. I think, if they were included properly, the changes wouldn’t have been made. But they have been made.”

Pokorny said that “one good thing” that could come about from the new zoning is the opportunity for the Highlands restaurant, which has been closed a little under a decade now, to be rejuvenated — though he’s not sure, at this point, how feasible that particular project would be.

“We’re talking about $200,000 of roofing and siding and windows,” Pokorny said. “And who knows what the mice have done to it, not to mention the technology — the ovens and everything else you need to do that kind of work — whether that’s still there, but I’d love to see it back open again.”

Pokorny also said he’d like a convenience store akin to the one he ran with his wife to spring up, ideally in the same location. 

“That’s the kind of business we need,” Pokorny said, citing its low environmental impact. As for something more intensive, Pokorny said, “I guess we’d have to cross that bridge when we get to it.”

Pokorny has an equally moderate approach to renewable energy development within the town. While he’s all for a shift toward green energy, Pokorny said that, at this point, facilities should be constructed where they’re difficult to see.

He and his wife helped lead an early effort in Knox to explore community wind and solar energy and themselves live in a house and drive a car that is supplied by green energy.

“I’m not saying that they’re especially ugly or anything, but they’re not as nice to look at as a forest or a field,” Pokorny said of large-scale solar facilities. “So I’d really like us to look for locations that are not troubling to people and don’t really ruin the views, yet.”

Pokorny said that everything about renewable energy development will come down to the wants and needs of residents, whose views are most thoroughly captured in the town’s comprehensive plan — or they would be, if the plan were more contemporary, Pokorny argued. 

“Our comprehensive plan is at least 20 years out of date,” Pokorny said. “And that’s a hard thing, to update the comprehensive plan, but it’s something we should think about doing … 

“The last time we tried to do it, it was viewed as being partisan,” Pokorny said, “and whether that’s a fair assessment or not, it doesn’t matter. If it’s viewed that way, that’s a bad thing. We might take what residue there is from that project, which is about six years old now, and let’s see what we could learn from it.” 

His wife was a member of the town board at that time and was active in surveying residents about their vision for the future of the town.

Pokorny had a lot to say about revaluation, but the headline is this: It needs to be done, “because things have gotten out of whack,” he said. 

“People do a lot of things to their property and their houses, and these things don’t end up being part of building permits,” Pokorny said, explaining why the current assessment is so far from reality. “They don’t get the attention of the assessor. Conversely, properties go into ruin … and so this house that used to be worth $200,000 over 10 years, it’s worth $100,000 because it’s falling apart, and it doesn’t get the attention of the assessor because he’s got 1,000 homes to look at, basically, and he can’t go around and look at them all.”

However, Pokorny said that the revaluation process tends to be difficult because of public pushback, and that pushback is hard to mitigate because of the complexity of taxation and property assessment. And on top of that, he said there doesn’t seem to be much practical issue with it, at least as defined by the number of people who take advantage of Grievance Day, the state-set day on which residents can contest their property’s assessment and the ensuing taxes. 

Pokorny said that, in the 14 years he’d been assessor, only “one or two people” would come in to talk about their property values, and that, often, they were there with questions rather than complaints. 

“There really was no issue,” Pokorny said. “And that’s still true under my successor, Justin Maxwell. He still doesn’t have many people coming.” 

But, he said, a town-wide revaluation would fill the town hall with people, “with a line out across the street and into the church parking lot.”

“People will not fully understand what’s being done,” Pokorny said. “They’re going to be mad about it; they’re going to be suspicious that they’re being badly treated. So all I’m saying is that, if you have a reval, you’re going to have a lot of reaction and a lot of unhappy people to deal with. And you can try your best to mitigate that by explaining how it works, but a lot of how it works comes down to math, and some of it verges on algebra, explaining how you compute a property value compared to, say, a tax levy.”

Pokorny gave the simple example of a $100,000 home that’s valued at half of its actual value, or $50,000 — closely reflecting Knox’s current assessment rate.

“You’re taxed on $50,000,” Pokorny said. “So the school goes and says, ‘What do we need to raise in terms of finance’ and they say they need X-number-million dollars. If everyone’s valued at 50 percent, the tax rate is going to be $32 per $1,000 … but if everybody’s valued at 100 percent of full value, the tax rate could be $16 per $1,000.”

Rhetorically, Pokorny asked, “Can you imagine how lost a roomful of people might get if you tried to explain that to them, and how suspicious they would be of your motives?”

When asked what other issues he thinks the town should have top-of-mind over the next couple of years, Pokorny highlighted emergency services.

“We used to have an emergency-services coordinator ...,” Pokorny said. “If we have a real catastrophe, like — what would it be in Knox? — if we had a big fire that takes out a bunch of houses or something, or 25-inch rainfall that comes and really floods us out, we need to have people responsible for maintaining a phone [list].”

He said he recently learned from Reverend Jay Francis that the Rock Road Chapel is a certified Red Cross shelter, which he said is “a wonderful thing.”

“So I think we should get this phone list and leadership and get that active again, like it was a few years ago,” Pokorny said, adding that Francis and the Rock Road Chapel, along with the Knox Reformed Church and its food pantry, would be valuable partners.

 

Saddlemire

Saddlemire, 60, is a Democrat backed by the Republicans. He’s a fourth-generation dairy farmer with a degree in agricultural engineering from the State University of New York at Morrisville, and was first elected to the town board in 2017.

He said he’s seeking re-election because “there’s business to complete. We started some nice projects and I’d like to see them continue.”

Of that category, he highlighted the ongoing park renovations, which includes LED [light-emitting diode] lights for the baseball field that were purchased with grant money from the New York State Research and Development Authority. Most of the grant money is scheduled to be spent on solar panels for the town municipal buildings, though that project has yet to be completed. 

“Also, Hometown Heroes has really taken off,” Saddlemire said. “I’d like to see that continue, as well as expand senior services on the Hill.”

Specifically, he said the town should have a “small mom-and-pop prescription pharmacy. I think it would help a lot for people who don’t have transportation.”

Saddlemire voted in favor of the multi-use recreational district last year, and said this week that it “creates an opportunity” for businesses to exist that wasn’t there before. To start promoting business development, he said that the town should look at the Albany County economic development plan “and just see if there’s some way maybe we can tie in with that to make it more than just a local thing. I think there’s opportunities there and we could possibly get some funding.”

On the renewable energy laws, Saddlemire indicated he’s happy with what exists, saying, “The planning board worked pretty extensively on it.”

However, he said that, like anything, it’ll need to be revisited over time. “Everything should be reviewed eventually,” he said. 

Overall, Saddlemire has mixed views on renewable energy, meaning that he thinks it should make up one component of the energy portfolio, along with fossil fuels. “I’m not against green energy, but I think it’s probably a ways off from being the solution,” he said.

Saddlemire, who was formerly on the town’s assessment review board, said he doesn’t think there needs to be a townwide revaluation done all at once, but that the town could select a resident class (single-family home, apartment, etc.) to reassess each year, eventually correcting the assessment rate. 

“It kind of goes back to what I said before about the solar,” he said. “We have stuff in place and, as time goes on, things need to be reviewed. We have to update the information … and go from there.”

When asked what issues he thinks the town will need to address over his next term, if he’s elected, Saddlemire said that action will eventually have to be taken on the town’s highway garage, which has been subject to discussion about renovation for several years. 

He also said that the town will need to assess the transfer station. “The biggest problem with the transfer station is that we rely on what the recycling people are going to do. It’s hard to set up the recycling center when the guidelines and stuff change yearly. We’ve been looking at it, and the guys have been trying out new ways of improving the recycling which helps cut down on our expenses.”

Those, he said, will both be long-term projects. “They’re probably a couple of the biggest challenges coming in.”

 

Pritchard

Pritchard, an auto-mechanic and used-car salesman, is a lifelong resident of Knox who was elected to the town board in 2017 as a partyless member on the Republican line, and he’s running again with GOP endorsement.

A plainspoken man, Pritchard told The Enterprise in 2017 that he had “never been involved in politics before. I’m not sure if I’m going to be any good at it.”

Four years later, he said he thinks he did a good job. “I was going to write a letter to you guys … and tell voters that, if they thought I did a good job, vote for me; if not, vote for someone else. That’s all.”

He said he’s proud of the work the board did upgrading the town park since he was elected, and that he didn’t know until the improvements were made that many people used the park.

“People would stop by my business here and say they really enjoyed the town park and the improvements that were made,” he said. “But I never realized that [people used it] because I’m not the type of person that uses the town park … “That’s one thing that opened my eyes a little. People do stop in here and comment on what goes on, what we do.”

Pritchard said that the multi-use recreational district alone won’t be enough to attract businesses.

“After you spend your money on that business, you’ve got to have a reasonable expectation of turning a profit,” Pritchard said. “In today’s world, that’s hard to do. So, just because there’s an area where businesses can go, doesn’t mean it’s going to attract any more.”

He said that Knox’s home-occupation law, which essentially allowed home-based businesses to use more employees without becoming subject to additional regulations “might help attract mom-and-pop-type businesses.”

Of renewable energy, Pritchard said, “With stuff like that, you can’t please all the people all the time. You’re going to piss people off. That’s just the way it is. You’ve got to look at what has the greatest benefit for the community as a whole. Me, personally, I’ve voted for things I didn’t personally agree with.”

He declined to specify what he’s voted on despite reservations.

Overall, Pritchard said he’s not a fan of zoning laws in general. “I don’t think there should be that many zoning laws because I don’t pay my neighbor’s taxes and I don’t pay his mortgage.”

Pritchard took a similar stance on revaluation. “Again, you’re not going to make everybody happy with anything you do there. But my own personal opinion is everyone should pay their fair share. That’s the way I look at it.”

 

McAuliffe

McAuliffe, 55, is enrolled as a Republican and running on the self-created Accountability Party line. 

Although the party she’s enrolled with firmly backs Lefkaditis et al., McAuliffe has been a frequent critic of theirs, and particularly of Lefkaditis. She told The Enterprise this week that she’s running because, “after having watched what’s transpired under the guise of town government in Knox for the past three years, I am appalled at the lack of concern and the disregard for the rule of law and for actual proper financial conduct within a government that’s utilizing taxpayer funds.”

McAuliffe has a career in finance, with experience “managing offices, bookkeeping, working with bonds,” and for the bulk of the past 16 years or so, she’s worked “with communities to secure funding for clean water and drinking water infrastructure projects using the revolving fund program,” she said.

As a resident, McAuliffe attends and livestreams most Knox Town Board meetings, and almost always takes advantage of the public-comment period to criticize the board about any of a number of issues — from financial mismanagement to social distancing to treatment of residents. 

A complaint she made to the state comptroller about Knox’s perennially late or absent annual update documents triggered an audit, which found that the town clerk was depositing funds into accounts outside of the legally prescribed timeframes, among other things. 

Because of her watchdog behavior, McAuliffe has become unpopular with the town board and its sympathizers. On one occasion, while McAuliffe was addressing the board, The Enterprise observed Lefkaditis exaggeratedly organizing papers and attending to other menial tasks at the dais — demonstrating that he had no attention he was willing to give McAuliffe. 

On another occasion that The Enterprise observed, Doug Roether, a Lefkaditis ally, who was then chairman of the zoning board of appeals, had a brief and courteous exchange with the board and, as he walked back to his seat and past McAuliffe, who had earlier addressed the board, he gloated in her face: “That’s how it’s done.”

McAuliffe told The Enterprise in 2019 that there are some residents who have given her the finger since she started criticizing the board.

McAuliffe, who lives in the area that was converted into a multi-use recreational district (though her property, like many others, was removed from the district by request), was especially involved in a campaign to squash that motion, and it was this issue that got McAuliffe so focused on the behavior of Knox’s government. The campaign was successful until the town board became filled completely with Lefkaditis’s slate of candidates in 2019, who passed a new version of that motion unanimously. 

The issue was particularly personal for McAuliffe, who not only lives near the affected area, but had, in North Carolina, been forced to move from her home after a nearby business contaminated the well-water, she told The Enterprise in 2019. She said she took the issue to court and later accepted a settlement. 

Of the multi-use recreational district, McAuliffe told The Enterprise this week, that she was not aware of any businesses being attracted to town because of the newly created district. “But because everything gets done behind closed doors around here,” she said, “I am not certain that anybody would know what’s going on.”

She correctly pointed out that the law was only filed in July of this year, even though it was passed in December of 2020. 

“I would love to think that nothing has been going on because they hadn’t done the paperwork,” McAuliffe said. “But that’s nothing new for the town, to not do paperwork properly.”

As for more business in town overall, McAuliffe is skeptical of whether residents truly desire more development in the rural community, as is argued, and also of business owners’ ability to behave responsibly.

“I like not worrying about my water being contaminated by irresponsible businesses,” McAuliffe said, “which we all know exist. I’m not saying they’re all irresponsible, but if no businesses were irresponsible, cleanups and superfund sites wouldn’t be necessary.”

She said that although there’s people claiming that residents want more businesses, very few have actually spoken out about it.

“I find it amazing that so many people have chosen to move up here and build homes up here, and I can only guess they did it for the same reason we did: to live in a very rural setting ...,” McAuliffe said. “It’s hard for me to understand why somebody would move here while they felt that driving three miles for milk is too far.”

McAuliffe said she wants to protect the investments made by homeowners who put money into their property while Knox was as rural as they wanted it to be.

That said, she supports everyone’s right to make a living and is fine with anyone who “wants to make a go of it up here,” as long as it comports with the established atmosphere in the town. She said she had signed the Highlands restaurant petition the owner went around town with when the restaurant wanted to open.

Although McAuliffe and her husband had to suffer snowmobilers speeding over their property to get to the restaurant once it was open, they thought at the time that the restaurant was “a good idea.”

On renewable energy, McAuliffe said she’s in favor of “doing everything we can to reduce our carbon footprint on the planet individually and collectively,” but that she wants to make sure that residents’ voices are heard so that a large-scale solar project doesn’t upset residents the way the proposal for the multi-use residential district had.

“I think that should be done in a very, very detailed manner,” McAuliffe said. “It should include surveys that are only deemed adequate if they hit a certain response rate … When response rates are low, there should be a door-to-door effort.”

On Knox’s existing laws, though, she said she’s “not familiar enough” with them to pass judgment. 

McAuliffe said the town should “absolutely” do a total reassessment of properties, and recounted the experience of her elderly mother-in-law who lived in Delmar, in a house that had been in the family since the 1900s and which was reassessed in the early 2000s.

Because her mother-in-law lived on a fixed income, McAuliffe said she experienced significant anxiety about how the process would affect her taxes. 

“At the end of the day,” McAuliffe said, “even though her property value went up in a very big way, so had the number of residences that were bearing the burden. Ultimately, it didn’t even have a $100-per-year impact on her … I think it was between $50 and $60 per year.”

When asked about other issues facing the town, McAuliffe said that, for one, she would try to curb what she called the “excessive” use of executive sessions by the town board. “I can’t imagine that the town of Knox has that many top-secret things going on, so I think it’s being abused,” she said.

She also said that she would do more research than she believes the current board members do. “I have seen too many times when points are made and blank faces all stare out because they just don’t care, or they don’t comprehend the importance,” she said. 

And, McAuliffe said, “I want to make clear to the residents of Knox that — not just on a local level but a national level — dissension is not negativity. It’s how a democracy functions, and it’s how real change happens.”

She said that last point was a response to an incident involving Cyr, who had retracted support for McAuliffe’s friend, Joan Adriance, as a member of the zoning board of appeals in August because he found out that she was collecting signatures for McAuliffe’s candidacy.

Minutes from the Aug. 10 meeting state, “Councilman Cyr stated the ZBA completed the interviews, and the Board accepted the recommendation of the ZBA chair. He stated no one swayed him and he still believes that Mrs. Adriance is qualified, but when he heard Mrs. Adriance was supporting Mrs. McAuliffe to get her on the line, he was concerned because Mrs. McAuliffe has never had anything positive to say towards the Town and was concerned that the negative influence would get into the ZBA.”

Adriance is the wife of Joseph Adriance, one of two transfer-station employees who were replaced in 2019, by the GOP-backed majority of the town board, despite having Civil Service protection. Adriance and Dick Dexter took the town to court and agreed to a settlement this year. 

Their positions were cut from the town entirely, with Lefkaditis stating in a letter obtained by The Enterprise that it was because of “financial strains and uncertainty resulting from COVID-19 and the effect thereof on the town.”

McAuliffe said she would like to “restock” the transfer station with employees because, as it stands, it’s difficult to find anyone for help at the facility.

“I’ve been there too many Saturdays and had people walking up to me asking if I worked there because they couldn’t find anybody to ask a question of,” McAuliffe said.

She also said that she would make sure all personnel decisions are made in accordance with Civil Service Law. Like Pokorny, she wants experience, not perspective, to be the driver in appointments and hiring decisions. 

McAuliffe also said the town should be spending more money on senior services and expanding its offerings.

“Demographics show that our population is getting older and older ...,” McAuliffe said. “I think it would be really [important] to keep residents who want to stay in their homes able to do so.”

Finally, McAuliffe said she wants an independent audit of town finances, separate from the state comptroller, because she has “no degree of confidence in what has gone on over the past several years.”

More Hilltowns News

  • The Berne-Knox-Westerlo Board of Education needs more than 60 percent of district residents to vote “yes” for a tax-cap piercing budget on June 18, or else will have to move to a contingency budget that could result in cuts to after-school and athletic programs, among others. 

  • Two town board members are already in opposition, with one, Josh Beers, saying he feels the savings is too minor and that it could be motivated by political vendettas. Supervisor Matthew Kryzak, who made the proposal and said there had been conversations about this as far back as 2021, denies this. A public hearing is scheduled for June 18 at 6 p.m.

  • Thomas F. Conover, a 35-year-old man from Westerlo, was told to leave a gathering of people at a Westerlo home, only to return with a shotgun, which he aimed at several people, including children, according to the New York State Police. 

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