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Hilltowns Archives —The Altamont Enterprise, February 9, 2006

BKW board may lengthen terms

By Matt Cook

BERNE — Three years after the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School District shortened the term lengths of school board members, most members of the current board want it changed back.

At a meeting Tuesday night, the board voted, 4 to 1, to put the issue on the ballot for this spring’s election. If the voters approve the proposition, the term length for board members would increase from three years to five, starting next year. Current board members would complete the term for which they were elected.

Board President Janet Finke voted against the proposition.

"I think it rules out high school parents," Finke said.

"Why do your children have to be in class for you to be on the board"" responded board member Ed Ackroyd. "It’s all about the taxpayers."

In 2003, district voters approved a proposition to reduce the term length to three years. The purpose was to encourage more people to run.

"I’m not sure we’ve seen that that’s the case," said board member Joan Adriance. Adriance pointed out that she supported the change in 2003. Now, however, she supports a change back.

Each of the current board members ran for their positions unopposed, including the two with three-years terms, Ackroyd and Maureen Sikule.

Tuesday’s vote came out of a discussion of the positions of board president and vice president.

Traditionally, BKW board members become vice-president in the third year of their five-year term. The next year, a member becomes president, and in the fifth year, serves informally as an advisor to the president.

Ackroyd is slated to become vice president next year. However, if he loses re-election or decides not to run, he won’t become president in 2008, leaving the position empty.

Ackroyd said he supported passing the job onto the next person in line, Sikule, if he is not available.

"What I don’t want to see is someone who is president or vice president for the next 10 years," he said.

Adriance, the current vice president, offered to partially solve the problem by skipping her turn as president next year. The board rejected her offer.

If the term length returns to five years, the presidential rotation will be back to normal.

Also, the board would be made up of more experienced members. Adriance said that she originally thought three years was enough, but now that she is in her third year, she feels she finally has learned enough to be an effective board member.

Karen Storm, in her fifth year, said that, one day, Superintendent Steven Schrade will retire, and, if the board is made up of three-year-term members, the school could have an inexperienced board and an inexperienced supervisor.

Other business

In other business at the Feb. 6 meeting, the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School Board:

—Voted, 4 to 1, to eliminate honors for the valedictorian and salutatorian, starting with next year’s ninth-grade class. The district has, for several months, been considering the move.

Last month, high school Principal Mary Petrilli reported that all the suburban districts in the area have replaced valedictorian and salutatorian honors with the recognition of a group of top students. There has been no community backlash in those districts, Petrilli said.

Also, she said, most colleges don’t give scholarships to students solely for being valedictorian or salutatorian.

Sikule voted against the proposal, saying she thought the positions shouldn’t be eliminated until the district has a plan to replace the honors with something else.

In a second vote, the board voted unanimously to appoint a committee to come up with an alternative by June;

—Heard recommendations on the lease of the Westerlo school building from real estate broker Kevin Broderick.

Currently, the district is renting the building to the Helderberg Christian School for $750 per month. The board asked Broderick if he thought it was possible to rent the building to someone else for more money.

"If it was my building and I had a tenant in my building who was keeping it up, I would keep that tenant," Broderick said.

The rural location doesn’t make the property commercially desirable, Broderick said.

The district put the building up for lease after closing it to students at the end of the last school year because of district-wide declining enrollment. The district hasn’t created a long-term plan for the building. The board has said that leasees are not allowed to alter the school.

"The thing that’s stopping you from doing business to gain the most financial advantage from this building is you don’t know if you need it or not," Broderick said; and

—Heard a report from the facilities planning committee. At the committee’s first meeting, Schrade said, three subcommittees were formed: one to discuss the Westerlo school, one to discuss moving the sixth grade from the high-school building to the elementary building, and one to discuss general facility needs, including additions or renovations.

The committee plans to have a recommendation for the school board by this summer or early fall, Schrade said.

Caught: Bullet holes lead to gun-theft arrest

By Matt Cook

WESTERLO — Guns stolen from a store deep in the rural Hilltowns ended up being sold on the streets of New York City, police say.

Richard M. Mwazi, 20, of Queens, was arrested on Friday, Feb. 3, for third-degree burglary, a felony.

In the early morning hours of Jan. 22, Mwazi broke into South Wings Sporting and Gun Shop on Route 405 in South Westerlo, smashing out a front window, and made off with 21 firearms, a mix of shotguns, rifles, and handguns, according to the Albany County Sheriff’s Department.

As Mwazi was driving off, the sheriff’s department says, the store owner took shots at his car, leaving three bullet holes in the burgundy sedan.

When asked if the owner’s shots were legal, Sheriff James Campbell told The Enterprise, "We’re still reviewing it."

The owner did not return a phone message. A store employee told The Enterprise the owner had no comment. According to the store’s website, the owner, John Gipprich, has sold guns in Westerlo since 1996. The store caters to local hunters and customers from downstate, the website says.

At the time of the burglary, Mwazi was spending the weekend at his mother’s summer home at 3195 Sleepy Hollow Road in Athens, not too far from the gun shop, according to the sheriff’s department. Mwazi’s mother works for the United Nations in New York, Campbell said. The mother and son are American citizens, he said.

Mwazi is a suspect in a State Police investigation of a burglary on Jan. 15 of the same store, Campbell said. In that burglary, three handguns were reported stolen.

On Jan. 24, Mwazi was arrested in Mount Vernon, just north of New York City, for fourth-degree criminal possession of a stolen weapon. Mwazi brandished one of the stolen handguns in a fight, Campbell said.

The Mount Vernon Police contacted the Albany County Sheriff’s Department, which sent investigators. In Mwazi’s car, investigators found two guns and three bullet holes, the sheriff’s department says.

On Jan. 30, sheriff’s investigators, using information from Mwazi and his attorney, recovered nine of the guns from an alleyway in Harlem, the sheriff’s department says.

Mwazi has been cooperative, Campbell said. He turned himself in to the sheriff’s department on Feb. 3, returning two guns at the same time, police say.

Mwazi and his attorney even went so far as to buy back some of the guns that he sold in the New York City area and return them to the police, Campbell said.

The sheriff’s department says an investigation is continuing to recover the remaining few guns.

Mwazi was arraigned by Supreme Court Justice Thomas Spargo and was released on $20,000 bail.

Was Westerlo billed twice"

By Saranac Hale Spencer

WESTERLO — Concern was voiced by some town board members on Tuesday over possible discrepancies in billing from the engineering firm Vollmer Associates, which was in charge of providing the design of a municipal water system and oversight of the construction in Westerlo.

At the Feb. 7 town board meeting, Keith Menia, a representative from Vollmer Associates, made a request for $10,109.39 rather than the $12,000 requested in the last change order filed by Vollmer in November.

At the time of the November change order, Councilman R. Gregory Zeh had asked for more details about the cost from the company, he said, since this was an increase, while the town was working with the New York State Environmental Facilities Corporation on financing the project and the EFC looks at pending requests during the process.

One of Zeh’s concerns was that the change order had been made after the services were performed. A change order is essentially a contract between a principle from the company and a representative of the town so, what is troubling, Zeh said, is that no services have been provided between November and now but the amount of money requested from the firm has changed.

With the construction inspection costing $5,646, Councilman Zeh asked, "How did we get to $10,000"" Menia responded that there was more construction observation needed than had been anticipated.

"I understand that you had anticipated handing over to the town on September 15 but most overages of hours are before September 15," said Zeh.

Menia reiterated that there had been more construction observation than originally planned and that an invoice accounting for additional charges could be generated if requested by the board. (He could not be reached for further comment yesterday.)

"It looks like we’re paying for it twice," said the town’s attorney, Aline Galgay, regarding the bill.

The major concern is, given the limited support for the additional $6,000 and the change order, it is possible that the money was billed for in the original change order as well as now, Zeh told the Enterprise yesterday.

Zeh said he wants to make sure that the $6,000 the town is being billed for now was not included in the original change order.

Ultimately, the board voted unanimously to let Supervisor Richard Rapp approve $5,900 as payment in full if an agreement can be reached with Vollmer Associates, finalizing payment.

Other business

In other business, the board:

— Decided to stay with its current compensation insurance provider, State Insurance, after looking at other companies and finding State Insurance to be the least expensive;

— Appointed Code Enforcement Officer Edwin Lawson as the interim zoning administrator for a three-month term;

— Scheduled a workshop for next Monday, Feb. 13, at 7:30 at the town hall to discuss drafting a right-to-farm law for the town;

— Voted unanimously to raise the salary of fiscal consultant Bob Fisher from $275 to $300 per day. This will be his first raise since 1992, Supervisor Rapp told The Enterprise yesterday;

— Voted unanimously to hire a Westerlo resident, over an applicant who was not from Westerlo, to clean the town hall for $100 per week as a contractor, not a town employee;

— Agreed to have a public hearing next month for an increased veterans’ exemption on property assessment. Town Attorney Galgay said that the tax exemption would have to be implemented either by local law, which would be voted on next month, or as a resolution;

— Heard from Councilman Zeh about a meeting he attended with the Greenville School Board forecasting the growth of the school district. He said it was a productive meeting and there were "a lot of good ideas exchanged"; and

— Heard from Alexander (Sandy) Gordon that a grant he had applied for was approved by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority to develop a plan for a community-owned wind project in the Hilltowns.

This is the first time that this has really been looked at, Gordon said, and a business plan will be outlined for NYSERDA that could be taken into development. The proposed wind farm would produce no more than 10 megawatts, according to Gordon, and there are sites in all of the Hilltowns with very viable wind potential. A meeting to discuss the plan will be held this Sunday, Feb. 12, at 7 p.m. at 588 Middle Rd. in Knox.

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