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Hilltowns Archives —The Altamont Enterprise, October 12, 2006

Diefenbach exits
Search is on for new biz super

By Tyler Schuling

BERNE — Gregory Diefenbach, the business administrator for Berne-Knox-Westerlo, who helped the district regain financial stability, has moved on.

Diefenbach was hired by BKW in April of 2000 and resigned this August. The district is currently interviewing candidates for the job.

Diefenbach is now working for AXA Advisors, a division of AXA Financial. The company, Diefenbach said, is based in Manhatten, and is a world-wide asset and financial company. AXA, he said, specializes in individual portfolios and small and medium companies.

According to the Fortune 500 list, AXA is the 13th largest company in the world, Diefenbach said.

He will be working out of the Clifton Park office.

Asked what he believes are his greatest accomplishments while employed at BKW, Diefenbach said, "I’m a team player." He added that he was proud of the safety and health programs put in place at the schools.

Diefenbach said that while employed at BKW, a camera security system was put in place, where staff members swipe an identification card, and an account is taken of who is within the building, when they entered, and when they left.

"For years, we got the Utica National School Safety of the Year Award," he said.

The program measures a school’s safety in 11 different areas, such as school playground safety and indoor air quality.

Diefenbach also said that he is quite proud of providing financial stability to the school.

"I did the work I was trained to do," he said.

Upon entering the district, Diefenbach was faced with a $200,000 budget shortfall left by his predecessors.

Over-estimates were made for 1999-2000 in the amount of income anticipated from state aid, BOCES (Board of Cooperative Educational Services) aid, and interest from temporary investments.

"They had problems with the budget and state aid," Diefenbach told The Enterprise.

In the wake of the shortfall, voters defeated the school budget at the polls.

Diefenbach said the situation was resolved by "putting pieces of the puzzle together," and added that he put together a plan, and that he knew his plan would work.

Prior to hiring Diefenbach, BKW had three business administrators in as many years.

"During his time here, he put practices and procedures in place"" Superintendent Steven Schrade told The Enterprise. "When he came on board, we had a shortfall in the budget, which resulted in a huge tax hike."

Schrade said that Diefenbach was proficient in calculating state aid, and made conservative predictions to bring the district out of the situation.

"This is a great comfort," he added, "to have solid figures."

Last May, the BKW budget passed on the first try.

"A great group of people work there," Diefenbach said of the BKW staff. "They’re highly dedicated and trained"and this goes across the board."

Diefenbach, before working at BKW, worked on Wall Street, acted as business administrator at Middleburgh, and worked for BOCES.

Schrade said that BKW has interviewed candidates for the position, and is still accepting applications. A committee, he said, will be interviewing more candidates next week.

Schrade, said that he, Denise Martin, the school’s payroll clerk, and treasurer Alan Grasek, are performing the duties of business administrator in the interim.

"We’re in pretty good shape," Schrade said, "but the present situation would not be ideal for the long term."

BKW is hoping to fill the position by Dec. 1, Schrade said.

Westerlo drafts $2.3M budget

By Tyler Schuling

WESTERLO — The town plans to spend $2.3 million next year, an increase of about $225,000 over this year’s budget.

Supervisor Richard Rapp said that the increase is due to the town’s buying a new truck, allotting funds for the restoration of its museum, and spending more in insurance for employees’ benefits.

State retirement costs, he said, now total $77,000 for town employees. He added that he remembers when that figure was much lower.

Asked if any town expenses, such as fuel costs, state retirement, or medical insurance, were rising at the rate they were last year, Rapp responded, "No"Right now, fuel costs are going down, but I suspect that, in the winter, they’re going to go up."

The tax rate, he said, will be affected by the increase in the budget, but he wasn’t sure what the projected rate would be for this coming year. The current rate is $1,811.96 per $1,000 of assessed valuation. Westerlo has not undergone revaluation in decades so many properties are valued at a fraction of their worth.

Rapp said that, when religious groups buy property in town, they’re tax exempt, and that something should be done. In recent years, as big tax-paying resorts in the area have closed, religious groups have bought them.

"The state’s going to have to intervene," he said, adding, "I’m not against religious groups."

Of the total $2.3 million preliminary budget, about $900,000 will be raised from taxes, with $113,000 coming from the fund balance, and about $1.3 million coming from revenues, like sales and mortgage taxes.

Highway spending is budgeted at $816,005.

Rapp said at last week’s town board meeting that the only item on the budget that went down in cost was ALS, Advanced Life Support, the paramedic fly car program.

"Every town contributing went down," he added.

The funds allotted for youth programs also decreased from $14,000 to $3,500. Rapp said this decrease was due to no longer having two programs. "We only have one now," he said.

The board is still trying to determine which residents will be paying for the town’s water district since its completion this year, Rapp said.

"We’re still trying to figure it out," he said.

Rapp said Westerlo didn’t see an increase due to the federal Help America Vote Act. Albany County has passed much of the cost of new voting machine requirements on to municipalities.

"It’s a mixed up mess," Rapp said of HAVA. "The old machines work."

Rapp added that the law will deter older people from going to the polls.

"They’re not going to vote," he said. "All the towns are complaining."

The majority of the revenue, sales tax, he said, is a fair tax because everybody pays it.

The following annual salaries were budgeted:

— $7,250 for town board member;

— $14,500 for supervisor; and

— $28,500 for the town clerk.

A budget workshop is scheduled for Oct. 17 at 7 p.m., and, Rapp said, a public hearing on the budget will be held Nov. 8 at 7:30 at town hall, after which the town board is slated to adopt a final plan.

Home to the Hilltowns
Krasher to teach courses that may launch new careers

By Tyler Schuling

EAST BERNE — Bonnie Krasher is bringing adult education to the Hilltowns because she believes its residents are talented and could contribute to an industry that is in trouble.

Krasher will teach, through Hudson Valley Community College, two 30-week courses, medical transcription and medical billing and coding, at Duanesburg High School.

Krasher said that the motivation for teaching comes from a desire to help struggling families.

"I’ve been a single mom a lot of my adult life," she said. "My passion is to help families and single women, and to help them find a balance for raising children and being a professional."

Krasher cited a phenomenon that will greatly influence the need for transcriptionists and billing and coding experts.

By 2010, she said, twenty percent of the United States’ population will be comprised of baby boomers. These 65 million people will be in need of medical attention, and the medical field will be in even greater need of experts.

"They’re going to have health problems," Krasher added. "The whole field is in trouble."

The courses, she said, are taught year-round at HVCC in Troy, but, she added, people in the Hilltowns often can’t travel that far. Many, she said, could benefit from the courses.

"We’ve always been left out," Krasher said. "There are a lot of talented people up here."

Krasher, a graduate of the Berne-Knox-Westerlo class of 1979, earned a Regents Diploma in business, and from 1984 to 2001 ran her transcription business out of Saratoga.

Krasher now teaches and runs the workforce development program at HVCC. The health care industry, she said, is experiencing a transcription shortage as it moves towards making all records electronic, including patient history, diagnosis, and treatment.

The jobs in medical transcription and billing pay well, she said.

The work, she said, is often done at home. Transcriptionists, billers, and coders receive voice files via e-mail or they obtain the information from a website or Wide Area Network platform.

The 30-week courses, she said, will provide students with the necessary skills to secure jobs in an industry short on help.

The job of a medical transcriptionist, she said, is to translate a doctor’s taped recording of a patient’s diagnosis, treatment, and history, to an electronic record.

"They listen to a physician’s tape and type up an accurate document," she said.

Patients’ records, she said, used to be exclusively on audio tapes.

The course on medical billing and coding, she said, will teach someone how to bill insurance, and Medicare and Medicaid for services rendered.

HVCC will provide each student who finishes the course with a certificate of completion and life-time job assistance. Each course is worth 12 continuing-education units.

"We don’t place people in jobs," Krasher added, "but we have a high placement rate."

The placement rate is about 97 percent for billing and coding, she said, and 95 percent for transcription.

On Monday, Oct. 16, Krasher, along with her supervisor, will host an open house at Duanesburg High School from 6 to 9 p.m. At the open house, she said, she will be answering questions about the career, the program, and financial assistance.

The courses begin Oct. 23. Medical transcription classes will be held on Monday and Wednesday evenings from 6 to 10 p.m. Medical coding and billing classes will be on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6 to 10 p.m.

Thomas presents plans for Helderberg Retirement Community

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

BERNE — Elderly Hilltowners who no longer want to maintain their own homes may, in another year or two, be able to rent apartments in a modern complex just outside the hamlet of Berne.

Developer Jeff Thomas and his architect presented plans last week for the Helderberg Retirement Community to an eager group at the Hilltown Senior Center. Thomas has more elaborate plans for senior complexes in Guilderland — one at the site of the old Bavarian Chalet off Western Avenue and the other just outside of the village of Altamont on Brandle Road.

"The idea up here is very affordable," said Thomas. "We feel we can get grants...We’ve cut down on a lot of amenities to keep price down."

For example, he said, "A lot of people said they like the pool idea but don’t want to pay for it...It never gets warm enough up here."

He also said, "We didn’t get too fancy with the outside; it’s economical."

Prices for the 96 units are expected to range from $500 or $600 for a one-bedroom, up to $890 for a two-bedroom apartment, Thomas said.

"If you don’t want it, we won’t build it," he told the group at the senior center last Thursday.

Thomas said that, depending on what the town decides, those 55 and over will probably be eligible to live in the complex.

He is hoping to draw from all four Helderberg Hilltowns and said, "All of the supervisors are glad we’re doing it."

Thomas also said, when asked about geographic limitations, "We’re not going to be able to keep anyone out."

The center, to be built on Route 9 across from the firehouse, is designed for independent living; it will not offer services such as nursing or meal preparation.

Thomas said he has been working on the project "pretty much non-stop" for a year. He has a contract to buy the land which he said he can’t back out of.

"They won’t go below the Hill"

"I think it’s just great," said Linda Carman after the meeting. "He builds really nice places." She said of Thomas.

Carman has been pushing for senior housing in the Hilltowns ever since her mother had trouble finding a place to live.

"My mother was unable to stay by herself in Berne," recalled Carman. "We tried to find somebody to stay with her. She didn’t want that."

Her mother ended up in a nursing home in Guilderland Center. "She hated it from day one until she passed away three years later," said Carman. "She just wanted to come home."

Carman lives just down the road from the site of the planned center, she said, but has no plans to move there anytime soon. She said she’s found the "perfect spot" to be buried, though, in the Beaverdam Cemetery: "You can see the senior housing site from there," she said.

Michael Vincent, another Berne resident, who is 58, would be eligible to live in the complex but has no immediate interest in doing so. Like Carman, he was inspired to help with the project because of the community need.

"My grandparents had to go to Schoharie" to find housing, he said. "They missed their neighbors and friends." Being able to visit the elderly is essential to the community, said Vincent.

"A lot of these seniors here shouldn’t be living by themselves," said Carman. "But they won’t go below the Hill."

The plan

Dominick Ranieri of Dominick Ranieri Architects presented plans for the project, consisting of two boomerang-shaped buildings. The two-story buildings, each with two wings, can be built one wing at a time as dictated by demand. Each completed building is to have 48 units, with 24 on each floor.

The corner of each building, where the two wings join together, will face Route 9, with community rooms in front. Trees will buffer the center from the road.

"The buildings are on a hill to take advantage of the phenomenal views," said Ranieri.

Parking lots and a community garden are to be located behind the buildings, and an engineered retention pond will be built in front. Over 60 percent of the property is to remain green space.

Glass doors in a front lobby, Ranieri said, will "spill out to a large covered porch" which will "expand to a bluestone patio."

The corridors, lined with one- and two-bedroom apartments, will be "very wide," said Ranieri. "This won’t feel like a hotel. It will feel like walking down the street and seeing your neighbors."

The ground-floor units will have terraces and the second-floor units will have balconies.

Ranieri, who has designed such local complexes as the Vly Point Condos in Niskayuna, the Hudson Preserve Apartments in Colonie, and The Paddocks in Saratoga, called the Helderberg plan "aesthetic." But, he went on, "It’s not pushing the price so high it won’t be feasible."

He said of Thomas, who owns WeatherGuard Roofing, "Jeff wants to do some exciting things with the roof."

The one-bedroom apartments, Thomas said, will rent for between $500 and $600 a month. The two-bedroom apartments will rent for between $690 and $890 a month.

The one-bedroom apartment will be 750 square feet, which includes a bedroom with closet, a bathroom, and an all-purpose room, which has a kitchen area.

The 900-square-foot two-bedroom apartment is similar but with a second bedroom.

Tenants will pay for their own utilities; each unit will have its own heating and cooling unit.

Thomas estimated that the heating and electric costs for the one- bedroom apartment would average between $60 and $85 a month, and for the two-bedroom apartment would average $70 to $95 a month. Sewer and water costs will be included in the monthly rent, he said.

The complex is designed to be accessible for those with handicaps; for example, the bathrooms will have showers flush with the floor rather than bathtubs. The buildings will have elevators.

To keep costs down, Thomas said, no garages will be built, but he is considering building storage units that can be rented, and there may be a covered portico built between the parking lot and the building.

Water, sewer, and other concerns

Thomas said he looked throughout the Hilltowns and settled on the Berne location because it was near a hamlet that would soon have a public sewer system.

"This is our only shot," said Thomas.

The center will not be built until the hamlet sewer project is complete, he said. Trustee Joseph Golden estimated the sewer project will be finished in 2008.

"Our next step is to drill for water," said Thomas.

Albany County requires two wells that pump 18 gallons per minute, he said.

"We have done water investigation," said Berne Supervisor Kevin Crosier. "Water is plentiful there," he said of the Route 9 site.

Another option, Crosier said, might be buying water from the school which has "an immense water supply."

Steven Schrade, superintendent of the Berne-Knox-Westerlo schools, told The Enterprise this week that the district has two wells in Berne; each produces 25 gallons a minute.

The water is pumped into the school’s recently completed treatment facility, he said. "If the power is on and the pumps don’t break down, we seem to have an adequate supply," said Schrade.

The school district has never sold its water before, said Schrade, adding that it was a possibility. Schrade said he had talked with Crosier about it briefly months ago but that it would be up to the school board, which has not discussed it.

"There may be some legal issues if the board of education decided that it was a good idea," said Schrade.

Thomas fielded questions from the two dozen people, most of them elderly, who attended last Thursday’s meeting.

When a woman asked if tenants would be able to paint and wallpaper their apartments, Thomas said that in his Park House apartments in Altamont, "We hang the paintings for them. People like that. It preserves the walls for the next person renting."

When asked if it would be possible to have a visitors’ apartment in the complex, Thomas said, "Absolutely....That’s a great idea." Those people who are visiting tenants could be charged a day rate for using the apartment, said Ranieri.

Asked if the complex could include a utility room for doing laundry instead of having machines in each apartment, Thomas said that was "definitely do-able." Tenants would deposit coins to operate the machines and enjoy gathering in the laundry room, he said.

Asked about acoustics, Ranieri described the methods used to cut down on traveling noise and concluded, "It’s community living. If somebody falls, you’ll hear it, but that’s probably a good thing."

Asked about security, Thomas said each unit will have a panic button that a tenant can press in an emergency. Also, fire sprinklers will be installed as required by state law.

Although current plans don’t call for it, Ranieri said, "We could look at cameras and detectors on first-floor windows."

"These things can evolve," said Thomas.

Asked about the old landfill that was capped off at the back of the property, Thomas said, "There’s a big buffer between us and the dump." He also said a hydrologist said it shouldn’t be an issue with water.

"What a country," said Trustee Golden, towards the close of the session. "I know a lot of people here. They’ve lived through some hard times," he said, indicating they deserve a place in the Helderbergs to retire.

Crosier concluded the session by thanking Thomas, Ranieri, Carman, and Vincent for "a lot of hard work behind the scenes to get the project to this point."

"Now we need your support," he told the attendees. "Tell your friends and neighbors. It would be nice if we could retire here in the Helderbergs...We need your support to do this...It’s not strictly for the town of Berne. We can reach out to the other Hilltown residents and bring them into the community as well."

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