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Hilltowns Archives —The Altamont Enterprise, October 19, 2006

Berne super opposes $2.1M budget

By Tyler Schuling

BERNE — The supervisor here is not supporting the town’s $2.1 million budget proposal for next year, which calls for a 28-percent increase in taxes.

"It’s not my budget," said Supervisor Kevin Crosier.

If adopted by the board on Nov. 8, the budget would add $1.09 per $1,000 of assessed value for Berne taxpayers, who paid $3.90 this year.

The biggest increase is in the highway department, up $135,000 from $850,000 this year.

Crosier said that, as far as he knew, the tax increase is the largest in the town’s history.

Crosier said he has a vision for the town, and one idea he had was the merger between the Berne Highway Department and the Albany County Department of Public Works. (See related story.)

He said the two departments can work more efficiently than one, and that, by merging the two departments and lowering taxes, the taxpayer wins. The other four Berne council members, who are all Democrats, did not support the merger; Crosier ran twice on the Republican ticket.

Councilman Joseph Golden told The Enterprise Wednesday that, during the process of creating the budget, board members go through the proposed budget asking for suggestions.

The process, he said, is not done by vote.

Golden said that the merger was hypothetical, as are all budget numbers. Golden said that he has never seen a budget where everyone says, "Fine."

"There’s are always some additions and deletions," he said.

When asked about whether he thought the supervisor opposing the budget was odd, he said, "I don’t think it’s odd. It’s America." Golden later said "interesting" a better word to describe it.

Golden said that he thought everyone proposing the merger to be well-intentioned, but said that he thought the whole idea of the merger to be premature.

"We wouldn’t have any idea, fiscally, where we would be," he said. He also said he thought the economics of the merger were unclear.

When asked about what he felt townspeople thought of the proposed merger, Golden responded, "I can’t speak for everyone. I don’t know how many are for or against." He added, "I think a lot of it has to do with community control."

In 2006, Crosier said, the amount of money needed to be raised from taxes is $612,850. The tentative 2007 budget, he said, calls for about $800,000 to be raised from taxes.

"If you go by my budget, and the merger goes through, $602,164 would need to be raised," he told The Enterprise last week, implying that taxes would go down rather than up.

Health insurance, Crosier said, is up 12 percent from this year, and the seven highway workers will receive a 3-percent raise.

Town employees will receive a 4-percent raise.

Crosier said that the town will have a $16,000 charge back from the county for the federal Help America Vote Act, which requires new voting machines.

He also said that New York state is 52 percent higher in property taxes than the second highest state.

"We can no longer do things as we always have," Crosier said. "We have to look at ways to save taxpayers’ money."

The tentative budget was approved last Wednesday. A public hearing prior to approval of the final budget is scheduled for Nov. 8 at 6 p.m. at Town Hall.

Knox proposes $1.9 million budget

By Tyler Schuling

KNOX — The town’s tentative budget for 2007 was approved last Tuesday and calls for a tax-rate increase of about three cents per $1,000 of assessed value.

The total $1.9 million budget is about $110,000 higher than last year, and $646,325 will be raised from taxes.

"We’re pleased we could hold the line," Supervisor Michael Hammond told The Enterprise this week.

The town will be spending more, approximately $4,300, to comply with the Help America Vote Act, which requires new voting machines, but, Hammond said, the numbers are still subject to change. Hammond believes Albany County will be responsible for buying the equipment and covering some of the salaries.

Knox, unlike the other Hilltowns, is not seeing a decrease in costs for Advanced Life Support services, he said, because Knox gets its ALS services from Guilderland. An estimated $1,870 increase in costs is expected.

The other three Hilltowns, New Scotland, and Coeymans, he said, receive their services from the Albany County Sheriff’s Department, which has a well-equipped fly car to respond to medical emergencies; the addition of Bethlehem to their program resulted in a decrease for costs to participating towns.

"Knox was not affected," he said.

Knox will see a decrease of about $8,282 for services from the Altamont Rescue Squad.

Playground and recreation costs for Knox will increase from $8,000 to $12,000 in 2007, he said, because the park superintendent, Louis Saddlemire, will be putting in more work.

Both the zoning and planning boards’ budgets were increased from $1,000 for contractual services to $5,000 in 2007.

The transfer station attendant will be making $6,000 more than last year, and, Hammond said, the contractual expenses for the transfer station went up $4,000 based on an educated guess of volume.

The local real-estate boom netted an increase of $25,000 in mortgage tax revenues for the town’s general fund.

"The county collects a percentage," Hammond explained, "and a percentage of that is returned to towns." Hammond added that he suspected the change was due to the amount of properties within the town that changed hands.

The highway department is projected to spend $472,000, an increase of $30,100 over this year. Hammond said the town had to accommodate rising fuel and material costs. The costs for medical and hospital insurance increased 9.9 percent, an increase of $4,800.

The Knox Fire District budget increased $37,510 from this year. Hammond said of the 19.5-percent increase, "We don’t set the tax rate for the fire district." He added that district’s fire commissioners set the rate.

"We’re only a collecting agent," he said.

A public hearing on the preliminary budget is scheduled for Nov. 8 at 7:30 p.m., after which the board will vote on the spending plan.

Other business

In other business, at its October meeting, the town board:

— Read a letter regarding the improvements to the Berne-Altamont Road. The letter was in response to the letter Hammond wrote to resident engineer, Michael Johnson, in Voorheesville. Hammond told The Enterprise that he’s written letters asking for repairs to the road, and that Johnson has relayed the letters to the state’s Department of Transportation. The letter Hammond read last week, said the DOT has many other roads in need of repair, and that improvements to Route 156 between Altamont and Knox compete with others. The next improvements, the letter said, are scheduled for 2009.

"We agree the need exists," the letter said.

"That’s ridiculous," Councilman Nicholas Viscio said after Hammond read the letter. Viscio has expanded on the need to repair the road in past meetings.

Hammond said that he saw patching going on last week, and that the carriage way is gone.

"I believe it’s in the best interest of the board to exert pressure on the DOT," Hammond said. He also encouraged affected residents to contact them; and

— Heard from the planning board chairman, Robert Price, that the meteorological tower was completed last Tuesday. The tower, located on Middle Road, near the octagonal barn, he said, is the first in Albany County, and will collect data about wind speed and temperature for 18 months.

Proposed budget fuels the flames of heated debate

By Tyler Schuling

RENSSELAERVILLE — The temperature rose Monday night, as frustrations and accusations of angered residents rang throughout the crowded town hall.

The topic of discussion was the proposed 2007 budget.

The tentative $2.24 million budget reduces the library’s fund by $3,000 to $22,000, eliminates a full-time highway worker for a $1.1 million department budget, and adds $6,000 for the town newsletter. It would also keep the tax rate comparable to this year’s.

Throughout the meeting, residents tried to persuade the board to reconsider its changes and cuts, and recommended alternatives. Frustrated and offended residents attacked the board and the supervisor.

Distrust of town officials by town residents, and differing of opinions among board members was revealed.

Tempers flared, and a door was opened to cool down heated discussions, but fiery discussion and objection still raged.

Sal Santo brought a petition signed by 244 residents to the board, which described the town’s road system and asked the board to freeze hiring.

Supervisor Jost Nickelsberg was accused of having knowledge of laying off Deputy Superintendent David Potter.

"We have never talked about it," Nickelsberg said. "It’s another lie. I don’t know what you’re talking about."

After Nickelsberg’s comments, G. Jon Chase, the highway superintendent, read a letter from state Senator Neil Breslin saying Potter must pass a Civil Service exam to keep his job.

After the letter was read, audience members, convinced the letter had caught the supervisor in a lie, laughed and directed their suspicions to Nickelsberg.

Ben Neidl, the planning-board attorney, who was filling in for William Ryan, stood, and, over the commotion, said, "It’s a legal requirement." Neidl added that the test was not invented.

Public workers in many municipalities have had to pass Civil Service exams in the past year, which were not enforced earlier at the county level, resulting in some long-time workers losing their jobs.

At the conclusion of the meeting, confusion and chaos ensued after a motion was made by Councilman Gary Chase to not lay off a town employee.

Two board members — Democrats Gary Chase and Sherri Pine — voted for the motion; two others — Republicans Nickelsberg and Myra Dorman — were opposed.

Councilman J. Robert Lansing, a Republican, was looked to, to break the tie. Lansing was nudged by Councilwoman Dorman, and Lansing voted no.

Shouts from the audience ensued.

A woman from the audience said Lansing didn’t know what he was voting on, and added that Dorman had to nudge him to get his attention.

Dorman said Lansing had spoken, but that his vote wasn’t loud enough to hear.

Chase, uncertain whether Lansing heard and understood the motion, restated his motion, and said to Lansing, "So, you want to lay off a town employee""

Lansing shook his head.

Throughout the motion and confusion, audience members filed out of the hall.

"We did not adjourn the meeting," Gary Chase yelled.

Kathy Hallenbeck, the town clerk, told The Enterprise Tuesday that no one knows whether the motion was passed, and added that the town attorney was taking a look at it.

"That was quite a meeting," Supervisor Jost Nickelsberg told The Enterprise.

Nickelsberg also told The Enterprise this week that, when he campaigned, he ran on a tax-cutting platform. He assumed office in January.

"We are hopeful that will happen," he said of lowering taxes. Nickelsberg also told The Enterprise that, according to the results of a recent survey, 74 percent of the town’s residents who answered the survey thought the most negative feature of the town was its high taxes, and residents wanted them lowered.

Comments from the public

Public comment began with Jeff Pine, one of the town’s assessors, who is married to Councilwoman Pine, reading a letter, that said the tentative budget is incomplete.

"There is no line item for the building inspector," he read, and added that certain town expenses had been left out.

Pine’s letter also said Nickelsberg failed to hold budget workshops, that he is incompetent, and that he needed Hallenbeck, the town clerk, to explain budget terms to him.

The letter said that the town is not in debt, has a surplus of $1 million, and that the surplus is not mentioned in the tentative budget.

"You must spend this money or return it to the taxpayers," Pine said. Pine’s letter suggested the board give two-tenths of the surplus to town employees, and implored the board to fully fund the library.

"If you do this, you’ll cut the tax rate in half," his letter said.

The hall erupted with applause.

Pine, near the meeting’s conclusion, said to Nickelsberg, "Do your job."

Nickelsberg told The Enterprise Tuesday, "We’re interested in tax relief, not in being a bank." He said the town is looking at "some sort of tax relief’’ or refund. "All options are on the table," he said.

Throughout the meeting, Nickelsberg asked audience members to quiet down. Nickelsberg also asked several times for people to withhold their comments while he spoke.

During the meeting, two townspeople, angered and upset, left.

Near its conclusion, Santo, a land surveyor, and Richard Amadure, a planning board member, began an argument, which was stopped by Nickelsberg, after Amedure said that some townspeople were ill-informed or misinformed about what went on in their town.

Angered residents stated concerns about the contents, cost, and rhetoric of the town newsletter, and asked for continued funding for the library.

Rebecca Lubin, the director of the library, read several letters from concerned patrons.

One of the letters said it "would be a shame" to cut services and funding from "the town’s strongest community asset." Another said that cutting library funding could set a precedent for future budgets.

An anonymous donation of $3,000 was recently made to the library, but many town residents and library employees want the library line reinstated.

Janet Haseley, of the Rensselaerville Historical Society, said she didn’t want to see any funding cut from the library, and added that the library provides members of the community with user-friendly facilities and operating hours.

The library, she said, is where patrons are able to access the Internet, attend meetings, and hold workshops. Haseley added that all involved with the library work hard to raise money, and that the library, rather than experiencing a decrease in funding, should be given more money.

Haseley also supported the newsletter, saying it was a good informational source.

Prior to Monday’s meeting, the line item for Advance Life Support, the paramedic fly-car program, was $63,000, an increase of $2,899 over this year.

During public comment, Gerald Wood said that this was not the correct amount. He said that the ALS cost to the town was going to be about $36,000, a decrease over this year, and that the town got a letter informing it of the change. The town of Bethlehem joined the group of municipalities, served by the county program, thereby reducing the cost for individual towns.

"You fudged the budget," Wood said to Nickelsberg.

Supervisor comments

During his report, Nickelsberg supported reasons for making cuts by citing unfunded mandates, high property taxes, and many town residents’ having a fixed income.

He said unfunded mandates passed down from the county and state result in high taxes.

"We ran on record," Nickelsberg said during his report, "that we are attempting to hold public office for the greater good"relative to all issues."

Nickelsberg said the stock market was at an all-time high, and government receipts are shrinking.

"Bottom line — higher taxes," he said.

Nickelsberg said school, state, county, and federal taxes will all increase, and, he said a lot of the residents of the town are older, and have a fixed income.

"It is our job," he said, "to keep taxes flat or reduce them."

Nickelsberg cited the federal Help America Vote Act, and said, a $1.9 million expense for machines was passed down to the towns, and that the supervisors of the towns in Albany County got together in an effort to reduce the costs.

The result was an agreement between the county and the towns. Towns would pay about $600,000, and the county would cover the remaining expense.

He added that unfunded mandates are going to continue, and that it is the job of town officials to take a stand against them.

Nickelsberg told The Enterprise that the numbers of the budget are not correct. He said, "We’re getting very close. We already have some additions and deletions."

He said the numbers are imperfect, and that the town also has savings, unexpended balances, and increased receipts not mentioned in the budget.

Nickelsberg said that it is his job to keep taxes from increasing and said the town is looking at money-saving strategies — buying from and sharing services with other towns — and putting out more competitive bids.

"Anything over $200 goes out to bid," he said.

Nickelsberg said the town recently bought a new insurance policy that saves the town about $3,200, and found a new supplier of culverts, which saved about $3,400.

"We’re looking at everything," he said.

Other business

In other business, the town board:

— Welcomed new members to the Medusa Fire Company: William Adams, Matthew Duncan, Robyn Albergo, Guy Albergo, Dominick Higgins, and Michael Forman;

— Heard a question from Grimes, if the town attorneys are paid more than the previous town attorneys, who didn’t have to travel from Albany. Nickelsberg said the town attorneys are making the same as in the past;

— Did not accept a bid for a waste-oil furnace from Mid-State Supply. The board, after hearing from Dennis Jenkinson, did not feel it had enough information, and was not certain of a total price. Nickelsberg, concerned with the coming cold temperatures said, "We’re running out of fall";

— Did not accept bids to repair the salt shed. While discussing the bid, Councilman Chase questioned Nickelsberg’s spending;

— Heard from Vernon Husek, the chairman of the land-use planning committee, that the committee completed the town’s vision statement. The statement, he said, is posted on the town website, and the committee is inviting comments. The next step, Husek said, is to develop goal statements. Then, he said, the committee will develop strategies before finalizing the plan;

— Heard from Jack Long, who is temporarily chairing the water district, that he will continue chairing the district until the end of the year;

— Heard a request from Richard Feiner, that he would like Edwards Hill Road, which is between routes 145 and 81, paved. He said that, in July of 2005, he brought a petition signed by 42 residents to the board, and that, to get to Cooksburg from his restaurant, you can either drive one-fourth of a mile down the road, or seven miles to go around.

"We’ll try and figure out what to do," Nickelsberg said; and

— Heard a request from Tom Lippert to buy the land next to the schoolhouse in Potter Hollow. Lippert said the one-acre property is connected to the schoolhouse, which is on a small property, and would like to see the land used as a park.

Library board opens the book on move

By Saranac Hale Spencer

BERNE — The library took a step toward its new home at last Wednesday’s town board meeting.

Carol Anderson and members of the library board told the town board that they plan to apply for a matching-funds grant for construction of a new building on town-park property. Strapped for space, the library is currently housed in the same building with the town hall offices and the Berne museum.

The Upper Hudson Library System has $441,000 to distribute among its 23 libraries from a $14 million state-wide grant, Anderson said. Of the 23 libraries in the system, she expects that eight will submit applications for the grant, which is targeted for rural library construction projects.

"This is a very promising grant for the library because it’s not very competitive," Supervisor Kevin Crosier said.

In order to apply for the grant, which is due Nov. 15, Anderson said that the town must officially designate the land for the building site, commit any additional funds that the town thinks is appropriate – since the library can apply for twice what it has in hand, and show in the minutes that the library has permission to proceed.

"I’m pretty impressed," said town board member and library liaison, Joseph Golden, praising the work of the library. "I take a nap after I read the minutes," he said, referring to the record of their work. The library has 29 people divided into four committees, Anderson said.

The board voted unanimously to commit an additional $50,000 to the library project in a capital fund. The town had given the library $50,000 earlier and the library raised $30,000, so it will be able to apply for $260,000 in the grant.

"You’ll get more bang for your dollar," said Crosier.

The board also voted unanimously to officially designate the 300-by-300 foot parcel in the town park, as described in the preliminary plan, as land for the library.

The funding will be awarded on Feb. 1 and construction has to start within six months and be completed by June 30, 2009, according to specifications in the grant, said Anderson.

"Congratulations, library," said Crosier after the last vote.

Other business

In other business, the board:

— Voted unanimously to allow Berne to enter into an agreement with the Upper Hudson Library system;

— Voted unanimously to re-bid for a solid waste compactor;

— Voted unanimously to adopt a preliminary budget, which includes a 28-percent tax increase. "The big one there is the highway," said Crosier. The town has added $246,000 to the highway budget, a 29-percent increase over last year;

— Set a public hearing date for the budget for 6 p.m. on Nov. 8 at the town hall; and

— Considered making a local law that would require members of the zoning board of appeals and the planning board receive a certain number of hours of training before being allowed to serve.

Silence instead of second

By Saranac Hale Spencer

BERNE — Silence followed Supervisor Kevin Crosier’s motion to apply for a half-million dollar highway grant last Wednesday; none of the town board members seconded his motion. A half-dozen residents broke the quiet with cheers.

They were what remained of a 20-some group who showed up at the town board meeting to voice their opposition to the proposed merger of the town’s highway department and Albany County’s department of public works.

"I’m very surprised," said Crosier when asked about the board’s lack of support. "That would have been over half a million dollars."

The town would have applied for the grant, totaling $597,500, with the county of Albany. The two municipalities would have split the money, which would have provided funds for new trucks and building repairs.

"Sitting on this table tonight is a 28-percent tax hike," said Crosier, referring to the 2007 town budget draft, as he introduced his proposal for the grant. "I cannot support that tax hike. That’s why I looked at the merger."

Although applying for the grant wouldn’t have committed the town to the merger, were it awarded the grant, it could only use the funds if it did decide to merge with the county.

"What’s the worst-case scenario" You get it and you turn it down," said Crosier.

Berne’s highway superintendent, Ray Storm, also said this week that he was surprised that the motion didn’t even get to a vote. "Three months from now, they might change their minds," he said of the town board members, citing the projected 28-percent tax hike.

The highway budget is set to go up $246,888, a 29-percent increase over last year’s figure, which is largely due to the rising cost of petroleum-based products needed for road repair and maintenance and also because of road-work projects that have been needed for some time, Storm said. "The longer you wait, the more it costs," he said of the repairs.

All of the seven highway workers are opposed to the merger. Storm thinks that’s because people are afraid of change. Most of the residents who spoke against the merger at the beginning of the meeting on Wednesday echoed resident Dave Smith’s sentiment: "If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it."

Although one man, Ralph Miller, the town’s historian, didn't support the merger, he suggested that further study and more definite numbers would in form the board and residents. "I think we should give each of our representatives the benefit of the

doubt that they are doing what they think is best," he said.

After Crosier’s motion failed to garner a second and the board accepted the preliminary budget that includes a 28-percent tax increase, burdened with the cost of road work, board member Joseph Golden responded to groans from the crowd by saying, "These are forks in the road, folks."

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