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Regional Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, May 24, 2007

Farm aid
Assistance for local agriculturists

By Rachel Dutil

Carl Peterson is fond of his cows; he refers to his heifers as his "girls" – they are his livelihood.

Peterson, who is 75, has spent his whole life farming 850 acres on Bozenkill Road in Knox. His farm is one of the few remaining farms in Knox, and Peterson said last week that he is pleased with the Dairy Assistance Program – which appropriated $30 million for dairy farmers in response to the record-low milk prices in 2006. He says it "really helps."

The Empire State Development Corporation recently mailed out $25 million in electronic and paper-check payments to farmers who had applied for the assistance by the April 27 deadline.

Bozenkill Farm, which has been in Peterson’s family for five generations, received about $9,630 in aid from the program. His farm produced nearly three million pounds of milk last year from 140 cows, he said.

Peterson served for 26 years on the board of directors for Agri Mark – a dairy cooperative that markets more than 300 million gallons of farm-fresh milk each year for 1,300 farming families in New York and six New England states. He was also the chairman for 14 years. Agri Mark uses the milk to produce Cabot and McCadam cheeses, in three cheese plants the cooperative owns, Peterson said proudly before putting on a McCadam cheese baseball cap.

The Dairy Assistance Program, Peterson said, "is a short-term solution" It’s unrealistic to think it’s something we’d get every year."

Peterson was part of an agriculture committee of about 20 people last year that requested $60 million from the state for dairy farmers, he said.

"It was absolutely needed," Peterson said of the assistance. "There was no other way than the legislature."

Vermont had allocated $8.6 million to its farmers, and the $60 million figure was based on the amount each Vermont farmer received but was spread over more New York farms, he said.

"I think we did absolutely great to get what we got," Peterson said of the $30 million. "Maybe we’ll catch up on our bills a little bit," he said, adding that the fuel costs for his farm last year were more than $30,000. Health insurance costs are also high, he said. Peterson pays over $1,000 a month for himself, his wife, and his grandson. "That’s with Medicare," he said.

The state legislature "agreed to put this pot of money in because the farmers received extraordinarily low milk prices in 2006," said Brad Maione, a spokesman for Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s office.

Each eligible farmer received 35 cents per hundred pounds of milk, he explained; the figure was calculated by dividing the $30 million dollars by the estimated pounds of eligible milk.

Farms that produced 4.8 million pounds of milk or more, each received the maximum amount of assistance – $16,800.

Douglas LaGrange, of Feura Bush, runs one of those farms with the help of his father, Marvin; brother, David; and uncle, Ronald. The 215-acre farm has been in the LaGrange family for eight generations. It produced around 6 million pounds of milk last year, said LaGrange. "We have some hard-working cows," he said.

Because there are still farmers eligible for aid that hasn’t been accounted for, Maione said, the state’s Department of Agriculture and Markets has extended the deadline for farmers to submit their applications to July 9. The remaining $5 million will be paid out at that time, he said.

"We’re going to continue to try and assist wherever possible," Maoine said of the Spitzer administration’s commitment to agriculture, adding that the assistance is not an annual program. "We will continue to address the needs of farmers as time goes on," he said.

"Dairy farms play a vital role in the economic well-being of Upstate New York," said Gov. Spitzer in a May 10 announcement on the Dairy Assistance Program. "By providing this needed assistance, we are helping farmers and the communities they support. This aid will hardly solve all the challenges facing dairy farmers, but hopefully it will help alleviate some of the financial burdens incurred last year," he said.

"We’ll work closely with the Department of Agriculture and Markets to identify areas of need" and continue to move forward," Maione told The Enterprise.

Milk pricing

The price paid to farmers for their milk is based on the quantity, and the milk’s components, or percentages of butter fat and protein, said Cathy Wickswat, dairy and farm-business educator for the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rensselaer County.

"Milk checks are the most complicated things you’ve ever seen," Wickswat said.

Farmers are also paid "some quality premiums and volume premiums," she explained, "Larger farms get more from volume premiums."

When the milk supply gets tight, she said, more premiums are offered. A premium is now being offered to farmers who sign a contract that there milk is "BST-free," she said. BST – bovine somatotropin – commonly called bovine growth hormone, is found naturally in the cow’s body, Wickswat said, and injecting cows with additional BST increases milk production. There is no way to test the levels of it, she said.

Milk handlers request that farmers sign a contract that they are not using the hormone to increase their milk production, and, in exchange, they are paid a premium. The problem, though, said Wickswat, is"some feel the premiums to not use BST are very small."

Farmers strive "to make the most milk with the lowest feed costs and the highest components," Wickswat said. "It’s a balancing act" Farmers are really struggling with their bills," she said.

Though milk prices in 2006 were at a record low, LaGrange said,"They’ve been climbing since the end of last year." Record-high prices are predicted by the end of 2007, he said. The promise of higher prices gives farmers "something to look forward to," he said, but with fuel and feed costs continuing to climb, he said, "It’s a bit of a Catch-22. Things aren’t always as bright and cheery as they seem."

One major obstacle, LaGrange explained, is the skyrocketing price of corn, due not only to rising fuel prices, but also the increasing demand for ethanol as an alternative fuel source.

It would likely take two or three years of "respectable prices to get us to the point of making major improvements," said LaGrange.

"In my opinion," said Peterson, "We are in a battle with the far west." For example, he said, in Idaho, "You don’t have a farm unless you have 30,000 cows."

California, Idaho, and New Mexico are big milk-producing states, Peterson said, and every 10,000-cow farm out west displaces 100 smaller farms in New York.

"We have to have a regional program," Peterson stressed, "with the New England states working together."

New York passed legislation to join a dairy compact, or contract among states to establish a commission to set the price on fluid milk, he said. Each state needs to pass identical legislation to join, he said.

In the compact, he said, the money all comes from the marketplace. "Our markets are all tied to the price of cheese," he said, again emphasizing the importance of a regional program "to put a floor" under the price.

"That was a perfect program for us," Peterson said of the dairy compact. "Other states thought it gave us an unfair advantage" and those states had enough power within Congress to thwart the renewal of the contract, he said.

Dairy farmers are an important economic source within the local economy, said Wickswat. "In Rensselaer County, 60 percent of our economy is dairy."

Many farmers will use the money from the Dairy Assistance Program to pay for crop expenses, she said; the funding comes during the peak planting season.

Peterson said that, thus far, he has planted 173 acres, and has "plenty to do" to get in the rest of the 225 acres he usually plants.

The $16,000 in aid for the LaGrange farm will pay about two weeks of feed bills. "It’s not like we’re going to go out and splurge," said LaGrange.

Much needed help

"The state’s trying desperately to keep dairy farms in business," LaGrange told The Enterprise. "A lot of farmers, including us, would rather get a respectable price for the product, than rely on government help," he said.

"Every time farms go out of business, it affects more than just the farmer," LaGrange said. The effects trickle down to the prices consumers pay at the grocery store, he said.

"I have noticed that, in a general sense" the Democratic party, both statewide and nationally, tends to make more money available for agriculture," said LaGrange, a Republican, who is considering a run for town supervisor in the fall election. "I’d rather see the system change, rather than put a Band-Aid on it" The political climate doesn’t work toward resolving situations, no matter what party, it tends to lean toward Band-Aids," he said.

"I really hope people realize that it’s like any other assistance farmers have gotten" no matter what it is, it’s not just for the farmer, it’s for everyone," LaGrange said, regarding the Dairy Assistance Program.

"Farms keep open space," LaGrange concluded, "The longer you keep farms operating, the longer you keep the rural character everyone desires."

"Dairy farms are probably the best use for most of the agricultural land in New York State," Peterson told The Enterprise. Dairy farming adapts well to the climate in the region, he said. "If we were to lose our dairy farms, I don’t know what would replace it."

County creates Highway Services Board

By Tyler Schuling

ALBANY COUNTY — Municipalities in Albany County now have a vehicle to discuss shared services.

In an effort to cut costs, the county legislature formed a Municipal Highway Services Board last week.

The 21-member board will be made up of representatives appointed by the governing boards from each of the three cities, 10 towns, and six villages in Albany County. Two representatives will be appointed by the legislature.

Alexander "Sandy" Gordon, a Democrat who represents the 39th District — Berne, Knox, and Rensselaerville — spearheaded the resolution.

Gordon said the highway services board gives municipalities "an opportunity to solicit ideas," and its purpose is to include all policy-makers in decision-making and implementation.

"Ideas should not be imposed but solicited," he said. It’s "critically important," he said, for the committee to explore potential savings that could be achieved by pooling resources. As well as sharing equipment and services, savings could also come from exploring health-care plans and workers’ compensation, he said.

"If this is worth looking at, it should be looked at right," Gordon said, adding that members of the newly-formed board will have the opportunity to explore options "openly" and "inclusively."

The highway board could also look at grants offered by the state’s Department of State.

Berne Supervisor Kevin Crosier proposed a merger of the town’s highway department with the county last spring and included it in his proposed budget last fall. The merger, and subsequent budget proposal, was met with widespread opposition and was not supported by the Democratic trustees; Crosier was elected on the Republican ticket. During the budgeting process, Berne Trustee Joseph Golden said Crosier’s budget numbers were hypothetical. Trustees had not been given documentation for review.

"I feel it has not been an open process," said Gordon of Berne’s talks of consolidation. When asked in October to vote on a resolution to apply for grants to be used in a merger with the county from the Department of State’s Shared Municipal Service Incentive grant program, trustees had not been given information, Gordon said. No Berne officials seconded Crosier’s motion to apply for the grant money.

Crosier said the county highway board was "a day late and a dollar short," and he called Gordon a "Johnny-come-lately." Crosier and County Executive Michael Breslin had encouraged cooperation over a year ago when the first inter-municipal forum was held last April, he said. He and Breslin identified a number of different things, he said. It’s common sense, he said, that, with two highway departments within a town, there would be increased efficiency by combining the departments. "There’s a significant degree in overlap of services," he said. By combining two departments, workers would also receive better benefits, he said. Crosier said he is concerned because Gordon has "criticized" and "bashed" 135 "hard-working, dedicated" county employees at Berne and Rensselaerville town meetings "because of some political agenda."

Gordon said the initiative is not politically-motivated. Republican legislators wanted to join in the initiative, and he "willingly and gracefully included them," he said. "This is good government legislation," Gordon said.

When a vote was taken in the legislature last week, both Democrats and Republicans were in favor of the highway services board, Gordon said. With 37 of the 39 legislators attending, all voted in favor of the highway board.

Varied responses

"The town has 162 road miles, and it becomes a little more difficult to share services," said Guilderland Supervisor Kenneth Runion. Currently, Albany County does the town’s road-striping, and the town reimburses them, he said.

"I think [the legislature] has explored this in the past, and it had been meant for smaller communities, such as Berne," Runion said. Runion said he has received letters commenting on the "high level of care" of Guilderland’s road system. "We will keep an eye on the committee," he said, adding that the town could be interested in regional bidding on materials.

Rensselaerville Supervisor Jost Nickelsberg said his town has "a lot of people in mind," and will appoint a member to the new board at its next town meeting. According to a report by Berne Supervisor Kevin Crosier and the county’s commissioner of public works, Michael Franchini, which used figures from the most recent census in 2000, Rensselaerville has more road miles per 1,000 people than any other town or city in Albany County.

"This whole thing has to be for the better of the town," Nickelsberg said. School taxes continue to rise, and retirees on fixed incomes are unable to go back to work, he said. "You’re basically where you’re at" and "stuck in a corner without any options," Nickelsberg said.

The town recently completed a land-use comprehensive plan. One of the town’s goals included in the plan is to complete a feasibility analysis to determine whether it makes sense to consolidate the town’s highway department with the county.

The town’s highway garage and a county garage are a half-a-mile apart, Nickelsberg said. Consolidation, he said, "is clearly something to think about."

Nickelsberg said Governor Eliot Spitzer is "on the right track." Spitzer, since taking office in January, has encouraged cooperative efforts among municipalities.

Nickelsberg, a Republican, cited neighboring Berne’s budgeting last fall and tax increase this year. Had Crosier’s budget been approved, the town’s taxes would have decreased about 2-percent, Nickelsberg said. Berne’s taxes increased about 20-percent this year.

"If you’re 75 and on a fixed income, what a horrible swing," Nickelsberg said.

"We are always needing more equipment," said New Scotland Supervisor Ed Clark, who ran on the Republican ticket. "Are we needing any services" No," he said, adding that he thinks the town provides adequate services to the community. "I don’t feel we’re missing anything right now," he said.

Asked if he thinks pooling municipalities together for a self-insurance plan is a good idea, Clark replied, "We would have to explore the pros and cons." Before concluding whether a consortium would be beneficial, officials would first have to determine risk with joining with other municipalities, he said.

"I think it would take a lot more research," Clark said.

Westerlo Supervisor Richard Rapp thinks forming a highway board is a good idea. "We’re pretty well equipped," he said, adding that Westerlo shares equipment with Rensselaerville, Coeymans, Berne, Knox, and Durham (Greene County). "The towns up here have been doing it for years, and that’s the way it should be," he said of sharing services and equipment.

Asked if the town would be interested in cooperatively bidding with the county, Rapp said the town already purchases its highway materials and equipment at state contract prices.

Rapp worked in the county’s public works department 19 years, serving as its commissioner before retiring. Rapp said of talks between Berne and the county, "People are skeptical"It’s been an on-going battle."

Each year, the Knox highway department renews shared highway services contracts with other municipalities. The highway department shares services with Berne, Wright, Westerlo, Rensselaerville, and New Scotland, said Gary Salisbury, Knox’s highway superintendent. Ninety percent of the agreements between Knox and other towns, Salisbury said, occur in the summer months.

Though Knox doesn’t work with the county as often as towns, the town has borrowed Albany County’s tree truck and guardrail machine, said Salisbury. This winter, Knox used the county’s salt shed, and the county, in turn, borrowed a loader from Knox for much of the winter, Salisbury said. The town has also lent the county its road broom, he said.

Cost savings, he said, come from not needing to rent or buy equipment. When sharing a truck with a municipality, such as Berne, Salisbury said, the town will send a driver along. By sharing trucks, highway departments save by not having to purchase a truck, and projects are completed more quickly.

"It saves a ton of money," Salisbury said of sharing services and equipment. Salisbury said it would be a good idea to have highway workers appointed to the 21-member highway board because they operate and maintain road equipment, are familiar with road materials, and maintain roads.

Gordon, who lives in Knox, said he pulled some people out of snowdrifts near his house along a county-maintained road during a storm in mid-February. An 81-year-old Knox woman went off the road, he said.

During a snowstorm in mid-March, Gordon said, Albany County operators went home early. Westerlo highway workers then led an ambulance to the hospital, and plowed state routes 143 and 32, roads that are designated to be maintained by the county. Seeking compensation, the Westerlo Town Board voted unanimously in April to send a letter to Breslin and Michael Franchini detailing employee hours, truck hours, and fuel costs.

Pulling people out of a ditch and Westerlo plowing county-maintained roads, Gordon said, "speaks to itself."

"It’s not the level of service that we expect," he said.

Slavick backed
Favorite for Albany County comptroller

By Jarrett Carroll

ALBANY COUNTY — County Democrats said "yes" to Guilderland’s Patricia Slavick for comptroller in 2007.

Democrats endorsed Slavick, a Guilderland councilwoman, in a rare unanimous decision during Wednesday night’s committee meeting, over incumbent Comptroller Michael Conners II, who bowed out of the contest.

He’ll take on Slavick in a primary.

"I am very privileged and honored to be here"and very humbled," Slavick told her fellow Democrats. "I wish to continue the good work I’ve done in Guilderland in a greater capacity"I am asking for your support."

The committee also endorsed Albany County Executive Michael Breslin in his bid for re-election and three candidates for county coroner.

A motion was made to nominate Conners for the endorsement, but Conners stopped the motion and asked to remove his name from a committee vote in an attempt to "gain redemption" and avoid a "messy floor vote."

Conners also said he did not want to see another "urban and suburban" power struggle.

Last fall, Albany County Democrats were divided over who should chair the party. Suburban members supported David Bosworth, also a Guilderland town board member, and Albany members supported Frank Commisso, the county legislature’s majority leader.

Commisso won, but the contested vote was challenged by Bosworth supporters because a weighted vote was not used and a state Supreme Court judge eventually invalidated Commisso’s election.

The committee then decided on a co-chairmanship by Bosworth and Commisso.

"This battle of cities and towns should never have happened," Conners told The Enterprise after the meeting. He continued, saying he didn’t want to see committee members "put on the spot" to choose either Slavick or himself.

Breslin also spoke of party unity after the committee endorsed him for re-election.

"We need to stay together as Democrats because when we do, we can do anything," Breslin said.

Two-hundred-and-sixty-nine of the over 600 committee members met at the Polish Community Center in Albany; an additional 141 proxy or absentee votes were handed in.

Albany County Democratic patriarch John J. McNulty made the resolution to endorse Slavick for comptroller.

The candidates

This is the second time the county party did not endorse Conners, who has been the county’s comptroller since 1995.

Four years ago, Democratic Albany County Legislator Allen Maikels stepped down from his position representing Guilderland to challenge Conners. County Democrats did not endorsee either Maikels or Conners for comptroller in that election, but Conners won the election with a solid lead.

"I’m not stranger to a primary," Conners told The Enterprise last night. "I understand that people were upset"with some unpopular political decisions"but you can’t have it both ways. I’m independent and I think for myself to get the job done."

One of those unpopular decisions among Democrats was when Conners ran in 2004 on the Republican ticket unsuccessfully against State Senator Neil Breslin, a Democrat.

Senator Breslin supports Slavick for comptroller and released an official endorsement for her campaign on her website: www.patriciaslavick2007.com.

"For years, the Albany County Comptroller’s office has lacked leadership"Mike Conners is inconsistent and unfocused," Breslin said in the announcement. "The time for change is now. Democrat Patricia Slavick offers our community a new opportunity."

Conners, who is also a member of the Menands Fire Company, is seeking his fourth four-year term as comptroller, which pays nearly $98,300 a year.

He is holding a kick-off fund-raiser and rally on the evening of May 31 at the North Albany American Legion Post.

Slavick was elected to Guilderland’s town board in 2000 and chose politics over the private sector in 2005. When running for re-election that year, Slavick quit her job with the state’s Office of Mental Health after she was told she was being paid with federal funds and therefore violated the Hatch Act.

The Hatch Act is a law that prohibits federal and certain state workers from running for an elected office.

She said then that the decision was hard, but "decided I like the town board and serving the residents of Guilderland"I’m here to serve the town."

Now, Slavick says, she’s ready to serve the county.

"I’ve been thinking about running for a while now, and I came forward about three weeks ago," Slavick told The Enterprise after last night’s meeting. "It’s been a great privilege and an honor to serve my town for the last seven years"now with the support from our party, I’m ready serve all of Albany County."

Slavick is not up for re-election to her Guilderland town board seat until 2009.

Currently, she is a business analysis supervisor in the Future of Central Accounting System Project at the state comptroller’s office, and, as a certified public accountant, she worked for General Electric for 27 years.

Along with the county Democrats’ official endorsement, Slavick has also garnered the support of the Democratic chairs in the towns of Bethlehem, New Scotland, and Coeymans, as well as the town of Guilderland’s first-vice chair, and Green Island’s Democratic chair.

She is also being supported by many of the local elected officials.

Conners said he is confident in his re-election bid despite Slavick’s endorsements.

"The object of an election is to win on the day of the election," Conners said. "I’m going to win the primary, that I am confident of."

Conners said he didn’t want to pressure rank-and-file members into making the choice at the meeting, and that he’s not "going to put the men and women who work for me at risk," by asking them to make official endorsements before a primary.

In the end, Conners said, "I’m going to win this thing."

Seven arrested for welfare fraud

By Saranac Hale Spencer

ALBANY COUNTY — Seven people were arrested for welfare fraud last week; the Albany County Sheriff’s Department says they fraudulently received nearly $125,000 in benefits.

"The fraud that we’ve found is between 5 and 8 percent of our caseload," said David Kircher, Deputy Commissioner of Albany County Social Services. The majority of people who apply for and receive welfare benefits are truly in need, he said.

All but two of the people who were arrested were women from the city of Albany. Deanna M. Lockwood, 31, of 520 Travis Hill Rd., Rensselaerville, and Appadoo Permaul, 51, of 209 Concord Hill Rd., Guilderland, were also arrested.

Lockwood had been receiving benefits from the temporary assistance program, Kircher said. In 2006, that program provided $4.7 million to residents of Albany County, he said. Her offense "involved failure to report employment," he said. Lockwood received benefits fraudulently from March 1, 2006 to March 31, 2007, he said, because she did not report that she was working at K & D West Winds, a restaurant in Preston Hollow. She took $4,173 from the temporary assistance program and $1,397 in food stamps, a program that supplied about $23 million in benefits in 2006, Kircher said.

He wasn’t sure how investigators figured out that Lockwood was cheating, but he said that the county’s department of social services has several techniques for finding people who are scamming the system.

"Case workers are constantly reviewing cases," said Kerri Battle, spokesperson for the county executive’s office. Many tips about welfare fraud come in through a hotline, she said.

Permaul’s case manager discovered five undisclosed bank accounts, holding a total of $54,000, said Battle, which makes him ineligible for the Medicaid that he was receiving. Permaul was paid about $4,000 that he wasn’t entitled to between Aug. 1, 2005 and March 31, 2006, she said.

Permaul is a reverend said Battle. He lives in a parsonage owned by Christ Family Fellowship Inc., that is assessed at $287,700, according to the Guilderland assessor’s office. Permaul did not want to comment before his court date, set for May 24, and Lockwood could not be reached for comment.

Penalties for fraud are usually handled by the courts, said Kircher. "Almost always, there’s restitution," he said.

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