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Hilltowns Archives —The Altamont Enterprise, July 19, 2007

Berne GOP backs off support of Crosier

By Tyler Schuling

BERNE — After a hiatus, the GOP in town is reorganizing and criticizing the man it backed for supervisor.

"There seems to be an interest," said Peggy Warner, chairwoman of the committee.

In a town where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1, the town government has been dominated by Democrats for decades.

The current supervisor, Kevin Crosier, was elected on the Republican ticket, but is an enrolled Democrat. He is now running in the Democratic primary for the county legislature. If he wins the county seat, Crosier has said he’ll resign as Berne supervisor, cutting short his four-year term.

The other town board members are Democrats.

Warner indicated local Republicans are frustrated with Crosier and said there has been dissention within the community.

"You’re either a Republican or a Democratic. You can’t be both," she said. Crosier, she said, goes "back and forth."

Crosier said Warner was "drawing a line in the sand."

With six members — two for each of the town’s three voting districts — the committee is re-organizing this weekend and currently contacting enrolled Republicans to run for town board and town assessor.

Two assessor seats and two town board seats — James Hamilton’s and Carol Crounse’s — are open this fall.

Rudy Stempel is vice-chairman of the committee. Former chairman Philip Stevens resigned.

The GOP party committee is advocating for a bipartisan budget committee. The committee’s leaders point to recent budgets — a 1-percent decrease in the town’s budget prior to elections and "a better than" 20-percent tax increase after the 2005 election.

This year, Berne’s tax levy increased just over 20-percent. Residents’ taxes increased 80 cents per $1,000 of valuation this year, a tax rate of $4.71.

"This volatility begs a closer examination. We believe a bipartisan committee of concerned citizens can lend their time and expertise to help inform the town’s budget preparation, adoption, and implementation," Warner and Stempel write in a letter to The Enterprise editor this week.

Crosier, who included a merger of the town’s highway department with the county’s department of public works in his budget proposal, did not vote for this year’s spending plan.

Warner called Crosier’s budget proposal last fall "a manipulated thing."

She criticized the proposed merger.

"Our men have been doing a good job, and there’s no need to get rid of them," she said.

If the merger proposal was a good idea, then why didn’t nearby towns, such as Knox, Westerlo, and Rensselaerville also consider it, Warner asked.

Since he took office, Crosier said, he’s always had an open-door policy and has encouraged others to visit and see how their tax dollars are spent. "It’s important people understand where and how their money is being spent," he said. Warner has never visited his office, Crosier said, adding that the proposed merger has been "a very open process from day one."

Warner was also critical of the East Berne hamlet study and questioned Crosier’s management of town board meetings.

"He seems to be afraid of questions asked publicly," Warner said. Crosier took credit for the town’s sewer project, which was started by former supervisor Alan Zuk, Warner said. Crosier told people he would change his enrollment to Republican once he’d been elected, she said.

"That’s hysterical," Crosier said of Warner’s criticisms. "It sounds to me like she doesn’t know what’s going on in her community," Crosier said, adding that Warner’s criticisms are informed by "innuendo and rumor."

The sewer project, started years before he was elected, wasn’t funded or approved when he entered office, Crosier said. "It was dead," he said. Crosier got the project approved by the Department of Environmental Conservation, he said, and obtained $750,000 in state grant money and $500,000 in federal grant money.

Asked if he’d told people he would change his party enrollment if elected, Crosier replied, "No."

Warner said some have become tired of Crosier’s "dishonest talk."

The Town of Berne Republican Party Committee is meeting to reorganize this weekend and will discuss the party’s caucus, Warner said.

Enrolled Republicans interested in running for a Berne council or assessor position are encouraged to contact Warner or Stempel.

Warner said some have shown interest in running for a council position, but she would not disclose their names until the committee holds a meeting.

From snowshoes to bird houses, summer rec program sizzles

By Tyler Schuling

HILLTOWNS — Berne’s summer recreation program was going strong Monday morning.

At Jack and Ruth Norray’s farm, a heavily-forested acreage that lines both sides of Pleasant Valley Road in Knox, the sun shone down on the beautiful summer day. Hammering could be heard from a pond a hundred yards from the road, where kids built bluebird houses.

Jack Norray moved down a line of youngsters, busy with their projects.

"You’re doing good," Norray told the fifth- through eighth-graders.

Last week, another group of fifth- through eighth-graders participated in the program. Numbers were a bit higher on the first day of the two-week program, with 23 showing up.

During the program, which is open to children in first grade through eighth grade, kids pursue a variety of activities.

"We’ve been so blessed," said Pam Porter; last week there was only one threat of a thunderstorm. "Every day, I think, the kids have had a really exciting adventure."

Though fewer kids were participating this week, chaperones and kids were excited about the activities.

The first week, activities included bicycling along the Hudson River; orienteering; visiting a horse farm; and taking a trip to the Huyck Preserve in Rensselaerville, where wildlife rehabilitators released a red-tailed hawk into the wild. During an outing at Warner’s Lake in Berne, an 11-year-old girl caught 11 fish.

On Monday, a group of 10 kids strapped snowshoes to their feet and raced down a grass-covered hill with no snow in sight. For some, snowshoeing was a new find. More experienced members in the group, such as Taylor Della Rocco and Maclin Norray, quickly strapped their shoes on before helping others with their gear. With nearly 200 acres, the Norrays’ property has a snowshoeing trail. The couple, active with the Hilltop Hoppers, officiates kayak and snowshoe races and holds snowshoe try-outs at the Berne-Knox-Westerlo soccer fields in February each year for the Empire State Winter Games held in Lake Placid.

Jack Norray, who has lived in Knox for 32 years and is the town’s dog-control officer, first strapped on a pair of snowshoes when he was serving in the military in Alaska, he said.

The Norrays have a large collection of snowshoes, some modern ones made of plastic and metal; some older, made of rawhide and wood. Each pair of snowshoes, Norray said, has a story. He’s been snowshoeing for over 50 years, he said.

Norray stepped in front of the group of kids Monday and taught them about snowshoeing.

"The heavier you are, the bigger snowshoe you need," he said. "You want to dress light."

As the kids got in place on the hayfield to run at top speed, their large shoes clumped loudly on the green grass. Some raced with determined looks on their faces; others were smiling and laughing at the new experience.

Destroying Octavo volumes for the birds

By Tyler Schuling

RENSSELAERVILLE — History is in jeopardy.

So says Roswell Eldridge, M.D., who has been tracking disconcerting behavior of eBay auctioneers and buyers on the Internet.

People are tearing drawings from intact volumes by the renowned American artist and naturalist John James Audubon. They are then selling the paintings for thousands of dollars on eBay.

An event this week may only compound the problem.

On Wednesday, John James Audubon: Drawn From Nature, will premiere on the Public Broadcasting Service channel at 9 p.m. The film premiered in Rensselaerville last October. A large audience is expected for the TV broadcast, a scenario about which Eldridge has mixed feelings. The film, Eldridge predicts, will generate interest and a surge will ensue with people "wanting a piece of Audubon."

As an alternative to pilfering from the Octavo volumes, Eldridge is proposing art lovers buy a reproduction rather than destroy a book. Thirty reproductions are on display this summer at the visitor center at the Huyck Preserve in Rensselaerville.

Eldridge put up the initial funds for the documentary. Though the film could generate public interest and ultimately lead to destruction of the Octavo volumes, Eldridge said he didn’t hesitate to put up the initial funds.

"What I wanted to do was inform folks first of all about this guy Audubon, who is remarkable. To get them interested in Audubon, and not just as an artist but as a naturalist — the most honored naturalist of his day," Eldridge said.

Adamant about preserving Audubon’s work, Eldridge held a virtual party in April for Audubon’s 222nd birthday. And, he created a website — www.audubonoctavos.com — which is dedicated to telling Audubon’s story.

The Octavo volumes are the only place a person can get an impression of Audubon not only as a painter, but as a naturalist and a writer, Eldridge said. Audubon’s observations are recorded in print alongside his famous paintings.

At 73, Eldridge said his time and finances are running short.

Just outside the visitor center at the Huyck Preserve in Rensselaerville, Eldridge held in his hands one book of a 10 -volume set purchased by his father when he was 20 and attending college.

As he leafs through its yellowing pages, Eldridge, who calls the Octavo "a lovely old book," searches for his favorite passages from a volume.

One passage, written nearly 200 years ago, tells of Audubon’s banding birds.

"This is what I grew up with — these observations of his," Eldridge said. "And they’re very charming and informative and well done."

Comptroller’s audit says highway workers need to punch clock

By Tyler Schuling

RENSSELAERVILLE — Highway workers and part-time employees for the town used time cards sporadically last year, according to an audit by the state comptroller’s office.

Supervisor Jost Nickelsberg had requested a complete audit, but the comptroller’s office limited the audit to payroll and personal services.

The problem is that Rensselaerville is a small town and "we don’t loom large on their screen," Nickelsberg told The Enterprise this week. The 26-page audit was released last week.

G. Jon Chase, Rensselaerville’s highway superintendent, told The Enterprise last night the audit "is still in litigation" and declined further comment.

"I know nothing about litigation," Nickelsberg said last night. "Where could he possibly get that"" he asked, adding that he is the town’s chief financial officer and he thinks someone would have told him.

Nickelsberg, a Republican who took office a year-and-a-half ago, has been at odds with Chase, a Democrat and long-time highway superintendent, over a variety of issues, including the purchase of highway materials, the town’s procurement policy, the way roads are maintained, and the dismissal of Chase’s wife, Joyce Chase, who had worked in the past as a clerk for the department.

Chase has not attended a regular town board meeting since January.

In his June 18 response to preliminary findings by the comptroller’s office, Nickelsberg asks for a complete audit of the town and is "particularly concerned regarding procurement policies." The town’s procurement policy requires officials to obtain three bids for all purchases over $200. The nearby town of Berne, which has a comparable road system, authorizes its highway superintendent, Ray Storm, to make purchases of up to $2,500 without the town board’s prior approval.

Audit findings

Highway employees had not been routinely using the time clock located in the highway garage to record their beginning and ending work times, according to the comptroller’s report. Of 520 highway employees’ time cards examined by auditors, 123 had been hand-written instead of being recorded by a time clock. All 123 time cards had supervisory approval.

"Employee Reports, documenting overtime worked and the work performed were not properly completed and were missing for six workdays during June 2006," auditors said.

The town, in turn, paid its highway employees $9,262 for 393 hours "without adequate documentation."

Highway workers and part-time employees are going to use a time clock, and those who do not, won’t be paid, Nickelsberg said last week.

Town officials could not provide auditors with time records to document $2,680 paid to two part-time employees, according to auditors.

Last year, Bob Bolte and K.B. Cooke, Rensselaerville residents who work on town projects and frequently volunteer, completed roof, insulation, and siding improvements at Town Hall.

Throughout the project, Nickelsberg said, he could see Cooke and Bolte were working. Hours were adding up, at times he ate lunch with them, and he was "comfortable" signing their checks, Nickelsberg said.

Cooke and Bolte are expected to work on another town project this year — constructing a fire- and water-proof building to house all town records. Nickelsberg estimated the project will cost $20,000. He was uncertain whether others would help with the project. "They both still work, and that’s a big project," Nickelsberg said.

In regards to documenting work, the comptroller’s office, Nickelsberg said, wants "uniform and consistent payroll procedures."

"‘What if the work had been in Potter Hollow park"’ is the comptroller’s concern," he said. "If there’s a better way to get the best business practice, we’ll do it."

Chase’s response

Chase wrote to auditors that highway employees "often forgot to punch in or out."

"It seems unlikely that forgetfulness alone can account for the large number of time cards that were not used properly," auditors replied.

As of January 2007, the town employed 10 full-time highway workers. All are members of Local 106 of the International Union of Operating Engineers.

In response to the comptroller’s report, Chase, who did not attend an exit meeting with the auditors on May 23, cited issues he had wanted to discuss. On May 23, Chase wrote in his report, Nickelsberg and auditors met "with the door shut" for "over an hour." In his report, Chase says, an auditor "was very rude," "treated me like a criminal," and "treated me like I was not important."

The comptroller’s office disagrees with Chase’s assertions about its staff’s behavior on May 23, writing its staff "conducted themselves in a professional manner."

Nickelsberg, Republican Councilman Robert Lansing, bookkeeper Andrea Cornwell, and two auditors attended the May 23 exit meeting, Nickelsberg told The Enterprise this week.

Under union contracts, highway workers are paid a minimum of three hours of overtime when they are called out "for instances such as weather (snow, sleet, rain), downed trees, and other emergency situations," Chase wrote. Removing a fallen tree that is blocking a road probably doesn’t take three hours, but the workers are paid three hours for the work, he wrote. This is why times had been hand-written on highway workers’ time cards, Chase wrote.

"The highway department should have a procedure to formally document the pre-approval of overtime," auditors responded. "This pre-approval should be performed by the superintendent or his authorized designee and retained on file as proof that overtime was authorized."

Updates urged

In the comptroller’s report, auditors recommend the town’s ethics policies and employee manuals be updated.

The employee manual, which provides instructions for full-time workers, was last updated in December of 1996. Rensselaerville’s code of ethics was last updated in 1970.

The employee manual, Nickelsberg told The Enterprise, is being finalized by the town’s attorney at the Tabner, Ryan, and Keniry law firm in Albany.

"We had that done about a year ago," Nickelsberg told The Enterprise, adding that additions and deletions have been made to the manual.

Stevens makes first run for county seat

By Tyler Schuling

HILLTOWNS — A life-long Republican and Hilltown native, Travis Stevens will run against the odds in the Democrat-dominated 39th District of the Albany County Legislature. He is making his first run for public office.

"I just felt it was my time. You hit a certain age in your life when you feel like you can do things to better society and yourself," said Stevens. He said he feels right now that he’s a good representative of what the Hilltowns are.

In November, Travis will face off against the winner of the Democratic primary — Berne’s supervisor Kevin Crosier or long-time county legislator Alexander "Sandy" Gordon.

At 32, Stevens recently finished constructing his home in Knox, where he plans to stay.

"I was born and raised here so my values are what the Hilltowns have always been," he said.

During the work week, Stevens commutes to Albany for his job as a senior engineer for the state’s Office of General Services. He works in a division of utilities management that maintains high-voltage electricity and utilities.

In his spare time, he volunteers as a firefighter for the Knox Volunteer Fire Company.

After graduating from the State University of New York Maritime College in the Bronx, he worked on merchant ships.

"I did that for a little while, and then came home. My father needed some help," he said. His father, Robert Stevens, owns and operates Marshall Stevens, a heating and oil company started by Stevens’s grandfather.

"He needed my help, and my help for a week turned into seven years," Stevens said.

Always enrolled in the Republican Party, Stevens is not intimidated about running for a seat in a Democrat-dominated district. The ratio of Democrats to Republicans is nearly 2.5 to 1.

"I’ve been an underdog my whole life," he said. "I’m always up for a challenge. I’ll make this an enjoyable experience and hope for the best."

Stevens said he enjoys getting out and meeting people and would like to represent them. He has already been making door-to-door visits to residents.

"We’ve had very favorable reactions from everyone," he said. "It’s going to be a fun time." Stevens also created a website for his campaign.

According to Kenneth Szesnatt of the Albany Board of Elections, the party enrollment in the 39th District breaks down like this:

— Republican: 1,072

— Democrat: 2,588

— Independent: 246

— Conservative: 164

— Working Families: 12

— Green: 24

— Not enrolled: 1,246.

The issues

A regular attendee at Knox Town Board meetings, Stevens has also been attending Berne and Rensselaerville town meetings this year.

In Rensselaerville, public outcry following the escape of a youth in November from the Cass Residential Center led to the town board voting unanimously for the all-male juvenile detention facility to close. Alexander "Sandy" Gordon, who currently represents the 39th District, spoke up for the usefullness of the facility, provoking residents’ ire. (The state has since announced it will close Cass permanently; no youths are housed there now.)

"I believe the citizens reacted in a way they felt appropriate," Stevens said. "I think the town board did the right thing, as far as supporting the citizens, and that’s what I, as a county legislator, want to do."

Stevens said he wants to "help support the town boards support the citizens of the communities they are representing.

"That would be my ultimate goal because I believe a lot of times in Albany"the Hilltowns don’t get that support," he said. "A lot of times, this area is just forgotten about."

The town boards of the three towns, he said, would be the Hilltown voices that guide him, and he would then take their input to the county. His attending town board meetings is a great way for the town boards to access their representative. Stevens said he plans to keep himself available to the boards and attend meetings to understand and hear the issues of the towns.

"I’ll be accessible to everyone," he said.

Albany County is going to have some "big issues," he said, which include taxes, senior housing, and the proposed civic center in downtown Albany.

"All these directly affect us — not necessarily that it would be built in our area, but it affects our taxes, and is it justified spending"" he asked.

The Hilltowns, he said, will also have their own issues, and he’ll support the Hilltown residents the best he can.

Those issues include alternative energy, merging highway departments, and Camp Cass. Knox discussed a municipally-owned commercial windmill last summer, and a meteorological tower is currently taking wind speed readings.

Stevens said he’d like to get more information about the town’s owning a commercial windmill. Gordon has pushed for use of alternative energy sources locally.

"I am not opposed to alternative energy sources. I think there’s a lot of options to look at — wind, solar," he said. "I think there needs to be more research and information dealt out. I look forward to being a part of that."

Last year, following an inter-municipal forum held by County Executive Michael Breslin, Berne officials discussed merging their highway department with the county. The concept, encouraged by Crosier, a Democrat who ran on the Republican ticket, was rejected by the council members, all Democrats.

"I don’t think we’ve seen all the information yet," Stevens said. "I don’t think all of the information has been clear as to what the state was looking for from different municipalities"What was becoming a proposed merger may have been just: What services could we share" Which I believe a lot of agencies already do and have been doing for many years," he said.

"Without that information, I don’t know where you’ll see tax savings. Taxes are a big deal and will continue to be a big deal"I’d like to see all the information so we can make an educated decision," Stevens said.

Crosier has also been a proponent of one community center serving all the Hilltowns in a centralized location, and has suggested combining other services, such as town courts.

"There are times when consolidation works", but there’s also times consolidation doesn’t," Stevens said. Different municipalities need to have control of their specific area because each town, county, and state, has its own needs, he said.

"Helping is a great thing. Being able to share is a great thing. You truly have to do what’s best for everyone, and not just a few, and I’m afraid, without all the information, decisions will be made that are only helping a select few and not the majority of the people," Stevens said.

Gordon has been a proponent of farmers’ rights. Stevens said he supports area farmers and will work to preserve open space.

"I believe they"fall into the quality-of-life issues that I’d like to preserve for our Hilltown area," he said. "I was a farm hand as a kid through high school in the summers"so I appreciate everything they do. Obviously, I enjoy this lifestyle. It’s where I was born and raised. It’s where I plan on staying. However, I would never tell somebody, ‘No house here,’" he said.

"If that were the case, how many people would not have a house here" You have to hope that the planning and zoning (boards) of the different"towns take everything into consideration and manage growth."

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