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Hilltowns Archives —The Altamont Enterprise, March 6, 2008

Zero percent"
Proposed for BKW tax levy increase

By Tyler Schuling

BERNE — As school officials and a committee work to design a budget for the 2008-09 school year, the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School Board was divided this week over setting goals for the plan.

On Monday, school board member Helen Lounsbury moved that the board set a 0-percent tax-levy increase and a budget increase not to exceed 3 percent as a guideline for budgeting.

"Many people in the community are putting money aside — at least $100 a week — to pay their school and property tax," Lounsbury said.

A lengthy discussion followed, and, in a 3-2 vote, the school board decided against Lounsbury’s motion. School board President Maureen Sikule and Lounsbury were in favor. Vice President John Harlow and Joan Adriance were opposed. The deciding vote came down to Michelle Fusco, who voted against. Fusco is serving on BKW’s budget advisory committee.

Last spring, BKW voters passed a $19 million budget, the second year in a row that the budget has passed on the first try.

The current school tax rates are as follows:

— Berne, $26.86;

— Knox, $29.30;

— New Scotland, $16.96;

— Rensselaerville, $29.57;

— Westerlo, $1,941.73;

— Middleburgh, $24.05; and

— Wright, $20.66.

Westerlo’s rate is high because its assessments are low; the town has not revalued property since 1955.

During Monday’s discussion, Timothy Holmes, BKW’s newly-hired business administrator, outlined some projections for the 2008-09 school year. He said his personal goal is to keep the increase in the tax levy — the amount to be raised from taxes — under 4 percent. Holmes said he did not know if having no increase in the tax levy would be possible.

"Tim has made it clear to us that, at this point, he doesn’t feel the need for a board goal," said Fusco. "I’m not against making a board goal in the future. I just prefer to take Tim’s recommendation at this point."

Once a district that had difficulty passing its budgets, BKW’s budget last year was passed by 66 percent of the voters.

The school board approves a spending plan that will be voted on by the district’s voters on this year on May 20. If a budget is defeated, a school district can do one of three things — put the same budget up for a second vote, put a reduced budget up for a vote, or move directly to a contingency plan, with a state-set cap. A second budget defeat requires the district to go to a contingency plan.

A budget advisory committee has been appointed by the school board. It had met prior to Monday’s meeting and consists of BKW Superintendent Steven Schrade, Holmes, Fusco and Lounsbury, two former school board members — Edward Ackroyd of Knox and Berne Councilman Joseph Golden — and Sean O’Connor, a financial advisor from Westerlo. Golden, a retired teacher, is Lounsbury’s brother. Ackroyd owns his own business.

The committee will meet again next Thursday.

Clashing views

"As I understood from sitting in on these meetings, this is possible," Lounsbury said.

"We’re not talking about a slashing of the budget," said Golden. "We’re talking about a reduction in the rate of increase. So that’s very different," he said. "I don’t want people to think that somebody on the committee is proposing that we start to slash because that’s not what we’re talking about."

At an earlier school-board meeting, Golden read from an "Old Men of the Mountain" column in The Enterprise to underline the difficulty some Hilltown households have in meeting expenses.

Golden said Monday, "If you were, somehow, through this process, to be able to even cut 1 percent, that’s $200,000.

"I don’t know what that would reflect," he said. "I’m aiming toward a zero. I don’t know if we could ever get there."

"I, personally, am not comfortable with zero as a guideline," said Adriance. "I need more information. I don’t have the information to make that commitment...We’ve gone over one piece of this. I don’t even know what that means in real dollars," she said.

"Why would I pick a number now with no information and no understanding" Why" What am I going to gain"" Harlow asked. "Let’s get the information. We’ve got to find out what the fixed expenses are, how much they’re going to increase. The ones that we can control, we’ll try to do as much as we can to push them down and come up with a number. And that number represents a levelness that...we’re not taking away from the school. We’re just maintaining it. But you’re projecting the number based on nothing."

Ackroyd said the committee is looking for the board’s input and suggestions "on where they want it to be." "Having sat on the board before," he said, "there was always a percentage goal set."

"I think it is premature to give you that number," said Harlow.

"I think we should build the budget and then compare them to the revenues...," Holmes said.

"Remember, 1 percent equals $96,000," he said. "If the levy should be up 2 percent, we’re going to have to cut [$192,000]. That’s a lot to cut," said Holmes. "Our goal here is to keep it under 4 percent if we can, in terms of the tax levy. That’s my personal goal. I don’t think we should go over 4 percent. Hopefully, we won’t. I want to keep that as low as possible. I’d love to [have a 0-percent tax levy increase], but I don’t know."

"We have a wish list," said Lounsbury. "I guess maybe I’m too simple in terms of the money. I think of it in terms of our households."

Lounsbury spoke hypothetically.

"We have a budget," she said. "We know how much it is so maybe I’m dropping HBO or my cable service. I’m cutting back to live within my budget because our fuel is increasing; other things are increasing," she said.

"And, I think, in these hard economic times, which I believe they are for many, many individuals," Lounsbury said, "that we need to be fiscally responsible and we need to set boundaries."

"There’s a foundation difference between your concepts and my concepts," said Harlow. "What we need to do is educate our community’s children to a standard that makes them good citizens in the world and able to compete in the world. And this is a tough world. There are some people out there that’ll work 24 hours a day to try to beat an American," he said. "And I would like our kids to have an education so they can compete. And I think that’s what we owe the community. I don’t think that we owe the community the concept that we’re going to significantly decrease their taxes because we ain’t going to do it," he said. A lot of the budget expenses, which drive up the taxes, he said, come from state mandates "where we have, and are obligated by law, to pay for certain things.

"And that’s it. It’s over," said Harlow. "I will, myself, not hurt the school, not compromise the children’s education, so that I can not give up HBO," he said.

"I believe we are offering a fine program, period, and I don’t think we would be compromising the children’s education," said Lounsbury.

"Based on what"" asked Harlow.

"Based on the projected state aid and other things that I’ve heard at the meetings, and I just think that we can do that," said Lounsbury.

"But our business administrator said he doesn’t know the answer to that question yet," said Harlow.

"Things are moving along so fast," said Fusco. "We may be giving a quality education right now, but two or three years from now, we may be behind."

Harlow defined the board’s goal by asking a question: "What do we want the school to be and what do we want our students to have""

Golden said, "We’re working with something that’s really not measurable...the quality of education."

Lounsbury cited BKW’s building project to renovate the schools, which was approved by the district’s voters this year.

"This is automatically going to be increasing our taxes," she said. "As our building gets on-line, when we start building it, and all of that comes together, it’s going to cost more to run this district. Has to. So I’m thinking that we have to be fiscally responsible at this time. I think we owe it to the community," said Lounsbury.

"And you think anything above zero percent is not fiscally responsible"" Adriance asked.

"Zero percent tax levy. Three percent increase," Lounsbury said.

Mark Huth, a former school board member and former Berne councilman, said, "A lot of what I finally heard I wholeheartedly support having to do with the budget. I’m one of those people who’s retired and on a fixed income, and, I’ve got to tell you, there is a finite amount of money available to run the school."

Huth said he knows how difficult it is to meet the state mandates while providing "a really quality program."

"But I would whole-heartedly encourage the board to give some guidance to the committee that’s wrestling with the details of this budget. You’re the people we elected and you need to be kind of taking the lead on this and the committee, I would think, would be the people who fight through the details to try to come up with the parts that satisfy the goals you set, but, at some point, you really need to set a goal.

"I feel encouraged that the discussion is going on," said Huth. "I’m not happy with the way it ended, but I feel encouraged that it’s happening."

By Tyler Schuling

RENSSELAERVILLE — An open forum was held last Thursday at Town Hall and, of five town board members, only the Republican supervisor and councilman attended. The three Democrats were absent.

The forum began at 7 p.m. on Thursday and a special meeting, at 9 p.m., was to follow.

Last Wednesday, Democratic councilwomen Sherri Pine and Marie Dermody sent a memo to Republican Supervisor Jost Nickelsberg, saying they would not attend and "there is no such thing as an informal town board meeting when a quorum is present." (See letter to the editor.)

They had spoken with Lori Mithin with the Association of Towns.

"Since you are seeking informality, we’ll abide by your wishes and not attend so as not to constitute a quorum," the councilwomen wrote.

Joseph Catalano, the town’s newly-appointed attorney, also did not attend last Thursday’s meeting.

Asked if an open exchange between constituents and elected board members can take place, Mithin told The Enterprise yesterday, "It depends on who’s doing it and how they want to do it."

"It happens more in larger cities," said Mithin. She cited Congress and city aldermen holding "Town Hall Meeting Nights." When holding a meeting in the hopes for people to "state their piece," she said, "they can suspend the rules of procedure."

When holding meetings, towns are required to give notice to the media and the public, she said. Public notice can be given by posts on a bulletin board, she said.

Nickelsberg said of the Thursday meeting, "Basically, we didn’t advertise very well."

He had contacted The Enterprise before last week’s forum was held.

If less than a quorum — three council members — are not present, "It cannot be billed as a town board meeting," Mithin said.

The only issue when holding a meeting for informational purposes, Mithin said, is the cost of the meeting and whether it is approved.

"It was the best and first open forum the town of Rensselaerville has ever had," Nickelsberg told The Enterprise this week. "Everybody left feeling good."

At the meeting, the floor was open to residents, who spoke on many issues in the town, including their assessments, nepotism, and conflicts of interest, Nickelsberg said.

Nickelsberg said he told those at the meeting, "The flow of information comes to you. The flow has to come from you, the owners of the town, to us."

Arguments have long been commonplace at the town board’s meetings. Last month, the Democratic majority adopted new rules for the board’s meetings.

Nickelsberg said resident Erika Wernhammer was chosen to represent the 40 to 50 residents at the Thursday meeting. Wernhammer has been outspoken at meetings this year, questioning the Democrats’ appointing Joyce Chase as the clerk to the highway superintendent, G. Jon Chase. Joyce Chase is the wife of the superintendent, and her son, Democratic Councilman Gary Chase, voted for the appointment in a 3 to 2 vote along party lines. Wernhammer has also questioned the Democrats’ considering the adoption of the state’s procurement policy, which is less restrictive than the town’s current policy, enacted last year by the Republicans who then held a majority on the town board.

As the town is considering a policy on conflicts of interest and nepotism, Wernhammer and Dermody have gathered information from nearby towns for a policy for Rensselaerville.

By Tyler Schuling

ALBANY COUNTY — Snow and icy conditions at the end of February led to these automobile accidents attended by the Albany County Sheriff’s Department. No tickets were issued for these six accidents. The sheriff’s department described them as follows.

On Friday, Feb. 22, the department responded to four calls for one-car accidents.

The first was around 6:40 a.m.

Alice R. Porto, 43, of Schenectady, was driving north on Route 2 in Berne a mile south of Woodstock Road. Porto lost control due to snow and icy road conditions, left the roadway, and struck and broke a utility pole, causing damage to her vehicle. She was taken to Ellis Hospital for her injuries.

Three accidents followed in which no injuries were reported.

Around 8 a.m., Jason K. Proctor, 30, of Voorheesville was driving east on Route 85 in New Scotland, 50 feet west of Clipp Road, when he lost control of his vehicle due to icy road conditions. Proctor left the road and struck a reflective highway marker, causing minor damage to his vehicle.

At 9:13 a.m., S. Sondak-Weremeichik, 47, of Medusa was driving west on Newry Road in Westerlo, 800 feet east of Route 32, and failed to negotiate a turn due to snowy road conditions. Sondak-Weremeichik’s vehicle left the road and struck a tree, causing damage to the vehicle.

That night, at 5:12 p.m., Stephanie A. Medert, 43, of Delmar was driving southwest on Route 443 in New Scotland, at the intersection of Pangburn Road, when she lost control of her vehicle and left the road because of snowy road conditions.

Last Tuesday, a Middleburgh woman became trapped in her overturned car and had to be transported by ambulance to Albany Medical Center Hospital.

At 4:25 p.m. on Feb. 26, Joan M. Wernau, 61, was driving west on Route 353 in Rensselaerville, a half-mile west of Route 358, when she lost control of her vehicle due to "unfavorable weather conditions." Her vehicle left the road, struck a ditch, and came to rest on its driver’s side. Wernau was trapped under the dashboard and had to be extricated from the vehicle.

The next day, the sheriff’s department responded to another one-car accident.

Early in the morning, at 7:09 a.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 27, Bette A. Mackey, 43, of Westerlo was driving north on Clarksville South Road when she lost control of her vehicle an eighth of a mile south of Bennett Hill Road due to snow-covered, slippery roads. Mackey’s car left the road and struck a highway marker. The vehicle’s undercarriage was damaged when the car went down an embankment. No injuries were reported.

By Tyler Schuling

SARATOGA SPRINGS — Farmers, planners, not-for-profit organizations, and government officials from four states and 45 counties met here last week to discuss farming at the American Farmland Trust’s conference, Growing New York Farms in the 21st Century.

"This is a dynamic time for agriculture in our country," said David Haight, New York’s director of the American Farmland Trust. "It seems like every time you open up a newspaper, there’s a headline relating to farms or food."

At the conference, attendees chose from 12 seminars. Speakers included specialists with the state’s Department of Agriculture and Markets, the Open Space Institute, the American Farmland Trust, and the Farm Bureau. Farmers and planners also spoke. Peter Ten Eyck of Indian Ladder Farms in New Scotland spoke on purchase of development rights. Through state and local funds amounting to $844,000, the development rights to 300 acres of his farm were purchased and must remain available for agricultural use.

"There’s an excitement around agriculture here in this state," said Haight. "Farmers in New York sell over three-and-a-half billion dollars in farm products each year, and we are in the top five in the country in the production of 24 different fruits, vegetables, and dairy products," he said.

"What can we be doing locally to support a future for farms in our communities" What can we do at the town level, at the county level, at the regional level"" Haight asked. "I think it’s a fair question to ask — ‘Why does local action matter"’"

There are 7.6 million acres of farmland and 35,000 farms in New York State, according to the state’s Department of Agriculture and Markets.

In 2008, the United States is projected to exceed $100 billion in food exports, an 80-percent increase in the last five years, and to import $73 billion dollars worth of farming food products, a 67-percent increase from 2003, said Haight.

"Our food system is increasingly becoming a national, but, even more so, a global system," he said.

"Our renewable energy marketplace is growing rapidly in this country, with the production of ethanol expected to exceed 10 billion gallons by 2009 — double what we were producing in 2006," he said.

"And for the farm landscape, the United States has averaged a conversion of roughly one million acres of farm and ranch land each and every year to the point now where 86 percent of our fruits and vegetables and 63 percent of our dairy products in this country are produced in counties that are deemed as being highly influenced by development pressure," Haight said.

"These trends create opportunity," Haight said. "They create excitement for agriculture, but they also create uncertainty and they create unpredictability."

Money for planning

The state’s Department of Agriculture and Markets has awarded $862,445 to towns to revise, adjust, or develop agricultural and farmland protection plans.

Each of the 37 towns in the state that applied was awarded funds, said John Brennan, a farmland protection specialist with the Department of Agriculture and Markets. Locally, the towns of Malta, Wright, Halcott, Bethlehem, Charlton, Carlisle, and Seward were each awarded $25,000.

Governor Eliot Spitzer has recommended in his budget that $30 million be used for agricultural and farmland protection.

"All the money is gone right now, but we do, as the commissioner said, expect the money to be refunded...and we’ll make announcements out to the towns, and we expect applications to be available in June or July," said Brennan.

Municipalities are eligible for up to $25,000 or 75 percent of the cost of planning. The grant stipulates towns pay $8,333 of the $25,000 and $1,667 has to be cash; $6,666 can be in kind services. Two towns can join together and receive $50,000.

"We like to encourage that because that’s sort of regional planning," said Brennan.

The department is also funding farmland protection plans for counties with plans that are 10 years old or older, Brennan said. Counties can apply for up to $50,000; the grant is a 50/50 match, and 20 percent has to be cash.

"The great authority to protect agriculture really rests at the municipal level," said Brennan. "Municipalities can do more to protect agriculture than, at some times, the commissioner of agriculture — even the governor — because the legislature has given to local towns the authority to develop comprehensive plans and develop land-use regulations," said Brennan.

"This is a home-rule state," he said. "The legislature has given the authority to the local towns to do comprehensive plans and to do zoning. This is a very important item."

Brennan said the grant money can be used to develop policy statements on agriculture, to develop goals and objectives, and to adopt rules and regulations "so that, in fact, you have a very strong statement within your comprehensive plan in terms of protecting agriculture."

Diane Held of the American Farmland Trust said, "Planning is proactive, just by its very nature."

"You’re planning. You’re thinking ahead, and you’re not planning for ‘open space,’" she said. "I think that’s a really important distinction to make — that these lands may look to the public like open space, but they are most definitely working land, and, as you talk to people when you are in your community, it’s important to make that distinction."

"Farmers do wear a lot of hats," said Held. "They are business people. They are a part of the community. They are taking care of those working lands that we’re talking about. They are landowners," she said. "They do need to be part of the process and engaged in the process when you’re talking about planning for farmers."

Recipe for success: Schoharie team cooks up another state award

By Tyler Schuling

SCHOHARIE — For the second year in a row, the culinary arts team at the Capital Region Career & Technical School in Schoharie is the best in the state.

On Feb. 9, the team competed in Hyde Park against 14 teams and made a three-course meal — an appetizer, a main course, and a dessert — in under 60 minutes, winning the New York State Restaurant Association ProStart Culinary Competition.

This year’s award-winning team has students from several local schools.

Aaron Giebitz is from Berne-Knox-Westerlo High School, Kayla Williams goes to Duanesburg High School, and Katrina Gannon and Matthew Hudson both attend Middleburgh High School. Michael Cushman, the team’s alternate, is from Schoharie High School.

When it competes again in April at the national ProStart competition in San Diego, the team will prepare the same meal — a shrimp crabcake, stuffed chicken, and cake — with some modifications.

"We know more of what they want — what they want to see, the questions that they’re going to ask us. We’re more prepared," Giebitz said of going to nationals a second time.

The culinary arts program is open to juniors and seniors. Each day, the culinary students sell bagels and cinnamon rolls to raise money. They also make lunch for the staff and students. The students have worked on projects in which they create a restaurant — consider its employees, themes, and menus. They have visited Schenectady Community College, which has a highly regarded culinary program.

"We work pretty well together," said Giebitz. "We’ve known each other from the first year," he said, "so we know what everyone’s capable of and what our weaknesses are."

Last year’s Schoharie team placed first in the state and seventh in the culinary competition at nationals. The team was comprised of four BKW students and a student from Cobleskill-Richmondville High School.

"We placed seventh last year," said Giebitz. "I would love to place first...An improvement would be great," he said. "I don’t always go to win. I’d like to win, but, at the same time, I like being judged by the best in the industry."

Again, this year’s team is led by Chef Nancy Iannacone.

Team of seniors

The Schoharie team, all seniors, signed up for the culinary program for different reasons.

"I’ve wanted to be a chef since I was, like, 10 years old," said Gannon.

Williams has aspirations to own her own restaurant in a large city.

Giebitz, who was an alternate on last year’s team, plans to attend Hudson Valley Community College for one year before joining the Marines.

"I’ve always wanted to do the military, but, after that, cooking is something I want to be doing," he said.

Giebitz joined the class, he said, because he likes to cook. As he went through the class, he said, it became more and more of an interest.

Like Giebitz, Hudson said the culinary arts were, at first, an interest. "I just have a lot of fun doing it, so I keep doing it," he said. Hudson plans to attend Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island for baking and pastry.

Teacher of the year

"Their motivation is the same," said Chef Iannacone of this year’s team compared to last year’s. "They actually scored higher. They scored about six points higher [overall], which is really hard to do...They scored higher on taste and presentation," she said. "What’s happening is I’m getting better at figuring out what it is [judges] want. Because there is that subjective component to it, like the taste."

"I’ve figured out what they want," Iannacone said. "They want to see kids working together. They want to see kids with basic skills — to be able to do the classical, basic skills, which is what should be taught and not other stuff. And they want to see execution that’s done well, and they want to see more of the classical dishes. That’s what I’m finding," she said. "And that the taste is there. Taste is 40 percent."

Four or six judges taste the dishes, give a number grade, and then average the scores.

"So, it’s pretty fair," Iannacone said, adding that a judge might like something another doesn’t like.

"Teamwork is important...They don’t want to see us pushing the kids to really over-stretch in what they think their skill level should be," said Iannacone.

Iannacone was named the 2007-08 ProStart Teacher of the Year. Asked if she feels more pressure since winning the award and her team winning last year, she said, "No. I don’t think so. I would just love to see New York State be in the top five."

"I don’t want to jinx it, but I think we have a good shot because of how well we did at states, and we’ve been fixing the things that they said needed to be fixed. They were minor things," she said.

"The only wild card is nerves," Iannacone said. "They’re young kids and there’s a lot of pressure. [The judges] stand over you with a clipboard and they stare at you, write things down as you’re working, and you can’t help but be nervous."

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