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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, November 13, 2008

Much conflict in wee hours over $31M budget

By Saranac Hale Spencer

GUILDERLAND — When, by 1:30 a.m., a crowd of 50 had dwindled to one and a trio of town employees the town board began a two-hour public hearing on its $30.6 million budget for the coming year.

Just before Town Clerk Rosemary Centi read the legal notice at the start of the hearing, set for 8 p.m., she suggested waiting a few hours, with a chuckle and genuine amazement, saying, “I could change it to 8 a.m.”

The budget hearing followed two lengthy discussions — the first being a public hearing scheduled for Glass Works Village that was set for 7:30 p.m. and the second being discussion of a conflict-of-interest charge with the Walgreens assessment.  (See related stories.)

That issue had to be discussed before the board could the budget hearing, because, Supervisor Kenneth Runion said, the outcome would affect the budget.  He estimated that going to trial for the assessment could cost as much as $50,000, which would have to be in the budget.

After two hours of discussion, the board decided to withdraw the litigation-related agenda items and opened the public hearing on the budget.

John Zekoll made his way to the microphone just after 1:30 in the morning, drawing a uniform gasp from the board.  He had no problem with the budget if it was the same as the preliminary draft he gotten from the clerk’s office, he told the board before returning to his seat. 

He watched Republican Councilman Warren Redlich go through a list of questions on the budget that he had first submitted in September but were not answered by Runion, a Democrat.  At the time, Runion asked Redlich to recuse himself from the budget process, citing what he claims is a conflict of interest since Redlich’s law firm takes some Guilderland cases, a charge Redlich denies.  (See www.altamontenterprise.com under archives for Oct. 2 in Guilderland for coverage.)

If he wasn’t going to answer them before, why did he answer them now?” Redlich asked yesterday, referring to his budget questions.  “We ended up wasting an hour and a half at the meeting,” he said, since the questions could have been answered a month ago.

In the wee hours of Friday morning, Redlich’s questions mostly elicited answers from Runion, but sometimes ignited an argument between the two men, who are often at odds.

At about 2:30 a.m., the very patient Zekoll headed towards to door with part of a smile on his face, and said, “They outlasted me.”

The better part of an hour that followed held some of the most dramatic exchanges of the night, with Redlich noting the 3-percent raise for town workers before suggesting that the town board members cut their salaries by 5 percent — each board member makes about $20,000 a year and the supervisor is paid about $100,000. 

“The first place I think we tighten our belts is on ourselves,” Redlich said.  He got no second for the motion.

Redlich’s next proposal, to freeze town workers’ salaries, was voted down along party lines — Democrats, 3; Republicans, 2.  “I would say that it’s political grandstanding,” Runion said.

The finale came around 3 a.m. when Republican Mark Grimm said that the town’s $7,000 contribution to the Community Caregivers, a not-for-profit group that aids elderly residents and others in need in the area, had been cut.  Grimm proposed restoring that budget line, plus 3 percent.  The proposal was voted down, again, along party lines.

On Friday and Monday, the Enterprise received calls and a letter supportive of Caregivers and criticizing the cut.

“I do have money in the budget for Community Caregivers,” Runion called the Enterprise on Tuesday to say.  He failed to mention this during the discussion at the meeting.  The group can contract for services up to $7,000, Runion said on Tuesday.  “I’d rather have it come out of a contractual item than a specific line item,” Runion said.

Diane Cameron, executive director of the Community Caregivers, met with Runion yesterday morning and said in a phone interview later in the day that having the money come from a contractual expenses line is better.  In previous years, when the budget included a line for the Caregivers, it looked like the town was just giving the group money, Cameron said, “In fact, we do services to earn the money.”

At about quarter after three in the morning, the board passed the budget, with a rate of 26 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, a penny increase over last year, by a vote of 4 to 1.  Mark Grimm voted against it.

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