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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, December 31, 2009

2009 in review: Guilderland
A contentious year leaves Dems in control as town plans projects for stormwater,
forms zoning review committee, and pulls out of the Rapp Road landfill

By Anne Hayden

GUILDERLAND — In a year marked by a dwindling economy, political bickering between town board members, a contentious race for town board seats, and the approval of several improvement projects, three Democratic incumbents were re-elected to lead the town.

The political jockeying began months before November’s election. Early in March, Republican Councilman Warren Redlich created a website called www.kenrunion.com. Democratic Supervisor Kenneth Runion asserted that Redlich had stolen his identity by creating the website, but Redlich argued that he was not claiming to be Runion, and clearly stated on the website he was its author.

“I want people to know about the real Ken Runion,” said Redlich, in March, of his motivation behind creating the site. Shortly after Redlich’s website surfaced, Runion created his own site, called www.therealkenrunion.com, to defend himself.

“I’ve never used the web in the past, but I felt that I had to put up some sort of site to counter Redlich’s,” Runion said in March. Redlich thought the sites would be vital to the election process, because people would do Google searches on the candidates. Several other anonymous sites popped up after Redlich’s and Runion’s sites garnered attention.

At the end of March, Runion announced that, in large part due to the escalating “web wars,” he would not be seeking a sixth term as supervisor. He said he felt there were too many distractions, and that he did not want to deal with two more years of political battles with Redlich, and his fellow Republican councilman, Mark Grimm, if he were re-elected.

“I don’t feel comfortable. I’ve run out of adrenaline,” Runion said in late March. He told The Entperise then that he was 99.9 percent sure he would not be seeking re-election.

In early May, however, Runion changed his mind, and confirmed that he would be seeking a sixth term in office. He said a vacation, and a large show of support from Guilderland residents, helped convince him to run again.

“My adrenaline is back!” said Runion at the time. In the same week, Grimm announced he would challenge Runion in the race for supervisor. Grimm said he’d run on a positive platform to encourage an open and fair government.

Two weeks after announcing he would challenge Runion, Grimm withdrew from the race. Grimm said he thought that a Grimm-Runion race would “fracture the town,” and said he was afraid the real issues would be pushed aside during a negative campaign.

In July, Peter Golden, a self-employed author and former Guilderland School Board member, announced that he would run for supervisor on the Republican ticket. Golden said that it was “time for change,” in Guilderland, and his platform encouraged business growth, an audit of town finances, and increased manpower in public safety sectors.

Golden’s running mates, Matthew Nelligan, former Guilderland High School history teacher, and David Fraterrigo, a local property manager, whose mother is on the school board, had several of their own ideas for change. Nelligan wanted term limits for elected town officials, and Fraterrigo encouraged officials to be more accessible to the public.

The campaign was not without controversy. In July, a political robo-call circulated in town, and neither the Democrats nor the Republicans claimed responsibility. The automated message criticized town officials for not resolving the flooding problem on Route 20, in front of Stuyvesant Plaza, and encouraged residents to vote for change. Residents were angry that no one was accountable for the call, but the Federal Trade Commission told The Enterprise anonymous robo-calls were not illegal.

In both June and August, cut-outs of black dogs appeared on Golden’s lawn in the wee hours of the morning, which he felt was a political prank. He said it was petty cruelty meant to scare him. Golden filed police reports after each incident, but Guilderland Police were not able to determine whether the pranks were politically motivated.

Budget battles

Perhaps the biggest controversial issue during the election was the town budget. The controversy began many months before candidates announced their intentions to run. In February, Runion made some changes to the 2009 budget in response to the weakened economy. He announced he would be reducing overtime hours for town workers, and cutting hours for some jobs.

Three departments took the hit in the reduction of overtime hours — the court, paramedics, and police. Runion instituted flex hours for the court clerks, and rearranged shifts for police and paramedics in order to avoid extra overtime. Donald Csaposs, the town’s grant writer, had his hours reduced from full-time to part-time.

Runion also put the town on an emergency spending plan, which required department heads to go through the supervisor’s office for approval of every purchase. The supervisor said in February he hoped to save $100,000 to $150,000 over the course of the year with the modified budget.

Republicans Grimm and Redlich took issue with the budget revisions, citing fears that Runion may have reduced shift coverage for police and paramedics, which would affect public safety. Runion said he had only cut overtime, and not coverage.

As the time for drafting the 2010 budget, and Election Day, drew near, Runion’s Republican opponents claimed that Runion may, in fact, have reduced shift coverage, and called for its restoration.

Toward the end of October, Brian Forte, president of the Police Benevolent Association, told The Enterprise that the union was having a letter to the supervisor drafted, to make him aware of its concern that coverage was lacking. Forte said that, at any given time, three police officers patrol the town, and, if two are needed on one call, that leaves just one officer to cover the rest of the town. A majority of the rank and file voted to draft the letter, Forte said.

After The Enterprise wrote about the letter, a majority of union members voted not to send it to Runion. A new patrol officer, Matthew Hanzalik, was hired, and at a town board meeting on Dec. 15, the members went into executive session to discuss allowing the police department to hire part-time officers. No vote was made, and the session will continue on Jan. 18.

When the $30 million preliminary budget for 2010 was filed on Sept. 30, Runion said the spending plan would not raise taxes — the tax rate would remain at 26 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. At a special meeting on Oct. 5, town board members unanimously agreed to set a Nov. 5 public hearing for the budget. Redlich and Grimm, however, were both concerned that the 2010 budget did not make allowances for the large pension contribution increases anticipated in 2011.

Redlich wanted to set aside at least $400,000 in the 2010 budget, to soften the blow of what could be a $600,000 increase to pension contributions in 2011. Runion said he thought the town would be able to meet the obligations in 2011 due to its healthy reserves — he said the town had fund balances of around $10 million, about a third of his proposed budget.

Redlich also took issue with the fact that the 2010 preliminary budget did not specify where funds would come from for projects the board had already approved. According to Runion, some of the money for the projects could have come from the 2009 budget, and some might be taken from the 2010 budget. Redlich thought there should be a line of at least $150,000 added to the 2010 budget for the projects.

It was not just the contents of the budget that Redlich and Grimm took issue with; it was the budget process as well. Redlich said Runion was breaking the law by shutting him, along with other town board members, out of the budget-building process. Redlich said he was concerned that Runion had not met the deadlines set forth by a portion of the Guilderland Town Code in 1997.

The supervisor had not provided board members with budget requests from department heads, or estimates of revenue and indebtedness from the town comptroller, Jean Sterling’s, office, according to Redlich. Runion countered that the town Sterling provided town board members with monthly reports, and therefore did not need to compile a separate report for the year, and that Redlich had been provided with a 78-page document containing summaries of department head requests.

Runion called the town code “guidelines” rather than strict rules. He did, however, schedule two special budget workshops in response to Grimm and Redlich’s complaints about the lack of openness in the budget process.

At the first budget workshop, on Oct. 26, Runion reiterated his thought that the 2011 budget would be able to absorb predicted pension increases, but announced that he was prepared to hold $300,000 of budgeted money, as a cushion, for not only pension contribution increases, but to make up for a decrease in sales-tax revenues. In the end, Runion detailed $370,000 in potential holds, including not filling open positions in offices for town assessor and receiver of taxes, delaying renovations on the fire-department training center, and reducing department supply costs.

The $30 million budget was officially approved on Nov. 5, in a vote split down party lines. Grimm and Redlich were opposed, Grimm because he did not feel comfortable with the 3-percent raise each town board member would receive, and was skeptical of the $10 million surplus. Redlich was opposed for the reasons he had spoken of during the budget-building process. Runion, along with Democratic council members Patricia Slavick and Paul Pastore approved the plan.

Dems sweep clean

Two days before the town board approved the 2010 process, the Democratic incumbents swept the town elections, maintaining their majority on the town board. Runion collected 56 percent of the 8,276 votes for supervisor. Councilman Pastore received 29 percent of the votes in a four-way race, while Slavick received 28 percent.

Also elected to another term were Democrats Denise Randall, town justice; Rosemary Centi, town clerk; and Jean Cataldo, receiver of taxes. Centi and Cataldo ran unopposed, and Randall won out over Republican Christopher Aldrich.

With their seats on the board secure for another term, the Democrats, along with Grimm and Redlich, plan to move ahead with the some of the projects they approved in 2009.

In June, the board unanimously agreed to go out to bid for a stormwater improvement project that would help relieve the flooding that has been occurring for decades in McKownville. The town has received five grants — $100,000 from the state’s Office of Parks and Recreation; $200,000 from the state’s Department of Transportation; two grants totaling $200,000 from the State Assembly through John McEneny; and $100,000 from Stuyvesant Plaza.

The plan includes turning the former McKownville Reservoir into a pocket park and recreational area, as well as reorganizing the reservoir by replacing a 24-inch culvert with a 36-inch culvert.

The board also voted, in July, to retain Delaware Engineering to conduct evaluations in residential areas of McKownville, as well as in Blackberry Estates, where basement flooding and sinkholes have been problems for decades. The total project could cost up to $5.75 million, which is why Runion said it has not yet moved forward.

In August, the board voted to retain the engineering firm Barton and Loguidice, P.C., to conduct a traffic-calming feasibility study on Dr. Shaw Road. The residential road faces traffic-flow problems when commuters trying to avoid Western Avenue use it as a cut-through. The study, according to a Barton and Loguidice representative, would create a laundry list of possible solutions, which it would then present to residents for their review and feedback.

Updating zoning

In addition to giving approving projects, the town board decided in July to form a Zoning Review Committee.

The town’s zoning code is over two decades old, and the committee has been charged with reviewing and updating the code. The eight-member committee is bipartisan, and chaired by Democrat and former town board member Bruce Sherwin; Runion said he chose Sherwin as chair because he had past experience with zoning laws. The other seven members are — Joseph Abbrusseze, a Conservative; Peter Barber, a Democrat; Ken Brownell, an independent; Regina DuBois, a Republican; Kathy Burbank, a Democrat; Gary Robinson, an independent; and, Martin Kehoe, a Republican.

The committee is needed, Runion said, because of the variety of new planning techniques that have cropped up over the past years, including “Smart Growth.” Smart Growth concentrates growth in city centers to avoid sprawl and preserve open space, while fostering a sense of community. Glass Works Village, a combination of residences and businesses planned for Route 20, is an example of smart growth, according to Runion.

Glass Works Village received approval from the Guilderland Planning board in December. The planned development is slated to include 310 residences, 19,000 square feet of office space, and a bank. Proponents have billed the development, which could cost $100 million to build, as a New Urbanist Community, a walkable village serving residents with an array of incomes.

Sherwin told The Enterprise in September that the goals of the committee were to make updates to the code based on changes in time; streamline permit processes to be more user friendly; and, most importantly, line up the code with the overall vision of the town outlined in the comprehensive plan. The committee will also focus on agriculture, green space, and new technologies.

Landfill concerns

Also in July, the town decided to pull out of the Solid Waste Management Partnership. Board members voted unanimously to take waste to the Colonie landfill instead of the Rapp Road landfill, after the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation approved the landfill’s fifth expansion. The Guilderland board said it did not support the expansion of the city of Albany’s landfill because it encroached on the Pine Bush Preserve.

The city of Albany landfill expansion was granted approval in late June, amid protests from the watchdog group; Save the Pine Bush, its members have long been concerned that the expansion will destroy the fragile habitat, and the endangered species that live there, like the Karner blue butterfly. Over the winter, Save the Pine Bush members reviewed animal autopsy reports from the Wildlife Pathology Unit in Delmar, and found many animals were contaminated with Brodifacoum, a poison used to kill rats.

Grace Nichols, a Save the Pine Bush member and science teacher, spoke in April at a public forum on the landfill’s expansion, voicing her concern over the use of pesticides in and around the landfill. Nichols had obtained records from the Albany City Clerk’s Office that revealed the use of three insecticides, as well as the rodenticide Brodifacoum, at the landfill. Nichols said the pesticides were a threat to the more than 45 rare and endangered species living in the Pine Bush.

In part due to Nichols’s efforts, the landfill suspended the use of the rodenticide Brodifacoum on its property this year. In June, Save the Pine Bush members held a protest in front of the state’s Department of Conservation’s Albany headquarters. A section of the Final Environmental Impact Statement, submitted to the DEC by the city of Albany, detailed a habitat restoration plan, meant to appease environmentalists, but Save the Pine Bush members said the restoration plan could actually cause further harm to the habitat.

The $12 million plan would restore over 250 acres, and prescribed the restoration of natural streams and wetlands, native plants, and animal communities.

“It is envisioned that the landfill can be blended into the Albany Pine Bush Preserve landscape, providing critical habitat for rare ecological communities and threatened and endangered species,” the FEIS stated. Ward Stone, the state’s wildlife pathologist, said some of the herbicides and pesticides approved for use in the restoration plan could actually be dangerous to insects, like the Karner blue butterfly, and to amphibians. Stone also said that some of the land cited in the restoration plan would become capped landfill, and would not constitute restoration at all.

On Oct. 19, three months after the DEC granted approval for the expansion, Save the Pine Bush filed a lawsuit against the city of Albany and the DEC.  Arguments in the case were heard in the state’s Supreme Court on Dec. 11. Save the Pine Bush’s attorney, Peter Henner, said he put forth three arguments — that the DEC did not give Save the Pine Bush the opportunity to offer complaints, that the expansion plan does not comply with the State Environmental Quality Review Act, and that the city did not have a solid waste management plan.

According to court documents, the DEC countered, stating Save the Pine Bush had 60 days to present formal complaints, but did not raise substantive issues. The DEC maintained that, as the lead agency, it had the authority to identify relevant areas of environmental concern, and said all findings complied with the permit processes. The DEC also argued that a solid waste management plan was not required.

Henner said he hoped to have a decision from the judge within 60 days of the hearing.

Also this year, in October, Save the Pine Bush lost a battle in the state’s highest court, but won in a decision that will have impact across New York for years to come.

The watchdog group had sued six years ago because the city of Albany changed zoning so a hotel could be built on Pine Bush land outside the preserve.  The Court of Appeals granted Save the Pine Bush standing to bring the suit although it failed on the merits of the case against the city.

Save the Pine Bush’s victory on standing establishes a broad principle for other cases. Environmentalists who are involved in land-use issues, pollution control, or in preserving endangered species now have a chance to seek redress through the state’s court system.

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