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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, December 31, 2009

2009 in archives: Rensselaerville
Highway super and councilmember ousted as Dems still control town board

By Zach Simeone

RENSSELAERVILLE — Highway Superintendent G. Jon Chase, who lost his bid for re-election in November, has quit. He was expected to work until Jan. 1, when Gary Zeh takes charge. Chase wrote a letter to the town announcing his retirement on Dec. 15. He retired due to the state of his health, according to Clerk Kathleen Hallenbeck.

Deputy Highway Superintendent David Potter has been filling in for Chase, and will continue to do so until the new year rolls around, when Superintendent-elect Zeh will take his place.

Both major parties made gains and suffered losses on Election Day, in this town known for its contentious politics, and the Conservative Party got two candidates elected. In a four-way race for two town board seats, a longtime Conservative and the Democratic chairman came out on top, ousting a Democratic incumbent. A Democrat, Marie Dermody, will replace the current Republican supervisor, who did not seek re-election, and Zeh will replace Chase, the longtime Democratic highway superintendent.

Democrats will continue to make up the town board majority in the coming year as Dermody looks forward to stepping up from her role as councilwoman to become the town’s chief fiscal officer. Dermody, who ran on the Democratic and Independence lines, garnered 506 votes — 57 percent — while Republican Myra Dorman, a former supervisor and once councilwoman herself, received 376 votes, or 43 percent. Republican Supervisor Jost Nickelsberg will step down in January after just one four-year term.

Dermody, 61, began her first term on the town board in January of 2008. She is retired from a 33-year teaching career at West Hurley Elementary School in Ulster County. Now, she vacates her four-year post two years early to become supervisor, and the town board will appoint someone in January to fill her seat.

Joining Dermody on the board will be Democratic Committee Chairman John Kudlack Jr. and Conservative Marion Cooke, both of whom ran for the first time. Cooke will be the only non-Democrat on the board, at least until a replacement for Dermody is appointed.

Cooke, who ran on the Republican, Independence, and Conservative lines, received 525 votes, or 28 percent of the vote, and Kudlack, who ran on the Democratic and Independence lines, got 502 votes, or 27 percent. Conservative Robert Bolte, also making a first run, got 447, or 24 percent, and Democratic Councilwoman Sherri Pine, with 422, or 22 percent, lost her attempt at re-election.

One common hope of this year’s candidates was for more civility at town board meetings, which are fraught with bickering among council members and interruptions from the audience.

“There’s been too much divisiveness on both sides of the table, and what I’m trying to do is bring some collegiality, and working together for the common good,” Dermody said after the elections. “I’d like to think we have more even-tempered people, willing to listen to both sides of the argument, and make rational decisions, and we haven’t had that with our current supervisor.”

The race for Rensselaerville Highway Superintendent was one of the most hotly contested Hilltown elections this year. The town has 43 miles of road for every 1,000 residents — by far the greatest differential in the county.

Zeh, who ran on the Republican, Independence, and Conservative lines, collected the most votes of all Rensselaerville races — 567 votes, or 58 percent — while incumbent Chase got 409, or 42 percent.

Zeh, 45, has lived in Rensselaerville for 17 years. He is a self-employed contractor with JAG Construction Incorporated, his excavation and site-development company, which started as a part-time business in 1994, and went full-time in 2000.

“I’m very excited about going to work for them,” Zeh said of the voters on the day after elections. “Ultimately, they’re the taxpayers, and they’ll be my boss.” Zeh will maintain an “open-door policy” during his term as superintendent, he went on. “As I said in my campaign, anyone can come in and talk to me anytime.”

Chase, Rensselaerville’s highway superintendent since 1998, was frequently absent from town board meetings, and had been at the center of a number of controversies in recent years.

William Ryan, a former town attorney, said during his tenure that Chase broke state law by loading salt and sand from the town’s supply into a private citizen’s truck. Other complaints, from residents, centered on the poor condition of shale and clay roads in town, and an allegation by former superintendent candidate Steve Wood that highway workers went on a golf outing and falsified time cards to be paid for the day, which Chase flatly denied. Nickelsberg brought in engineers who critiqued Chase’s work on several roads; Chase responded that he wasn’t finished with those roads yet.

Winning the two open assessor seats were: incumbent Donna Kropp, who ran for her second term on the Republican and Conservative lines, and got 545 votes, or 30 percent; and challenger Michael Weber, who ran on the Republican, Conservative, and Independence lines, and got 466 votes, or 25 percent.

Incumbent Assessor Peter Hotaling Jr., also the sole assessor for the neighboring town of Westerlo, ran on the Democratic and Independence lines, and got 445 votes, or 24 percent, and challenger Dennis Pitts, who ran on the Democratic line, got 393 votes, or 21 percent.

Hallenbeck, who has been town clerk since the early 1970s, ran unopposed this year, as she has since she ran for her second term. Hallenbeck received 669 votes.

Wind power

After failed attempts by Shell WindEnergy to line the crest of the Helderbergs with 50 mammoth wind turbines last year, the town’s wind study committee has been working for the town board since February to develop recommendations for the construction of wind turbines of all shapes and sizes in Rensselaerville.

In August, the town board unanimously adopted a local law for the regulation of smaller-scale, non-commercial windmills, based on the committee’s recommendations.

During a State Environmental Quality Review (SEQR) process at its Aug. 27 meeting, the town board and its attorney, Joseph Catalano, discussed that, under this town-wide ordinance, changes to land or water for the purpose of constructing a non-commercial wind-power facility are allowed by a special-use permit, and not necessarily by the law itself. Consequently, the law will not necessarily affect any endangered species or aesthetic resources.

Additionally, if a wind-power facility is to be constructed in a historic district, it will be subject to review by the New York State Historic Preservation Office.

The law defines a non-commercial turbine as “a single wind turbine designed solely for on-site power consumption and no sale of electrical power except that unused or excess power may be sold to an electrical utility company with a generating capacity of less than 100 kilowatts.”

These facilities, the law goes on, are permitted in all zoning districts in town, as long as a special-use permit is obtained from the planning board for a specific facility at a specific location. More than one of these facilities may be constructed on a single property, as long as the total generating capacity per site is less than 100 kilowatts.

The height of a non-commercial windmill may not exceed 125 feet, and the minimum distance from the bottom of a rotor blade to the ground is 30 feet. A windmill must be set back a distance of at least 120 percent of the tower’s height from any home, property lines, and right of way on public roads. Noise generated by these wind towers is not to exceed 40 decibels when measured at the outside wall of any home or nearby property lines.

The law goes on to list further visual, noise, and design restrictions.

The wind-study committee is still working on its recommendations for large-scale, commercial wind development. To continue that work, however, the committee members will have to be re-appointed at the turn of the new year, as each of their terms ends on Dec. 31.

“I’d imagine it’ll be discussed at the re-organizational meeting, because they don’t want to have a lapse in time,” Hallenbeck said.


At $2.2 million, the 2010 town budget looks to spend about $70,000 more than this year’s $2.14 million spending plan, and the board has budgeted for a forensic audit of the town’s government, which may be conducted in the coming year.

Supervisor Nickelsberg spoke at several town board meetings of the necessity for a forensic audit of the town’s government. Though there has been little talk at these meetings as to what exactly a forensic audit is, the phrase became increasingly prominent in January, when the town’s finances came under investigation by the Office of the Albany County Comptroller and the Office of the Albany County District Attorney.

Robert Bolte, who ran for town board this year, and Ken Cooke, husband of the councilwoman-elect, have developed reputations as citizen watchdogs. They came to the town board meeting this past January with photocopied vouchers that recorded payments from the highway department that the supervisor and councilmen could not account for, and there was suspicion of foul play. Bolte, Cooke, and a group of other town residents had begun looking through town records the previous spring.

During a budget discussion at the November town board meeting, Nickelsberg, with the support of a handful of audience members, made a motion to add $20,000 to the line for independent auditing and accounting, raising the total budgeted amount to $25,000. But no one at the meeting knew whether or not this would be enough to cover the cost of a forensic audit.

Michael Torchia Jr., a certified public accountant, told The Enterprise in November what a forensic audit entails, and hypothesized a price range based on his experience. Torchia is a partner at Sickler, Torchia, Allen and Churchill, the firm that recently completed a risk assessment for the town, though the results have not been made public.

“When you do forensic work, you’re digging down into more details of transactions, and a lot of times it could be rumors or allegations of fraud or something along that line,” Torchia said in November. “So, you basically follow the trail of every dollar coming in and going out in a particular area. We’ve been called in when a fraud’s been discovered, and they want us to come in and find out how much money was embezzled.”

Torchia said that he could not approximate a dollar amount for a forensic audit, since it depends entirely on what specifically is being investigated, and how long it takes, but the $25,000 in next year’s budget may be appropriate for a town of Rensselaerville’s size, he said.

“If you were doing a fraud examination, there’s more work involved, especially if you already know a fraud occurred,” said Torchia. “If you get involved in federal money, and there’s a fraud issue, you’re talking about a whole new ball game, and the fees for the testing would just explode…I’ve been involved in forensic audits that we’ve gotten $40,000 to $50,000 on, but we’ve also done them for $10,000 or $12,000; it depends on how many transactions you’re looking at.”

Torchia concluded, “With accounting services, all we have to sell is time and knowledge.”

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