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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, December 29, 2011
2011 in review: Guilderland
GUILDERLAND Several neighborhoods in town rallied this year to protect their quality of life.
McKownville residents protested against the potential sale of property to the University at Albany. Residents living in the shadow of Crossgates Mall protested the boarding up of buildings in their midst. And Guilderland Center residents spoke out to keep their post office open.
In November, voters, after electing two Republicans to the town board four years ago, returned the board entirely to the Democrats. And the supervisor drafted a budget, adopted by the board, that will help keep taxes steady for another year.
2012 could be considered the year of the Democrats in the town of Guilderland.
In the November elections, Brian Forte and Allen Maikels beat out Republicans Peter Hubbard and Michele Coons for the two open spots, and Supervisor Kenneth Runion was re-elected.
Forte and Maikels will replace Republicans Mark Grimm and Warren Redlich, who did not seek re-election. In an upset, they had won seats on the town board in 2008, and were often at odds with Democratic Supervisor Runion throughout their four-year terms.
The GOP and its forerunner had controlled the town for over 150 years, but lost ground to the Democrats in the 1990s, until the election in 2007.
“I’m happy that we have returned to a five-zero board,” said Runion on election night.
Guilderland Republican Committee Chairman Matthew Nelligan called this year’s election “bittersweet,” since Republican Steven Oliver won the race for highway superintendent. Oliver will fill a post left vacant when longtime highway superintendent Todd Gifford, a Republican, retired in December of 2010.
“I was very happy to see Oliver win so handily, and I think the highway department is the most visible aspect of town government,” Nelligan told The Enterprise.
Earlier in the year, Redlich speculated that Nelligan was making “backroom deals” with Runion, suggesting that Nelligan agreed not to run a candidate for supervisor if Runion appointed Republicans to various town committees. Runion and Nelligan denied the allegations.
Republican Kevin Clancy was appointed to a two-year term on the Board of Assessment Review, and Nelligan also submitted resumes for two appointees to the ethics committee.
Nelligan, who did not run a candidate for supervisor, said it was because there were no qualified candidates.
“We’ve had applications for supervisor, but we’re not going to run just any candidate…We’re going to run people that we think have the best chance to win,” said Nelligan.
Nelligan also refuted the idea that he was practicing negative campaigning, after he paid for an ad to run in The Enterprise featuring Maikels, surrounded by bats, which read, “Here’s a scary thought for Halloween…Allen Maikels is running for town board.” It referenced the years that Maikels had spent in the Albany County Legislature, and stressed property tax hikes in that period.
The GOP also circulated a flier stating Forte’s salary as a Guilderland Police officer, and said Forte would retire and collect a full pension along with a town board salary, implying he was a burden on taxpayers.
“They’re going negative because they don’t have anything positive to sell,” Maikels responded through The Enterprise in October.
Nelligan said it was not a negative attack.
“I think it’s important that people know the past records of people running for public office…The best way to predict people’s future behavior is to look at past behavior,” said Nelligan.
“It’s over now; I won, he lost,” quipped Forte on election night.
No tax hike
The nearly $31 million budget for 2012 keeps the tax rate steady at 26 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, making up for the sharp increase in retirement contributions by cutting jobs and freezing all town workers’ salaries.
Spending is down $303,018 from the 2011 budget, and the tax levy will increase by about $8,000, well below the 2-percent tax cap allowed by the law pushed by the governor and passed by the state legislature earlier this year.
The issue that most affected the budget for 2012 was the increased contributions required for retirement funds; in 2010, contributions were about $1.1 million, and in 2012 they will be approximately $2.1 million. Faltering investments on Wall Street raised the share municipalities must contribute to the retirement system.
“I had to make a lot of cuts in order to make it happen,” said Runion after he proposed the budget with the flat tax rate.
Many of the reductions in spending are being carried over from previous years, including closely monitoring supply purchases in all departments, not giving pay increases to any town employees, and keeping overtime hours to a minimum.
New measures for 2012 include taking one out two school resource officers out of the schools and putting that person back on the road, and not backfilling the position; two layoffs a deputy town clerk and a clerical position in building and planning; and making some positions in the parks and recreation department part time.
“We’re in a very tough period of time, where we have to maintain and provide the same level of service we’ve provided in the past, and also look at the budget,” concluded Runion in the fall. “It’s a delicate balance.”
An audit released in 2011 of the 115 Industrial Development Agencies throughout New York State revealed that three projects being financed by the Guilderland IDA as of 2009, for a total of $21 million, should have created 40 jobs and retained 209.
IDAs are created by the state legislature on behalf of local governments, and their purpose is to advance job opportunities by providing funding for projects through tax-exempt bonds, at low interest rates.
The audit, released by State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, showed that, as of 2009, eight jobs had been lost rather than any gained in Guilderland.
“I think those numbers speak for themselves,” said Mark Johnson, a spokesman for the comptroller.
The projects the construction of a facility for the Western Turnpike Rescue Squad, an update and expansion of the YMCA, and an update and expansion of a building for the Wildwood Program are currently in re-payment, according to the town’s grant writer, Donald Csaposs.
The projects were financed through the IDA in order to receive sales and mortgage reporting tax exemptions. The poor economy could have contributed to the loss of jobs, said Csaposs, as well as the fact that all three projects were for not-for-profit entities. He did not see a reason to worry about the number of jobs lost.
“If we saw a sharp decline, like 80 jobs instead of eight, it might behoove us to sit down with the project managers and see if we could provide some sort of counsel,” Csaposs said.
The comptroller’s audit report concluded that IDAs need to start providing more and better on job creation and retention goals.
McKownville worries about UAlbany expansion
Several neighborhoods became concerned about their properties and homes this year.
The University at Albany was interested in purchasing a historic piece of land that would encroach on the residential neighborhoods in McKownville if it were developed.
The nine acres, referred to as the Holt-Harris property after the family that currently owns it, borders Norwood Street, Waverly Place, and West University Drive. There are 40 houses on Norwood Street and 16 on Waverly Place. The property is zoned R-15, which means it is residential, allowing 15,000-square-foot lots.
The Holt-Harris property is for sale, listed at $1.6 million. Brother and sister John Holt-Harris III and Susan Holt-Harris own the property, which is on the market because their father, who died 10 years ago, bequeathed it to them, and they said they have no use for it.
“We are interested in purchasing the land, at a more fair price,” Karl Luntta, a spokesman for the university, told The Enterprise in July. The property is assessed at about a third of the asking price a total of $597,000, according to Guilderland’s assessor, John Macejka.
On Sept. 17, Donald Reeb, a former professor at the university, and president of the McKownville Improvement Association, led a protest of the university’s “land grab,” as protestors called it, with about 30 other residents, during a university football game.
Reeb said he was concerned that developing the land would further add to the stormwater damage that university properties, such as the nanotech building, have already created. He also worried about excessive noise, lights, and traffic.
Reeb said the university would be pushing its luck if it decided to go through with the purchase.
“They are lucky to have a neighborhood next door that is safe and secure for their students,” said Reeb.
The university did make an offer on the property, in the late fall, but it was rejected for being too low, and the tract of land is still up for sale.
In the shadow of Crossgates Mall
Residents of a neighborhood between Crossgates Mall and Route 20 were also concerned this year, when the Pyramid Companies, which owns the mall, began evicting tenants from houses in that area toward the end of summer, and boarded up some of the homes.
The company owns 14 properties on Rielton and Tiernan courts and Gabriel and Lawton terraces, Pyramid had bought the properties in 1998 when it planned to nearly double the size of Crossgates, but it abandoned its plans in the wake of massive citizen protests.
When homeowners in the neighborhood started to see the empty houses boarded up and properties abandoned, they felt frustrated that they couldn’t find out why.
“We’ve discovered that some of the houses required significant work, and in the interest of safety, we opted to terminate the leases of the tenants that were in there…The houses are boarded up to keep them secure,” said Joseph Castaldo, Crossgates’ general manager.
“It looks like holy hell here,” said Stephen Cadalso, who lives on Rielton Court.
The homeowners were unsatisfied with town officials not getting involved. A neighborhood meeting was held in November, and the residents drafted a letter to send to Michael Shanley, a partner in the Pyramid Companies, detailing their concerns and asking that the vacant, boarded-up houses be torn down and green space be maintained in their place. They also contacted Supervisor Runion, and asked to present the issue in front of the town board.
Runion originally responded and said that the group would not be scheduled to appear in front of the town board because the situation did not fall under town jurisdiction, but her later scheduled a meeting between himself, the neighborhood residents, Shanley, and Castaldo.
At the meeting, Shanley assured residents that the mall had no expansion plans; promised to evaluate each of the evicted properties in order of condition, starting with the worst; committed not to demolish any structure without replacing it; and agreed to be more accessible to members of the community in the event of future problems.
Runion said the town would continue to monitor the neighborhood periodically. Boards were taken off of the houses that had been evicted, and lawns were cleaned up, and the town’s zoning enforcement officer is to visit the area every 30 days and report back, so the town can contact Pyramid directly if there is maintenance work to be done.
“I have to rely on the good intentions of the people of the Pyramid Companies, as well as the expressed support of the town, that it will do whatever it is in its realm to do,” said Judy England, a resident of Gabriel Terrace, who helped organize the group.
Guilderland Center fights for its PO
Guilderland Center residents gathered at the Helderberg Reformed Church in May, to express opposition to the prospect of closing the hamlet’s post office.
A recently formed neighborhood group was successful this year in getting the speed limit on the main thoroughfare through Guilderland Center reduced.
The fight to keep the post office open may be more difficult to win.
The U.S. Postal Service, financially strapped and looking for relief from employee pensions, was hoping to save money by consolidating offices. The Guilderland Center Post Office was on the list for closure consideration because it met one of three criteria the postmaster’s position was vacant.
The post was not filled after the last postmaster resigned in 2010, because the Postal Service has had a freeze on appointments.
Many Guilderland Center residents expressed dismay at the idea of closing the hamlet’s post office and instead using Altamont’s, four miles down the road. They referred to the post office as the hub of their community.
At the meeting, one man commented on the residual effect that the post office, located in a small plaza, has on businesses, since people often pick up a coffee at the deli before they go next door to get their mail.
Another commented on the volume of mail generated by the industrial park in Guilderland Center, and yet another commenter, representing a business there, noted that her office needs to have access to its mail every morning.
Margaret Pepe, manager for marketing and customer relations for the U. S. Postal Service in the Albany district, said she understood that residents were strongly opposed to having their mail handled by Altamont’s post office, and that, in the event the Guilderland Center office closes, it could explore the option of using another post office besides Altamont’s.
Pepe said no offices had been closed in her district for 10 or 12 years, but, within the last year, three postal stations in Albany have been consolidated and two postal stations in Syracuse have been closed.
The average amount of time it takes for the federal-level decision to be handed down is between nine months and a year, Pepe said.
The Guilderland Center Post Office remains open at this time, but, if it is slated to close, residents will have 30 days to appeal the decision to the Postal Rate Commission.
“Taking away the post office would be like taking away our identity,” said Allen Jager, pastor of the Helderberg Reformed Church.
By Anne Hayden