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New Scotland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, December 29, 2011
2011 in review: Westerlo
WESTERLO As town leadership began its move to a new home in the Westerlo School this year, the building’s former tenant, Helderberg Christian School, began building a place of its own.
Westerlo will return to being under a one-party rule on Jan. 1 as two Democrats trounced two Republicans in the race for town board, and an incumbent was ousted. And, the longtime supervisor will soon enter his fourth decade in office.
A resident got caught up in a destructive pattern that changed her life when she was charged with 18 counts of animal cruelty for taking in too many cats, and she subsequently lost her job.
The town placed restrictions on a long running tradition of swap meets at the transfer station, after the Republican councilman, Clinton “Jack” Milner, accused the dump’s operator of inefficiency and theft.
The planning board completed the town’s first comprehensive land-use plan. The seven-page document, while short in comparison to neighboring Berne’s 120-page plan, aims to maintain the town’s rural character, while indicating that routes 32 and 85 may be suitable for commercial and industrial development.
And, the Westerlo Library held an open house for its new librarian, Susan Hoadley.
Looking back on her years of work in criminal justice, Hoadley said that she finds peace in being Westerlo’s new librarian, in a profession that allows her to help people.
“It’s a lot more than just sitting at the desk,” Hoadley said soon after her appointment. “Some people come in and just want to find a good book. Other times, there might be something serious going on in their lives, and they might want to understand it better by finding something to read or finding a website, and, if you can steer them in the right direction, it might really make a difference in their lives.”
Town Hall tenants
In April, the town board held its first meeting at the old Westerlo School, which is now the town hall. After a public vote in May 2010, the town purchased the building from the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School District for $145,000. At its December meeting, the town board heard from Supervisor Richard Rapp that it received the $225,000 of state grant money that had been promised by Senator Neil Breslin and Assemblyman John McEneny.
Helderberg Christian School had operated out of the old Westerlo School until last year, when the town, after a public vote endorsed the plan, purchased the building from Berne-Knox-Westerlo. The school district, facing declining enrollment and limited funds had stopped using the school, teaching all of its students at the Berne campus.
HCS has been operating out of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Berne since last year. So, while plans to build a new school had been in development for a decade, HCS decided that it was time to get things going this year.
“On Election Day, we started our first phase of construction, putting in the driveway going up to the new facility,” said Joseph Amedio, president of the Helderberg Christian School Board. “We’re very excited, as an organization, to get this started off.”
The new building will go up at the corner of routes 1 and 85 in Westerlo, on a 92-acre property that was donated to the school in 2001; HCS could not afford to build until recently. The school would not release the name of the donor.
In November, the community held a sign-raising ceremony on the property where the school will be built. The school itself, Amedio said, will take up only seven acres, and the rest will likely be left undeveloped, he said.
“We have a good-sized playground that’ll be installed, maybe some sports fields down the road,” said Amedio. “It’s mostly woods behind the school.”
Lamont Engineers in Cobleskill has been helping with the planning, and Living Stone Contracting in Greenville will be in charge of building the school. Richardson Pump Service in Westerlo is working on the school’s water system.
Amedio said that, if all goes according to plan, the entire project will be paid for by donations from the community, and construction on the school itself should begin next summer.
While several elections in Westerlo were uncontested this year, the race for town board saw Democrats Anthony Sherman, the town’s planning board chairman, and newcomer Alfred Field, trouncing incumbent Republican Milner, and his running mate, Laura Palmer, a newcomer to politics. Milner, who had been on the town board since 2009, was hoping to win his first full term on the board.
Councilman Robert Snyder, a Democrat who had served the town for 48 years, decided not to seek re-election.
Sherman, 31, was the top vote getter. He first came onto the planning board in July 2008, and was appointed chairman a year later. During his campaign this fall, he said he decided to run for town board because he was ready to move on to “a new challenge.”
Sherman also said that the planning board is making some final adjustments to the comprehensive plan.
“It’s gone over to Albany County, and we’ve received comments, and we are tweaking what we’ve written, based on Albany County’s comments,” Sherman said in October. “The county was looking to make the document a little more user friendly, and include things such as maps, that show current districts, and proposed districts, and stuff like that.”
Also during the campaign, when The Enterprise asked Sherman what should be cut from Westerlo’s 2012 spending plan in order to meet the state’s new tax-levy cap, Sherman said, “Right now, without seeing the budget, I don’t know where they could trim the budget at all.”
New York State Town Law requires that a town’s preliminary budget be filed by Sept. 30; the town board must be presented with a tentative budget by Oct. 5, at which point the board adopts a tentative plan; and the final budget must be adopted by Nov. 20. This timeline gives citizens who care a chance to review the proposed spending plan and make their views known.
In early November, Rapp, who has been at Westerlo’s helm for almost 40 years, said that budgeting was in its earliest stages. Rapp estimated then that the tax-levy increase for the general fund would be 11 percent and for the highway fund would be 14 percent an overall increase in the town’s tax levy of roughly 12 percent not including taxes to be levied for the library six times more than the state-set cap.
The new law allows a board to exceed the tax-levy cap with a supermajority vote that is, four of Westerlo’s five town board members.
Field, 67, came in second in the town-board race. He retired in January from a career as a construction engineer, and decided that now was the time to run for town board.
Field, who considers himself a Conservative-Independent-Democrat, has lived in town his whole life. He is a life member of the Westerlo Volunteer Fire Company, and a former member of the rescue squad.
He said during his campaign that he had not yet seen the town’s comprehensive plan, but he intends to take a look at it when he has the opportunity.
“That’ll be part of my responsibility: to be aware of all these things, if I’m elected,” Field said.
According to unofficial results from the Albany County Board of Elections, Sherman got 620 votes, or 34 percent, and Field got 572 votes, or 31 percent, while Milner got 331 votes, or 18 percent, and Palmer got 316 votes, or 17 percent.
After lying dormant for years, the GOP had gained standing in town in 2009 when it backed Milner’s successful campaign. Milner was enrolled as a Democrat at the time but then enrolled as a Republican. Councilman Clifton Richardson, who died in office nearly six years ago, was the town’s first Republican board member in 70 years, and its last before Milner enrolled as a Republican.
In other races, incumbent Democrat John Nevins got 784 votes as he ran unopposed to keep his job as highway superintendent; and Independence candidate Robert Carl was cross-endorsed by the Democrats and the Republicans as he ran unopposed for town justice.
Democrat Kathleen Spinnato got 827 votes as she ran unopposed for town clerk. Spinnato had been the town’s deputy clerk for 11 years and, with longtime Clerk Gertrude Smith retiring this year, Spinnato said she was ready to step up to the plate.
After the elections, the town board decided not to pay for Smith’s health insurance, as she had requested, after she retires from her job as clerk at the end of the year, though she will be serving as deputy to the next clerk, Kathleen Spinnato.
“There wasn’t a formal vote,” Rapp said, “but that’s how it was. She’s not going to get her health insurance.”
The issue was discussed for months, as some in town thought that, because Smith served as a town employee for 26 years, she should continue to receive health insurance, paid for by the town, after her retirement. It also became an election issue. Rapp said in October that the town pays close to $1,400 per employee per month for those on family plans; according to the adopted 2011 budget, the town spent about $420,000 on employee benefits this year between the general fund and the highway fund, and costs are on the rise.
Drama at the dump
Milner said during his campaign that he saw himself as “the voice of the people.”
“I’ve succeeded in getting things done,” he said this fall. “Got more money coming into our dump now. I’d just like to run one more term, and make sure everything gets followed through.”
Towards the end of 2010, Milner began pushing for reform at the transfer station. What followed were months of argumentative discussions at meetings on whether or not the town could be making more money through the sale of scrap metal. Westerlo had been getting only a fraction of the revenue that the neighboring Hilltowns were getting in recent years, and figures obtained by The Enterprise from those towns’ records supported Milner’s statements.
Knox, with almost 1,000 fewer residents than Westerlo’s roughly 3,500, got about $7,000 for 77 tons of scrap metal in 2009, while Westerlo got $4,000 for 93 tons that year. So, not only did the town recycle less of the metal by proportion, but it also made far less money per ton.
The town has since started selling its scrap to Rensselaer Iron and Steel, which is yielding higher returns, and an amendment to the town’s solid waste law has tightened the rules on the longstanding tradition of swap meets at the transfer station.
Charles Benninger, who has been the town’s transfer station operator for nearly three decades, took Milner’s efforts as a personal affront.
“People have helped me, and I’ve helped them,” Benninger told The Enterprise. “Everything from giving people a ride home, dogs locked in their car, to giving a guy oxygen.”
Milner accused Benninger of selling the town’s scrap metal himself and pocketing the money, and allowing his friends to do the same. Milner wanted to see new management at the transfer station.
“For 28 years, I’ve been here,” Benninger said, “and for 28 years, I’ve taken stuff from here, but so has the whole town.”
The price of steel is high, Benninger said, and people are selling it for themselves. He also said that Milner never personally approached him to discuss the operation of the transfer station before bringing it to the town board.
Milner also criticized the lax enforcement of recycling rules at the transfer station. “These independent haulers are bringing in all this garbage and none of it’s separated. If you keep that practice, there’s a chance we could get kicked out of Rapp Road,” he said referring to the location of a dump site shared by a consortium of municipalities run by the city of Albany.
But Albany’s director of recycling told The Enterprise in January that all four of the Hilltowns have clean track records at the Rapp Road landfill.
Because the tonnage of waste per person from Westerlo delivered to the landfill is higher than neighboring Hilltowns, Milner thinks that recyclables are being mixed in with the garbage; this tends to be more an issue with commercial haulers than with municipal practice.
Additionally, because numbers from the neighboring Hilltowns show higher annual profits from lower amounts of recycled scrap metal than Westerlo, Milner became opposed to residents’ taking metal from the transfer station and selling it themselves; town residents traditionally exchanged materials at the dump, and some removed items from the various piles.
The town board conducted a brief investigation into Milner’s allegations against Benninger, and declared it ended at the board’s March meeting. Also at that meeting, the board adopted an amendment to its solid-waste management law that allows residents to exchange goods at the dump, while adding specificity to the law.
The town’s 1992 law read, “From the time of placement of recyclable materials at the solid waste facility by a resident or commercial waste collector, all such recyclable materials shall become the property of the town. It shall be a violation for any person without authority from the town or its authorized agent to collect, pick up, remove from the solid waste facility, or cause to be collected, picked up or removed from the solid waste facility, any recyclable materials.”
The approved amendment to the town law, which centers on changes proposed by councilmen Gregory Zeh and Ed Rash at a January workshop, redefines “recyclable materials” as materials “which are to be separated from the waste stream and held for reuse” excluding the items listed under the newly added “reusable items” definition, which include items that may have future or market value, including: toys; furniture; wheelchairs; walkers; exercise equipment; tools; building components; computers; computer components; computer accessories; fixtures; machinery; and other personal properties. This list of reusable items, which can now be legally “swapped” at the dump, excludes scrap metal or recyclable materials.
Janet Sharpley was arrested on 18 counts of animal cruelty charges this spring for hoarding more than 100 cats, many of them unhealthy, in her Westerlo home. Sharpley has said that she intended the animals no harm, and, while she had initially sought assistance in finding homes for the cats, she told The Enterprise then that she was scared out of her search for help.
“I got threatened by the attitude and the castigation,” Sharpley, 61, said this spring. “One person threatened to call the police. This person was known as someone who deals with kitties. She said, if I didn’t give her my address immediately, she would call the police. To this day, I don’t understand it.”
In March, the Albany County Health Department responded to a call from an anonymous source, which alleged that Sharpley was collecting cats in her home. The department gave Sharpley 30 days to convert her home into a safer environment. At that point, the department removed close to 50 cats from her home and brought them to various shelters.
On a weekend in mid-April, Sharpley gave away close to 25 more cats, the Albany County Sheriff’s Office said; the following Monday, the Mohawk Hudson Humane Society removed the remaining 42. Of those 42, eighteen cats were euthanized, accounting for the 18 counts of animal cruelty.
“It started with one animal showing up at my doorstep,” said Sharpley, who has lived in the Hilltowns for 20 years. “We gave him some food; I noticed in the yard there were many animals, and found out it was normal in the area to let cats just stay outside. I love animals, and I started bringing them in.” She referred to herself and her ex-husband, who moved out four years ago; the hoarding began long before he left, she said.
“You think, ‘It’s only three, that’s plenty of room’; when there’s 10, it’s still plenty of room,” she said. “You don’t think about what the expense will be later for the food, the vet bills, for spaying and neutering, and it gets out of control.”
She went on, “I’m a working person; I’m not mentally ill, no offense to mentally ill people.” Although she eventually lost her job as a result of the charges. She did not disclose where she worked. “I’m called a hoarder, but hoarding people feel they can’t give up an animal…I easily gave up my most favorite kitties, because I knew they were going to somewhere better.”