Shoo-in New Scotland candidates talk about the town

NEW SCOTLAND — Elections in the town of New Scotland — for supervisor, two council members, superintendent of highways and town clerk — are no contest at all.
Each of the Democratic incumbents, and one independent, are seeking re-election without any opponents.

Enrollment in New Scotland breaks down this way: 37 percent of voters are enrolled Democrats, 25 percent are Republicans, 27 percent are unaffiliated, and the rest belong to small parties.

New Scotland Supervisor Thomas Dolin is seeking a two-year term; Councilman Daniel Mackay is seeking a second four-year term; town Clerk Diane Deschenes is seeking a two-year term; and Highway Superintendent Kenneth Guyer, who was elected in November to complete the remaining year of a partial term following a departure of the previous superintendent, is seeking his first full two-year term.

Also Councilman Doug LaGrange, a Republican turned independent, is seeking re-election with the endorsement of his Democratic colleagues and their party. Dolin, Guyer, and LaGrange are also being endorsed by the Conservative Party.

The candidates spoke to The Enterprise about several issues in the municipality such as the challenges of scarce groundwater, the creation of a new department of public works, ongoing commercial and residential development projects, and administration of the Voorheesville Area Ambulance Service.

Water in the works

The candidates said water is scarce in the town and districts have varying methods of procuring it. They also agreed that, wherever water is located, or infrastructure put in place to transport it, developments often follow.

Several districts in the town have their own source of water, while several others rely on it being piped from outside the municipality, with most of those receiving it from the neighboring town of Bethlehem. The hamlet of New Salem will form another water district in the coming year, a project nearly a decade in the making, after the town, residents, and Bethlehem came to an agreement to install new lines.

Two pending developments will also increase water demand: The Kensington Woods housing development will have its own water source and possible treatment center while the Colonie Country Club project will pipe water in from Voorheesville.

Dolin said it is common for those receiving water from neighboring municipalities to pay a much higher rate for their water because of the cost of putting in new lines to bring it to them. He said many of those projects had 20-year bonds on them in addition to paying higher usage rates because they also required more maintenance.

“Typically, buying water from outside the town, provided by places such as the village of Voorheesville and the town of Bethlehem get charged about twice the rates,” he said.  “The reason is to compensate them for the infrastructure costs.”

Many of the installations are paid with through 20-year bonds but Dolin explained that most pipes needed to be replaced about every 30 years, leaving residents getting water outside the town with little relief.

“It’s been a huge problem with development for the town, both commercial and residential. In large parts of town, it’s not financially feasible to install pipes for delivery because homes are so far apart — you’re talking about $100 a foot to lay pipe and you have a number of sparsely settled areas in the town,” said Dolin. He said the cost to homeowners in less populated areas could exponentially increase.

Dolin said it was much more cost effective to supply water to subdivisions, hamlets, and more densely populated areas like New Salem.

Councilman Mackay agreed. “I think the availability of water is probably the chief constraint of growth in the town,” he said. “That’s probably the reason long term build-out in New Scotland is so different from Bethlehem’s and Guilderland’s.”

However, Mackay said the scarce water supply had a positive aspect in that it had help maintain the town’s rural country landscapes, something he said many residents desired.

“The ground water is very spotty,” he said. “Water infrastructure can be very slow to evolve in places because it has to evolve through a significant investment from developers, like Kensington Woods, or the municipal process which can take time. The realization of a water district in New Salem was a 10-plus-year goal for New Scotland and its delivery is a significant accomplishment,” said Mackay.

“We can only meet residents’ needs as to the availability of a source,” said LaGrange. “There’s no question it’s a constrictor of growth.”

LaGrange described water service in the town as “a patchwork” of different projects where residents get their water through diverse methods.  When New Salem’s water project breaks ground in the spring of 2014, LaGrange said it would be a great achievement.

He recalled past elections were other candidates promised to bring water to residents, even in remote areas.

“That’s impossible. I wish it was that easy, but I’ve tried to be more honest with people about the challenges and costs involved,” he said.

Apart from the costs and logistics, LaGrange said some residents in the town may not realize the scope of demand and how it might attract unwanted development.

He talked about an experience during his last campaign to emphasize his point. LaGrange remembered sitting on the porch with a resident who enjoyed living in a rural area.

“He said, ‘My well is not that great, what can you do about it?’” said LaGrange. “I said, ‘Let me ask you first: Do you see that woodland in front of your house, on the right and left and the woodland behind it? Picture houses on all those sides instead of woodland.’ The man said, ‘You know what, I guess my well isn’t so bad.’”

New department

To help manage the town’s expanding water and sewer infrastructure, and to ease the responsibilities on the highway superintendent, New Scotland hired a commissioner of public works on Aug. 14 to oversee the new department.

The town budgeted an annual salary of $23,490 for the part-time position, which requires about 20 hours of work a week.

For more than a year, the town has been discussing the possibility of creating a new position to absorb some of the highway superintendent’s duties, particularly relating to expanding sewer and water developments, such as the New Salem Water District and the Kensington Woods housing development.

Discussions began in earnest after the former highway superintendent of 18 years, Darrell Duncan, left the town in March 2012 for a job as head of Albany County Public Works.

Dolin said Duncan had filled a burgeoning niche as the town’s highway superintendent during his near two decades on the job.

Dolin enumerated the highway superintendent’s responsibilities, which included managing the town’s parks, buildings, roads, transfer station, vehicles, buses, sewer and water, trash collection, animal control, and disaster relief.

“It was becoming obvious to me and the board the situation was unworkable, that it wasn’t feasible for one person to be responsible for so much,” said Dolin. “As far as sewer and water goes, it was the largest — after the maintenance of highways — it was the second most time-consuming responsibility the highway super had.”

Dolin said the creation of the New Salem Water District and the possible development of the Kensington Woods subdivision would add another 340 homes to the town’s water districts causing an increase in town’s residential water demand of about 50 percent, he estimated.

The commissioner’s primary tasks would be overseeing the implementation of the new districts, along with updating the metering systems in older districts, said Dolin. 

As these projects proceed, Dolin estimated the commissioner’s workload could double, which may require the municipality to expand his compensation and hours.

Mackay voted against appointing Wayne LaChappelle to the post in August, saying he preferred another candidate, but said he supported the creation of the department and the position.

He said some of the town’s older water metering systems had reporting issues that need to be addressed. He also noted the pending expansion of water districts in the town would also “ramp up” water and sewer responsibilities.

Creating the new department is something LaGrange said he’s been “pushing for.”

LaGrange said some sewer and water responsibilities were lagging behind under the highway superintendent because he had too many other responsibilities.

“Ken Guyer has done a great job but when certain tasks need to be done then others have to lag behind,” said LaGrange. “You can add all the salary and incentives you want, but you can’t add hours to the day.”

By appointing a public works commissioner, LaGrange said the town was being “proactive instead of reactive,” to potential problems.

Ambulance calls

For the last few years, the town of New Scotland and the village of Voorheesville have jointly paid and administered the volunteer Voorheesville Area Ambulance Squad, with the town covering 61 percent of the ambulance budget not covered by revenue recovery from patients’ insurance, and the village 39 percent.

However, the village board and the ambulance squad have a growingly contentious relationship, to the point where VAAS has requested it be released from its contract and the village may cut off funding. (See related front-page story.)

The ambulance squad has asked to be released from the village’s oversight and to be turned over entirely to the town of New Scotland.

Though Dolin said he couldn’t comment on the specific disagreement between the two parties, he said, “We’ve offered to assume full administration and supervision but the village, for its own reasons, has decided to maintain that.”

If the town were to assume full responsibility for the service, then New Scotland would fund its yearly budget and bill the village for compensation and Dolin said it would not change how much the town currently paid.

“We need a formal action for the village to release the squad; we would accept that if they wished,” said Dolin.

Though the village has disagreements over how, or if it should, fund the squad, Dolin said it was likely the town would approve its part of the service’s budget.

“I don’t think the costs change much. They’re a fixed-expense operation, they’re all-volunteer so there’s no labor costs involved,” he said. “We’ve talked to the ambulance squad about some of these same issues and they’ve basically satisfied us that they do have some reason for maintaining their finances the way that they do.”

Speaking about the village board’s possible decision not to fund the squad Mackay said, “The village seems unwilling, not unable. What worries me is the tone of the discussion at the village level.”

Mackay said the town board is currently involved in ongoing conversations with the service about developing a long-term or five-year plan to help officials get a clearer understanding of squad’s expenses and needs.

“My personal preference would be to see the town take over the complete ambulance service,” he said. “I think it would be a cleaner process from a taxation point of view.”

However, Mackay said the emergency services in the area were undergoing a number of changes, such as the Albany County Sheriff’s Office picking up daytime calls, that complicated making long-term predictions about needs and expenses for the VAAS.

“A lot of things are being evaluated as this is going on,” he said.

Mackay said the agreement with ambulance squad would become a “focus issue” in the next month and a half, one he said he was eager to address and resolve.

LaGrange said he isn’t sure if the town should assume full responsibility for the service, at least for this year, saying the town should review and evaluate the squad until the next budget.

LaGrange said he, Dolin, and VAAS representatives recently met to discuss revenue recovery and the squad’s future prospects.

He said revenue recovery was decreasing and the town wanted the service to trim its budget. When the squad implemented revenue recovery, LaGrange said the tax bill for residents went from about $40 a year to $10.

Even if taking over administration of the squad caused an increase in taxes, LaGrange said he would be open to the idea. “Even if it doubled, hypothetically, that’s only $20,” he said. “If you’re suffering a heart attack, I don’t think people care.”

“I think we need a possible pause for a year; they do have enough funding to buy an ambulance. There needs to be a general re-assessment,” said LaGrange. He suggested the squad create a five-year plan.

Other elections

Highway Superintendent Kenneth Guyer is seeking his first full two-year term.

Guyer has been an employee of the highway department for nearly 15 years.

He said the town had nearly completed repairs to the Wolf Hill Road bridge, which was damage by tropical storms Irene and Lee in 2011. The project cost $300,000 and the town has already been approved for full reimbursement by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state. Guyer predicted the project would be finished by the first week of November.

Another project, to repair damage to Krumkill Road, should be completed in 2014, partly because the federal funding for the work had been slower in getting approval.

Though the town has recently appointed a public works commissioner to assume the highway superintendent’s sewer, water, and building-maintenance responsibilities, Guyer said he was continuing to help out during the transitional period.

He welcomed the new position, saying sewer and water responsibilities took “at least a couple of hours a day.”

“The DPW is a big learning curve; I’m still devoting time to water and sewer stuff and helping out as the transition takes place. Wayne and I are working together and collaborating — I didn’t just wash my hands of it,” said Guyer.

“But it certainly frees up my day to allow me to spend more time on highway duties,” he said.

Guyer said Bethlehem and New Scotland officially entered into a shared service agreement this year, allowing the town to pave an additional $85,000 worth of roads. In total, New Scotland paved about $318,000 worth of roads, which is about four-and-a-half miles.

Town Clerk Diane Deschenes has served her post for six two-year terms, beginning in 2000.

Her primary responsibilities include record keeping, recording government meeting minutes, official documentation of marriage licenses, dog licenses, hunting licenses, and dealing with the general public. She’s also in charge of tax collection and handling all money transactions for the town.

Though Deschenes said the office of the clerk had little impact on town policies, she said keeping town government open and accessible to the public was important.

“In my situation, anyone who walks in and asks for something, if I can find it, I give it to them right away. The only time we require a written request is if we’re unable to access it right away. I’m totally in favor of public access,” she said.

The town was audited by the state comptroller in 2011, leading officials to implement a new policy requiring the clerk to handle all financial transactions, something Deschenes said the town board was already preparing to do.

Since starting in 2000, Deschenes said one of the major changes in the office was the near elimination all paper documents, many through state mandates, in favor of electronic record-keeping.  The town clerk has also assumed responsibility for dog licensing and maintaining a database, something the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets used to handle.

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