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Hilltowns Archives —The Altamont Enterprise, November 16, 2006

Riled over Camp Cass
Residents upset after latest escape

By Tyler Schuling

RENSSELAERVILLE — An escape Saturday from the Cass Residential Center has re-awakened fear in local residents, and public officials are re-examining policies and procedures.

A 15-year-old Cass resident broke into the nearby home of Robert Johnston, destroyed property, and stole money and a vehicle, police say.

The Albany County Sheriff’s Department and State Troopers pursued him. The fleeing youth made it to his home in Poughkeepsie (Dutchess County) before being turned in to authorities by his father on Sunday.

The incident is the seventh reported to authorities from the correctional facility in a two-year span. The facility is run by the state’s Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS).

"I was pissed. There’s no question about it," Robert Johnston told The Enterprise.

The perpetrator, he said, stole $50 from his wife’s purse, broke a windowpane in his garage, and stole his Ford Explorer.

Johnston didn’t discover the theft until Sunday morning when he found his SUV missing.

Since Sunday, Johnston has been locking his doors and keeps a loaded gun by his bed.

"I never used to lock my doors, but now I am. I never knew where the bullets to the gun were, but I can tell you where they are now," Johnston said.

"The director came to see me Sunday night," Johnston said. He appreciated the visit from Cass’s Tim Kelso, he said, but the visit did not alleviate his fears or change the way Johnston felt about the incident.

"He was in my house," Johnston emphasized of the escaped youth. Johnston said Kelso assured him that the escapee was a "good boy," but Johnston still wanted to research the matter.

"I’m not prejudiced. I love kids. I have grandchildren, but I want to see the history of this boy. I’m going to find out more," Johnston said.

Johnston said the Cass facility does not have a fence, and that the reverse 911 call sent out to surrounding residents following the incident was misleading and didn’t reach all of his neighbors.

"The call said there was a 15-year-old boy up on Cheese Hill," he said. "It would have been better if it had said, ‘a resident of Camp Cass.’"

Johnston was also perturbed because, although police "caught the kid" and found his Explorer just hours after he reported it missing at 8:30 on Sunday morning, he had been without his vehicle for four days, he said on Wednesday. He said police told him he can pick it up Thursday.

Johnston said he no longer feels safe about his proximity to the correctional facility.

"Maybe 20 years ago, this was a great idea," he said. "Now, you’ve got a different element," Johnston said, adding that he thinks the boys at the facility are "harder."

Johnston, who has lived in Rensselaerville for eight years, is from Long Island, and said he moved upstate because he thought he’d be safer in the country.

"It’s called ‘Camp’ Cass," he said. "I don’t think that’s right. It should be called Cass ‘Prison’ now."

"I’m not saying you’ve got to get rid of the camp. But you’ve got to make it safe," he said. Johnston also said that he and his wife used to donate to Camp Cass.

"Now, I wouldn’t go near the place," he said.

Rape survivor petitions

In July, 2005, Michael Elston, who escaped from the facility in late December, 2004, was convicted of first-degree rape and second-degree kidnapping, for forcing a 51-year-old female kitchen worker from Camp Cass into an office and forcibly raping her.

He then forced her at knife-point into her car; she escaped when he stopped to make a phone call, police have said.

"A lot of people are up in arms," the rape victim told The Enterprise Wednesday about the lack of security at the center. The Enterprise is withholding her name because she is the victim of a sex crime.

The woman, a Rensselaerville resident, has been circulating a petition since this summer, which, she said, calls for the facility to be more accountable, a fence to be erected around the compound, and added locks.

The petition, she said, was signed by an additional 30 concerned residents Wednesday morning, and a total of about 550 residents have signed.

OCFS spokesman Brian Marchetti said the agency will begin a project, which will include new basketball courts, a greenhouse, and a recreational fence around the perimeter of the facility. The project, he said, is anticipated to begin in the spring of 2007.

The woman said that the project is not good enough, and would not result in added security.

"I got raped 50 feet from a guard," she said.

"I’m going to present the petition to the town. I’m going to mail it to Senator Neil Breslin; and District Assemblyman Jack McEneny; Sandy Gordon, the county legislator, and whoever else I can think of," she said.

Town Assessor Jeff Pine, who lives near Camp Cass, said he has never been worried about living nearby until recently. Pine recalled walking into the facility in the mid-1970’s when he needed to use a phone and did not feel threatened.

"I’ve never been worried about it," he said, "but it’s getting spooky."

"There’s been uproar here," Supervisor Jost Nickelsberg told The Enterprise.

"You’ve got to set these kids up for success," Nickelsberg said of residents at Camp Cass. "The kids have had problems, and we’ve got to try and rehab and help them to be good citizens, but there’s minimal security up there with just locks and cameras," he said.

Nickelsberg cited multiple prior escapes from Camp Cass, and said the facility has not made sufficient measures to deter its residents from escaping.

Nickelsberg, referring to the 2004 rape, said, "A wonderful lady was raped, kidnapped and abducted. That’s tragedy."

He concluded, "That’s enough."

Re-examining the reverse call

According to Albany County Sheriff James Campbell, Camp Cass reported to his department around 6:45 p.m. on Saturday. The sheriff’s department responded with a county emergency notification, referred to as a "reverse 911 call." The call went out to neighboring residents around 9:15 p.m., but the call did not contain the necessary information, he said.

"The call should have said, ‘a resident escaped from Camp Cass," Campbell said. Instead, it said the missing 15-year-old was last seen in the area of Cheese Hill.

Campbell said the department is careful about its selection in issuing a reverse 911 call, adding that the department doesn’t want to cause undue alarm.

The reverse 911 call, he said, has been used in cases involving missing children and gas leaks.

"A message is recorded into the computer, and the software targets neighboring residencies and businesses," Campbell said, explaining how the system works.

The database lists up to 18,000 locations per minute, and calls 24 locations per minute, Campbell said.

The system prints out a report of who is called, who received the reverse 911 call, and who did not, he said.

According to the report, approximately 2,000 locations were in the database and supposed to be called Saturday evening; the system reported 420 successful notifications.

Campbell added that some people were not home and some hung up. The system, he said, is capable of leaving messages on answering machines.

If a phone is busy, the emergency notification system calls the number once more.

"I will be the first to say it’s not a perfect system," Campbell said.

Campbell also said that the sheriff’s department hasn’t seen problems to this extent before, and that the system for issuing an emergency notice to neighbors has been in place for about three years.

"The message was an error on the part of my personnel," Campbell said.

Berne budget passed
Super says no, merger halted

By Tyler Schuling

BERNE — After a four-hour workshop Monday night, Berne has an approved budget, and the highway department has fewer funds than first budgeted.

The vote was 4-to-1 with Supervisor Kevin Crosier opposing the plan. He had favored merging the town’s highway department with the county.

Responding to widespread citizen opposition to the merger, no council member seconded Crosier’s motion to apply for a state grant totaling $597,500, which could have been used for the merger.

Crosier and Highway Superintendent Ray Storm supported the merger. All seven highway workers opposed it.

Monday night, beginning with the highway department expenses, the board studied the budget line by line, and made cuts in the highway’s general repair and machinery funds. Storm had told The Enterprise earlier that the longer repairs are put off, the more they will cost.

After the cuts, the tax increase, which started at 28 percent, was reduced to about 20 percent. As the budget now stands, taxpayers will pay an additional 80 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation in 2007, a tax rate of $4.71.

Prior to the Monday workshop, taxpayers were to pay an additional $1.09 per $1,000, totaling $5.

At the opening of Monday’s meeting, Crosier, concerned with the budget’s 28-percent tax increase, addressed the board and residents.

"We’re looking at about a $250,000 increase, and we need to find ways to reduce spending," he said.

"If we’re going to make cuts, we need to look at where the largest increases are, and the biggest increases are in the highway department," Crosier said.

Emphasis on highway spending

The highway department, which was budgeted $851,500 in 2006, was slated to spend about $1.1 million in 2007, a 29 percent increase.

By the end of the meeting, the department was funded $1.02 million.

Storm said more money was needed because of increasing in the cost of materials, and because of the poor condition of town roads. He said more funds are allotted for town roads in Rensselaerville, which has a comparable road system.

"He’s got $255,000, and he’s crying he doesn’t have enough money," Storm said of Rensselaerville Highway Superintendent G. Jon Chase.

Councilman James Hamilton, said that the department, which was slated to receive $158,000 this year for personal services, had spent $88,000 thus far to pay employees, and he said the department spent $40,000 less last year than was budgeted.

"You’ve got to hope it doesn’t snow," Crosier said. "Don’t shortchange the personnel line"If we have a rough winter, we can go through that money quickly. We’ve tried to average these (past numbers for services), but you can’t predict the weather," he said. "You can’t shortchange or you won’t have any money to pay the people."

Crosier recommended the board look at lines where it can control spending. He pointed to contractual services.

Hamilton suggested the general road repair fund for the department be lowered from the proposed $255,000 to $170,000.

Councilman Wayne Emory later proposed $190,000.

"If we were to throw you a life ring, what do we need"" Councilman Joe Golden asked Storm.

Storm said that the condition of the roads is poor.

"The bases are deteriorating," he said. Storm later said that town roads, which total 28 miles, should be repaved every 10 years; the department should be paving 2.8 miles each year.

"I should be repaving roads every 10 years. It’ll be 22 years before the CHIPs money kicks in," he added, referring to Consolidated Highway Improvement Programs support.

"We have a town with a lot of road miles, and not many people to support those miles," Crosier said.

After discussion, with the board sitting on $190,000 for road repair, Crosier asked for the board to make a decision.

"Can you live with that"" Hamilton asked Storm.

"I’ll do the best I can," Storm replied.

Staying healthy in the hills

By Tyler Schuling

RENSSELAERVILLE — Filled with a bountiful array of locally-grown fresh organic produce, and a helpful, charismatic volunteer staff, the Hilltown Market and Natural Food Co-op, Inc., is bringing a much-needed resource to the community.

Owned and operated by members, the co-op was launched in January to support local farmers, and to provide healthy food at affordable prices.

The co-op is hosting an open house this Saturday to introduce its wares to the public, which is free to shop there anytime.

"We’re concerned about rural life," Jeannette Rice, the president of the co-op’s board of directors, said. "We wanted a marketplace that would provide for the local community and provide jobs."

"We’re member-driven, not product-driven," Rice added.

Since forming early this year, the co-op is comprised of all member-volunteer employees, but, Rice said, she’d like to see that change.

"Hopefully, we’ll eventually have one or two full-time employees."

Members of the not-conducted-for-profit co-op — originally 30 households — bought shares of $100 or more to join, and attracted a host of local resources.

Volunteers refinished neglected shelves to display the store’s products. An old wash basin, deserted and rusting in a farmer’s field, was cleaned up and put back in working condition. A shabby counter was restored to a shimmering gleam to be used as the store’s point-of-sale center.

"It’s amazing," Dian Ryan, a co-op member, said of volunteer efforts. "This is the work of very dedicated souls."

Ryan also remarked on the products’ packaging.

"Local suppliers have beautiful packages," she said. "We want them to survive, and more of them to pop up."

"Everything in the store is healthy," Ryan said. "The food in the store is the most natural, healthiest food we can get, which is especially important for kids."

Children, Rice said, also played a vital role in making the store what it is.

"They picked out the chocolate," she said.


The co-op pools its resources from farms throughout Albany and Schoharie counties, as well as from downstate.

Apples from Schoharie Valley and garlic, grown by an eighth-grader, are on display near the store’s front counter.

"We get our bread from a woman in Esperance, who makes her bread with organic flower," Rice said.

The co-op gets its flour from the same supplier as Honest Weight, a food co-op in Albany, that, Rice said, "has been a mentor to us."

"But we’re different," Ryan added.

Some other store items include: cheddar cheeses from Palatine Valley Dairy, spices and chutneys from Wellington’s Farm, honey from the Partridge Run Farm and Apiary, and flour from Bob’s Red Mill.

The store also sells organic bread, pizza, juice, soda, tea, coffee, chocolate, cheeses, milk, eggs, apples, ice cream, honey, maple syrup, potato and tortilla chips, and a many other organic and conventional (not certified organic) foods.

Rice said that everything not certified organic in the store is labeled as such, to prevent patrons from being misled.

Selling the basics, as well as hard-to-find items, the Hilltown Market is continually evolving.

The co-op encourages new ideas from its members and the public regarding its products to drive the store, Rice and Ryan said.

"We’re learning a lot about food," Rice said, as she walked between the aisles. "Everything’s flying out the doors."


Located at 26 Route 353, The Hilltown Market and Natural Food Co-op, Inc., will be hosting its open house Saturday from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Rice said there will be samples available (coffee and tea), and member specials.

"It’s open to everyone," Rice said. "Everyone’s welcome."

For further information, call 797-3144, or visit the website at www.HilltownMarket.com.

In split vote
R’ville adopts $2.3M budget

By Tyler Schuling

RENSSELAERVILLE — In a vote split along party lines, the town board on Thursday adopted a controversial hold-the-line budget for next year.

The three Republicans — led by Supervisor Jost Nickelsberg, who campaigned last year on reducing taxes — voted for the $2.3 million spending plan, an increase of $7,000 over this year’s.

The two Democratic council members voted against the plan. Taxpayers will pay $8.05 per $1,000 of assessed value.

At its October meeting, the town board heard a number of protests from residents concerning the board’s proposed changes to the budget.

Before the budget was adopted, all of the changes — adding $6,000 for the town’s newsletter, reducing $3,000 from the library’s fund, and laying off a town highway worker — were altered.

The newsletter was reduced from the proposed total of $18,000 to $17,500; the library, which received an anonymous check for $3,000, had its line reinstated; and, after several votes, the board elected to not lay off a highway worker.

On Thursday, William Ryan, the town’s attorney, who was not present at the October meeting, was called upon to examine the minutes regarding an inconclusive vote on not laying off a town worker, as a petition signed by over 200 residents had requested. The motion was seconded by the other Democratic council member, Sherri Pine.

Near the end of that meeting, angered town residents began filing out of town hall. Democratic Councilman Gary Chase, son of the highway superintendent, made a motion to not lay off the town highway worker, seconded by Councilwoman Pine. Amid the rustling within the hall, Chase insisted that the meeting had not ended. The Republicans defeated the motion, 3 to 2, but, following a public outburst that Republican Councilman Robert Lansing didn’t know what he was voting on, Chase called for a re-vote, and the motion was carried with Lansing casting the swing vote.

"I don’t think there’s a clear understanding of what the motion was," Ryan concluded after reading the minutes.

Chase then restated his motion to not lay off a town employee as allocated in the 2007 budget, and the board voted 3-2 against it. Chase, convinced that Lansing still did not have a clear understanding of the motion, repeated the motion.

The motion was then carried 3-2 in favor, with Republicans Myra Dorman and Supervisor Jost Nickelsberg opposed, and Lansing siding with the Democrats.

Public comment

At prior town board meetings, residents had been allotted time to comment both at the meeting’s beginning and its end. Thursday, residents were given two minutes at the meeting’s conclusion.
Residents who took note of the change, questioned the board.

One said that the public comment at the beginning of meetings should not be left out, and added that public comment could greatly influence the board’s decision-making. Another said that the possible six minutes allowed for a person in the public was reduced to two minutes.

"Who made the decision"" a resident asked.

"I did," Nickelsberg said.

Nickelsberg has been attacked numerous times during the public comment sessions.

When asked why the public was not allowed to comment, he responded, "A number of people in the audience are elderly. It’s an issue of time and the time of night."

Grievance Board

The grievance board, which is funded $1,600 for this year, had its funding eliminated for 2007.

Ellen Moak, who chairs the Grievance Board, is perplexed.

"I don’t understand," Moak told The Enterprise this week.

Moak said that the board, which consists of three members, listens to people’s grievances regarding their assessments."

The committee meets once a year, on the fourth Tuesday of May, a date set by the state, and, though its funding is depleted, the board will continue to operate.

"You cannot eliminate the board," Moak said.

Moak added that the members of the board have to be certified, and members go through training and study for their positions.

Moak questioned Nickelsberg’s tactics.

"He didn’t try to work with us. He just cancelled it out completely."

"It’s been around for 40 years," Councilman Chase said of the board. "He added $5,500 to the newsletter," Chase said of Nickelsberg, "yet he took away money from people who’d been working for the town."

Chase and Pine told The Enterprise that they do not agree with the depletion of the board’s funding. Pine’s husband is a town assessor.

Nickelsberg told The Enterprise this week that the grievance board is "one of the most absurd expenditures in the town," and called the funds for the grievance board in prior years "a bad use of capital."

"Alan Wright, the chairman of the planning board, serves on a voluntary basis, and he is yet to receive his first penny of compensation," he said. "That’s a really solid contribution."

Nickelsberg also said that the members of the zoning board of appeals, planning board, and land-use committee all serve without pay.

"They meet more often, and don’t get a penny. And the grievance board gets paid $1,600, and they work one day a year" How did that ever happen"" he asked.

Budget process

Democrats Chase and Pine did not agree with Nickelsberg’s decision-making, the added funds for the newsletter, the elimination of the grievance board’s funds, and the budget-working process. They also did not agree with the added money used from the town’s surplus to balance the budget.

In past years, Chase, Pine, and Nickelsberg said, $120,000 was used from the town’s fund balance to balance the budget. This year $235,000 was used.

Of the roughly $800,000 in the fund balance, Chase told The Enterprise, about $400,000 remains, and about $120,000 was split up in legal, equipment, and capital funds.

Chase is concerned that using $115,000 more than in previous years will eventually deplete the surplus.

"If we do this for a couple of years," he said, "we’re not going to have any surplus left."

Chase, who has been a councilman for 7 years, also said he didn’t think he and Pine were as involved in the budget process this year.

Chase said that line items were not given enough individual attention, and that Nickelsberg wanted to pass the budget the first night it was presented to the board.

"Everything was just done," Chase said. "I’m not just going to be a ‘yes’ man. I was elected to look out for the people of the town’s best interests."

"I didn’t agree with the whole process," he said.

Supervisor Nickelsberg told The Enterprise that multiple increase in crude oil due to a substantial increase in petroleum prices impacts all that the town buys.

Nickelsberg said the surplus saved during Lansing’s terms as supervisor greatly help with the added costs.

"It comes down to choice," Nickelsberg said of the use of the surplus to balance the budget.

"We didn’t use $240,000 or $250,000, because we were told the county taxes were going to be reduced by 2 percent," he said. "In the meantime, we’re aggressively going to go after anything to continue efficiency in government."

Nickelsberg added that the board will explore all options, and consider ways to reduce taxes. He said he’ll look at collaborative efforts with the county, the state, and other towns.

Nickelsberg also referred to the town-wide survey issued by the land-use committee that said 74 percent of the citizens thought high taxes to be the greatest negative of the town.

Nickelsberg said that all board members were involved in the budget process "every step of the way."

"We had at least three or four meetings. We had several meetings with workshops," he said. "Everybody had a chance to say what was on their mind."

Judge Garry wins against the odds

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

Judge Elizabeth Garry beat the odds this Election Day and her mother credits her late father — Hilltown farmer Harry Garry — in part for the win.

Judge Garry, a Democrat, won a State Supreme Court Justice post in the Sixth Judicial District, 10 counties in the state’s rural Southern Tier, where Republicans outnumber Democrats, two to one.

She was raised on a dairy farm in Berne where, as she said, in her candidate’s statement, "the soil is rocky an the people are tough, but caring."

She credits her success to the values of hard work and service to the community that her parents taught her.

Her late father, Harry Garry, was known as "The Singing Farmer." He performed locally and for years wrote a column for The Enterprise, called "Down on the Farm." He died two years ago at the age of 95.

Her mother, Dr. Margery Smith, a retired family physician, her daughter recalls was "renowned for actually making house calls for her rural patients, as well as being a pioneer in her field as a female physician."

Smith called the Enterprise news office, with excitement in her voice, to report on her daughter’s victory against all odds.

"She won by 17,000. The farmers came through for her. Most the farmers in those counties are Republicans. Harry Garry is still remembered in farm circles there," said Dr. Smith.

Harry Garry had been active in the Farm Bureau statewide.

Describing her daughter as "bubbly and outgoing," Smith recalled with a chuckle, "As a teenager, she was a handful"She came through alright."

After graduating from college, Smith said, her daughter cast about to find a field that fit her. She worked jobs that ranged from being a Christmas elf to working in securities and insurance.

Finally, she decided on law, and applied only to Albany Law School. "Mom, if I’m supposed to be a lawyer, I’ll get in," she told her mother.

She got in, and graduated at the top of her class.

Garry went on to clerk for State Supreme Court Justice Irad S. Ingraham, who crossed party lines to endorse her in the recent election, telling voters in the Sixth Judicial District that they were "sophisticated enough to look beyond political considerations and place primary emphasis on the legal abilities which she has."

She also garnered endorsements from her Congressman, Maurice Hinchey, Senator Hillary Clinton, and the Judicial Candidate Committee, which gave her its top rating — highly qualified.

Garry has 12 years of trial experience with the Joyce Law Firm in Sherburne, and has served six years as the town justice for New Berlin, in Chenango County, where she lives.

"She ran on her qualifications," said her proud mother, but it didn’t hurt that her father was a well-respected farmer who knew how to relate to people.

Dr. Smith reported a friend’s assessment of Elizabeth Garry on the campaign trail: "Man, you should watch that woman work a room. She could work it as well or better than Harry."

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