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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, December 30, 2010


2010 in review: Rensselaerville
Bolte ousted Dorner, county comptroller found flaws in internal controls,
Industrial-scale wind turbines prohibited, group formed to promote tourism

By Zach Simeone

RENSSELAERVILLE — In an off year for town elections, longtime citizen watchdog Robert Bolte ousted Councilwoman Dale Dorner in her first year in office.

An audit from the county comptroller pointed to flaws in the town’s internal controls, and he called for an investigation.

The town adopted the first law in the county that governs industrial-scale wind development. And a local group formed with the mission of increasing low-impact tourism in the Hilltowns to boost the local economy.

Election

A town board seat was open this year because Marie Dermody, formerly a councilwoman, was elected supervisor last November, taking office on Jan. 1.

That same day, at its re-organizational meeting, the four-member town board voted unanimously to appoint Dorner — a Democratic newcomer to politics — to fill Dermody’s vacant seat. This fall, Dorner ran with Democratic backing to keep her seat on the board.

Bolte, the town’s Conservative Party chairman, ran on his own party line; he won the Independence line in the September primary; and he was endorsed by the Republican Party soon after.

A longtime volunteer in town, Bolte ran for town board last year with both Conservative and Republican backing, and came in a close third in a four-way race for two seats; incumbent Democrat Sherri Pine lost her post.

This November’s race was a hotly contested one, with many letters sent to the Enterprise editor. Dorner was portrayed as an experienced attorney with knowledge of planning and zoning issues, and Bolte as a hardworking handyman, and part of a skeptical contingent that keeps a close eye on Rensselaerville’s government at town board meetings.

Dorner said of Bolte before the election, “I think, certainly, Bob’s knowledge has been very helpful. He’s been a very good advocate, and he has helped the town with his background. But he can do that from the audience.”

According to accumulated results from the Albany County Board of Elections, Bolte defeated Dorner with 517 votes, or 57 percent; Dorner garnered 395 votes, or 43 percent.

“I expected it, because when you go around…and don’t knock the other candidate, you put yourself in the more honest position,” Bolte said after elections. “I feel like I worked hard for the town many years, and [the win] did not surprise me.”

After Jan. 1, the Democrats will still control the town board; Councilwoman Marion Cooke is the only other non-Democrat on the board.

Audit

Suspecting attempted wrongdoing behind the findings in his recent audit of the town’s finances, the county comptroller requested that the district attorney’s office investigate a duplicate voucher and over $370,000 in federal funds that weren’t applied for after storm damage in 2007.

In April, after years of citizens’ raising concerns, Albany County Comptroller Michael Conners offered to review Rensselaerville’s internal controls at no cost to the town. Last month, Conners completed his audit, and gave a preliminary report to the town board, saying that the town lacked any effective accounting system, and that the board was lucky that it had such an “active and involved citizenry.”

The audit, which covered 2006 through 2009, found a duplicate payment of $7,586, made in 2007 to Carver Sand and Gravel, a company that the town often deals with for highway materials. The second payment was made close to six months after the successful original payment, according to the audit.

Conners returned to Town Hall in November to review the town’s responses to his audit, and advised the town that it should investigate the duplicate payment. In its response to the audit, the town board wrote that Dermody, who became supervisor in January after being a board member for two years, has begun investigating the matter of the duplicate payment, and will relay any findings to the comptroller’s office.

The day after his visit to the town board, Conners sent an e-mail to Christian D’Alessandro, District Attorney David Soares’s chief investigator, requesting an investigation.

“That second voucher; I’m not an attorney, but it’s handwritten, which clearly does indicate intent,” Conners told The Enterprise. “That’ll be for the district attorney to answer.”

Conners said this month that the district attorney’s office had not yet responded to his request.

Conners points to another item in the audit that he says requires investigation: Joyce Chase, who worked years ago as the town’s clerk for FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) funds, had copies of town banking records at home.

Chase was re-appointed as FEMA clerk in January to complete paperwork associated with past FEMA projects. She is the wife of G. Jon Chase, a highway superintendent through 2009 who was scrutinized during his term by the same residents that repeatedly called for an audit. Chase, a Democrat, was ousted in the last election. Joyce Chase is also the mother of Democratic Councilman Gary Chase.

According to Anthony Fontanelli, who works with Conners, the comptroller’s office requested supporting documentation on a $204,399 certificate of deposit, and Joyce Chase sent a copy of the certificate of deposit from her home.

In response to this observation, the town board writes, “Because of the political climate that existed at the time, as a matter of self-protection and self-preservation, the clerk made copies of documentation regarding FEMA issues to keep at home.”

Dermody later offered the following explanation: “It was just pretty much mistrust that went on between the supervisor,” at that time Jost Nickelsberg, a Republican, “and the highway superintendent,” at that time G. Jon Chase, “and in order to make sure that documents didn’t go missing, she wanted to make sure she had her own copy. I interviewed Joyce Chase, and she said she never had any original documents at home, but, because things tend to go missing, she wanted to have copies of paperwork as proof of its existence.”

Still, Conners sees this as cause for investigation.

“When you get into legal questions, I don’t know,” Conners said in November. “But, from a financial controls point of view, to have an employee bring banking information home rings all types of alarms, and your antennae have to go up. And that’s why we got into going through the FEMA disasters.”

In April of 2007, a storm flooded Pearson Road, which led to the damage and eventual repair of the culvert on that road.

According to Conners’s audit, the town spent $373,676 on the repair of the Pearson Road culvert for which it could have been reimbursed. Conners recommended in his audit that the town make an appeal for reimbursement of that funding.

Mary Wollaber, a representative of FEMA and the State Emergency Management Office, had advised the town board not to pursue an appeal for reimbursement, concerned that, if the town submits a request for reconsideration, FEMA might audit all projects and paperwork for that emergency, though the town board had not shared this concern with Wollaber.

At this month’s regular meeting, the town board voted not to make an appeal for reimbursement.

“If you really want to look into it,” said Councilman Gary Chase at the meeting this month, “we had money set aside, $173,000 out of the last FEMA project, set aside just to do that — that was the extra money from FEMA that we used for that.” Chase’s father was the highway superintendent at the time of the repair, while his mother was clerk to the highway department, and had handled FEMA paperwork.

“I think it’s a mistake,” Conners told The Enterprise upon learning of the board’s decision. “They’re entitled to make that decision and to do as they choose, but the possibility of a large recovery does exist, and I’m sure that time will tell whether it’s a good decision or not.”

Boosting the economy

The Helderberg Hilltowns Association, which is making strides to strengthen the economy on the Hill, held its first-ever meeting in April in Rensselaerville. Farmers and politicians alike shared their thoughts at this preliminary gathering, and learned about www.HelderbergMarket.com, a website that sells and delivers local produce, which launched in June.

Harold Miller, a Berne native who now lives in Mexico, began building a network late last year of individuals interested in assembling an association of Hilltown farmers and business owners who would act as a virtual chamber of commerce for the Helderbergs, the goal being to increase agricultural tourism to the area as an economic stimulus.

At that time, Miller listed three steps in that direction: organizing a Hilltowns farmers market that would rotate weekly among Berne, Knox, Westerlo, and Rensselaerville; creating a brochure that would list farms and activities in the Helderbergs; and suggesting tour routes to places of interest in the Hilltowns.

“My goal,” Miller told onlookers at the April 17 meeting, “is to have an organization that encourages low-impact tourism, to encourage people to come to the Hilltowns, and to visit the farms; to buy produce here; to drive through the countryside; to hike; to picnic; to eat lunch and dinner at a local restaurant; to stay the night. I would like to think that someday, when people from below the Hill want to take a short vacation, that they’re not going to go to the Berkshires and spend their money. They’re going to say, ‘Let’s head for the hills — the Helderberg Hilltowns.’”

The role of tourism in the local economy is underlined in the Helderberg Escarpment Planning Guide, co-edited by Daniel Driscoll, a Knox Planning Board member for more than three decades, and Lindsay Childs, a longtime planning leader in Guilderland. The guide, published in 2002, was created to encourage appropriate land use and development in the Helderbergs.

“In the later 19th Century, with the onset of the Victorian era and its increased emphasis on recreational pursuits, the escarpment region became attractive for reasons beyond farming, logging, and scientific study,” the planning guide reads. “It became a major destination for all manner of hikers, daytrippers, picnickers, and general outdoor enthusiasts.”

Many of these people, the guide says, came from urban areas, like Albany, arriving by train at Meadowdale Station below the Helderbergs. These tourists would then hike their way up Indian Ladder Road to the top of the escarpment.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Helderbergs became a popular summer-vacation spot. Wealthier travelers built summer homes there, taking in the view, and many hotels, inns, and camps at Thompsons and Warners lakes housed those less wealthy.

Today, that culture has mostly faded away, though John Boyd Thacher Park, established in 1914, is visited by thousands annually.

And, the historic hamlet of Rensselaerville was chosen by the Preservation League of New York State as one of this year’s Seven to Save, meaning greater chances of bringing in grant money to preserve Rensselaerville’s historic buildings, and possibly working to increase heritage tourism as an economic jumpstart.

Helderberg Market

Sarah Gordon, owner of SAGE (Sarah Avery Gordon Environmental) Consulting in Albany, has been designing HelderbergMarket.com as what she hopes to be the first successful e-commerce opportunity for all interested farmers throughout the Hilltowns.

More specifically, the goals of the website are to:

— Increase local demand for Hilltown agricultural products;

— Increase the volume of direct producer-to-consumer sales;

— Increase the economic feasibility of rural and regional economies;

— Decrease the amount of time required for farmers to market their goods, thereby increasing time spent on agricultural productivity;

— Capture a consumer base large enough to support a growing Hilltowns agricultural community; and

— Employ modern technologies to overcome the barriers of a traditional farmers’ market, while capitalizing on the popularity of online shopping.

Gordon provides the quality control for the foods being sold on the website.

“If I show up, and your potatoes are looking like something a customer’s not going to be very happy with, I’m going to give them a refund,” she said this spring before the site launched. “I don’t want to send something out there that’s going to damage the reputation of this resource.”

She will, herself, turn a small profit from these transactions.

“The farmer sets his price, and the farmer gets 100 percent of the asking price,” Gordon said. “On top of the farmer’s price, I’ll assess a 23-percent commission, and add it to the price from the farmer. That will pay for delivery expenses, my time, and my staff.”

She said at the group’s organizational meeting, “The lack of local markets, I think, is seriously contributing to the decreased profits that we’re seeing in agriculture, and, as profits drop, people are seeing more pressure to do something profitable with their land. That leads to subdivisions, and people turning their agricultural land into residential plots.”

Ill wind

This rural Helderberg Hilltown is the first in the county to adopt a law on large-scale wind power, and the word is prohibition.

The Rensselaerville Town Board passed a resolution this year on a local law that bans all industrial wind development in town, after a year-and-a-half of work on the part of the town’s wind power committee.

The town’s wind power committee released a detailed, 60-page report on its research of commercial wind development, and its potential effects on the environment and aesthetics in a town, and the health of its residents.

The committee was formed nearly two years ago after Shell WindEnergy pulled its plans to line the crest of the Helderbergs with 50 industrial, wind-producing turbines, and had approached private landowners without consulting the encompassing towns’ governments.

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

This year, the wind power committee had recommended the prohibition of industrial wind power in Rensselaerville based on eight main points:

— Bringing industrial wind power to Rensselaerville would be “out of alignment” with the town’s comprehensive plan, and this alone is sufficient justification for barring the large turbines;

— There are significant health, environmental, and safety concerns associated with large-scale wind development;

— Albany County’s wind speeds are not consistently high enough to make industrial wind power a viable option for energy production;

— Residents’ property values may decrease;

— Income to the town would be minimal, while the costs to the quality of life would be disproportionately high, as would the amount of time spent by the town’s governmental bodies throughout the process;

— Once the large turbines are installed, it may be difficult or impossible to remove them, as industrial wind leases and easements often give developers long-term control of the property on which the turbines are situated;

— Some towns have lost control of their ability to independently negotiate with wind developers; and

— While the town could develop zoning that would restrict industrial wind development to a particular area, it would be easier for a developer to challenge a zoning restriction than a complete prohibition.

The Rensselaerville Wind Power Committee has provided a jump-off point for neighboring towns currently researching the subject in order to create their own wind-power regulations.


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