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Hilltown Archives The Altamont Enterprise, November 3, 2011
By Zach Simeone
WESTERLO With the longtime supervisor running unopposed, four candidates are vying for two town board seats; one of them is an incumbent.
Richard Rapp, who has served as the town’s chief executive officer for nearly four decades, will remain in office for another term as he is unchallenged once again in the race for supervisor.
Republican Councilman Clinton “Jack” Milner is running for his first complete term, after defeating Susan Walter in 2008 to finish out the remaining three years of Kristen Slaver’s term. Slaver was forced to leave her post due to a job conflict outlined in the Hatch Act.
Also running on the Republican line is Laura Palmer, who had planned to run for town judge in 2009, but dropped out of the race because of her mother’s declining health.
On the Democratic ticket for town board are Anthony Sherman, currently the chairman of the town’s planning board, and Alfred Field.
Milner submitted an ad to The Enterprise this week, offering a $500 reward for information leading to the conviction of those who stole his and Palmer’s election signs; Milner said later that signs were missing from at least five locations, each sign worth about $25, Milner said.
“Within days after they were put up, they started taking them,” Milner said Tuesday of the missing signs, “and that was way before the snow ever came.”
For other posts, Gertrude Smith, the longtime town clerk, is not running for re-election this year. Kathleen Spinnato, Smith’s deputy clerk, a Democrat, is running unopposed to become clerk.
Robert Carl, who is enrolled with the Independence Party, has been endorsed by both the Democrats and Republicans to run for town judge, which carries a four-year term. John Nevins, long the town’s highway superintendent, is running unopposed for re-election.
Neither Nevins nor Carl could be reached for interviews this week.
Town board candidates were asked about the following issues this week:
Tax cap: A new state law caps tax-levy increases at 2 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is less, starting in 2012. The cap can be surpassed by a supermajority.
According to New York State Town Law, a town’s tentative budget must 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.
Rapp said Wednesday that, though budgeting is in its earliest stages, the tax-levy increase for general fund is to increase by $37,809, or 11 percent, to $387,809; and the levy increase for the highway fund is to increase by $42,361, or 14 percent, to $339,361. This equates to roughly a 12-percent increase in the tax levy, not including taxes to be levied for the library, which totaled $66,000 in 2011. The town board will hold its public budget hearing on Wednesday, Nov. 9, at Town Hall.
Where should the town look at making cuts in order to meet the 2-percent cap if, for example, the county were to cut back on sales-tax revenues, as has been discussed?;
Comprehensive plan: Earlier this year, the planning board completed the town’s first comprehensive land-use plan, which serves as a guide for its growth towards the shared vision of its residents. The town board submitted the plan to Albany County, which gave the town some feedback, and the planning board is making additions to the plan. Have you read the plan? What do you see as its strengths and weaknesses? What points of the plan do you think should be enacted as new laws?;
Health insurance post-retirement: Gertrude Smith, Westerlo’s longtime town clerk, will be retiring at the end of the year. The town has been discussing whether or not Smith should continue to receive health insurance, paid for by the town, after she retires.
Rapp said that the town pays close to $1,400 per employee per month for those on family plans, and that this would be further discussed at the town’s Nov. 9 budget hearing.
According to the adopted 2011 budget, which totaled $2.5 million, 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. Should Smith receive health insurance through the town after she retires? If so, would that set a precedent for other retiring employees?;
Town Hall: The town held a public vote last year on whether or not it should purchase the old Westerlo School for $145,000 from the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School District, which would be converted into a new town hall. The town board began holding its meetings there earlier this year, but the town has not yet received the state grant money it was promised by Senator Neil Breslin and Assemblyman John McEneny. It is atypical for a board to put such a purchase out to public vote. Do you think it was worth the time and money to hold a special election for such a case, and where should the board draw the line on holding public votes on its decisions?;
Transfer station: Earlier this year, The Enterprise looked at how the town handles its recycling. While officials at the county landfill said that Westerlo had a solid track record with its recycling practices, our research showed that Westerlo was making a fraction of what the neighboring Hilltowns were making from the sale of scrap metal.
For example: Knox has almost 1,000 fewer residents than Westerlo’s roughly 3,500. In 2009, Knox got roughly $7,000 for 77 tons of scrap metal, while Westerlo got $4,000 for 93 tons that year. This means that, not only did the town recycle less of the metal by proportion, but it also made about half as much 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.
Additionally, there were allegations that the town’s longtime transfer station operator, Charles Benninger, was taking steel and selling it for himself. Benninger has been on leave from the transfer station due to disability, and is expected to return to work in mid-December. Earlier this year, the town board conducted a brief investigation, which yielded no information as to why Westerlo is making so much less money, or if there was mismanagement at the transfer station. Does this need to be looked into further?
Clinton “Jack” Milner, 71, runs his family’s beef farm now that he is “semi-retired,” he said, and has been on the town board for three years.
“I’m the voice of the people now, and people come to me,” said Milner. “I’ve succeeded in getting things done. Got the speed limit in South Westerlo over to Albany County; got more money coming into our dump now. I’d just like to run one more term, and make sure everything gets followed through.”
Milner refers to a petition that he circulated in South Westerlo, requesting that the New York State Department of Transportation reduce the speed limit from 40 miles per hour to 35 miles per hour. It is currently under consideration, though the town had made a similar request to the DOT in the past.
Milner also raised issues about what he considered poor recycling procedures at the town’s transfer station.
Milner was unsure of where the town should consider making cuts to meet the 2-percent tax-levy cap, though he said that the town’s recent changes in its recycling practices will aid in the process.
“More of our steel is going to Rensselaer Iron and Steel,” Milner said. “They’ve already picked up eight or 10 loads this year. Come the end of the year, I’m going to get a print out, and see how much we got this year. County Waste is paying us $35 a ton now for all the recyclables; we were paying $30 to get rid of it, and now we’re collecting $35. That’s a $65 turnaround.”
Milner said that he has read the town’s comprehensive land-use plan.
“It’s pretty vague, really,” Milner said. “It’s basically to keep things the way they are, you know? I don’t see anything wrong with that, as long as the people are taken care of.”
Milner said that he supports the plan’s specifying routes 32 and 85 as being suitable for commercial and industrial development.
“I don’t know if it’ll ever happen,” Milner said. “Hopefully, someone will start some businesses up there on those two roads, but the way the economy is today, God only knows.”
And, allowing Town Clerk Gertrude Smith to collect post-retirement health insurance through the town would be akin to “opening a can of worms,” he went on.
“How can you give one person an apple, and not the rest of them? If they go passing something, it’s going to haunt them in the future,” he said.
Milner was part of the contingent that called for a public vote on the purchase of the Westerlo School to be converted into a new town hall; Milner, among others, thought that the Helderberg Christian School should have been offered the right of first refusal, as HCS had occupied the building before it was sold by Berne-Knox-Westerlo.
“The public puts everybody into office,” he said. “When something comes up on an issue like that, to spend a lot of taxpayer money, I definitely think the public should be able to vote on it.”
Milner had also brought the management of the town transfer station under close scrutiny earlier this year, alleging that the station’s operator, Charles Benninger, was taking scrap metal from the dump and selling it for himself. Now, with stricter rules on the frequent swap meets at the dump, and more revenue coming in from recyclables, Milner thinks things have improved.
“They need more help up there at the dump,” he said. “These independent haulers, I know for a fact that some of them are bringing junk in, and they’re not recycling, and I hope things there can get straightened out before the first of the year.”
Laura Palmer, 69, is retired from a 20-year career as the school-lunch manager for the Greenville Central Schools.
Now, Palmer, a Republican, is making her first run for town board. She had planned to run for town judge in 2009, but dropped out of the race because of her mother’s declining health.
“Instead of criticizing and talking, I decided, put your money where your mouth is,” Palmer said.
She said that, in her experience at town board meetings, it is difficult to get answers.
“When you’re at one of these board meetings, and you ask a question as to, ‘Why was this $1,000 spent?’ And they say, ‘Well, it’s under category B123EFG,’ who knows what that category is?” Palmer asked. “Explain whether it’s for maintenance, for salaries, for repairs, for a party. Spell it out so the person knows.”
She added, “I’d like to see more accountability. I’d like to see the town make a profit in certain areas instead of losing money. I want truth and honesty.”
Palmer declined to comment on whether or not retiring Clerk Gertrude Smith should receive health insurance, paid for by the town, after she retires at the end of this year.
“That’s between her and the town board, because Trudy is a very good friend of mine,” said Palmer.
Regarding whether or not this might set a precedent for other retiring employees, Palmer said, “It would have to be according to what is already written, and the people know that, if they’re an elected official, they do not receive it. If they are an employee who is not an elected official, they do receive it. But, whether they want to make exceptions, that’s strictly the town board’s decision, and I’m not on it yet.”
The town clerk’s position is an elected position.
Purchasing the old Westerlo School as the new town hall was “a stupid move,” Palmer went on.
“They should have let the Helderberg Christian School stay there,” said Palmer. “It’s not only the town board’s fault; it’s the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School District. They were in cahoots with one another, I feel. Helderberg Christian School should have been allowed to purchase that property. And, as far as the town having a special vote waste of money.”
Palmer said she has “mixed emotions” about whether the operation of the transfer station should be further investigated.
“It depends whether I get on the board or not,” said Palmer. “I just think there needs to be a little more good professional management of the transfer station, and I think Chucky [Benninger] is coming up to the plate on that when he gets back.”
Anthony Sherman, 31, is chairman of the town’s planning board, which is in the final stages of developing the town’s first comprehensive land-use plan.
Sherman first came onto the planning board in July 2008, and was appointed chairman a year later. Now, he says he is ready to move on to “a new challenge,” and is running as a Democratic candidate for town board.
A resident of Westerlo for most of his life, Sherman has worked at the Hannay Reels manufacturing plant for six years.
As the town is still in the preliminary stages of budgeting for 2012, Sherman said this week that he was unsure of where the town might make cuts to the budget to come under the state-set 2-percent tax-levy cap.
“Right now, without seeing the budget, I don’t know where they could trim the budget at all,” Sherman told The Enterprise.
Sherman 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,” he said. “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.”
Sherman went on to say that the plan does not contain points that need to be enacted into new laws.
“I do not think there’s anything that deviates terribly from our current zoning, or anything that’s been brought to light that needs attention,” he said. “Otherwise, the planning board would have sent that to the town board and had them look at the issue right away.”
While the seven-page comprehensive plan is shorter than that of other towns Berne’s recently revised plan is 120 pages long Sherman said that the board will not likely add to it soon.
“This would serve as a guide to zoning changes,” said Sherman. “The town board might need to look at zoning and determine if what we have in place follows the comprehensive plan, but this is not going to replace zoning. This will be what zoning follows.”
Sherman was not initially aware that the town was paying about $1,400 a month, per employee, for health insurance benefits, as indicated this week by Supervisor Richard Rapp.
But, speaking on general principle, Sherman said, “I don’t know where they stand on tenure laws, but, if they make tenure, then they’re a full-time employee, and they should be eligible for retirement, and benefits, and all of that.”
He was not concerned that this might set a precedent for other retiring employees.
“I would have to see documentation and do the numbers, but I still believe there isn’t that much cost, or costs could be trimmed,” he said. “There aren’t many positions that are eligible for retirement and health benefits, only the elected positions. Other than the town clerk, there aren’t many full-time elected positions…I don’t see where it would cost the town that much additional money. As a town councilperson, you’re not a full-time employee; you’d be a part-time employee, and that shouldn’t entitle you to retirement and health benefits.”
Sherman thinks the town board did the right thing by holding a public vote last year on the purchase of the Westerlo School.
“I believe that did set a precedent, and I think that’s an OK precedent,” he said. “It was brought to the town board’s attention that there were a number of residents who didn’t support the purchase of the school…They allowed the public their input. Any time there’s going to be controversy, the town board has the obligation to do what the residents are looking for.”
And, asked if the operation of the transfer station should be further investigated, Sherman said, “I believe that matter’s been resolved.”
Alfred Field, 67, retired in January from a career as a construction engineer, and has decided that now is 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.
Field said that he thinks the town is operating on a very “bare-bones” budget.
“I don’t think there’s anything in there, short of laying people off and parking the snowplows, that we could possibly to do cut the budget,” Field told The Enterprise. “I don’t see any waste in this town, but people have to understand that, yes, in their personal lives, they’re paying a dollar more per gallon for gas than they were a year ago, and it affects everything. Every year, items, fuel everything becomes more expensive.”
Field added that he has 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,” he said.
The premise of post-retirement health insurance for employees, paid for by town taxpayers, will require more discussion among town board members, he went on.
“Trudy [Smith] has been a dedicated employee for 28 years, so she’s got my deepest sympathies as far as her issue goes,” said Field. “But, where do you draw the line as far as everyone else? You do it for one person, but you’re not going do it for someone else? It’s a very expensive item to pick up.”
The purchase of the Westerlo School for use as the new town hall, Field said, was a big step in the right direction.
“It was important to everybody in town, because they’re all taxpayers,” said Field. “They’re the ones that are going to maintain and support that building. Everybody had a voice in whether or not to buy it, and the only fair way to do it is to have a vote on something that big. I don’t think, if you’re replacing trucks after 15 or 20 years, that it should be brought up for a vote, because that’s just an item. But something like a building, and land, that’s important.”
In relation to the town’s looking further into whether or not scrap metal was being stolen from the transfer station, Field said that what really matters now is that the town is selling its scrap in a way that will be most profitable for the town.
“Really, whether the residents of the town are taking scrap metal out of the pile, or Chuck [Benninger] is taking scrap metal, is irrelevant; what you’re selling it for is the important part,” he said. “Our transfer station is top notch, as far as I’m concerned, because of the simple fact that everyone up there is willing to help whoever comes through that gate. If you need something, you ask those guys, and they’re right there to help you. But, as far as the cost of the scrap steel being sold: Yes, it should be researched to get the best price for it.”
Richard Rapp, 73, has been the town supervisor for nearly 40 years.
A Democrat, Rapp is retired from a 20 year career in the New York State Department of Transportation; he spent 26 years working for Hudson River Construction before that.
Rapp was conflicted about running for re-election this year, but no one wanted to run in his place, he said this week.
The town is still in the earliest stages of budgeting for 2012, he said. When asked what the greatest challenge has been in forming the spending plan for next year, Rapp replied with only one word: “Money,” he said with a laugh.
“We were down $20,000 in our last sales-tax payment, and everybody’s in that position,” said Rapp. “With this 2-percent cap thing, I think they should have waited a year, and gave everyone a chance to prepare. That’s my feeling anyway.”
He went on to say that some savings will come from the retirement of two highway workers, “and we won’t replace them, so that’ll help. I figured they average about $40,000 a man there, so, that’s going to save some right there.”
With regard to the comprehensive plan, Rapp declined to comment on whether or not any points of the plan should be adopted into law.
Addressing whether or not Town Clerk Gertrude Smith should receive health insurance through the town after she retires, or if the town should be concerned about setting a precedent for future retiring employees, Rapp said, “They’re going to have to discuss that, that’s for sure. That’s going to be a problem later on. The whole health insurance issue is a problem.”
And, last year’s special election on the purchase of the Westerlo School was money and time well spent, said Rapp.
“We were challenged by a group of people who didn’t want us to buy it,” he said. “So, they held a vote, and we won, and they lost. So, we went on from there.”
And, the situation that arose earlier this year, regarding the efficiency of operation at the town’s transfer station, has been resolved, he said.
“I think things are pretty good now the way they are,” Rapp said. “We changed some things. What we do now is, they don’t let people take as much now out of there as they used to, now that a certain group went and complained.”
Kathleen Spinnato has been the town’s deputy clerk for 11 years. With longtime Clerk Gertrude Smith is retiring this year, Spinnato is ready to step up to the plate, and is running unopposed to become the next town clerk.
Originally from the hamlet of Medusa in neighboring Rensselaerville, Spinnato moved to Westerlo after she got married 28 years ago.
Running for town clerk, Spinnato said, “Seems the logical thing to do.”
One of the challenges of a clerk’s work, she said, is keeping up with board minutes.
“It’s a lot to keep track of, to keep up with the board, and what they’re doing at meetings and stuff,” she said. “But, I’ve done it in the past; I’ve filled in for Trudy; I’ve always been clerk to the water district committee when they were forming the water district, and I did their minutes. So, I’m really not deterred by it.”
In addition to being the deputy clerk, Spinnato has been a member of the Westerlo Volunteer Fire Company Auxiliary for about five years. She is currently the treasurer of the auxiliary, and is a former secretary as well. She will be resigning from the position of treasurer to take on the job of town clerk.
She will likely keep the following hours at Town Hall, as the clerk’s office has not yet moved to the old Westerlo School: Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Tuesdays, either from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., or from 6 to 9 p.m. one of these shifts will be filled by her deputy; Thursdays, from 6 to 9 p.m.
“I’ve served them in the past,” Spinnato concluded, “and I hope they would vote for me.”