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Special Section Archives The Altamont Enterprise, November 3, 2011
By Zach Simeone
HILLTOWNS As Legislator Alexander E. “Sandy” Gordon approaches the end of his 16th year representing the Hilltowns, he will be challenged by another Knox resident, Deborah M. Busch, who is making her third run for political office.
But, whoever is victorious on Nov. 8 will be representing a slightly different 39th Legislative District.
For the last 10 years, Gordon’s district included all of Knox, Berne, and Rensselaerville. But, after this year’s controversial re-districting process, District 39 lost most of Knox and some of Berne, but kept all of Rensselaerville, and gained Westerlo.
“I understand government,” Gordon, a Democrat, told The Enterprise, “from both the experience of six years on the Knox Town Board, and 16 years on the county legislature, and I have no plans to run for higher office…I’m willing to accept the challenges of governance in these difficult times.”
Busch, a Republican, ran for county coroner two years ago, and for state assembly last year. Now, she is making another run for office, this time for county legislator.
“I want to make a difference,” Busch said this week. “My campaign for legislature is commensurate to the state race: They have deficit problems, they’re raising taxes, and people are more strapped than ever, and I believe that’s where I could make fundamental changes, and initiate some sound policy in government.”
Alexander “Sandy” Gordon
Alexander E. “Sandy” Gordon, 56, has a grass-fed beef farm at his home in Knox, and recently developed a community supported agriculture program, or CSA, for his product.
“People can get a monthly delivery based on the size of their family, in what I call half-shares and full-shares,” he said.
After the recent redistricting process, Gordon says he is concerned about losing votes.
“Yeah the whole package of redistricting was something I think was done by the political bosses for their own needs,” Gordon said, “and it’s my opinion that my opponent benefitted when they changed the lines while the public hearing was open, so they could draw Travis Stevens away from running against me, and leave my opponent in my district.”
He added, “I think there’s no doubt that the human element guided the computer program; otherwise, why would a line have gone right down the property line of my farm?”
As the county examines how it handles caring for the elderly, Gordon thinks the legislature needs to carefully consider the renovation of the Albany County Nursing Home.
“And not only renovating it, but let’s look at the status of the roof system on the nursing home,” said Gordon. “Can we re-roof that? Can we get a [New York State Energy Research and Development Authority] grant and put solar power on the nursing home? Can we sell the Ann Lee Home and make use of that site? Are there other uses for some of the floors that are currently not used in the nursing home: at a minimum, storing our voting machines; at a maximum, maybe moving the board of elections there, if that’s allowable under [department of health] rules, and getting us out of having to pay the high rent that we pay to have the board of elections at Russell Road?”
The building, he said, is not being used to its full potential.
Further, the idea of aging in place, which centers on the elderly being able to grow old and die in their homes, will be important for Albany County as well, said Gordon.
“With an aging population, if you look at the number of people that can reside in one nursing home after the Berger Commission, that’s 250 people and that’s a very small percentage of the 300,000 that live in this county,” said Gordon. “It’s my opinion, as we see the onset of issues that we haven’t dealt with before dementia, Alzheimer’s disease there are going to be people that are going to need full residential care, and I think that’s about a hundredth of a percent, 250 of 300,000 people. I think that it’s absolutely an imperative to have that kind of safety net for the least capable in our county.”
He added later, “My wife made the choice to die in her home, and we honored that choice. We used hospice services. It was a very trying time for our family, but she was adamant that’s what she wanted, and I know that, having been campaigning, lots of people are telling me that’s a choice they want to make, and you’re not respecting the will of the people if you abandon in-home care.”
Asked how this could be funded, Gordon explained that he thinks there are some “artificial barriers” in place.
“My understanding is our reimbursement rate is based on the date we built the nursing home,” he said. “Why is this statute coming down from New York State Department of Health, saying we have to build a new nursing home to get a new reimbursement rate? Why can’t our state leadership just pick up the phone and challenge this law, so reimbursement rates reflect the cost, and then help to fund them at the levels that need to be funded in order to shift some of this burden back away from the county?”
And, the county should consider using the money from the national tobacco settlement to fund some of this work, he said.
Gordon went on to say that the topic of hydrofracking in Albany County deserves a great deal of research.
“I have submitted a petition to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, asking them to review four specific issues in relation to some of the things that are intrinsic in Albany County,” he said. “Those issues are: recent seismicity, the earthquakes we’ve been having; open-pond storage of post-hydrofracking materials, particularly in light of the 200-year floods and the 500-year flood we’ve had; full disclosure of the toxic and known carcinogenic chemicals being used; and the release and flaring off of methane gas.”
He thinks it is appropriate for the county legislature to address these issues during the DEC’s open comment period.
“These are questions coming from our constituents, and I’d surely hope that the state Department of Environmental Conservation would take the time to thoroughly review these things that are specific to Albany County,” Gordon said. “I’m not sure that a ban is appropriate if, in fact, it opens us to legal challenge. But, I surely want to be on record that I have these concerns and, by doing this in the open comment period, we are on record.”
Gordon also thinks that the legislature should be downsized, as long as it can be done incrementally.
“We should open the charter to consider another redistricting after we downsize the legislature, and we could downsize the legislature by five members during each of the next one, two, three, or four censuses, and that would address several issues,” he said. “But that does require a charter change. Also, I think you’re going to see the governor weigh in, that redistricting really should be outside of the hands of the people that are sitting in the seats at that time.”
Focusing on budgeting, Gordon said that the county should “absolutely not” consider reducing the percentage of sales-tax revenue that it distributes to municipalities.
“I served on the Knox Town Board for six years with, probably, the best mentor a person could have, and that’s Mike Hammond,” Gordon said of the longtime Knox supervisor. “If you shift the distribution of sales tax from the ratio it is now between county and town, it takes the county right off the hook, but towns are going to have to make up for a huge hole in their budget. Yes, it’s expedient, but I’ll have no part of that,” he said.
Nor should the county raise the sales tax beyond 8 percent, Gordon said.
“I think what we’re looking at to bring sales tax down to a zero percent increase is reducing $14 million in county spending,” Gordon said. “I think we can take a million out by starting to move the board of elections to county-owned property. We can take a million out by reducing layers of administrative staff. There’s some low hanging fruit that’s still out there.”
And, the legislature should also consider the benefits of selling the county hockey rink and the Ann Lee Nursing Home, he said.
“We have some opportunities here before going forward with a massive tax increase,” he said. “And, with a new county executive coming in, there are opportunities here for a shake up in the administration.”
Gordon thinks that, with enough work, the county can keep the tax-levy increase in next year’s budget below the state-set 2-percent levy cap.
“If we can’t maintain plowing the roads, and keeping our nursing home open, I would not be able to agree to staying under the 2-percent cap, but I think we can,” he said. “We’ve got a new executive coming on board, and, if he’s serious about being a long-term county executive, these are the challenges that have to be answered.”
Gordon thinks that, if necessary, the county could afford to draw on 10 percent of its surplus reserves.
As close to 700 jobs have been cut since the recession began in 2007, Gordon thinks that the county is already down to a “bare-bones” workforce.
“In public works, we’re down to 65 employees out there on the road,” Gordon said. “We had a report done by the HF John Group about the staffing levels at the nursing home, and we are above the staffing levels that are the norm in the industry, and I think we should definitely adjust to the appropriate level there, and that may require reworking the schedules for people. But, in this economy, the most important piece is to keep the people that want to work in their jobs,” and shift duties around when people retire, “so we can achieve the goal of decreasing the total number of employees there.”
Deborah Busch, 48, is a registered nurse who works at Albany Medical Center.
One motivator for Busch in this election is the opportunity to chair the committee that governs Albany County’s nursing services.
“Nursing needs to stay with the professionals,” Busch said. “Currently, the Albany County Nursing Home costs the county $18 million a year; compared to the $28 million deficit we’re facing, the $18 million is a big piece of that.”
The proposal to build a new nursing home is “out of the question,” she said.
“It’s been quoted that it would take $4 million to tear it down, but it would also take $4 million to fix it,” Busch said. “I propose we fix the nursing home we’ve got, and put it out for contracted bid to run the nursing home by a private health-care industry. This is a win-win situation.”
Through the sale of the nursing home, she said, the county could begin paying off its deficit.
“And, the seniors would get good care,” she went on. “If anything, I think the quality would improve. Then, we could fill the building to capacity; we don’t have as many residents in the home as we could feasibly take care of. A private enterprise would fill it to capacity, and it would be a moneymaking opportunity for the contractor, as well as the county.”
In-home care is “the way of the future,” she went on.
“This onerous burden for long-term nursing home care is not feasible anymore,” Busch said. “I think the majority of people want to be in their own homes for as long as possible, and we need to nurture that. So, I do support creating in-home care services, but I don’t believe the county should be running those services. This can also be run by a private entity, and they can also put that out for bids.”
Hydraulic fracturing, Busch said, is a state issue, and studies by the state’s DEC and the federal Environmental Protection Agency will determine whether hydrofracking is a viable option in New York State.
“I believe in clear pure water; I’m a health-care provider,” she said. “I know how important it is, and I know what we have to go through to get it in the Hilltowns. It’s a state issue, and they’re making a determination about whether it’s safe, and what areas they would allow drilling.”
But, Busch does not think that Hilltowners need to be concerned.
“I can tell you, speaking to people on that DEC commission, and who know their geography, the Hilltowns are not in play for that,” Busch said. “With that being said, knowing that’s not a county issue, my opponent would like to think he’s running on hydrofracking.”
Busch went on to say that she thinks the recent redistricting process was an open process, and brought the Hilltowns together.
“We’re a united front now,” she said. “Before, Westerlo was separated from the Hilltowns. Now, we can have a unified voice. I don’t think we could have asked for anything better.”
Busch supports the downsizing of the legislature.
“We don’t need 39 districts,” she said. “It’s too cost prohibitive, another layer of government we really don’t need. Right now, you’d have to go by the Albany County charter, and the charter does not allow for that type of discussion.”
She added, “Those who are elected are not going to agree to vote themselves out of a job. Is that serving the people? I think what you’d need to do is introduce the idea of referendum. Perhaps we need to let the people decide. How many legislators do we need? Or do we need a board of supervisors?”
Asked if the county should reduce the percentage of sales-tax revenue it distributes to towns, Busch said, “They have no choice.”
“They lost a lot of businesses in Albany County,” said Busch. “When you lose that much business, you’re not going to get the projected sales-tax revenue. We knew this was happening in 2007, and it came full circle in 2009. What did we do? We built a new Albany County Family Court building; we’re talking about a convention center; we’re talking about building a new nursing home, instead of looking at areas where we’re hemorrhaging money because of mismanagement.”
The county should not raise the sales tax, she went on.
“You raise taxes, people leave; you raise taxes on businesses, they can’t afford to do business here,” said Busch. “Pretty soon, all we’re going to be left with is government workers, and nothing else. We can’t survive anymore. When I talk to people, I go door to door; they hear the 19-percent increase and they start crying.”
In budgeting this year, the county should remain under the 2-percent tax-levy cap, she said.
“We need to honor what the people voted for; they wanted a 2-percent cap, and they should get it,” she said. “They voted [Andrew] Cuomo in for that. We need to fix the problem of the nursing home; get rid of elected offices that are not necessary, like the coroner’s office; reduce the number of legislators we have; and look at the fraud, and waste, and abuse going on in social services.”
The county’s social-service programs, she said, are too generous.
“Just give the basic mandated services,” she said. “We don’t have to give the cart blanche of dental, physical therapy. We need to look at what kind of services were given in Medicaid and social services, by cash allotments, Food Stamp allocations, how long people are eligible to be on these services in the county. That’s the key how far you want to go in how generous your services are.”
The county has already cut nearly 700 jobs since 2007, and caution must be exercised to avoid understaffing areas of health care, she said.
“There are huge liabilities if we understaff in those areas, and the risk can be human life, and that’s not something we should take gingerly,” Busch said. “When we’re talking about probation and jails, they need to be staffed as well, because it’s a very dangerous job, and anybody working in those fields is at risk, so they need to be staffed appropriately and have backup. Those areas that deal with life and death, and have potential for serious injury, need to be staffed.”