Varied views on how to meet rural needs

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

The senior center on Route 443 in Berne could serve as a resource center for the Hilltowns, according to Berne Supervisor Kevin Crosier, a Democrat. But Deborah Busch, a Republican Albany County Legislator from Knox says she has a more accessible location with a larger facility in mind, although she won't say where.

HILLTOWNS — On at least two separate fronts, local leaders are planning to bring more services of Albany County’s government to its rural residents.

County Legislator Deborah Busch, a Republican from Knox, said this week that she has located a site in the Hilltowns where county employees would assist residents with Home Energy Assistance Program funds, Medicaid, food stamps, and other county services. She said she is proposing a resolution, similar to one passed by the Democratic-majority legislature for the south end of Albany, and declined to name the site until the legislation is announced.

“We have many individuals struggling that probably are eligible for resources but are not able to obtain them because of how hard it is to get down there, to wait, and get parking,” Busch said of services in the city of Albany.

Just last week, a meeting was convened at the Berne’s senior center on Route 443 to discuss similar plans. Specifically, the group talked about how it could revive a congregate meals site for the elderly at the building.

Local pastors, town officials, and representatives from the county executive’s office and the county Department for Aging were there, according to Berne Supervisor Kevin Crosier, a Democrat. Weak attendance was cited for closing the former Hilltown congregate meals site, at the Hiawatha Grange Hall in South Westerlo. Crosier expects the meals, which are funded through the county’s Department of Aging, to start in June at the Berne senior center, and said county services similar to those described by Busch will eventually be located in office space there, as well.

But that plan is separate from the one proposed by Busch.

“Even though there’s a huge need up here, it’s not as large up here as it is in Albany,” said Mary Beth Peterson, director of the Hilltown Community Resource Center, located behind the Westerlo Reformed Church on Route 143. The challenge is spreading the word about what resources are available, she said.

The resource center is overseen by Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Albany. It runs a food pantry five days a week, and it processes HEAP, temporary assistance, and food stamp applications. A representative from Fidelis Care is at the center every Monday to help people with Medicaid.

If clients have appointments in the city of Albany, the resource center can drive them.

By resolution

Using current employees, Busch said she hopes her plan would have a break-even cost, but the fiscal impact hasn’t yet been determined. She called the site a resource center, which could be expanded to host various county departments on a part-time basis. She said veterans, the unemployed, and prospective college students are among the people who could benefit from talking to someone from the county, but are discouraged by the hassle of getting to those services located in the city of Albany.

Crosier criticized Busch for not attending town board meetings. She said she was busy with other county affairs and was open to being contacted. Busch’s district encompasses Westerlo and Rensselaerville, and parts of Berne and Knox. She also said she was once part of meetings about locating county services at the senior center, but saw no fruit from the discussions.

“It wasn’t large enough for what we’re proposing,” Busch said of the senior center. “I just don’t feel that that location — Berne is a little tough to get to if you’re coming from surrounding areas. We need something that is on a main pathway.”

The senior center is on Route 443 between the hamlets of Berne and East Berne. Crosier said it has a commercial kitchen, computers, and high-speed Internet.

“People are very proud in this area. Extremely proud,” said Busch. “When they access temporary health, it’s a private issue. You don’t want everything broadcasted. The senior center is an area of socialization. It is not a governmental foundation, per se. It is where seniors congregate. It does not encapsulate all of the other people outside of the realm of senior.”

Busch is serving her first term, begun in 2012. She said she didn’t propose this resolution sooner because she has been learning to navigate the legislature.

She insisted her proposal wouldn’t detract from the organizations currently serving the Hilltowns, or the plans for the senior center.

“I’m not negative about the senior center,” said Busch. “I appreciate the senior center. They do great work, but there are more people in need than seniors.”

Partnership

One of the major challenges for the congregate meals site is transporting all of the elderly diners. The group at the senior center last week talked about splitting the Hilltowns into two zones. A bus would transport diners in Berne and Knox and another would transport them in Westerlo and Rensselaerville.

The proposed schedule for the meals site is Mondays and Tuesdays, and a Friday night dinner with music or a movie, Crosier said; the buses run for shopping trips and medical appointments on Wednesdays and Thursdays.

With renovated office space, it could also be a part-time conduit for county services, Crosier said, suggesting, as an example, a resident who had been convicted of a crime meeting with a probation officer. The senior center, originally donated by the Hilltown seniors, is owned by the town of Berne, said Crosier, and its computers were aided by the Friends of the Berne Library.

“To say it means absolutely nothing,” Crosier told The Enterprise. “Putting the boots on the ground and getting the work done, that’s what really matters. It’s the planning and putting the partnerships together.”

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