Lopez laughs and listens to rural woes in Westerlo

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

Playing along: Assemblyman Peter Lopez, a Republican from Schoharie, places Westerlo Supervisor Richard Rapp’s glasses on his nose as he acts out a story during a community meeting with constituents Tuesday night. Wearing the glasses was supposed to be a minority leader in the State Assembly who, Lopez said, expected him to vote with the party line.

WESTERLO — Peter Lopez stood with a pen and pad in hand Tuesday night at the front of a town meeting room in the newest addition to his Assembly district. 

The Republican hosted a meeting at the Westerlo Town Hall for residents to ask him questions, which covered telecommunications, hydraulic fracturing, campaign finance, taxes, and his votes in the Assembly.

Paulette Ryder of Medusa, in the town of Rensselaerville, made the first comment — requesting that Lopez encourage other legislators to seek public opinion on legislation.

“You’re the first one I can remember to ever come around and say, ‘Tell me what you need, what you want,’” said Ryder.

Lopez recommended looking at the Assembly calendar online to know which of thousands of bills are being considered for a vote. Sometimes, it’s not enough.

“It reaches a point, especially at the end of session where technology can’t keep up,” said Lopez, noting that party leaders sometimes bring new bills to the floor without notice at the end of a session.

“Do you know you have a nasty job?” Ryder asked.

Lopez, 52, represents Schoharie and Greene counties, and parts of Otsego, Delaware, Albany, Columbia, and Ulster counties. He grew up in Schoharie and currently lives there. He added constituents from the towns of Westerlo, Rensselaerville, and Coeymans in Albany County when, after the 102nd District was reconfigured, he was re-elected in 2012. He was first elected to the Assembly in 2006.

“We’ll probably try it for one more term, and then we’ll see,” said Lopez of his future in politics.

The meeting was a sounding board for Lopez, mostly on concerns of rural development. He said he hopes to use the tax-free zones created by Governor Andrew Cuomo to start or expand businesses around already-established programs at rural colleges and universities in his district.

One idea, Lopez said, would be to use the more than 400,000-square-foot facility closed in 2001 by textile company Guilford Mills in Cobleskill, now owned by Schoharie County. It would house businesses of value-added manufacturing, agricultural processing, and alternative energy alongside similar areas in the State University of New York College of Agriculture and Technology at Cobelskill.

Asked by Westerlo Zoning Board member John Sefcik why he voted against a recent moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, which passed the Assembly but not the state Senate, Lopez said it addressed horizontal as well as vertical drilling, which is used for wells today. A moratorium on high-volume hydraulic fracturing exists currently by executive order from Governor Andrew Cuomo.

“Without full disclosure, it’s a non-starter,” Lopez said of the chemicals used in fluids for the process of breaking apart shale formations for natural gas. He cited testimony by the United State Geological Survey that said New York needs baseline information for its water resources and assurances about the casings used in wells for gas drilling.

“To stay connected — I’m trying to do this with one hand tied behind my back, it feels like,” said Michael Macie of the costs from Internet, cable, and cellphones. When he and his wife bought their property in Westerlo, Macie said, they decided to keep it as a farm. The lower density of homes nearby means the cost of bringing cable to their South Westerlo farm would be higher.

Lopez called the lack of broadband in rural areas an “example of market failure” where public money could be used to help companies, like Mid-Hudson Cablevision or Time Warner, to reach people who need their services. Lopez jotted in his notepad and said he would see if he could help find money or ideas for efficiently spreading the necessary infrastructure.

“Greenville pulled quite a bit of service out of Mohawk Hudson,” said Lopez of their agreement.

Westerlo resident Dianne Sefcik, John’s wife, asked Lopez why he voted against a bill to increase the minimum wage to $9 per hour and with inflation. She said the federal government has subsidized large corporations that bring jobs to other countries and asked what could be done to protect jobs in the state.

Lopez said he doesn’t support large subsidies to some companies or moving jobs overseas, but that the businesses inside the country should be allowed to be viable. Dianne Sefcik told Lopez lobbyists “are at you all the time.”

“I’m an everyday person,” said Lopez. “I’m not owned by anybody, and I don’t know if an everyday person can survive in this democracy because of what you just described.”

Westerlo Councilman William Bichteman told Lopez he is concerned his town receives less of a share of county sales tax money because some Westerlo residents have postal addresses in other towns.

“We probably lost 200 citizens to the town of Greenville because of that,” said Bichteman.

Additionally, Bichteman said, a town has little knowledge of what sales-tax money it is entitled to. “You just get a check,” he said.

Lopez suggested a certified letter asserting that physical addresses show the town has a larger population than is recorded.

“Remember, there is a certain fixed number that is divided by a formula,” said Lopez.

Lopez says the state’s Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement (SAFE) Act, passed at the beginning of this year, infringes on the Second Amendment right to bear arms. He voted against the SAFE Act. Passed with a large majority, Lopez said, the law’s repeal is unlikely. He suspected that some legislators may lose their seats over the law, but not enough.

Lopez noted the law has been challenged in court.

“My expectation is that that court case will probably go to the Supreme Court,” he said.

Deborah Theiss-Mackey — a member of the Community Activity Committee in Westerlo, a nurse at the Greenville School District, and a member of the Westerlo Rescue Squad — lamented the depressed volunteerism and motivation for young people in the community.

“When the school here closed, so did our people,” said Theiss-Mackey. Declining enrollment led the centralized Berne-Knox-Westerlo School District to close the school in Westerlo; the building now serves as the town hall. More business opportunities need to be here, she said.

“The region that I represent is full of Westerlos,” said Lopez.

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