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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, March 5, 2009
Running unopposed, Dineen and Whalen seek second four-year terms as Altamont trustees
By Philippa Stasiuk
ALTAMONTIncumbent trustees Kerry Dineen and Dean Whalen are running unopposed in the March 18 election for second four-year terms. Dineen is running on the same ticket as Mayor James Gaughan while Whalen is running independently.
Whalen said he is running on his own because he didn’t want people in the village to feel there’s a whole group of five on one party that is always in agreement. To the contrary, he said, there is plenty of disagreement, discussion, and compromise among the board members and it’s important to remind the village of his independence.
In the 2005 election, Whalen ran with mayoral candidate Harvey Vlahos, then a trustee. Gaughan won the four-way mayoral race, and the two incumbent trustees were ousted along with the mayor. Vlahos is running again for mayor this year in the only challenged village race.
Whalen, an architect with the Albany-based firm CS Arch, which specializes in school renovation, led the committees that developed Altamont’s comprehensive plan and, later, the zoning to implement the plan.
Dineen is running on the Altamont First ticket with Gaughan as she did in the last election because, she said, “Jim and I share the same core beliefs and values in government as well as our mutual love for the village.”
Her last four years as a trustee have allowed Dineen to get back to the community she has lived in most of her life, she said. She works as a music teacher at Pine Bush Elementary Schoo and has been heading a forum to promote Altamont businesses.
“I’ve enjoyed learning a lot and I’m glad to contribute,” she said. “I feel that this is the most cohesive board this village has seen in a long time. Whether we agree or disagree, we work so well together as a group. We’ve voted differently in the past but we compromise. This board as it is, is the way it should be right now.”
Trustees are paid $2,623 a year.
Both candidates were read a short background on five issues and asked to give their positions. The questions and their answers follow.
Prior to the village elections in 2005, citizens complained about excessive police presence in the village, which is already covered by Guilderland, Albany County and state police. A new public safety commissioner was hired but complaints continue and costs have risen 13 percent in the last four years.
Should Altamont have its own police force and if so, should it be reconfigured?
“Back in 2004 when the last administration formed the police committee to look at the structure, I was asked to be on that committee,” said Dineen. Gaughan and Whalen were also on that committee. “We evaluated the current police force and surveyed the citizens, and the conclusion was that, yes, the citizens wanted a force with some configuration.
“One of the recommendations given was we needed a new police commissioner with certifications,” she went on. “We also needed to streamline the police force because of the huge turnaround. I went to meetings for three years before getting elected and at every meeting it seemed there were resignations and appointments.”
She said of the current public safety commissioner, Anthony Salerno, who was appointed under the Gaughan administration, “Salerno has streamlined to around 10 part-time officers. This model suits Altamont best.
“The idea is not new that there should be two full-time officers,” she said of a proposal by Harvey Vlahos, who is running against Gaughan for mayor. “But unfortunately, we can’t operate a police force with just two. The community seems happy with the structure now. It’s very community-based policing.”
“As small as we are, it was necessary,” agreed Whalen. “I was also on the police commission to make recommendations to the board and, at the time, I felt Altamont should have a police force. In the four years that I’ve been on the board, I have come to realize I was right, in my opinion. It’s an important presence in the village.
“Having part-timers did two things. Administratively, it means we don’t have to cover things on books, specifically insurance, retirement, and Social Security. It’s also an opportunity for people to learn. We get experienced police officers who want to work extra hours and we get people who are earlier in their career who get a chance to train. It seems like there’s an advantage to that. Nowadays, they are mostly experienced.
“It was talked about extensively, the idea of having two police officers, but with two, how do you schedule them? We’d have to depend on them more day to day. It didn’t make sense. They wouldn’t be as involved. Also, my kids don’t know the Guilderland police officers but they know the Altamont ones. They are able to do the bike thing and nod their head at kids.”
The first goal of the Altamont comprehensive plan is to provide a range of housing options for people of all income levels within the village. In a divided vote on the village board last year, trustees Whalen and William Aylward voted for changing the zoning to “M,” for multiple family designation, on an undeveloped piece of property in the center of the village. The rest of the board, including Dineen, voted against the “M” designation, effectively nullifying the potential for building apartments at that site in the village.
Why did you vote the way you did and are there enough places in Altamont for low or even middle income families to live?
“The data from the comprehensive development plan indicated that there was some need for a larger mix of housing but nothing significant,” said Whalen. “The village is already a good blend of apartments and duplexes and lower income housing, surprisingly. The intent of the comprehensive plan was not to forget that.”
Whalen explained that, unlike an area on Bozenkill that was also identified but later abandoned by the village as a potential “M” zoning, the area in the village was good for this type of zoning because of the walking accessibility. This would make sense for single parent families or young families.
“Through the Boy Scouts,” he said, “I deal with all types of people. In one Boy Scout troop alone, there are four or five boys that have split homes and the moms and dads are both in the village by choice. It’s difficult to find small apartments so that both parents can stay in the village.
“But the village spoke,” Whalen continued. “I don’t agree with the vote but the process worked so the village board decided not to change the zoning.”
Dineen said that she voted against the “M” designation because, through discussions and meetings, “it became clear there was already a wide range of housing, including apartments, throughout the village.”
“I also felt there was a risk of, once the “M” was there, it could be any kind of apartment building there. What we did by changing the zoning of that spot was increase the density of the landholder who is now able to have single family and duplexes on that spot. You can’t guarantee what would be there with the “M,” what they were going to build. It was nerve-wracking to a lot of people but I thought it was a good compromise.”
In 2006, when an Altamont widow owed $6,811 with penalties on her water payment, the village board voted to accept a second mortgage on her house and garnish her wages for payment; then the village lawyer and the mayor, without a board vote, decided to shut off her water instead. In 2007, banners were purchased for utility poles also without a board vote.
Have there been instances in your four years on the village board where you felt the government was not as open as it should have been? If so, what were they and should they have been handled differently?
“I think on the contrary,” said Dineen, “the board has been more open than Altamont has ever had. Unfortunately right now, there’s an individual who made accusations but I don’t think mistakes were made. I’m confident with the way the board handled the widow’s situation. At the time, I wrote in to the Enterprise specifically because they had it wrong and I was upset with how it was portrayed.”
(The village board voted on Nov. 21, 2006 to accept a second mortgage and garnish wages. In a June 13, 2007 letter, Mayor Gaughan wrote in response to an Enterprise Freedom Of Information Law request that “the board did not pass a resolution regarding subject request.” Later, Guy Roemer, who was the village lawyer at the time, told The Enterprise that shutting of the widow’s water was “an administrative decision,” which was confirmed by another board member.)
Dineen continued, “The village has been more open than ever. Jim initiated this and we all backed him on that. We made the meetings accessible to everyone because people can’t all get to the meetings. We go out of our way, all of us, to find community members to help us out and I think that’s open government at its finest.”
Whalen said, “Those two examples, particularly the one with the water, there was a long history, some of which couldn’t be brought forward because we were trying to be discreet with the situation the woman was in. Much effort was done at the village level and other individuals to work with her.
“In the end, it came down to deciding that she isn’t being forthright and bringing everyone in. The village would have had to cover the cost of someone not paying their bill and, in my opinion, that’s not right. We legally couldn’t let it slide. It’s money owed to an entity. With much effort done to try and alleviate and reduce it, in the end there was nothing we could do.”
Concerning the board’s openness in the last four years, Whalen said “We must be doing something right because of the anxiety and angst we go through sitting at that table every month. Jim (Gaughan) came to us and said, we’re going to do this public comment period at the end of every meeting and that’s what we do. People can come up and speak about anything they wish. That wasn’t done previously. It can be uncomfortable. Sometimes I don’t know the answer or how to respond but we, as a board, have allowed that because it’s the right thing to do.”
New York is facing a serious fiscal crisis and the attorney general has called for the consolidation of municipal structures and even eliminating villages that could function with town services instead. Also, due to the decrease in sales tax revenues collected by Albany County in December, it is likely that county sales tax, which makes up a large portion of the village’s revenues, will decrease in 2009.
Should the $1.2 million village budget be cut and if so, what should be reduced?
“Fortunately,” said Whalen, “we’re coming into a budget cycle knowing all this. One of the things we said last year was that, if we’re not going to raise taxes in 2008, we have to get the message out that we’ve done what we could but it may not hold next year. Eventually, we knew we’d have to make minor adjustments and would have to raise taxes or cut services, which we don’t want to do.
“The unique thing about the village is that the buck stops here,” he went on. “It doesn’t go further than us. The fortunate part is, because we’re so invested in what we have, it’s easy to see where the money goes. I’ve seen every line item of the budget and we don’t have a lot of fluff.”
Whalen also explained that one additional thing that the administration did in the last four years was put money into escrow accounts to budget for future equipment and service needs in the village.
Dineen said that the budget is going to be a top priority in the next month and mentioned Mayor Gaughan’s idea of halting the 3-percent cost-of-living increase for village employees.
“We’re going to have to prioritize spending in each department,” she said. “There’s always places to cut every year. Last year we talked about a small increase on the tax on properties. We didn’t want to do that but we knew it could go up in the future. Luckily, we’re in fiscally good shape. We always have been.”
The new zoning delineates a business district. John Donato complained last year that his bowling alley couldn’t make a go of it and he wanted to turn the buildings into apartments but the zoning didn’t allow it. Donato and others have said the shopping patterns have changed with the mall and the Internet and that the zoning should be less restrictive.
Should more be done to support businesses in Altamont?
Whalen responded by calling Donato’s request “spot zoning” and said that allowing apartments or a single-family home in that area was inappropriate to a central business district.
“I appreciated Donato’s dilemma but it’s not something we could change at that point,” he said. “The zoning was clear. The planning board came back and said they’d reviewed it and, based on the premise of the comprehensive plan, they thought it shouldn’t be changed. We held a public hearing, which we technically didn’t have to do, and we didn’t feel we could make the change.”
Whalen gave an unqualified “yes” in answer to the question of whether more should be done to help businesses in Altamont. “I’m afraid if we don’t look to continuing to grow businesses and make them more stable and have a critical mass, we’ll end up being a suburb with sidewalks.”
Whalen said that the renewed interest by local business in working together to create an advertising brochure is a promising start.
“It seems to me that to get successful regional draw,” he said, “Altamont has to have a unique hook. Saratoga has the tracks. Lake George Village is successful for what it does. It’s a honky-tonk place but people go there for that. I keep saying that you can walk down the street after church on Sunday in Altamont and you see people going by in groups of five or six on their road bikes.
“It would be a tremendous opportunity if the new rail trail that ends in Voorheesville could come to Altamont. It would be a half-a-day’s ride. You could go out for lunch and ride back or stay the night and then ride back. Would that take a lot of will? Absolutely, but that’s just me. I’m very recreation based. I bike, I sail.
“I don’t know how viable it is but I’m getting nods from people. A bike shop in this town, I think, would do tremendously.” Whalen concluded, “We have to work with businesses to see what would draw people to Altamont and make it unique.”
Dineen said that she did not think the new zoning laws were too restrictive and that, on the contrary, the laws were clearer and more defined, which would make it easier for businesses to operate in the village.
“Now there’s a planning board,” Dineen said. “Everything’s been redefined so that you know what to expect. Our business district is so small as it is. I think it would be a detriment as a community to lose ground when they have to work together to be successful.
With regards to new business initiatives, Dineen said improving parking in the downtown and continuing efforts to beautify the village would both help existing businesses and attract new ones.
She is also working on a tourism brochure with local businesses. The brochure is modeled on the town of Clarence Hollow, N.Y., and, when finished, will be distributed at what the business group determines to be the most effective places in the village to be picked up by tourists.
Dineen also mentioned a shared services grant with Guilderland which will enable the village to, “expand the business section of our website to include business updates and special events as well as links to the individual business sites.”