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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, December 31, 2009
2009 in review: Altamont
By Philippa Stasiuk
ALTAMONT Running on his first-term record, Mayor James Gaughan was elected for a second term in February with two-thirds of the vote against challenger Harvey Vlahos. The two ran against each other four years ago in a four-way race for mayor when Vlahos was a village trustee and Gaughan was making his first run for public office.
“Personally, I find it uplifting because, in my heart, I knew it was right what we were doing,” Gaughan told The Enterprise the night of the election. “It reinforced that I’m on the right track for the village. It was a re-echoing of my commitment to the community and a wonderful message from the community for the last four years.”
The expense of and role that the Altamont police play in village life were major issues in the election. Throughout his campaign, Gaughan had defended the importance of Altamont’s police, saying that the services they provide, such as checking on homes when villagers go out of town, are valuable. Vlahos had argued that a police force of only two full-time officers would be better for the community and cost less money than the current structure of a police commissioner supervising many part-time officers.
In addition to the mayor’s race, Trustee Kerry Dineen, who ran on a slate with Gaughan, and Dean Whalen, who ran independently, were both unopposed in the election. Neil Taber also ran unopposed for an eighth term as village judge and was the top vote-getter with 348 votes.
“I would have welcomed a challenger,” said Taber. “It would have made the race more interesting.”
Police make traffic stops, answer complaints, check homes
The Enterprise looked in depth at how the Altamont Police Department, comprised of one full-time post, the commissioner, and 10 part-time officers, spent its time. Two years of police dispatch data from 2007 and 2008 sketched a patchwork of activity, which Commissioner Anthony Salerno summarized as “community policing.”
Traffic-related stops made up about half of the Altamont police activity reflected in the data, the numbers of which are comprised of both speed traps and incidents that prompt police to pull cars over. The next most frequent activity was answering complaints, followed by property checks for absent homeowners, and arriving at the scene when an ambulance was called.
The dispatch calls also showed that, since early 2007, the Altamont police have been performing property checks without using the police radio to register the incident with the dispatcher.
Salerno said he and his team began doing the property checks off radio after an increase of burglaries in local communities showed that potential burglars could be listening to police scanners for the location of homes with absent owners.
Salerno defended off-record property checks, saying that his careful supervision ensured that Altamont Police did not abuse the practice of performing police duties off the record.
However, Curtis Cox, captain of the Guilderland Police, which handles dispatch for Altamont, stressed that dispatch records were absolutely essential in his department. “It’s a tool for us to be able to use record-keeping for a purpose. If he [Salerno] chooses not to use it to its fullest extent, that’s his discretion,”
Board approves fire-truck purchase
The fire department also made headlines this year when the board approved by a vote of 4-1, with Trustee Dineen dissenting, a resolution to buy a new $318,450 fire truck in October.
The village’s newest fire truck was 13 years old, and, while the average lifespan of a village fire truck is 25 years, Altamont decided to sell its current truck early for $91,026, maximizing the sale price and applying it towards the cost of a new truck.
At the time of purchase, the village had $193,039 in reserve accounts set aside for the truck’s purchase and used $34,385 from the village’s reserve funds to make up the difference.
Gaughan said the village’s long-range purchase plan calls for buying a new fire chief’s car estimated at $30,000 in 2011 and another new fire truck in 2016 or 2017 for $400,000. While Gaughan said selling current vehicles could mitigate these costs, the decision to purchase a new truck would put the village in a deficit of at least $200,000 in the next seven to eight years.
Dineen wondered if, considering the potential necessity to bond debt in the future, it wasn’t doing the village a disservice. “I’m not saying the truck wouldn’t be used but this is tough for Altamont to be putting this much money for a piece of equipment that would be needed to service the outlying areas. Financially, I’m just worried,” she said before voting against the purchase.
Chief Paul Miller confirmed that 90 percent of the needs of the fire department are satisfied with its current trucks and that the new truck would help with non-hydrant areas outside the village.
Part of Miller’s argument for purchasing a new truck was that new diesel emission standards go into effect in 2010, which may increase the cost of fire trucks between 5 and 10 percent next year.
After the October vote, The Enterprise asked Gaughan if waiting to purchase a truck with superior emission standards would have been better; Gaughan said he was not familiar enough with the details of emission standards to comment but stated, “All facts considered, it seemed more judicious to move forward and accept Chief Miller’s recommendations.”
The board’s first resolution after the elections was to change an outdated law and allow for the replacement of old street-side trees that have to be cut.
The board amended the law after being challenged to do so three month’s earlier by John Sands of Grand Street, who complained that his recently-felled sugar maple was the 19th tree on his street to be cut down and not replaced by the village and who challenged the board to create a tree preservation plan in 30 days.
Spending down, but taxes go up
Although Altamont’s budget was $54,000 less than last year, the board increased property taxes by 17 percent in April to balance conservative estimates on revenues from county sales taxes. Gaughan said that, although 17 percent may seem high, “In real dollars that’s not a lot for our budget.”
Gaughan cited the extraordinary circumstances of the economy as the reason for the increase and said that his four-year administration had not raised taxes before.
“We fought valiantly to keep the taxes down and it’s not something we decided without much thought and torture, but we feel it is necessary,” said Gaughan. “Our main source of revenue comes from sales taxes, and it’s down.”
Preschool makes changes
Effects of the economic turndown were also felt in other ways in the village. This fall, Theresa Lasselle, the director and teacher of the Altamont Cooperative Preschool on Lincoln Avenue, made changes in the hopes of buffering it against low enrollment caused by the economic downturn.
Lasselle and the parents who run the cooperative school together offered something new: openings to children whose parents are unable to or don’t want to fulfill the volunteer portion of the program.
The school also extended the time of the class for 3-year-olds on Tuesdays and Thursdays an extra half hour from 9 to 11:30 in the morning.
“This should help people who live far away, and for moms who are working part-time so that they can get work done,” said Lasselle.
The long-term project to improve the village archives progressed slowly this year. In November, the mayor announced that the village had received only $1,440 of the $22,575 it had attempted to secure in the form of a grant from the Local Government Records Management Improvement Fund.
Wildwood gets village water
After waiting 25 years for running water, contractors began laying pipe in February from a well on Brandle Road up the Helderberg escarpment to Camp Wildwood. Located on Leesome Lane, the camp is part of Wildwood Programs, a not-for-profit organization that serves people with disabilities ranging from neurological impairment to autism.
The Altamont Village Board approved granting Wildwood access to village water in September 2008. The camp is located outside the village limits and had to wait for years to get water until the water-strapped village had new wells on line.
When asked if running water would mean Wildwood could expand the services that the camp offers, Gary Milford, the chief financial officer for Wildwood Programs was cautiously optimistic. “Over an extended period of time, we may be able to add campers,” he said. “We’ve projected that over a five- to 10-year period, there might be a 20-percent growth factor, or something along that line.”
Bozenkill property slated for cluster development
One of the last two parcels of undeveloped land left in Altamont became slated for building in 2009. A cluster development of up to 35 single-family homes is being planned for the Bozenkill Road property. The property’s owner, Kenneth Romanski, said that the prices of the new homes would range between the high $200,000s and the low $300,000s, which “recognizes the changes in the market.”
In a cluster development, houses are grouped together on a portion of the available land, while reserving a significant amount of the site as protected open space.
Steven Parachini, chairman of Altamont’s planning board, said that, after seeing two concept plans in April, the board had requested revisions of the cluster development concept, which would allow for smaller lots for housing and half of the total property designation as green space.
“Environmentally speaking,” said Parachini, “the cluster development they’re proposing is something we’ve promoted in our recently revised laws. It allows for a lot more undeveloped land.”
The Bozenkill Road property was part of a debate during the 2008 restructuring of the village’s zoning laws. The committee that drafted the village’s new zoning had recommended the undeveloped property be given a multi-family designation but the village board zoned it for single-family occupancy instead. A multi-family zoning would have meant that condominiums or apartments could have been built on the site, which would have been in tune with the village’s comprehensive plan recommendations for more affordable housing in Altamont.
Griggs House restored
The current owners of the Hiram Griggs House had long-term preservation plans on their mind this year. They successfully pursued placing their Prospect Terrace home, which was the home of Altamont’s first mayor, onto the National Register of Historic Places on the centennial of Griggs’s death.
Owners John and Bridget Scally bought the late Victorian Italianate, across from the Agway, only two-and-a-half years ago from Stephen Shaw. While the Scallys credit Shaw with most of the ornate and precise exterior renovations, they took on the mammoth job of restoring the interior to its original form after 126 years of alterations.
The Scallys said they were thinking of the house’s long-term future when they decided to pursue placing the house on the national register. “With old houses, it’s such a shame when they are torn down,” said Bridget Scally. “Being on the National Register will prevent future owners from tearing this one down because we won’t be the owners forever.”
“We’re just the caretakers,” added her husband.
According to Travis Brown of the New York State Historic Preservation Office, Hiram Griggs, “embodied the term ‘town father.’” Among his many accomplishments was leading the village towards independence from the town of Guilderland after successfully convincing the voters of the importance of being responsible for their own fire protection and water problems.
Wi-Fi to come to Orsini park
Orsini Park in the center of the village will have Wi-Fi access this spring, thanks to a joint effort between the Altamont Free Library and Key Bank. Judith Wines, the library’s director, told The Enterprise that, once the infrastructure is set up in the spring, the park would have the only free public Internet access in the village.
“It’s more and more the province of libraries to provide that service, and we’re happy to do so,” she said. “From the library’s point of view, it seemed like an obvious extension of library services. We’re in the information provision business but we’re not open 24 hours a day.”
Wines said Key Bank not only provided $1,000 for the project, about half its cost, but that the antennas needed for wireless Internet, or Wi-Fi, would be located on the roof of the bank. The library is currently housed in the basement of the bank, but has plans to move to the other side of Orsini Park to the old train station, once it is restored.
Plans to fix aging sewers
While the village board first deemed the cost of fixing Altamont’s sewer problems as “astronomical and inappropriate,” it slowly came to terms during the last quarter of the year with the sobering reality of fixing infrastructure.
At its December board meeting, Richard Straut, engineer at Barton and Loguidice, submitted a proposal that would fix the twofold problem of village-wide pipe leaks and an aging sewer plant that, during heavy rain or snow, violates environmental laws by releasing polluted stormwater into the Normanskill.
The sewer project took on a tone of increased urgency after Trustee Christine Marshall announced to the board and public in November that the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation was considering issuing an order on consent to goad the village into fixing the inflow and infiltration problem.
The proposal, which has yet to be subjected to public comment, describes a 15-year $3.7 million plan that focuses on continuing, for the short term, to find the biggest leaks while upgrading the sewer plant, for the long term, through the year 2019.
Altamont is hoping for funding from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, part of New York’s Environmental Facilities Corporation, that entices states to improve or protect water quality by giving low- interest loans and some grants. The fund has already allotted $800,000 in the form of a subsidized long-term loan with an interest rate of 2 to 2.5 percent, for Altamont to plug its leaking pipes.
Gaughan said the village would amend its formal application to include the much-larger cost of the sewer plant upgrade early next year.