Partners in Service

Rensselaer County is a great place to live and work, with natural beauty, vibrant neighborhoods and great quality of life. At tonight’s public forum, we heard from organizations that help in the mission of serving our residents, and safeguarding the qualities that make our county a special place.

Farming is an important part of our county’s heritage. To help ensure farming has a strong future, the county partnered with the Agricultural Stewardship Association. The ASA helps secure funding to protect farmland and open space, and the partnership came about at the urging of Majority Leader Ken Herrington. Approximately 3500 acres of farmland and open space have been protected thanks to this effort, and the ASA updated legislators on their work.

Legislators were also updated about the work by the county Soil and Water Management District by Soil and Water representative Nick Halford. Soil and Water encourages productive use of farm properties, controls erosion and protects public water resources, including the Tomhannock Reservoir, the main source of drinking water in the county.

Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rensselaer County has also aided farmers with programs like 4-H, and also provides nutritional programs and education. Bernadine Wiesen updated legislators on work by Cooperative Extension on Wednesday, and issues facing Extension. Cooperative Extension Director David Hawley recently announced his retirement from Cooperative Extension after serving over the course of three decades.

Legislators also heard from several law enforcement officials who have spent considerable time helping lay the groundwork for a upgraded county emergency radio system. And lawmakers also heard from Richard Haldeman, who leads the county’s Ombudsman program, which helps ensure care and safety for our seniors.

Thanks to our partners in service who took the time to meet with legislators and the public on Wednesday.

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A Constant Reminder

The events of the past several days remind us of the dangers faced regularly by our emergency services personnel.

In Boston, two firefighters died while responding to a fire at an apartment building. Lt. Edward Walsh and firefighter Michael Kennedy rushed into the burning apartment building believing there were people trapped, and were sadly overcome by fast-moving flames.

Yesterday, a police officer in Johnson City, New York, in the Binghamton area, was killed during a struggle with a man acting in a deranged and violent manner. Officer David Smith was a veteran police officer was attacked as he responded and shot with his own gun following a struggle.

Reports note that Walsh and Kennedy were well-liked and respected in the Boston fire services, and active in the community. Smith was also a popular and respected officer in his department and area.

We join in mourning the passing of Lt. Walsh, firefighter Kennedy and Officer Smith. And we also pause to remember the service, and the daily dangers faced by our fire, police and emergency personnel.

 

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A Thank You to Dave Hawley

Rensselaer County has been proud to sponsor the county branch of Cornell Cooperative Extension. The Cooperative Extension of Rensselaer County has been a force for good in the county, supporting agricultural and farming efforts, providing education on nutrition and health, and organizing programs like 4-H.

Over the past three decades, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rensselaer County has been led by David Hawley, a soft-spoken Troy resident who has kept Extension focused during some challenging times. Dave has worked tirelessly to ensure adequate funding for Extension, fostered a strong partnership with the county and the community, and maintained traditional programs while introducing new initiatives.

The vibrancy and effectiveness of Extension in the county can be largely credited to Dave’s work and leadership. Sadly, Dave is leaving the organization he has led since 1995 for a new opportunity in New York State.

A veteran of the U.S. Navy, including several important missions and engagements, and active in the Naval Reserves, Dave will be taking an important position in the state Division of Military and Naval Affairs. We can hope Dave brings the same focus and effectiveness to his state position as he did during his nearly twenty years of service with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rensselaer County.

During his service with Extension, Dave supported efforts to recognize the enormous service and contribution of our veterans and their families. He also helped design the Meritorious Valor Pin presented to residents who have saved a life. At the March 11 legislative meeting, it was Dave’s turn to be recognized, with legislators unanimously adopting a resolution recognizing and thanking Dave for his service.

Our thanks and best wishes to David Hawley.

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Still Seeking Answers on Rate Increase

In late February, I wrote about the Rensselaer County Legislature asking for a review by New York State of a sharp increase in electricity rates. We had received many calls from residents and businesses concerned about a costly hike in electric costs, coming during a tough winter and a prolonged economic downturn. A resolution was adopted by the Legislature at the February legislative meeting requesting a review of the rate increase by the state Public Service Commission.

The winter has seemingly gone on and on, and residents have continued to express their concern over the jump in electricity rates. Customers have said that in some cases, their bills have doubled.

Those concerned about the increase in electricity rates now have a powerful ally on the scene. Congressman Chris Gibson, who represents much of Rensselaer County in the 19th Congressional District, announced Wednesday that he is also asking the state PSC for an explanation of the rate increases.

The timing of the rate increase, occurring during a long and colder than normal winter, has prompted much of the concern. Residents deserve a full explanation as to the reasons for the increase. They also deserve assurance that in the future, as residents and customers are dealing with a tough winter and difficult economy, that rates will not climb to an unaffordable level. And most of all, customers deserve an explanation as to when a sharp rate increase believed to be a temporary condition of an especially cold winter will be rolled back.

We join Congressman Gibson in awaiting an explanation.

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Mandated to Lower Taxes

There is a growing chorus, on both sides of the political aisle, for reform of unfunded state and federal mandates. Expect more discussion with a gubernatorial election and races for various state offices during 2014. New York is one of a handful of states in the union to require counties to pay a portion of the costs for services required by Albany or Washington. In our state, the common level for a county share of mandates is 25 percent.

Mandates are generally used to cover costs for social and health services, along with costs for certain public safety and correctional services. Counties have virtually no say in how and to what extent mandated service are provided, and less say when the bill is handed for payment by county taxpayers.

Advocates for reform of mandates note a comprehensive reduction of mandates would position counties to make substantial reductions in property taxes. That would definitely be welcome news for taxpayers dealing with a tough economy, particularly in upstate.

There have occasionally been detractors who ask what the benefit for taxpayers would be if mandates are reduced. Would mandate reform simply be a cost-shift from county to state, with no real benefit to taxpayers?

As discussion  of mandate reform again moves to the forefront with the race for governor, I believe there should be detailed discussion of the benefits for taxpayers in the event mandate reform becomes a reality. The Rensselaer County Legislature has adopted resolutions advocating for a “Reverse-Mandate”, in which any savings from a mandate reduction would be returned directly to taxpayers. If the state has the power to increase mandates, the state certainly has the power, with the help of local government, to ensure a reduction in local property taxes if mandates are reformed. Make mandate reform a reality, and make property tax reductions also a reality.

 

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Remembering Ed’s Work

The centerpiece to County Executive Kathleen Jimino’s 2014 State of the County address delivered at the March 11 legislative meeting was the announcement that a new purchaser had been found for the former Fort Orange Paper Company plant in Castleton. The Fort Orange Paper Company was a major source of employment and opportunity for generations in southern Rensselaer County until it was closed suddenly about 15 years ago.

The late Ed Swartz, a legislator who served as a representative of District 4, towns of Schodack, Sand Lake and Nassau, played a major role in getting the property ready for new owners. When the property was essentially abandoned, there was some level of contamination discovered on the property. The contamination was a deterrent to the site being utilized for new uses by new owners.

Ed spent great amounts of time working to enlist the help of the federal Environmental Protection Agency to undertake a clean-up of the property. Ed’s persistence paid off, and EPA cleaned-up about half of the property, helping position the site for future use. That work paid off in some ways with the purchase agreement between the county and MiniMill, who will develop a new paper mill on the site.

Majority Leader Ken Herrington remembered Ed’s contributions to the project with comments during the March 11 meeting. Ken’s comments:

“I think it is appropriate to recognize the important role played in this project by someone who is not here with us tonight.

For years, in the early part of the last decade, Legislator Edward Swartz worked very hard to keep the Fort Orange property in the public consciousness. He remembered the days when Fort Orange ran three shifts a day and employed hundreds in his home town.

Ed took it upon himself to encourage the federal Environmental Protection Agency to begin a clean-up of the Fort Orange property. Thanks in large part to Ed, and resolutions adopted by this body, over half the property was cleaned-up.

So tonight, I think it is fitting to recognize the efforts of Ed to return Fort Orange to active use, and to once again employ residents of this county. We remember and Ed’s work and recognize that work played a role in the resolution we are adopting.”

 

 

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Progress on Fort Orange

For generations, the Fort Orange Paper Company was a source of employment and opportunity for those living in Castleton, southern Rensselaer County and surrounding areas. Those days may be returning.

Fort Orange can trace roots back to before the Civil War. For decades, the plant prospered on a large industrial complex on State Route 9J. Sadly, that ended when the plant was closed about 15 years ago, leaving the site vacant and unused.

That period of inactivity seems to be ending. At the Tuesday, March 11 legislative meeting, the County Legislature approved an agreement for the purchase of the property with MiniMill, which manufactures paper and cardboard products. The county took control of the property after a period of time following the abandonment of the property.

MiniMill is expected to create 70 to 80 jobs at the plant. There are also hundreds of construction jobs expected to be created as part of a multi-million dollar construction project.

The agreement was reached by County Executive Kathleen Jimino’s office with work by her County Economic Development office, village officials and some legislators. The late Ed Swartz played a key role in helping clean-up the property starting a decade ago, after some minor contamination was found. We will detail Ed’s efforts in a future post.

The team work, and years of effort, appear to be paying off. The Fort Orange property has been a vital part of the county for years, and it is exciting that the property is poised to return to active use in the coming months.

 

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