Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Is there a comprehensive plan?

This opinion piece appeared in the Townsman, December 24 edition.

We take pleasure in answering at once and thus prominently the communication below, expressing at the same time our great gratification that its faithful author is numbered among the friends of The Townsman:

DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no comprehensive plan for Woodstock. Papa says, 'If you see it in THE TOWNSMAN it's so. Please tell me the truth; is there a comprehensive plan?

115 Fairy Rainbow Lane

DEAR VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong and frankly a bit naive. They have been affected by the cynicism of a cynical age, or just too many veggie burgers. They do not believe except what they read in the letters section of a local paper. They think that nothing can be which is not downloaded from FaceBook or the town website. All minds, Virginia, whether they be geezers's or children's, are conflicted. In this great town of ours man is a mere NIMBY, a small activist in his classified 210 residential, as compared with the boundless, unsubdivided world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole real estate potential of our community.

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a comprehensive plan. It exists as certainly as rules concerning land use and planning board fees exist, and you know that they abound in Woodstock and give to your life its quality of life, conservation easements and open space. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no comprehensive plan. It would be as dreary as if there were no future property taxpayers named VIRGINIA. There would be no regulations then, no SEQRA, no ZBA variances to make tolerable this existence. We would never have environmental impact statements stuffing the Town's files or judges' chambers. The eternal meetings and public hearings and zoning laws which fills Woodstock would be extinguished.

Not believe in a comprehensive plan! You might as well not believe in cell service for the western end of town! You might get your papa to hire men to watch all the channel 23 broadcasts to catch the Woodstock town board's land use subcommittee discuss ad nauseam the comprehensive plan, but even if they did not see the Woodstock town board's land use subcommittee stagger into its fourth year no closer to a finished document than you are to turning eighty years old, what would that prove? Nobody really looks at comprehensive plans except lawyers, planners and developers, but that is no sign that there is no comprehensive plan. The biggest bites in the neck in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see aquifer protection or a practical buried fuel tank report? Of course not, but that's no proof that they are not there, at least in an executive summary. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders in the world that idle for more than five minutes, although some members of the town board sure try.

You may tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world, which not the strongest zoning code enforcement officer, nor even the united strength of all the strongest zoning code enforcement officers that ever lived, could tear apart. Only attorneys, litigious terms, subsections of the law, violation notices, subpoenas, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No comprehensive plan! Thank goodness! it drags on and on, and it will drag on forever with DRAFT DOCUMENT blazoned across its cover page. A thousand meetings from now, VIRGINIA, nay, ten times ten thousand meetings from now, it will continue to keep the glad hearts of Woodstock town board land use subcommittee members awake past midnight.

With apologies to Francis Pharcellus Church.

Cable Franchise

This article appeared in the Townsman, December 24 edition

Woodstock, December 16, 2008

With little else settled at its December 16 meeting, the Woodstock town board staked an aggressive agenda for the coming winter months, scheduling a public hearing on January 16 on the renewal of the cable franchise agreement with Time-Warner cable company, and re-opening the public hearing February 10 on the proposed amendment to the zoning law regulating development near wetlands, water courses and water bodies. There will also be a special meeting on either January 5 or 12 for a discussion concerning the update to the town's comprehensive plan. The year-end meeting is scheduled for December 30 at 5:00 pm at the Town Offices, and annual organizational meeting is scheduled for January 6.

Woodstock has been without an updated cable franchise agreement since 1996, when the ten-year agreement that had been signed in 1986 expired. Since then the cable franchise has been automatically renewed annually with the 1986 provisions stipulated to. The cable television industry has expanded services considerably in this time to include internet and telephone services, pay-for-view sales and music services, to list just some of the many additions.

The 23 page proposed renewal is 90% boilerplate, describing the company's obligation with respect to transparent billing, accessibility for hearing complaints, time periods to address complaints and service installations, refunds for lapsed service, liability, construction standards and myriad other matters, most of which are mandated by the Federal Communications Act of 1996 and/or New York State regulations. While the franchise is not exclusive, it does contain a provision requiring the Town to not grant a franchise to other companies with more lenient terms.

Most pertinent to Woodstock are provisions relating to extension of service area, franchise fee (which hinges on the definition for "gross revenue"), and the public and education access channels.

In 1998 the town board hired Washington DC consulting company Rice-Williams, which substantially created the document under consideration. Although presented to the public two or three times earlier this decade and tweaked here and there it was never adopted.

Despite the limbo, Time-Warner installed a complete fiber-optic system replacing the old co-axial cable, making Woodstock in 2001 one of the first communities in Ulster County to have access to high speed internet by cable. Also, areas of the town, including Riverby, Vincenses Lane, the area around Yankeetown Pond and other pockets saw service extended to them.

Cable companies, by federal law, must extend service to areas that contain a minimum of 35 potential hook-ups per mile. The agreement under consideration reduces that minimum to 20, creating the likelihood of service extended to less densely developed areas not currently served, such as MacDaniel Road, Hutchin Hill and the farthest extensions of Mink Hollow and Silver Hollow, to name a few.

Municipalities may impose a franchise fee of up to 5% of the company's gross revenue, which Woodstock has since at least 1986. The cable subscriber pays the fee in his or her monthly bill to the company, which then remits the sum to the Town on a quarterly basis. Last year Woodstock's general fund received $110,000 from the cable subscribers.

Gross revenues, in the proposed document, include all revenue derived directly or indirectly by Time-Warner from the operation of its system within the township, and include, but are not be limited to, amounts for the Basic Service tier, cable programming Service Tiers, pay per channels and pay per view services, music services, video on demand, converter rental, subscriber installations and transactions, leased access, advertising, and equipment rentals. Gross Revenues shall not include excise taxes, late fees, bad debt or any other taxes that are imposed on Time-Warner or any subscriber by any governmental unit and collected by Time-Warner for such governmental unit. Gross subscriber revenues shall include revenue from cable modem service to the extent these services are deemed a cable service by applicable federal or state laws or by a court of competent jurisdiction binding upon the Town and Time-Warner Cable. As of now federal and state laws do not allow cable modem service fees to be considered as a part of gross revenue, which means subscribers with internet or phone service do not pay the 5% franchise fee.

If history is a guide, most of the town board's attention will be focused on the provisions relating to education and public access channels. Federal law mandates Time-Warner to provide a channel for each, and although Woodstock's channel 23 is an entity well known to the community, the education channel 20 has not been, at least in Woodstock.

This is not longer the case, since the towns of Hurley, Olive and Shandaken now share an active education channel with content provided by the Onteora School District, which encompasses the aforementioned towns, as it does a large part of Woodstock. Ironically, it was a Woodstocker, former councilman Gordon Wemp who originally conceived the idea for a single education channel to serve the Onteora school district, and who then got the support of the Onteora school board. Shortly afterward the Large Parcel brouhaha burst over the district, and the idea lay dormant until recently. The reason the three towns, but not Woodstock, have the service is because they formally renewed their respective franchise agreements with Time-Warner. Channel 20 broadcasts on a daily basis updates with regard to closings, meeting schedules, student productions and other district matters of interest. There are now Woodstock parents and students feeling left out, and this is perhaps the impetus for the town board scheduling its public hearing.

What may frustrate those anxious for the education channel is the argument that if the town board were to be "tough" with Time-Warner then the local public access channel could receive significant funding directly from the company to upgrade its facility and finance personnel for its operations. These contentions have been raised in the past, and most likely will be raised again despite the fact that in all these years the proponents of such notion have not shown one instance of another community the size of Woodstock receiving such largesse from its cable service provider. By some of the comments made at the meeting it appears some members of the town board, nevertheless, seem inclined to the "tough" tactic in negotiation and it is likely a consultant will be engaged.

The January 16 public hearing will be held at 8:00 pm at the Community Center.

Jerry Gilman

This article appeared in the Townsman, December 24 edition

Woodstock, December 21

Despite the tremendous snowstorm making roads almost impassable there was a large gathering for the service for Jerry Gilman at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation temple on Sunday, December 21, Rabbi Jonathan Kligler officiating. Gilman died in his home in Shady the previous Wednesday. Those anticipating a somber occasion would be surprised; Gilman before he died had not only selected the names of those to speak at his service, he also insisted on a celebratory theme.

Brian Hollander and Leslie Gerber, who worked for Gilman when he and his wife Sasha blazed the WDST (100.1 FM) radio station trail back in the 1980s, told stories reveling in Gilman's foibles and idiosyncrasies, but also conveying deep love and respect for the man who had given them their opportunities. Gerber went so far as to call Gilman "a pain in the ass" and "a curmudgeon," but again with affection that far outweighed other memory of a man known to be highly literate and neither a small taskmaster nor a sufferer of fools. Former WDST employee Betty MacDonald paid tribute with a moving jazz composition on violin. Terrie Rosenblum paid tribute to her friend of several decades with a very amusing reminiscence of Gilman antics.

His daughter Julie, perhaps to be expected despite her father's command for levity, issued a moving tribute to a loving father.

All the speakers as part of their narrations told of a caring mentor, a generous friend, a scathing wit and a man possessed of bravery and integrity. He was also said to be quite fond of bulldogs, and Winchester was cited as the latest of a long line.

Gilman's wife of 54 years, Sasha, his daughter Julie, and two grandchildren survive him. A son, Michael passed away earlier this decade.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Jay, And Other Low Hanging Fruit

December 24, 2008

Hey Reader, no doubt you saw councilman Jay Wenk’s latest letter to a local paper (not the one I work for, sadly). Here it is:

Dear Editor,
The article in last week's issue on the Elna proposal needs some fleshing out. Firstly, there is absolutely no question that some of our employees and departments are working in unsafe and dangerously crowded conditions. There was an impromptu motion made at our meeting last Tuesday to move ahead with the Elna project and I want to list my reasons for voting no. This problem has been in existence for a long, long time, and the previous Town Board headed by Jeremy Wilber moved ahead with a plan to rehabilitate the Town Hall. Bob Young was hired to do the architectural work. Well over $200,000 was sunk into that project, with no discernable gain; in other words, that money went into the toilet. Based on Young's estimate for the job, the Town had a referendum to raise the money but the actual cost was about 40 percent higher than the estimate. Remember that Wilber was the one who ignored a Town appointed siting committee for the cell tower and also made a contract with JNS that cut the Town out from significant funds. On a walk through at Elna, I mentioned to Young that the building was huge, cavernous and out of scale with our needs. He responded that many of the employees' demands were "bloated."
I expect to avoid past mistakes and oversights. I don't have confidence in Bob Young to do what we need to do. I'm not in favor of removing a valuable tax-paying building from the rolls. While it may pan out that Elna is the right place, if not some other place or project, I will need some other consultants to advise the Board. I am looking forward in the very near future to having expert opinion come in. This situation can and will be resolved by the present Board, without resorting to impromptu motions to vote for old failures.

Jay Wenk

Jay’s first response, made at the December 16 town board meeting, to what he described as “absolutely no question… some of our employees and departments are working in unsafe and dangerously crowded conditions” was much more direct: “Something must be done but I don’t know what.”

This second response, made after what had to have been some deep thinking contains soft, even poignant digressions. Yes, it’s like Old Pappy, you remember him, after he took out his teeth and lit a pipe and not let facts importune his fuddled stream of memory.

The “previous” town board spent just under, not “well over” $200,000 in preparing a detailed plan for the Town Hall renovation. It is still an obscene amount of money, no question, but planning for municipal projects is never cheap (for instance, how many of you perform environmental assessments before you renovate?). The expenditure included engineering and architectural services to be rendered during the actual renovation. The expenditures were approved by unanimous consent of the town board.

The “previous” town board projected a cost of $1.6 million, financed by a $1.45 bond and $150,000 cash on hand.

About three hundred residents, who cared enough --about a 7% turnout, -- came out to vote in December 2007. A little over 60% approved the plan.

The new town board waited until March to put the project out to bid.

The bids came back with a $2 million tab. This is called a “cost over run.” Almost every municipal project of any significance runs into one. Our last example was the highway garage.

The new town board got the bids whittled down to $1.8 million.

The new town board could have (with a minimum of 3 votes) adopted a resolution raising the $1.6 cap to $1.8, subject to permissive referendum. This is what the “previous” town board did with the highway garage. Had the new town board done so by about this time we would have a renovated Town Hall.


The new town board did adopt Jay’s a no-idling resolution, and act of supreme irony.

Perhaps embarrassed by his very small accomplishments in his year on the board, Jay chooses to find fault with the “previous” one. He barely disguises his desperation. Thrown into the turmoil of “some of our employees and departments… working in unsafe and dangerously crowded conditions,” and the expectation that he do something about it, Jay, with a more than passing resemblance to Bush, pops us with “Remember that Wilber was the one who ignored a Town appointed siting committee for the cell tower and also made a contract with JNS that cut the Town out from significant funds.”

Yes, Wilber, he of the "previous" town board!

This is oddness to a level even extreme by Woodstock standards. It’s like someone promising to talk about grapes, when all of a sudden a big casaba pops out of his mouth.

He is talking about Liz Simonson’s recommendation to build a cell tower at the old dump, a lovely idea that dead-ended on the realization that not one single carrier would put an antenna on a tower in that location (apparently bears and deer don’t use cell phones). Ask Liz. With respect to the tower built on California Quarry, which did not cost the Town one penny to build, he forgets (Jay’s forgetfulness is truly something to be concerned with) that the planning board mandated a tower design that cost the builder much more money to erect, and so yes, the Town gave up its share of the revenue for the first five years.

Maybe what Jay is really saying is the “previous” town board did something and should be ashamed of themselves, and the new town board, which has done nothing should be praised for it.

Old Pappy, after he took out his teeth and lit up the pipe would think like this.

By the way, don’t you just adore Jay’s use of “firstly”? It sits out there like Pappy's teeth in a jar because even after the most thorough, forensic search of his soft, poignant letter one cannot find “secondly,” or as Jay might put it, “secondarily.”

More Wenk Works

This opinion piece appeared in the Townsman, December 18 edition

Woodstock councilman Jay Wenk, in chastising the "previous town board" for not taking a stance against the Patriot Act or on articles of impeachment against President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, now makes it perfectly clear why he is unable to recall who it was from the Committee For Woodstock's Future that had cut him a check for $1000 in apparent violation of New York State election law; the man has simply gone dotty.

To refresh Jay's memory: the previous town board not only took a stance against the Patriot Act, in 2002 it even went so far as to instruct the library, police department and justice court to defy its provisions (they declined). The town board not only impeached Bush once, it impeached him twice (the second time to include Dick Cheney, and if only congress had listened Dennis Hastert, who at the time was Speaker of the House, would be in the White House as you read this). This is two times more than Maurice Hinchey, the New York State legislature and the United States Congress had impeached Bush. Sadly, it is probably less than half the times that the New Paltz board of trustees and the Ithaca city council had taken the brave stances. Get the picture?

And so that you know what a terrific "previous town board" it was, it even took a stance against starting the war in Iraq, and a couple of years later took a stance demanding that we get out of Iraq.

I abstained or voted no on every single stance, but they still passed, and a ton on postage was spent mailing the town board's stances to half the world. I took the position, roundly ridiculed by the smart set, that the town board should concern itself with fixing potholes and keeping a lid on property tax. Of course, people who know me will tell you that I love repression, adore war, and am simply ga ga over Bush.

Whatever my reasons for abstaining or voting no, the town board's reasons for voting yes ranged from sincerity to pandering, but it didn't impact the town budget, except for that wasted postage, so I didn't really care. (The Town never received even a letter of acknowledgment from any of the individuals or institutions instructed to void the Patriot Act, stop the Iraq war and impeach Bush.) If Woodstock town board members must put on a Senatorial hat to feel Important, so be it, I thought.

As Jay Wenk also may perhaps have forgotten, last April 8 the new town board continued a tradition of visions of grandeur by taking a stance urging the government of the People's Republic of China to honor the Dalai Lama's request for negotiations on the status of the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Go to the town clerk's office, ask for the minute book and read the resolution yourself. Below is its preamble:

"Whereas the Dalai Lama of Tibet has a bond of kinship with the town of Woodstock and has made a personal visit to our community and has solidified that bond of kinship, and;

"Whereas international media and rescue organizations and democracies worldwide have called this oppression cultural genocide, and;

"Whereas some of those protests have ended in violent and deadly clashes resulting in a high death toll, and;... " etc.

I know you think I made that up, so go read it yourself. It is what happens when little town boards think they're great white sharks and try to bite off these big, horrible issues that rage throughout the world. It's very sweet and all, but really.

Having a forgetful member like Jay who can't even remember who gave him $1000 to run for public office makes it much harder to deal with the world's huge, ghastly matters. Now the town board is contemplating joining Liz Simonson's odd alliance with Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich (referred to in the 72 page indictment for corruption as ROD BLAGOJEVICH) in a diatribe against Bank of America for not extending a loan to a failing Chicago business and thereby costing two hundred workers their benefits and severance pay.

I hesitate to take issue with Liz on this because, as she will remind you again and again, she once worked for Penny's (it's been almost twenty years now), which is a BIG CORPORATION, and she knows more about finance and management than you or I ever will. For instance, one of her rules is to be the town board member with the record for number of times not auditing the Town's bills (again, minutes book, town clerk's office).

I'm just a little fuddled by Liz's logic; I thought we were mad at the banks because they made bad loans to people who can't repay them and now the whole financial system is so screwy that the U.S. government, that shining paragon of financial prudence, has to take it over. Now, according to Liz, we're supposed to be mad at Bank of America because they wouldn't make a bad loan to a Chicago business that had the likes of ROD BLAGOJEVICH standing up for it?

Like I said, Liz once worked for Penny's. When she suggested the Town move its money to either Rondout or Ulster Savings she had to be told, after eleven years on the town board, that municipal funds can only be deposited in commercial, not savings banks, and that excluded her two candidates. Jay, had he not gone so dotty, might have recalled this regulation from his first term on the town board (1990-1993) and spared Liz the embarrassment of having to find out from councilwoman Terrie Rosenblum, who has been on the town board for eleven months.

Well, big deal. Whatever bank they stash the money, so what as long as the level of service and interest rate are at least the same as Bank of America's, and it doesn't try to sell us a home equity line of credit? And if the bank is in Kingston or Saugerties, who cares whether the town clerk and the bookkeeper have to drive there every day to deposit town funds? Gas is a lousy $1.88 these days.

Just don't let Jay do it. He'll never find his way back.

Woodstock Town Board Meeting, December 16

This article appeared in the Townsman, December 18 edition

Despite pleas from employees to address deplorable working conditions at both the Town Hall and the Comeau municipal building, the Woodstock town board by a vote of 3-2 turned down a resolution offered by councilwoman Terrie Rosenblum and seconded by supervisor Jeff Moran to expend $15,500 to engage the services of an engineer and architect to draw up specifications to help estimate with some degree of accuracy the cost of renovating the Elna Ferrite building. Without such information it is hard to see how the board will proceed. The matter was completely dropped after the vote, and the board moved on to other business.

At this time last year Woodstock voters approved a bonding resolution that would have financed a renovation to the Town Hall at a cost then estimated at approximately $1.5 million dollars. Bidding, which did not take place until April of this year, produced numbers exceeding the project budget by more than $200,000. In the meantime, the owners of the Elna Ferrite building in Bearsville near the new firehouse announced their intention to vacate the building and put it up for sale. Its approximately 17,000 square feet plus ample parking, as opposed to the Town Hall's approximately 11,000 square feet and cramped parking offers a far better solution to Woodstock's long history of inferior municipal facilities, in the opinion of almost all the employees working in the Town Hall and Comeau office building. At the urging of supervisor Moran the town board had inched toward tonight's dramatic showdown.

The meeting began with a video produced by Dion Ogust and town clerk Jackie Earley focusing on the sad and inefficient way town records are stored, showing image after image of town records moldering in basements and attics, and literally cascading off the shelves and every available surface in the planning office.

Earley described the Comeau office building as one "never intended for municipal purposes," and a facility just as unfair to the public who must access it as to the workers who must wend their way through file cabinets and cluttered warrens to perform their tasks. Years ago the Town installed lolly columns to support the weight of the burgeoning files, but cracks are still appearing throughout the building.

Marc Plate, the town assessor made a presentation based on the premise of purchasing Elna Ferrite for $860,000, which appeared to be a solid number compared with other sales in the area, and $636,000 for renovation and "soft" costs, which he admitted was pure guestimate. Adding the numbers together he determined an annual cost of about $0.09 per $1000 assessed value to the taxpayer to pay for a $1,496,000 bond spread over 25 years. The estimated $2,000,000 for the Town Hall renovation would be pennies more. He showed one scenario where the costs to purchase and renovate Elna Ferrite could be offset by sale of the Town Hall, which he thought might fetch anywhere from $1.37 to $1.65 million. Costs for the purchase and renovation of Elna Ferrite in that case would be negligible to possibly nothing if the higher estimate of sale price were attained.

In a procession quite familiar to Woodstockers, several town employees spoke to the board about their working conditions and the need to do something about them.

Town Justice Frank Engel discussed the "more dangerous world" we are living in, and efforts by the New York State Justice Court System to improve security for town justice facilities. People didn't know whether to laugh or cry when he reported that a metal detector provided by the state for no cost to the Town had to be returned because there was no space to in stall it. Justice Richard Husted pleaded with the board to keep an open mind with respect to the Elna Ferrite proposal. Court clerk Kathy Longyear discussed the dangerous situation of cars, including police vehicles, having to back onto Tinker Street, and recounted her own several near-misses with bikes and pedestrians.

Police Chief Harry Baldwin, speaking for the police department and emergency dispatch service, decried the extremely poor working conditions in the extremely small police department, and read a letter from its employees asking the board to go ahead with the Elna Ferrite proposal.

Chief emergency dispatcher Laurie Hamilton offered dramatic testimony to the dangerous proximity employees and members of the public have to criminal offenders, who are sometimes drunk, cursing, urinating and spitting just inches away from them. The Town's lock-up consists of a pair of handcuffs bolted to the wall right outside the dispatch office door.

The building department submitted a letter attesting to the poor condition of the Comeau building and urging the board to take action.

Last came Bob Young, the local architect assisting the town board, who projected a cost of $3500 for engineering and $12,000 for architectural fees to create the specifications for the Elna Ferrite renovation so that contractors could make accurate estimates of what renovation costs will be.

Discussion then ensued among the board, councilwoman Liz Simonson announcing she felt "fearful we might be in a bad economy." She felt that the proposed Elna Ferrite renovation should be considered in tandem with whatever final disposition of the Town Hall. To the idea that the Town Hall be sold she thought it vital the façade remain as it is.

Councilwoman Terrie Rosenblum felt that the dire circumstances just described by the employees demanded the board take immediate action. "Needs dictate that we move forward."

Councilman Jay Wenk felt it was "clear we do something, but I don't know what."

Councilman Chris Collins expressed his opinion the Town not sell the Town Hall, and in the meantime seek more public input with regard to the proposal to renovate Elna Ferrite.

Supervisor Moran, maintaining that the current economy was actually the best time to move on a construction project, what with interest rates low and contractors hungry for work, outlined a plan that saw purchasing and renovating Elna Ferrite and moving the employees from the Comeau offices and Town Hall into it. With the Town Hall empty it would be cheaper to renovate it, and for much less money since no new offices would be necessary to construct, as envisioned in the original concept, but rather just a concentration on improving the envelope for energy conservation purposes. The same would be true with improving the Comeau office building. When the Town Hall was complete the functions conducted at the Community Center could be temporarily moved to it, and the Community Center then improved.

But his plan hinged on first purchasing and renovating Elna Ferrite. There ensued a circular discussion among the board that first called for more public input, followed by the argument that the public cannot make a judgment without knowing what the costs will be to improve Elna Ferrite, and that such costs can't be estimated without spending the $15,500 to draw up specifications, but this led right back to arguments for more public input before proceeding any further.

In frustration Rosenblum, stating she was "tired of throwing stones in front of our own feet," put on the table the resolution to authorize the $15,500 expenditure, seconded by Moran, and shot down by Simonson, Collins and Wenk.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Idea For The Holidays

This opinion piece appeared in the Townsman, December 11 edition

Want to save money with your Christmas shopping, delight your friends and make history? Make your own Christmas card! If you think I'm kidding, put on your boots and coat and wrap a wool scarf around your neck and get into the freezing car and drive to the Woodstock Historical Society exhibit (up Comeau drive, on the right side just after the municipal parking lot). There you will see spread across four walls dozens of lovely greeting cards, some but not all created by artists well known to our area, many harking back several decades to that simpler era when all people worried about was the Depression, WWII and staring down the Russkies. It just shows you that a moment people had set aside each year to assert good will couldn't be suppressed.

While getting your materials together to make greeting cards (paper, scissors, ink) we can review how this seasonal assertion of good will got started. An obvious source is the Christian belief that "Christ's mass" celebrates the birth of Jesus. It is perhaps coincidental that the pre-Christian world had already a long tradition of celebrating the winter solstice at around the same time of year, the winter solstice being that suspenseful moment when the sun's appearance in the sky begins to gradually lengthen rather than steadily shorten. It is also perhaps coincidental that the Maccabbes' victory over Antiochus, which caused the annual celebration of Chanukah (this year beginning December 22), occurred near the time of the winter solstice. If there is a great difference between celebrating Power of Faith and the Prince of Peace, certainly there is unity in the idea of being deliriously happy that the sun won't sink under the horizon forever, especially with home heating fuel costing what it does.

Hundreds of years after the Nativity passed before the advent of the Christmas party. Charlemagne and William the Conqueror both chose Christmas Day for their coronations, perhaps starting the trend.

In 1377 King Richard II of England threw a Christmas party where twenty-eight oxen and three hundred sheep were gobbled up. Boy, I'd hate to have been the vegetarian at that table ('No thank you, just the boiled cabbage for me')! And just imagine some lady or lord with mutton dribbled all over their chops gobbing you under the mistletoe! Frankly, I think it would have been a good time to be Jewish and home lighting candles.

Some will say that George Washington showed a lack of holiday spirit by his Christmas attack on Hessian mercenaries in 1777. By this rash action the Father Of Our Country might have invented the 'party crasher,' and when your smelly, old Uncle Walford shows up unexpectedly at the door just as you're serving up the roast oxen for your Christmas party dinner, remember that he probably thinks he's only being patriotic.

The present-giving thing, when did this all start? Some will tell you it began with the Three Wise Men, Balthazar, Melchior and Caspar, presenting gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus. Despite the denial of every Chamber of Commerce in the world, most people wandering through a mall on Christmas Eve trying to find something for their smelly Uncle Walford harbor a wish that the Nativity story had been silent on this matter. Well, too late. Charlemagne and William did their best by giving a present of a big, gold crown to themselves, but the idea didn't catch on, and the Western world's Christmas season has ever since become one mass of shopping for others. If you have grown up listening to people gripe about how "commercial" Christmas has become, in Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1850 book "The First Christmas in New England", there's a character (smelly Uncle Walford?) griping that the Christmas spirit was "drowned in a shopping spree." Want to feel even worse? Economic analysts calculate that Christmas shopping causes a huge "deadweight loss." Dead weight loss is the difference between what the giver spent on the gift and what the gift receiver would have paid for it. Supposedly, the loss is several billions of dollars every Christmas. Well, as they say, get over it.

In case you're wondering, President Ulysses S. Grant declared Christmas a federal holiday in 1870. For those of you who enjoy a total non sequiter, Grant was 47 years old when he became president in 1869, the same age Barak Obama will be this coming January 20th. This may become relevant if President Obama decides to make October 26 a national holiday (the day the Chicago White Sox won the World Series in 2005).

Okay, you've got out your paper, scissors and inks to make Christmas cards, but don't know where to begin. Again, I urge you to visit the Woodstock Historical Society's exhibit, because you are sure to get an inspiration. (The museum will be open from noon until four pm this Saturday, December 13.) While you're at it, stroll through the village. The Guild has its annual "5 by 7" exhibit of works by local artists executed on (you guessed it) five inch by seven inch canvasses. The Woodstock Artists Association & Museum and the Fletcher Gallery are filled with tremendous works. When you are finished, be sure to notice that the shopkeepers have again done a wonderful job decorating for the holiday. Don't forget to wander off the main drag and catch the fabulous new photography show of works by Douglas Ethridge at the Galerie BMG on Tannery Brook Road.

You'll not only get great ideas for greeting cards, but you'll be reminded of what a terrific little town we have. Also, with all that money you'll be saving making your own cards you'll have a few bucks left over to get something special for that Special Someone, deadweight loss be damned. Shop local. Noel and shalom.

Fire Commission Vote

This article appeared in the Townsman, December 11 edition

An unprecedented 505 voters, plus 21 absentees participated in the Woodstock fire district election, held December 9th from the hours of 6:00 to 9:00 pm at the Company 1 firehouse in Bearsville. The candidates and observers had to wait until 10:10 pm for the ballots to be tabulated and results announced.

James Brunner narrowly won a third five-year term for commissioner over challenger James Hanson, final numbers coming in 247 Brunner, 242 Hanson. Three of the absentee ballots were yet to be certified due to uncertainty of their postmark, but seeing that even if they broke all his way he would still come up short, Hanson conceded the race to Brunner, shaking hands and congratulating him on the victory.

Michael Lourenso ran away with the race for the three year term with 263 votes over Steve Dallow's 220 and Duncan Wilson's 32.

Likewise Judy Peters swept past incumbent Karen Shultis for the fire district treasurer position, 280 to 212.

Brunner, generally noted for his laconic style, reacted to the result by observing, "Well, another five years."

Lourenso credited his victory to "a lot of hard work" and thanked voters for their support.

Peters said simply, "I am delighted."

For a race that generated much attention there had been little heat between the candidates. Howard Shultis, speaking for the fire district, captured the spirit by thanking all the candidates and voters for their participation. "This has been good for the community."

One wag commenting on the unusually high turnout said, "These fire district elections are getting to be like the library's."

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Snow Tires In Spring

This opinion piece appeared in the Townsman, December 4 edition

Oh boy, it's snowing, and I don't say 'oh boy' in that let's-get-out-the-sleds way, I say it in that where-are-those-darn-snow tires way. I am a great procrastinator, so while you're zipping down the road watch out for the guy ahead of you slip-sliding on both sides of the highway with his trunk bulging with snow tires on his way to the garage to get them put on; that's me. To add to everybody's peril, I won't even be thinking about the slippery road or Nature's intense effort to arrange our fender-bender. I'll be thinking about little league. The trick to being a good procrastinator is steady maintenance of Denial, and my way of getting through winter is to think about the coming spring. Thus, my vernal visions of the coming little league season.

My career as a little league manager began the usual way, signing my kids up in the minor league. Then I showed up at all the games and stayed. Then I helped the coach pick up the bases and gather the bats and do the detective work required to return the gloves strewn over the field to their respective owners. Next thing I knew the incumbent coach's kid aged out and I was left with the team (The Woodstock Meats Yankees, if you're curious).

For two seasons we waged battle against the Colonial Pharmacy Giants, the Bearsville Market Red Sox and the Sunflower Tigers. Toward the end of this stint I finally had been able to advance the players' from the perception that a position in the outfield was Nap Time to the belief that staying on one's feet was definitely required in baseball.

This astonishing accomplishment led to my advancement to the Big League, and assumption of the manager's role for the Blue Jays. A big leaguer, I found out, does not have to carry his sponsor's name on his back, and we were simply the Blue Jays. During the first season we battled against Chester Robbin's Indians, Lou Casciaro's Orioles and Mark Bailey's Cubs.

I would have had better luck managing against Leo Durocher. Lou and Mark had developed terrific teams, and Chester had fashioned a machine so well oiled and finely tuned that to this day I bow in reverence to the man. Make a long story short, the Blue Jays that year went 0-14. That's right, '0' as in 'oh hell, not again' for 14.

You would think half way through our drubbing that we'd start to feel depressed. You would be wrong. The Blue Jays fought like the Army of Northern Virginia did against its unspeakable odds. Unfortunately, I wasn't Robert E. Lee, so we never got even one Bull Run to celebrate.

The losing was all my fault. It began with the draft before the season had started. I picked my kid, a couple of his mates, all nine year olds, and then a whole bunch of big twelve year olds. Heh heh, I snickered to myself when none of my choices were challenged. Little did I know that in baseball, steroids be damned, size does not matter, and what I had assembled was a big team with little experience. This in itself may not have been a disaster, but coupled with my scanty knowledge of big league coaching we were dead ducks.

Oh my, the scores. 16-2. 22-4, 12-0. You get the picture.

The next year we came in second, and for two years after that we were the champions. But the team I will never forget is that 0-14 crew.

Not one of them gave up, dropped out or failed to show up for even one drubbing. The dugout, as it was in those days a mere bench in the sun, remained watchful, hopeful and even expectant through every game. Each batter approached the plate with the dignity of The Iron Horse, and took his position on the field with no less diligence and alacrity than Derek Jeter. There was no carping, no finger pointing, no scapegoating. They were truly a band of brothers. The whole world may have thought they were losers, but somehow the message never had gotten through to them.

The play-offs said it all. The rules stated the last place team played the first place team, which meant we played the Indians, who had not lost a game all season. The winner would advance to the championship game. By this time the other teams began looking at us like we were stupid for just showing up. Don't get me wrong, the other coaches taught sportsmanship and taught it well, and certainly showing respect to the losing team was part of it. But human nature, being what it is, one can't help but make the saddest face to an 0 for 14 opponent.

I sent my ace to the mound, which meant the plate was guarded by one of my nine year olds.

The climax of our season was the fourth inning. We led by two runs. By the next inning we were behind six runs, and our perfect imperfect season would soon be over, but in the fourth inning we were ahead by two runs. We all looked over to the Indian bench, and saw something we had never seen that entire season in an opponent; worry!

By golly, we had worried the Indians! So what if it had been for only five minutes? To the Blue Jays that fleeting moment was like winning the World Series.

The Blue Jays of that era are young men now, not only facing a winter but a world fraught with gloom and peril. The era that had tolerated my procrastination now lies under snow and a challenging, even daunting new era begins. I'd worry, except that I know there are people in this world capable of great fortitude. I had the privilege of coaching some of them.

Okay, my eyes are on the road now.

Dining on Memory Lane

This article appeared in the Townsman, December 4 edition

Long time locals will find themselves dining on memory lane when they patronize Woodstock eatery Oriole 9, now proudly hosting the magnificent Table Four, which was last seen by the public when the Bear Café changed ownership in the spring of 1980 (yes, when Jimmy Carter was still president).

Created from one piece of Peruvian mahogany by local master carver Jon Berg, Table Four, measuring approximately thirty inches by nine feet, was intended by the then owners of the Café, Bernard and Mary Lou Paturel, to replicate the medieval dining experience of eating at an immense table from wooden bowls. Of course, board of health regulations even then forbade the practice, and conventionally glazed oval plates filled the bowls Berg carved into the table. It still left plenty of room for carving the many roasts and stuffed fowls prepared in the town's most famous kitchen of that era. The table seats up to twelve people.

Berg, who died earlier this year, began his career apprenticed to Alexander Archipenko, then studied with Alfeo Faggi before a career noted for bas-reliefs focusing primarily on the female form and on flowers. Aside from this considerable body of work he also carved everyday subjects such as jackets and shoes, and fashioned numerous headboards, doors, room dividers and table tops, including the restored Table Four. Almost all his work was executed in mahogany.

Mary Lou, co-owner of the Bear Café through most of the 1970s, remembers, "At times Jon's children and mine with chisels in their little hands would carve and scoop out the wood for the bowls."

Mary Lou (Bernard died in France in 2004) recently gifted the owners of Oriole 9, Nina and Luc Moeys, her daughter and son-in-law, with the table. "For almost 30 years the table has been leaning against my mothers wall," Mary Lou explained. "It was such a thrill to dust it and oil it and put it back to use. We're enjoying remembering the people who sat at that table all those years ago."

Nina and Luc, the new proud owners of Table Four said, "The table is awesome and a must see. It's up to us to maintain its tradition as a setting for fine dining." The table is available by reservation for large parties.

Fire District Candidates

This article appeared in the Townsman, December 4 edition

Approximately 70 people interested in the upcoming Woodstock Fire District elections turned out for a meet the candidates forum held at the Woodstock Community Center and sponsored by the Woodstock Democratic Committee. Moderated by town supervisor Jeff Moran, the session got off promptly at 7:00 PM.

Incumbent James Brunner is being challenged by James Hanson for the 5-year term of fire commissioner commencing on Jan. 1, 2009 and ending on Dec. 31, 2013. Steve Dallow, Duncan Wilson and Michael Lourenso are seeking the remaining three-year term for the seat vacated by the death earlier this year of commissioner Billy Van Kleeck.

Incumbent Karen Shultis is being challenged by Judy Peters for the three-year district treasurer seat.

The hour and one half proceeding took place in the complete absence of rancor, and with one exception one had to look closely to find issues truly dividing the candidates, all of who possess strong qualifications for the positions they seek and have histories of volunteerism and involvement in the community.

All the commissioner candidates spoke of the dire state of volunteerism in the fire district, and the specter of huge costs to the tax payer should the fire department become professionalized. The average age of volunteers is past forty years old. All promised to do their best to come up with new approaches to encourage new recruits. "We can't just promise a tee shirt," as Dallow put it. A question from the audience concerned providing affordable housing for volunteers. Brunner thought it as a "great idea," but added it was the town board's responsibility. Lourenso thought it might help, but added that jobs in the area would be necessary as well. Wilson said that a program in Rockland County setting aside affordable housing for fire volunteers was "working excellently." All the candidates were willing to explore the idea.

With the 12% increase in the fire district levy for 2009, almost all of it attributable to the hiring of additional professional paramedics for the ambulance service, there was the question of whether to maintain the service as an arm of the fire district, which cannot charge a fee, or turn it over to the town, which can. Here differences emerged, with Hanson, Dallow and Wilson expressing qualified support to at least study the idea, while Brunner and Lourenso were less enthusiastic. Brunner pointed out that a bill stalled for four years in the New York State legislature if adopted would allow fire districts to charge for ambulance service, and called for its passage. He also pointed out, however, that a property assessed for $350,000 paid approximately $27 a year to maintain the service as it is, and that compared to the $400 now charged for a ride in an ambulance it seemed to him a "good insurance policy." Lourenso, a member of Company 5, which provides the emergency medical response service, said the service was "working fine" and that now was not the time "to throw away all that good training and the dedicated volunteers," and further stated that going to a professional service, even if it charged, would not save a lot of money for the tax payers. Hanson and Lourenso shared concern over the abrupt cancellation of service awards, modest retirement benefits based on years of volunteer service, for the volunteers who had worked for many years in Company 5.

Some questions alluded to tensions said to exist among the five fire companies that make up the district. Company 1, housed in the new facility in Bearsville, is 100% taxpayer funded, while Companies 2 through 5 are housed in facilities owned by the respective companies, who are responsible for their maintenance and improvements. The fire district makes an annual allotment from tax receipts to the companies as "rent" for housing the district's equipment. The companies have made up the difference with fundraisers, ranging from pancake breakfasts to annual bazaars, but lately these endeavors have not been very fruitful. "It takes a lot of pancakes to make $20,000," said Hanson, whose Company four in Zena recently had to make a costly repair to its foundation, and who called for "a new formula" in the distribution of funds to the companies. The commissioners budgeted $9000 to each fire company for the coming year; an increased sum to defray projected higher energy costs. To the question if the candidates could be unbiased toward all the companies in addressing their respective needs, all answered in the affirmative and nodded in agreement with Wilson's pledge "to stop problems before they grow."

A request for more detailed information to be posted on the web concerning the fire district budget met with general approval. Brunner reported that a recent New York State audit of the district's finances "came up good," and that the report was available for inspection. Peters and Shultis both promised to provide as much detail as possible. Brunner pointed out that the commissioners meet the second Thursday on each month (except January) at the Company 1 building, and encouraged the public to attend the sessions.

All the candidates promised to work for more transparency in fire district matters.

The election will be held on December 9 at Company 1 in Bearsville from 6:00 to 9:00 PM. If the unusual meet the candidates forum is any indicator the turnout should be high by fire district election standards.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving

This opinion piece appeared in the Townsman, November 27 edition

When I was a tad I remember finding out from a relative that her favorite holiday was Thanksgiving. Not Christmas? Not your birthday (I thought mine was a holiday until I was thirty or so)? No, she said, Thanksgiving. I had to know why. Because, she explained, it is a time when family gets together for no other purpose than to celebrate our good fortune and plentiful bounty.

It took me a while, but as I get brittle and slow and squinty and gray it becomes more apparent there is a lot to be said for a good, million course supper, even one where old aunt Tilly's turnip casserole makes its way to the table. But there must be more to Thanksgiving than good vittles.

How did this holiday get started? Well, like so many other things in our nation, it began with President George Washington, who in 1789 proclaimed:

"Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor, and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me "to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.

"Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be. That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks, for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation, for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his providence, which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war, for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed, for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted, for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.

"And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions, to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually, to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed, to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shown kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord. To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and Us, and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best."

It has been suggested that Washington got the idea from the Pilgrims. I don't know what their proclamation said, but no doubt it inspired some of Washington's sentiments. The Pilgrims narrowly escaped starvation; Washington narrowly escaped a British noose and the Nation narrowly escaped Taxation Without Representation. Certainly you noticed the religious nature of the Proclamation. Maybe Thanksgiving is meant to be a big Whew!

We live in a society where some worship an Almighty God, and others don't, where some support gay marriage and others don't, where some think Bush was a good president (okay, not many) and others don't, where some think Pete Rose deserves to be in the Hall of Fame and others don't. Each of these issues could tear a more fragile society apart; here we just shout and fuss and sue and petition and vote and then move on.

I'm really thankful for that. Have a great supper.

Woodstock Town Board Meeting November 18, Part II

This article appeared in the Townsman, November 27 edition

Two public hearings, one on adoption of a general code for the Town of Woodstock, the other on adoption of regulation of out-door wood burning boilers saw the adoption of the former and no vote on the latter.

Adoption of the general code for the first time combines and indexes all of Woodstock's local laws into one volume "logically arranged for convenient use." Prior to now, the Town's local laws and ordinances, ranging from alarm systems to zoning, lay in a file as separate documents. In the process of codification, which began almost three years ago, numerous local laws were updated and amended, including laws regulating solid waste, water and sewer districts, various commissions, animal control and tree preservation, to name a few. At least one ordinance, dating to the 1930s prohibiting the wearing of bathing suits on the main street, was tossed.

The code is available for inspection on the Town website ( and a hard copy is filed with the town clerk's office. The town board in the future will decide on a price for the volume for those who may wish to have their own hardbound edition.

The public hearing for the code raised barely a comment from the public, most likely because no new laws or regulations were contained in the body of the document. After closing the hearing and voting unanimously to adopt the code the town board received the appreciation of the town clerk, Jackie Earley. Earley, who has worked during her tenure to sort, organize and properly store town records, had persuaded the previous administration to allocate approximately $16,000 for the consultant, General Code of Rochester, New York, to assist in producing the document. "I really thank you for seeing this through," said Earley after the adoption of the code.

But matters were not so smooth for the proposal to regulate outdoor wood burning boilers. The proposed law, modeled on legislation adopted by the Town of Hurley, raised reservations on the part of David Boyle and Ronnie Spaziante that a useful utility could be regulated out of existence. Councilwoman Liz Simonson made the point that the law appeared to be a land-use regulation and therefore should be added to the zoning law rather than be adopted as a free-standing regulation. Supervisor Jeff Moran agreed with Simonson that the regulation might best be situated eventually in the zoning law, but warned the board that applications for outdoor boilers may soon be made and that a free-standing law was a faster remedy to the potentially unfettered proliferation of devices known in other communities to cause discomfit to neighbors. After some discussion the public hearing was recessed until further notice.

Resolutions to pay the monthly bills in the amount of $366,360 and authorize budget transfers were adopted with four votes and one abstention, Simonson again withholding her vote because she "didn't have the time" to personally inspect the manifest.

Councilman Chris Collins led off the committee reports with the offer to "be very brief" on his "superficial start" in his now three year endeavor to update the Town's comprehensive plan. Apparently discussions with councilwoman Terrie Rosenblum concerning the recent scheme to adopt the executive summary of the draft comprehensive plan, which had been substantially developed in 1999, were not conclusive enough to advance a serious proposal to the board.

Simonson announced that after several months she had finally successfully installed software purchased from the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives ("ICLEI"), and is now working with the assessor, Marc Plate, to supply the data that will disclose the carbon emissions of Town buildings. Simonson promised a report in a month.

Simonson also reported having a "pleasant talk" with C. Powers Taylor, owner of the three hundred foot tower on top of Overlook Mountain, which according to a legal opinion from the Town's land use attorney Drayton Grant is now illegal. Simonson, acknowledging that the tower had caused considerable consternation to the community when it was first built in the 1980s, now feels that after "twenty-five years it is what it is," and is hopeful that the facility will be useful in providing cell phone service to the western areas of the town not served by the tower on California Quarry. The Town has commissioned no independent study to substantiate claims that the tower would indeed provide such service. Simonson, who opposed the California Quarry tower that now services almost 80% of the Town's population and entire commercial district, reported that Taylor was "surprised" his tower wasn't used instead of the California Quarry site. Simonson reported that NEXTEL, a cellular service provider that had expressed an interest in the Overlook Mountain tower, is no longer an interested party.

Simonson chaired a committee that issued a report dated August 12, 2004 recommending Byrdcliffe as "the best" location for a cell tower, and failing that the former landfill as "an attractive site" for a cell tower, and nowhere in the report recommending Taylor's tower on Overlook Mountain. Simonson had led the charge in 1998 to amend the zoning law with a regulation that killed the possibility for a cell tower on Overlook Mountain. According to Town commissioned studies the Overlook Mountain tower would have left the entire commercial district in a dead zone for cellular service.

After hearing Simonson's report, supervisor Moran suggested that any contemplation of a cellular service provider being located on Taylor's tower should begin with a formal application to the building inspector.

The next scheduled meeting of the town board is for December 9th.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

A Master of Ceremonies

This opinion piece appeared in the Townsman, November 20 edition

Oh boy, where is this going?

No doubt, you have already received the following letter from your congressman:

Dear Constituent,

As you know we have hit some tough economic times. Revenues are down and expenses are continuing to rise. It is a time for potentially painful cuts in services. These cuts will not only affect you, but also the breadwinners who have been employed delivering services to you. These decisions are so painful to even contemplate that I cannot make them. Therefore, I am calling for the formation of a Finance Committee, made up of concerned citizens like you to make these decisions for me. In the meanwhile I will keep my salary and benefits, and be available for peace-pole celebrations and farm festivals.

Yours truly,
Congressman Slag

Okay, it's a joke.

What's not funny is that Woodstock may be in for a tough haul. Since June the town supervisor, Jeff Moran, has shouted that the revenues were drying up, but these warnings were lost in the din of several members of the town board handing out freebies to businesses that use town buildings, and to farm festivals that "require" tax funded traffic control. It has taken until now, on the very eve of adopting the 2009 budget for the message to sink in. Now those same members of the town board are shocked, shocked to find the taxpayer cupboard bare and a diminished opportunity to be NICE to everybody. It seems like just yesterday councilman Chris Collins was defending the proposition that the Town's buildings should be made available FREE to anybody. Fortunately, the Doctrine of Freebieism seems to be in retreat; unfortunately a Doctrine of Wishful Thinking seems to be hatching in the hopelessly nostalgic mind of councilman Jay Wenk, who recently made his second plea to make up revenue shortfalls with the sale of square inches of Woodstock. To give this splendid idea context, imagine President Obama in his first budget message to the congress offering up the idea of selling square inches of the United States as a revenue source!

There are some sane citizens among us, and I will quote sections from a very prescient letter sent by one to the town board. I'm going to keep his name out of this; it's hardly relevant.

Dear Town Board

The real impact of the evolving economic issues will not be felt until next year where it will significantly impact the 2010 budget. If 2009 turns out to be as difficult a year as many predict we may not have an unexpended balance to carry over into 2010. Using 2009 revenue and increase in expenditures without an unexpended balance, the town will have a revenue shortfall of $550,000, which would require at 19% increase in the tax rate.

The pension issue could potentially be huge. A shortfall in the state retirement fund brought on by the unprecedented fall in the stock market and other investments could result in a large increase on the town's pension costs. I urge you to look into this matter further since it may impact the town budgets for years to come starting in 2010.

We also know that energy prices though currently low will not stay down forever and may again be significantly up in 2010 or 2011.

Given the current uncertainties I ask you to consider carefully before adding any permanent positions to the town payroll. Plan not only for next year, but for the coming years. Here are some steps that could be taken

1.Institute a hiring freeze.
2.Place limits on PT and OT expenditures.
3.Take a sharp pencil to every line item and work to contain expenses in 2009.
4.Ask our employees and department heads where they feel we can reduce expenses and or which activities should be cut back or expanded.
5.Work with the town departments to develop a contingency budget of even deeper cuts to be instituted if the current economic conditions deepen and worsen.
6.Start a discussion as to where the town feels we can make changes and or what are the appropriate levels of town services. What services are essential and which are not.
7.Form a Financial Committee to implement the above and report periodically on the status of the town finances.

This thoughtful letter evoked the response from a town board member; I'll let you guess who:

"I believe that [the above letter] brings up some very pertinent points about long term financial oversight. I would personally like to serve on this team for the beginning and then if someone else wants to jump in and take my place that would be fine. I would love to have [the letter writer] help us if he is willing. I also have been approached by others who may be available."

Now then, dear reader, dare we ask; if the Woodstock town board is not the "financial committee" of the Town, what is? What does it mean when a town board member offers "to serve on this [financial committee] team for the beginning and then if someone else wants to jump in and take my place that would be fine?" We might also despair to find out that this town board member "approached by others who may be available" does not perceive this as an obvious, HUGE vote of no-confidence on that member's ability to rectify the Town's finances. If indeed the sole function of the town board is to dream of square inches and dispense freebies, and to avoid making hard decisions by fobbing them off on others, why do we even bother having local elections?

Think of the money we'd save if we didn't.

Woodstock Town Board Meeting, November 18

This article appeared in the Townsman, November 20 edition

Unanimous adoption of the 2009 budget was followed by hearty self-congratulations among some members of the town board, delighted that the initially proposed tax hike for the general fund had been reduced from 8.1% to 3.58%, and the proposed 6.7% increase in the highway budget reduced to 5.99%. Councilman Chris Collins was happy enough to distribute to each board member a "Cut The Fat" button.

Careful scrutiny of the general fund budget, however, took away some of the glow. By increasing medical co-pays from $10 to $20 dollars the board was able to shave almost $72,000 from the cost of insuring Town general fund employees (the highway budget saw a $11,000 trim). Also trimmed from the budget was $10,000 for legal fees (now $57,500), $2000 from purchasing (now $8000; this fund is used for office supplies), $1100 from police (now $887,750) $4034 from the building inspector's office (now $192,025; the savings comes from not paying the secretary who has worked in the building department for seven years the full salary for her upgrade to Building Inspector I), $4680 from Planning (now $67,639), and $2000 from shade trees (now $500), for a total trim of approximately $95,000. When all was said and done, however, the total expenditures reduced the tentative budget by only $40,370.

This was because added to the tentative budget were $9939 for sidewalks, $33,000 to cover engineering costs of improving the upper Comeau parking lot, and several small items, explaining why the overall cut ultimately comes to only about the $40,000.

The modest cut (.1%) to expenditures was aided by a $42,000 increased appropriation from the unexpended balance fund (from $389,000 to $431,000), and the appropriation of reserves established for repair to the landfill cap amounting to $56,500, a combined sum of $98,500 that single handedly reduced the proposed levy by 3.4%.

Problems, perhaps big or small lay ahead. According to the town clerk, Jackie Earley, none of the employees were advised of the changes in co-pays for medical services. Earley, a former shop steward for the Communication Workers of America union, which represents a clutch of Town employees, predicted extreme interest from the union on this matter. Several years ago the town board raised co-pays from $5 to $10 after consultation with union reps and employees, agreeing for the first year to reimburse the difference in costs and then phasing the payments out. No money has been appropriated for this in the 2009 budget.

Depending on how the economy behaves in the coming year, and particularly its impact on mortgage tax and sales tax receipts, will determine how delighted the town board will be next year with its "rainy day fund" (the unexpended balance) scraped to the bone and no repair funds to appropriate.

The town board had no response to the reminder that the landfill cap had eroded once already, which had led to the creation of a repair reserve in the first place. The money now will simply be appropriated to offset the general fund levy.

Councilwoman Liz Simonson, first priding herself for all the money crunching she performed as a Penny's employee almost twenty years ago, reminded the board that not a dime had been appropriated for costs associated with implementing the Comeau conservation easement (gestimates for the survey alone have ranged from $12,000 to $60,000), apparently goading Collins into a statement promising action "when the time comes," but not into his willingness to increase the budget. Although tensions have been visibly mounting between these two members up for re-election in 2009, they joined the rest of the board in the unanimous vote for the budget.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Fuss Budget

This opinion piece appeared in the Townsman, November 13 edition

This is now the eleventh annual town budget to include the participation of councilwoman Liz Simonson, and those of us attune to the goings on of the Woodstock town board find ourselves wishing for the sound of a stuck record instead of her flustering and blustering and posturing and flummoxing, which describe her annual dance for the benefit of taxpayers who pay her in excess of $8000 plus a generous health plan, and who seem to be completely satisfied by the performance. F Scott Fitzgerald got it wrong; there are second acts in America, and in Simonson's case third, fourth, fifth, sixth… you get the picture.

Every year it's the same tune, sung in that the-world-is-ending frantic staccato, but always with the same lyrics; "outside the box," "a new matrix," "lack of professionalism [on the part of others]," "this is a poor way [for others] to make a decision," and then the old standby, "when I worked in management in Penny's…"

The tune has been sung through two years of Tracy Kellogg's administration, eight years of mine, and now, like an ABBA song, it warbles into the Moran administration.

And like an ABBA song, it is awful, static, devoid of calories, predictable, but it's got that THUMP THUMP THUMP one simply cannot get out of their mind once it has insinuated itself in.

At the Monday meeting to discuss the proposed 2009 budget Simonson greeted the board with the declaration that she had been "too busy" to advance for discussion any ideas for lowering the proposed 8.5% tax increase, but that didn't mean she didn't come prepared with last minute policy changes that could not possibly be effected in time to make any difference to the 2009 levy. This is not to suggest that the proposals in themselves were inane - increasing co-pays in order to lower health insurance premiums is a serious proposal - but it involves engaging two unions in a negotiation and the rest of the Town's employees in a courtesy discussion. But it was a nice move; anyone looking from the outside would have to think, "my goodness, what a thoughtful councilwoman that Simonson is." They forget she had ALL YEAR to work this proposal.

Is she saying she didn't know until now that sales tax and mortgage tax receipts were nose-diving? You, gentle reader, have known this since last summer when I reported in this space that revenues were drying up, and that unless there was some serious tinkering the property tax was going to hike. Perhaps Simonson doesn't read my column, but how else to explain the so un-ABBA like looks I get from her? Anyway, if I knew, and you knew, it's hard to believe she didn't, unless, of course, she was "too busy" to read the monthly revenue reports that showed receipts practically falling off the page.

But the Monday meeting was a splendid performance nonetheless. She managed to insult councilman Chris Collins ("You don't understand how to make a decision [regarding the budget]") and she got poor Jay Wenk twisted in a pas de deux that had him say on the one hand the two-man water/sewer departments should have four employees, but on the other hand vote against the proposal to raise the staff from two to three. ABBA music does this to people.

Last year Simonson NEVER EVEN SHOWED UP at the public hearing ("too busy" perhaps) for the 2008 budget.

Three years ago she voted against the budget because it was "too high." She had made not one proposal to decrease the budget. It was "too high," and that was all there was to it. As a courtesy, I persuaded the board to rescind our resolution adopting the budget, and voted on it again. This time the board, including me, voted it down. It meant that the '06 budget would revert to the tentative budget, which in this case, again because Simonson came with no proposal to amend it, was identical to the budget we had voted down. I still hear the screech of a needle scratching across an ABBA record.

Ah well, the voters love her, evidently.

* * *

You know we are in for a rough patch when councilman Jay Wenk revives dreams of the Square Inch Project, which he shared at the Monday budget meeting.

For those who don't remember Wenk's first term on the board (1990-1993), it was a time when the town board came thisclose to completely destroying the finances of the hamlet sewer district, barely averted by the Herculean effort of supervisor John Mower (1992-1995). Prior to Mower's term as supervisor the charming idea of selling square inches of Woodstock to the world clamoring for a piece of us was advanced. Proceeds, you see, would fatten the starved sewer coffers. The town board members at the time, Wenk included, almost got out of their chairs in pagan revelry at the idea. Sad to say, it then would be discovered that subdividing a piece of Woodstock into square inches was a violation of the zoning law ("undersized lots" are prohibited). Technicalities involving property tax law also intruded on the party. At last it settled into the chincy idea of creating fancy, fake certificates that pretended in elaborate prose that the bearer of such had claim to a square inch of Woodstock. A private entrepreneur grabbed hold of the project. Ten or twelve dollars eventually dribbled into the sewer coffers.

I've got a better idea for Wenk; get the Committee For Woodstock's Future involved. There's at least a thousand bucks in that little honey pot. He should know.

* * *

That's not thunder, that's the sound of some shopkeepers grumbling about the Farm Festival that ran from May to September of this year. Otherwise known as the Farmers' Market, it was initially conceived as a win-win for everybody (except Sun Frost, Sun Flower, Gallo's and the Woodstock Meat Market); farmers would have a place to vend fresh produce (and candles, it appears), people from everywhere would flock to Woodstock to buy the fresh produce, and these same people would then flock to the shops along the main street and buy their products. The town board accommodated this grand vision by closing Maple Lane on Wednesday evenings and posting a police officer at the intersection.

It all seemed to go very well (except for Sun Frost, Sun Flower, Gallo's and the Woodstock Meat Market). Crowds attended, music played and burgers were flipped on an open grill. It is believed that produce and candles were sold.

Unfortunately, nobody shops at the shops. Worse, the people coming to the Market clog the parking lots so that people who want to shop at the shops can't. Oy.

Woodstock Town Board Meeting, November 10

This article appeared in the Townsman, November 13 edition

The special meeting of the Woodstock town board held to dispose of the proposed 2009 budgets for the water and sewer districts, and to discuss the general fund was characterized by numerous flare-ups, split votes and Johnny-come-lately proposals.

First on the agenda were the water and sewer district budgets, the public hearings for such having been opened and closed on October 21. Despite having heard comment at the public hearings from only one member of the public, Joan Schwartzberg, whose comments were directed to the November 1 as opposed to December 1 date for effecting the new rates (December 1st is a date for quarterly meter readings), councilwoman Liz Simonson nevertheless anguished over the proposal to add a third employee to the water/sewer department and the $30,000 increase in the overall district budgets it would entail. Water/sewer employee costs are paid 45% by the water district, 45% the hamlet sewer district, and 10% by the on-site districts. Supervisor Jeff Moran explained that the water/sewer departments had long been shorthanded, reminding the board that at one time four employees, as opposed to the present 2, ran the water/sewer department. With respect to Simonson's suggestion that they hire a part time employee, Moran explained that the water/sewer department was a round-the-clock operation and that a part timer could not be relied on for emergencies that may arise, such as burst water mains.

Simonson, expressing her belief that the Town is on the "precipice of a major financial problem" as a result of diminished revenues, particularly mortgage tax and sales tax receipts (which are not used to finance water/sewer costs), urged the board to take a "leadership position" and not continue "business as usual."

Her last comment caused councilman Chris Collins to observe that "safety and efficiency" were vital to the water/sewer districts, and the decision to hire an additional employee was prudent. "This is not business as usual," said Collins. "So I don't know, Liz, what you mean by that statement."

Simonson replied, "You don't understand how to make this decision," which caused Collins to take umbrage, asserting, "We can't afford to let the departments fall apart," and going to far as to ask for an apology. Simonson reminded the board that the "cash cow"(mortgage tax and sales tax receipts) was over, and after making an apology to Collins added that she felt "attacked." Continuing, Simonson said, "I have not seen it proven [the need for an additional full time employee],"and "We should have tried to come up with another way."

Councilman Jay Wenk muddied up the waters with his opinion that running the water/sewer departments with four persons "is more sensible," but sided with Simonson on the suggestion to budget for the existing two full timers and one part timer.

Simonson with Wenk voted nay on all three district budgets, which incidentally were amended to include Schwartzberg's recommendation to use December 1st as the effective date for the new rates. Moran, Collins and councilwoman Terrie Rosenblum voted in the affirmative.

Water district customers will see their rate increase to 31¢ per 100 gallons, and hamlet sewer district customers will see their rate increase to 98¢ per one hundred gallons. Single-family dwellings in the sewer district also will pay approximately $403 in benefit unit charges.

With the water/sewer budgets disposed of, attention turned to the general fund. The supervisor's request made at the October 30th meeting for budget amendment proposals from members of the board apparently was not honored, Simonson explaining she had been too busy, the others apparently not having any suggestions, so matters were presented on a cold dish.

Simonson, in response to the 12% projected increase in costs for providing health insurance to elected officials and employees of the Town ($580,000 for '08, $638,000 for '09) proposed to decrease costs by increasing the co-pay for medical visits and prescriptions from $10.00 to $20.00. Other proposals included offering less generous buy- outs to those employees who get their health coverage from other sources (employees of the Town eligible for health insurance provided by the Town may get a cash buy-out in lieu of receiving medical insurance benefits; currently the buy-out is 50% of the Town's cost of providing the coverage). The surprise from this discussion, which otherwise went nowhere when it was pointed out that changes in the co-pays would require prior negotiation with the unions representing a significant portion of Town workers, was her announcement that three members of the town board were receiving such buy-outs.

Simonson also questioned the need for an additional employee in the building department. This perhaps indicates that she does not anticipate passage within the next year of the 23-page amendment to the zoning law regulating development near wetland and watercourses, which she had presented to the town board in October and which would require additional building department staff for its enforcement if it were to be adopted.

Collins rescinded his request to budget $12,000 for a survey of the Comeau property in anticipation of the Town's signing an agreement with the Woodstock Land Conservancy to enforce a conservation easement on the property. With regard to the easement, just recently upheld by a decision of the New York State Court of Appeals after five years of litigation, Wenk announced that he had asked assemblyman Kevin Cahill for a $22,000 member item to pay for the survey and the $10,000 fee the Conservancy will receive for enforcing the easement once it is signed. No word yet on whether is request will be honored, but he did appear hopeful.

The discussion of matters concerning the general fund and its proposed tax hike of approximately 8.5%, sometimes contentious, did not result in a single resolution with regard to altering the budget, which will be the subject of a public hearing on the Wednesday before this paper goes to print.

The meeting, which had begun at 4:00 pm in the Town Offices, adjourned at approximately 5:20.

There was no meeting of the town board on Tuesday, November 11 in observance of Veterans Day.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Tower on Overlook To Remain?

This opinion piece appeared in the Townsman, November 6 edition

To those of you with a keen interest in the 300 foot tower on top of Overlook Mountain, the following communication from the Town's land use attorney, Drayton Grant to the town board lays out the path for installing cell phone service apparatus on the presently illegal tower. This is the whole letter:

Facts: WTZA built a tower on Overlook Mountain in 1985. There was a lawsuit by the Friends of Overlook Mountain against the Town to stop the tower, but in 1989, the courts upheld the Zoning Board of Appeals decision that television use of the tower was allowed as a utility. On July 8, 2004, the FCC granted shut-off permission to WRNN-TV, then owners of the tower and the successors to WTZA.

Question: You have asked me whether you can allow the tower to continue, and if you cannot do it under the current laws, how you might be able to do so.

Answer: The tower lost its status as a prior nonconforming use in 2004 and the Town zoning enforcement officer should enforce the local law against the tower. The Town board does not directly control the zoning enforcement officer, but can ask him to perform his duties here.

However, the tower now appears to have other uses for the Town that may make it wiser to arrange for the continuation of the tower. First, the Town board should investigate to make sure of the facts. If the Town board decides to support the continuation of the tower, it should follow one of these routes: 1) amend the law to allow the continuation of the tower so that it is conforming, or 2) enter into a court ordered settlement to allow its continuance. It should not ignore the violation and leave the tower illegal. This would discourage its best use, and leave the tower owner in perpetual limbo.


Prior nonconforming use

The information the Town has to date is that the former WTZA tower on Overlook Mountain in the Town of Woodstock is no longer a legal non-conforming use.

The basis for the tower's status as a prior nonconforming use was derived from the determination in Friends of Woodstock v. Woodstock Planning Board, 152 AD2d 876 (3d Dept.1989), that WTZA's television use was a public utility and did not need a permit from the Planning Board under Woodstock's Zoning Law as it was then written.

It is our understanding that the 1989 determination had no use to which it could apply for over one year. We believe that on July 8, 2004, the FCC granted shut-off permission to WRNN-TV, then owners of the tower and the successors to WTZA.

Since the tower was no longer in use as a television broadcasting tower for over one year, it lost its status as a prior nonconforming use. Lacking a public utility use, the tower would become or has become subject to the current laws of the Town of Woodstock. Those laws forbid a personal wireless communications tower in the Scenic Overlay District, where the tower is sited.

Use of the tower by others than WTZA

There are other users on the WTZA tower. It does not appear that any of these other users is [sic] approved by the Town. Some may precede local law that would have required that there be a separate approval for each antenna, and others may be exempt. A user who did not follow proper procedure at the time it went on the tower does not qualify as a prior nonconforming user. That user is simply a scoff law.

Peter Moncure reported last November that the link transmitters are still in use and will be for the foreseeable future. He does not specify who those users may be. He did tell me that the Ulster County 911 transmitter has been using the tower for many years. While this use might ordinarily be a utility, it does not appear to be covered by the definition in your zoning law:

lines and poles, gas mains and lines, water and
sewer mains and lines, telephone and telegraph
lines and poles, and appurtenant structures, used
to convey utility services to members of the
public. The term does not include high-voltage
transmission lines and poles. The term does not
include "personal wireless services" or "personal
wireless service facilities."

Paul Shultis advised me on July 28, 2008, on the status of state efforts to establish an emergency system that includes the TZA tower. Paul co-chairs the emergency management committee for the Town. He reports that a project for intercommunications was tried it in Southern Tier last year and it was a flop, so he does not believe they are coming out with a statewide plan any time soon.

However, in these meetings he has learned that the FAA says if you take the light off TZA, then they will require that the State light the fire tower. Even if we arranged with Peter Moncure, C. Powers Taylor and Overlook Mountain Tower, LLC, to lower the TZA tower 50 or 60 feet, the FCC would move to require that the fire tower be lit. Twenty years ago before the mountain was lit, there were 3 or 4 plane crashes. He lost a friend when his plane crashed on Overlook during a 1969 snow storm.

Paul reports that the County Emergency Management Committe's opinion is that the tower is essential to the safety of the Town of Woodstock. The FBI and the Sheriff's department use TZA. He has also learned that the Woodstock Fire Department wants to put a communications array on the TZA tower.

As the Town Board, you have the authority to change the zoning law to allow for this use, or to bring this matter to court and enter into a settlement with Mr. Moncure and the company that would allow him to use the tower as you decide to allow it.

End of letter.

If the Town decides to embark on this endeavor to enhance cell service to the western parts of town by legalizing the tower, let's hope they first follow the attorney's suggestion to "investigate to make sure of the facts."

I say this because according to radio propagations made in the past there will only be signal to those parts of Shady in upper Hutchin Hill Road, the higher sections of MacDaniel Road, and then parts of Lake Hill. The 212 corridor from the town highway garage to just past Church Road in Shady will get no service, nor will Reynold's Lane or lower Hutchin Hill, nor any part of Wittenberg. None. Zip.

Seems like an awful lot for very little, but let the investigation begin.

Upcoming Business

This article appeared in the Townsman, November 6 edition

November will be a busy month for the Woodstock town board, with a meeting scheduled to discuss the budget on the 10th, a public hearing on the 2009 budget on the 12th, and a public hearing on a proposed local law to regulate outdoor boilers, and on the codification of the laws of the Town of Woodstock on the 18th.

The special meeting on budget, which will be held at 4:00 pm at the Town Offices, was called as a result of concerns from members of the board that the proposed 8% hike in the general fund levy and proposed increases in water and sewer rates may need more scrutiny. With regard to the general fund, councilman Chris Collin's suggestion that the town board members not take the proposed 5% pay increase for their services did not appear to get traction. Councilwoman Liz Simonson thought that perhaps savings could be realized by holding off on equipment purchases, although she did not identify specific items. Of the proposed $4,409,101 budgets, $2,071,352 is for wages, $1,003,152 is for employee benefits, and $308,692 is for bond payments, totaling $3,383,196, which leaves the board $1,025,905 to nibble at. This sum includes hard costs of insurance ($160,000) and necessities such as heat and electric to operate the buildings and gasoline for the fleet, not to mentions attorney fees (estimated at $67,500), trash disposal ($42,610) and numerous other incidentals including paper. With a decrease in services (i.e. employees) already taken off the table, and no suggestions heard thus far for increasing revenues the November 10 meeting will be of interest.

The product of this meeting will be made apparent at the public hearing on the budget a scant two days afterward on Wednesday, November 12 at 7:30 PM at the Community Center. Also on the table for adoption this same evening are the water and sewer district budgets, which have not been adopted. Motions to adopt said budgets were tabled despite the fact that there had been no objections from the public on their substance, although Joan Schwartzberg did urge the board to amend its billing periods so that the present and future rates can be easily computed by the property owner.

On November 18 beginning at 7:30 pm at the Community Center there will be two public hearings, with the proposal to regulate outdoor boilers up first. Outdoor boilers have become popular in some communities (none are reported to exist in Woodstock at the present) where they are seen as an economical means of heating homes. Many communities, however, report complaints from neighbors of nuisance caused by smoke and odor emanating from such devices. The intent of the proposed local law is to impose "reasonable limits and performance standards" on the boilers to lessen the chances of such nuisance. The law is modeled on a similar law adopted in the recent past by the Town of Hurley.

The next public hearing will be on the new code of the Town of Woodstock, a compilation and organization of the Town's local laws. Up to now the local laws have been arranged in a file by date of adoption, and some of the ordinances date back as far as 1936. The codification, which began almost two years ago on the initiative of Woodstock town Clerk Jackie Earley, will put all the laws into one book in a format that can be easily amended, as laws are from time to time. The previous town board had worked to update and amend several local laws in anticipation of their codification, including the 1956 Tree Ordinance, water and sewer district regulations, solid waste, organization of the civic design and environmental commissions, animal control, and traffic and parking. Joan Schwartzberg, then the Town's document coordinator was instrumental in this endeavor and the final product reflects much of her contribution. Initial reading of the approximately 200 - page document indicated no substantive changes from laws presently on the books.