Thursday, October 30, 2008

Burnt Brownie

This opinion piece appeared in the Townsman, October 23 edition

Years ago my brother lived among a farming community and came home one Christmas with this joke, which I will tell you now is not nearly so funny as it is instructive.

Farmer Smith came down to a breakfast prepared by his bride of one day. Delighted with the flapjacks, bacon and eggs, he was then disappointed to see that the brownie was burnt, and set it aside. The following morning he came down to a breakfast as fine as the first, but again had to set aside a burnt brownie. On the third morning he sat down for a breakfast as fine as its predecessors, except that once again the brownie was burnt.

"Emma," he said to his bride of now three days, "A burnt brownie is no brownie at all."

I warned you it wasn't a knee slapper. And yes, we now live in a time when Emma would probably respond, "Make your own darn brownie if you don't like it." But setting aside this modern nuance, how should we respond to a prodigious effort that ends up a poor result? With children who gift us with a potholder they had spent a week making in school and which immediately begins to unravel in our hands it's a no-brainer; "Darling, how wonderful!" But for the more mature seekers of gratitude the bar is higher. You may score some points for pulling out the ladder and washing the second floor windows, but you lose them if the windows are left streaked with soap. How nice of you to drive all the way to Kingston to buy someone a special shirt, how useless if it's the wrong size. Get it? A burnt brownie is no brownie at all.

Which brings us to the Woodstock town board's land-use sub committee consisting of councilpersons Liz Simonson and Chris Collins, and its incredible just-out-of-the-oven effort, a glazed twenty-six page, single spaced amendment to the zoning law proposing to regulate development near wetlands and watercourses.

Let there be no misunderstanding; protecting wetlands and watercourses is our obligation. Try to imagine a world without any.

But for a regulation to be effective it must be clear and concise. For instance, "Speed Limit, 35 MPH" is clear and concise. If instead the sign reads, "Speed Limit, 35 MPH except in those instances where may lurk potential hazards, including but not limited to; 1) migrating wild life, 2) fallen limbs, 3) ice, 4) blind driveways, 5) other potential hazards as determined by a police officer or his agent, in which case the speed limit shall be reduced to 20 MPH, or to the most practicable speed limit as listed in the New York State Vehicular Traffic Law, Section 754, subsection vii 7 (d) …" well, you get the picture.

The land use subcommittee's proposed regulation is chewy and buttery, but oddly has no calories. It contains the assertion, "Considerable acreage of these important natural resources [wetlands and watercourses] has been lost or impaired…" and yet at the recent public hearing neither Simonson nor Collins was able to cite even ONE such instance of loss or impairment. This is not to say none has occurred - somewhere out there I'm sure a vernal pool lies buried under a tennis court -- but you'd think that the producers of a twenty-six page single-spaced document could at least think of ONE.

The proposed regulation applies to "any person proposing to conduct or causing to be conducted a potentially regulated activity…" I'm sorry, that's not any person, that's every person since every one, whether erecting so much as a doghouse or not, is potentially a wetland and watercourse destroyer.

The proposed regulation mandates a permitting process that by comparison makes the Labyrinth of Crete look like a walk through a park, requires a detailed site map of a standard even Vermeer would find difficult to satisfy, necessitates the expensive services of engineers, hydrologists and, let's not forget, mapmakers that would empty the treasury of Midas, and after all this the applicant can be DENIED his permit if the planning board should find, among other things, that "the proposed regulated activity will cause nuisance to neighboring property(s)…"

The proposed regulation might be appropriate if Woodstock were besieged with applications for airports, ski resorts and nuclear power plants. A look at the record, however, indicates that almost all the new construction over the last several decades has been single-family homes. The proposed regulation would guarantee that the only people to build a house in Woodstock are Donald Trump and his kids and his ex-wives.

Sorry, this is a burnt brownie.

Woodstock Town Board Meeting, October 21

This article appeared in the Townsman, October 23 edition

The so-called WTZA television broadcasting tower, rising three hundred feet from the top of Overlook Mountain and beaming a red light for the last twenty years, should be considered as a possible location for installing apparatus to provide cellular phone service, according to councilwoman Liz Simonson in her report as member of the town board's telecommunications subcommittee.

The tower, which for several years has ceased being used for television transmission, is now managed by a consortium including the property owner Powers Taylor, former town supervisor John LaValle, and Peter Moncure (who owns the two, much smaller radio towers on top of Overlook Mountain). Earlier this year fellow telecommunication subcommittee members George ("Jerry") Washington, Ken Panza and Hurley resident Glenn Kreisberg, a NEXTEL employee, made a presentation to the town board that recommended the Town look favorably on a NEXTEL application to attach a personal wireless service array on the tower in order to extend cell phone service into western regions of the town.

As a result of that presentation the Town sought legal advice from Drayton Grant, the attorney that has provided the town advice on land use issues, including installation of the municipal communications tower last year in the California Quarry. Based on Ms Grant's letter the prospect of using the tower is feasible, but there will be some legal hurdles.

The fact that the tower no longer transmits a television signal is one of them. Construction of the tower was originally permitted in the late 1980s after a then highly controversial ruling of the Woodstock zoning board of appeals that interpreted television broadcasting as a "public utility," therefore exempting the proposed tower from provisions of the zoning law that would prohibit it, and establishing it as a legal albeit non-conforming use. Now that it no longer transmits a television signal it has lost its non-conforming status, according to Grant, and technically the Town could seek its removal.

That does not seem likely.

Instead the Town might, according to Grant, either amend the zoning law to make the tower legal, or the Town may enter into an agreement with the tower owners to accept the tower as is. This latter, very ambiguous course was not explained. Simonson, however, said that she would prefer it to amending the zoning law. Councilman Jay Wenk announced his full support. Councilman Collins expressed the urgency of getting cell phone service to the western parts of the town.

The Town has no information concerning the tower's structure and its suitability for supporting personal wireless service arrays. The Town has not engaged its own professional radio engineers to confirm the subcommittee members' assertion made earlier this year that the top of Overlook Mountain will provide good coverage to a significant portion of the cell service deprived areas of the town (although in this scenario the Wittenberg area seems to have been ruled out). If the Town does legalize the existing tower, the installation of a personal wireless service array would still violate the zoning law unless it is amended.

Supervisor Jeff Moran seemed non-committal on the matter, while councilwoman Terrie Rosenblum commented, "Before we do anything we better ask first if this is where we want to be. Let's make sure that it benefits the town before proceeding."

Simonson had led the charge in 1998 to adopt a costly amendment to the zoning law to prohibit the installation of a personal wireless service on Overlook Mountain.

In other business, Ulster County legislators Brian Shapiro and Don Gregorius, representing Woodstock, and Gary Bischoff from Saugerties, along with Ulster County elections commissioner John Parete, presented the County's side to the dust-up between county and town officials over the hike in election costs and their distribution to the towns. Shapiro and Gregorius apologized for the County's abrupt notice that Woodstock's election costs would rocket from $21,000 to $54,000, Shapiro accepting the town board's darts with "Your point is well taken; your anger is well deserved," but also explaining, as did Gregorius that the board of elections had sent the notices without his knowledge. Shapiro and Gregorius pledged to take a hard look at the elections budget. Bischoff, who serves on the legislature's Efficiency, Reform and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee, which apparently had a hand in fashioning the elections budget, explained the extensive and expensive overhaul of how elections will be conducted in Ulster County "was not something we wanted to do," but was mandated by the federal and state governments. He also pledged to take a hard look at the budget with an eye for savings. Parete discussed the budget line by line, and didn't hold out hope for chopping it much. Parete is on record as viewing the whole Help America Vote Act, the federal legislation that led to the skyrocketing election costs, as a ill conceived reaction to the debacle in Florida in the 2000 election. "Ulster County never had trouble with elections."

There were public hearings for the water and sewer districts, Joan Schwartzberg being the only member of the public to raise questions and to point out errors in the budget resolutions. All the hearings were closed and a vote to adopt the budgets will take place at a future date.

The board spent another hour wrangling over insurance requirements and fees and keys for use of the Town buildings.

In addition to Simonson's telecommunications report, she reported, again, that software provided by International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) that would help the Town with its energy decisions could not be downloaded.

Collins, feeling the hour was too late for a productive discussion, asked for a special meeting of the town board to discuss the proposed comprehensive plan, which now appears to be an executive summary of the plan devised in 1999. Such meeting will be held on October 28 and 5:00 pm at the Town Offices.

The McKenna Brothers submitted the lowest bid for Community Center roof repairs and were awarded the $1950 contract.

A public hearing on the proposed "Code of the Town of Woodstock," a consolidation of all the town's local laws and ordinances was scheduled for November 18 at 8:00 pm at the Community Center. The document will be available on line and in the town clerk's office.

The resignation of Judy Peters from the summer recreation committee was accepted, the town board first expressing its thanks for her service.

Bills amounting to $335,518.23 were paid, minutes of previous meetings and the town clerk's report were accepted, and budget transfers were authorized with scant discussion.

In a moment of levity, at about 10:30 there was a loud ringing of a cell phone, which apparently belonged to cell tower litigant Jay Cohen, who had attended the meeting for the purpose of belaboring the former town board's "lies" during the permitting process of the California Quarry cell tower.

True to form, this was another meeting that flirted with midnight.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

ALERT! ALERT!

Attention, those of you who have read local newspapers and are left with the impression that Woodstock (and Olive and Shandaken) will save money if the County "takes over the election costs," you are being seriously misled.

If the County takes over these costs, the taxpayers living in the towns will still pay them, only it will be through their county tax instead of their town tax.

The formula the County adopted two years ago for apportioning election costs among the townships was based on their respective percentage of registered voters. Based on this formula the 2009 elections tab for Woodstock is $52,996, for Olive $36,246 and for Shandaken $25,554.

Yes, these are obscene figures

BUT

If the County "Takes over the election costs," the tab will be distributed to the townships on an ad valorum bases (assessed value), and the tab for Woodstock would be $94,192, for Olive $66,157 and for Shandaken $42,700.

Denning and Hardenburgh will be hit for $8916 (up from $4343) and $9921 (up from $2119), respectively.

DO NOT SUPPORT THIS NEW SCHEME!

Don't say you weren't told. Pass this on to your legislator. Write a letter to the editor. Don't be had.

Elections and Decent People

This opinion appeared in the Townsman, October 16 edition


Perhaps you've heard the uproar over the quadrupled costs of maintaining the Ulster County Board of Elections ($442,000 in 2005, proposed $1,677.000 for 2009). You will if you haven't; every town supervisor and mayor in the county is outraged since he or she is expected to add an incredibly spiked figure to his or her respective municipal budget.

Background: In 2002, in response to the "hanging chad" attack that occurred in the state of Florida, which lifted the 2000 presidential election from the polling place to the private confines of the United States Supreme Court, the United States congress passed the so-called Help America Vote Act ("the Act"). The Act was intended;

_To establish a program to provide funds to States to replace punch card voting systems,
_To establish the Election Assistance Commission to assist in the administration of Federal elections and
_To otherwise provide assistance with the administration of certain Federal election laws and programs,
_To establish minimum election administration standards for States and units of local government with responsibility for the administration of Federal elections, and for other purposes.

Gee, that sounds nice. How did it translate into a $1,255,904 increase in cost of conducting elections around the county, $114,287 of that increase to be paid by Woodstock, Olive and Shandaken taxpayers? Especially when you consider that the feds paid for the new voting machines.

If you talk to County officials they point to state officials. If you talk to state officials they tell you the darn gum'int in Washington made them do it.

Okay, so if it's the feds stuffing this turkey down our throats because some idiots in Florida were too lackadaisical in the voting booth (haven't we already paid dearly for that?), let me point out from the so-called Help America Vomit - oops, I mean Vote - Act the following provision:

TITLE III--UNIFORM AND NONDISCRIMINATORY ELECTION TECHNOLOGY AND ADMINISTRATION REQUIREMENTS

Subtitle A-Requirements
(b) Voting System Defined.--In this section, the term ``voting
system'' means--
(1) the total combination of mechanical, electromechanical,
or electronic equipment (including the software, firmware, and
documentation required to program, control, and support the
equipment) that is used--
(A) to define ballots;
(B) to cast and count votes;
(C) to report or display election results; and
(D) to maintain and produce any audit trail
information; and
(2) the practices and associated documentation used--
(A) to identify system components and versions of
such components;
(B) to test the system during its development and
maintenance;
(C) to maintain records of system errors and
defects;
(D) to determine specific system changes to be made
to a system after the initial qualification of the
system; and
(E) to make available any materials to the voter
(such as notices, instructions, forms, or paper
ballots).

(c) Construction.-[I italicize the following for emphasis]
(1) In general.--Nothing in this section shall be construed
to prohibit a State or jurisdiction which used a particular type
of voting system in the elections for Federal office held in
November 2000 from using the same type of system after the
effective date of this section, so long as the system meets or
is modified to meet the requirements of this section.

Get that? If you ask me, bring back the lever machines and tinker with them if necessary, although I think shrewd interpretation of the law would deem them as meeting all the above requirements just as they are. Either that or buy some ballot boxes, print up ballots, hire the same election inspectors that have done a fine job all along, and give them an extra thermos of coffee to drink while counting the votes one by one. Heck, it was good enough to elect Washington and Lincoln.

The saddest thing about this whole mess is that it gives more credence to those who maintain the darn gum'int never gets it right.

* * *

This has been bugging my wife and me for the last week.

I'm sure by now you all saw the clip of the lady complaining to John McCain that Obama is "an Arab."

"No," said McCain. "He is a decent man who I happen to have profound differences with…" etc. etc.

Okay, I think I understand the sentiment, and good for McCain for not getting into the nonsense. But his answer contained the elision "He is not an Arab," as in "No [he is not an Arab], he is a decent man who…"

We do this all the time. Someone asks, "Are you sick?" and we may answer, "No [I'm not sick], I'm okay."

I think what McCain meant to say was, "Mr. Obama is not an Arab. And by the way, I happen to think he is a decent man who…"

Because the way McCain said it, "No [He is not an Arab], he is a decent man" is like saying "He's decent, not an Arab."

This is the same as saying "Arabs aren't decent."

I don't fault McCain; grammar and logic can be tricky and we all say stupid things from time to time without intending to. But we have watched this clip being replayed for us at least a dozen times, and not ONE commentator so far has pointed out the pernicious construction of that answer to the woman concerned with Arabs.

I am not a member of the Arab Antidefamation League (AAL), but I am a card-carrying member of the Don't Paint Whole Groups With The Same Brush Committee (DPWGWSBC). Yes, we got beefs with some people who happen to be Arab. I recall hearing about similar (and even bloodier) beefs with British, Confederate, Japanese and German people in our past.

Just imagine; "He's not British, he's a decent man."

"He's not Jewish, he's a decent man…" Get the picture?

Wake up, commentators.

[Update: Jon Stewart picked up on this and on his broadcast riffed terrifically on the issue with an Arab-American.]

Big Hike In Election Costs

This article appeared in the Townsman, October 16 edition

Ulster County, October 14 2008

A letter dated October 3 sent from the Ulster County Board of Elections to the county's mayors and town supervisors announcing steep increases in charges to the municipalities for 2009 election costs has created a stir.

In most cases townships will see their elections costs at least double, in some cases quadruple. Woodstock's cost will jump from under $20,000 to $52,996. Olive will pay $36,246 and Shandaken will get tapped for $25,554 under the proposed scheme. The County election budget will climb from 2005's $442,382 to a projected $1,677,505 in 2009.

County elections officials attribute the increase to changes in New York State election law, and federal legislation, the "Help America Vote Act (HAVA)," which mandate that counties oversee elections. Additional costs include the significant increase of approximately $760,003 for personnel to maintain and service the new apparatus that will be used for all of the 164 election districts in the county.

After 2008 voters in Ulster County will cast paper ballots that will then be fed into optical character readers (OCRs), which will transmit the vote results to election officials. The OCRs are described as delicate and requiring careful storage in controlled environments. They will also require a higher level of expertise to set up and prepare for an election than needed for the mechanical lever machines that had been a mainstay for balloting for the last fifty years. Library and fire districts also will be subject to the new voting methods, according to County election officials.

The charge to the municipalities is based on their respective percentage of the total number of registered voters in the county. For instance, Woodstock, Olive and Shandaken comprise a total of 9.1% (9910) of the county's 108,418 registered voters, and will be charged 9.1% of the proposed $1,255,904 2009 budget. The municipalities will pay the county's bill from their general funds.

In response to the suddenly announced proposal supervisor John Valk, president of the Ulster County Association of Town Supervisors and Mayors (UCATSM) sent a letter dated October 9 on behalf of the association to county officials. "The Supervisors and Mayors are in shock as to such an increase in costs since it amounts to about seven to eight times what the Towns spent annually," says Valk. "Unfortunately," continues Valk, " this will no doubt close the door for any collaboration of services on the county level if this is an example of how the County will conserve costs when services are consolidated. Sorry for my sarcasm but as fiscal managers of our communities we are now being asked to pay for something we have no control over."

Woodtock supervisor Jeff Moran, when reached for comment seemed to say it all in his initial response, "Do you want a comment, a diatribe or a rant?" When told of the county's assertion that the increased costs are needed to implement federal and state mandates Moran said, "Yeah, we heard that before spending a $100 million dollars on a jail." Moran invited Ulster County legislators representing District 2, Brian Shapiro and Don Gregorius to the October 21 meeting of the Woodstock town board to explain the County's action.

Shapiro and Gregorius indicated they would very carefully study the budget prepared by the election board, and investigate whether any of the state or federal mandates are being unnecessarily exceeded.

The federal government pays only the costs for the new voting apparatus. Storage, maintenance, use, repair and replacement costs are to be borne by the locality.

Thomas Turco, one of the two Ulster County Elections commissioners, sympathized with the municipalities, but felt that the budget accurately reflected the additional costs of meeting the state and federal mandates. When asked if he were appointed "emperor of elections" would he implement the mandates his answer was, "No. I don't think Ulster County ever had any serious problem with our lever machines." He attributed the expensive changes to over-reaction to the year 2000 voting fiasco in Florida.

Ulster County has already put the municipalities on notice that their lever machines are now property of the County. The new voting apparatus is scheduled to be rolled out in 2009.

Woodstock Town Board meeting, October 14

This article appeared in the Townsman, October 16 edition

The general tenor of comments made at the Woodstock town board's public hearing on its proposed 26 page single spaced amendment to the zoning law to create a permitting process for development near wetlands and watercourses seemed to suggest that the board, in the words speaker Michael Stock, was "headed in the right direction, but you have a long way to go." Stock, like many speakers, praised the board for its environmental effort, but maintained that the document needed much "fine tuning" and above all "make it shorter."

Joe Liuni, who is a member of the Wittenberg Sportsman's Club and also sits on the Ulster County Environmental Management Council, went through a long list of what he described as unsupported assertions, inconsistencies, problems and even provisions that in his opinion hurt rather than helped wetlands. He cited provisions that he claimed would make it more difficult to rid watercourses of the invasive species that actually damage the environment. "Don't tie the hands of people trying to protect wetlands," he advised the board. He also mentioned that the so-called "wetland protection" laws adopted by the townships of New Paltz and Milan, from which Woodstock has modeled its law, were both thrown out by the courts. "You have to be careful," he advised the board. Liuni was instrumental in having the first wetland law in Woodstock thrown out by the court several years ago.

Former councilman Bill McKenna asked the members of the land use subcommittee, councilpersons Chris Collins and Liz Simonson, for a list of the "considerable acreage" of wetlands that had been lost, as alleged in the law's findings, reminding them that he had made a similar request almost two years ago. No list is available, he was told. He also pointed out that as defined in the law, every ditch along every road in the town could be considered a "watercourse," requiring the permitting process for any adjoining property.

Planning Board member Paul Shultis Jr asked the board if they had considered the financial impact to the taxpayer. The law would require the services of a "wetland delineator" and "wetland inspector," with no current town employees having credentials as such. The answer was no, even though Simonson stated that in her opinion the Town, not the applicant should pick up the costs of administering this additional regulation. Shultis also pointed out that the town's building department and the planning board were already backlogged with applications, and wondered what the impact of these new regulations would have on their functions. There was no answer,

David Boyle was first to make the point that before adopting the amendment a map would be necessary so that property owners would be aware of the regulated areas under the new law. Several subsequent speakers made the same point, and Collins and Simonson promised to provide one before closing the hearing. Boyle also took the board to task for considering such a major regulation of land use in the absence of a town comprehensive plan. Collins and Simonson have been struggling with such, as well as this proposed amendment, for almost three years.

Joan Schwartzberg received assurances from the board that future revisions of the law would be indicated by strike-throughs and underlines for easy comprehension. She also felt the document was riddled with inconsistencies.

Michael Pacut, Dan Weeks, Justin Volker and planning board member Laurie Ylvisacker made brief statements in favor of the document, Volker suggesting that chain saw users be required to use environmentally friendly canola oil for their equipment when working near water bodies or wetlands.

The board has not yet determined the environmental significance of the proposed legislation.

The board recessed the hearing, promising to notify the public when it comes up again on the agenda.

Paul Shultis Jr, wearing his hat as chairman of the skate park task force, reported that the committee has abandoned an earlier proposal to build a skate park facility in the Andy Lee Field, and is now suggesting that sound deadening improvements to the existing park may go a long way toward alleviating the annoyance of noise to the immediate neighbors. The previous supervisor had made such suggestion last year.

In other business the town amended a 1979 local law regarding dog licensing which will not allow the Town to establish license fees by resolution instead of the more cumbersome local law process.

A public hearing on a local law to prohibit the installation of out door wood burning boilers was scheduled for November 18 at 9:00 pm at the Community Center. The town of Hurley has such a local law now, which Woodstock will use as a template. The town of Gardiner is also working on such a law.

The board accepted New York City Department of Environmental Protection's (DEP) proposed uses for a recent land acquisition, but tabled a motion to accept the DEP's proposal to loosen regulation of public access to their lands because the DEP permits trapping animals in ways the board feels are inhumane.

Authorization was given to the highway superintendent Mike Reynolds to purchase up to $260,000 worth of highway equipment.

The next meeting of the town board will be October 21, when public hearings regarding the water and sewer districts will be conducted along with the monthly business.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Woodstock Glitter

This opinion piece appeared in the Townsman, October 9 edition

"The Woodstock Film Festival stands for more than just girls wearing no bra," said cinematographer Haskell Wexler ("One Flew Over…" and this year's recipient of the WFF Honorary Lifetime Achievement Award) to the several hundred attendees of the WFF awards ceremony held last Saturday night at the Backstage Productions venue in Kingston. The purpose of film, according to Wexler, "is to denounce the deception and lies that have become part of our life."

Cool, but let me dwell on that 'no bra' comment. First of all, although it was dark except for the flash bulbs, it looked like the 'girls' were wearing bras (I assure you this was not the focus of my study). But aside from that formality or utility, with the exception of exactly three women in heels and black cocktail dresses, the sartorial equipage of the mob of film buffs and professionals would make a congregation of skateboarders look like a Tommy Hilfiger fashion show. Tee shirts and sweatshirts almost looked like dishtowels, jeans absolutely refused to flatter any legs, and the shoes may have been left from Napoleon's army deserting Russia. Of all the businesses in Ulster County that benefited from the film festival, not one of them was a hairdresser. This was one event where the 'help' (the dozens of volunteers who made Festival possible) clearly outshone the grandees.

I loved it. It has been said that no man is a hero to his valet. Here, VERY BIG PEOPLE were dressed like their valet on a Saturday morning cleaning the leaves out of the gutter. As one fellow put it, it makes every one at the festival "approachable." I'll say; if actor David Strathairn were standing outside of Cumbies some kid would have asked him to buy a six pack of beer.

The films I saw I liked. I thought local boy Phil Dorling's 'Predisposition,' one of the shorts shown at the Community Center on Friday night, verged on brilliance. The full- length feature at the Tinker Street Cinema on Sunday, "Visioneers," was uneven but contained enough flashes of inspiration to make me glad to have seen it. Point is though, without the vision of the "fiercely independent" WFF I doubt either of these films would have been seen and the very worthy writer/director/producers would have been deprived of the encouragement to soldier on.

The people who made the WFF possible, and Meira Blaustein and Laurent Rejto are at the top of that list, deserve both ours' and the film community's gratitude. And the corps of volunteers, each one of them helpful, cheerful, welcoming, that made the chaos navigable and most enjoyable, also deserve a big round of applause. This annual event has put a nice little zing in the air. It's made the "deception and lies that have become part of our life" for a moment tolerable.

* * *

It's not too late if you act right now to get a seat at the Shady Methodist Church's Roast Beef Dinner this coming Saturday night. Talk about "mom's" cooking, this platter comes right out of the first edition of Fanny Farmer's Cookbook. Plus you get to rub elbows with a part of the Woodstock community that is almost invisible, except that it forms the core of volunteerism that glues our town together. Take my word for it; good chow, low prices, great company!

* * *

Boy, if we could bottle this year's weather. Whether it was that or the increased volume of CO2 in the atmosphere, but the fruit and nut trees and the vegetable patches simply went crazy. I am fortunate to have on my tiny, almost infinitesimal lot an apple and a black walnut tree. Last year I couldn't have made a tart from what they produced. This year, five apple pies and six quarts of applesauce later (not counting the ten apple pies the deer got to first), there are still apples the size of softballs waiting to fall. Does anybody out there have a good suggestion for processing black walnuts? I did it one year, cracking them with a vice (believe me, a nutcracker didn't make it, not with these nuts), but it sure took a long time to end up with a fist full of nutmeat. Please let me know, because I've got lots of them.

And you know what, with what's happening in the economy and all the gloomy things being said, we might better get into the habit of helping each other with friendly hints and advice. To make matters even more dramatic, the wooly caterpillars are promising a long, cold winter. Let's all keep an eye out.

Woodstock Film Festival A Success

This article appeared in the Townsman, October 9 edition

Woodstock, October 3, 4 & 5, 2008

The best one-liner award for the 2008 Woodstock Film Festival goes to actor/director Kevin Smith ("Clerks," "Chasing Amy"), who in accepting the 2008 Honorary Maverick Award said to the crowd of film industry buffs and pros, "In any other year it would be better to be a 'maverick.'" The crowd at Backstage Productions, the theater venue on Wall Street in Kingston, variously estimated from 300 to 500 people roared its appreciation before sitting back for Mr. Smith's subsequent droll remarks that cannot be printed in this family newspaper.

The Saturday night award ceremony included speeches and/or presentations by John Sayles ("Return Of The Secaucus Seven"), actor David Strathairn ("Good Night, and Good Luck"), cinematographer Haskell Wexler ("One Flew Over…" and this year's winner recipient of the Honorary Lifetime Achievement Award), and Woodstocker Pamela Marvin, who presented the Lee Marvin Best Feature Narrative Award (Sean Baker for his "Prince of Broadway"), which she had established in the name of her deceased husband. In another highlight, director Ang Lee ("Brokeback Mountain"), presented The Honorary Trailblazer Award to James Shamus, CEO of Focus Features and award winning writer/producer.

By many estimates the 2008 "fiercely independent" Woodstock Film Festival, now an annual event that started with the new century in 2000, has been the biggest so far with festival reps claiming record attendance and receiving kudos from the many professionals who participated and legions of attendees of the films, concerts and panels that were part of the program. "It was wonderful too see how the festival has grown and still has maintained its particular charm and eccentricity and hands on feel... Brava!" was actor David Strathairn's take. "…Amazingly warm and welcoming and genuine," according to James Schamus. "Film is connectivity, and it is appropriate for this festival to be in Woodstock."

Woodstock town supervisor Jeff Moran, who saw several of the films said, "What is wonderful about the Festival is how approachable the film makers. You won't see this anywhere else." Moran was particularly impressed by "Diplomacy," a Danish documentary concerned with efforts in the United Nations to stop the Darfur genocide. When prompted to dwell on a more prosaic level, Moran noted how extremely busy the town was and he hoped the area merchants were benefited.

Woodstock Chamber of Commerce and Arts spokesman Barry Samuels thought they were. "We are happy to host this prestigious event, which has put our name out there to the world again." He described the many attendees as providing "a great atmosphere" in the town. On a personal note he added, "Being the owner of an independent book store I am very proud of our 'fiercely independent' film festival."

Peter Cantine, partner in the Bearsville complex, which includes the Bearsville Theater praised the event not only for the talent it attracts but adding "It's good for business and good for the community."

Next year the 2009 Woodstock Film Festival is slated to run from September 30 to October 4. The sponsors are promising great things to occur during this tenth anniversary event.

On a final note, local artists Steve Heller and Karen Whitman designed and created the Maverick Award Trophy and this year's official Film Festival poster respectively.

Woodstock Town Board Meeting, October 1, 2008

This article appeared in the Townsman, October 9 edition

At a special meeting Woodstock town supervisor Jeff Moran presented a tentative budget to the town board, which, if adopted, would increase the general fund levy by 8.8% and the highway levy by 6.3% over the 2008 levy. Plummeting mortgage tax receipts and increased prices for petroleum related products, including black top, were cited as primary reasons for the increases.

The water district will see the user fee increase from $0.28 to $0.32 cents per one hundred gallons (14% increase), and the levy to pay the bond for district improvements will increase from $51,472 to $55,629 (7.2%). Also, the $10.00 base fee charged quarterly to each meter will increase to $15.00. The hamlet sewer district will see no increase in the annual levy, but the user fee will increase from $0.81 to $0.99 (22%) per one hundred gallons. The on-site districts will see their operation and maintenance (O&M) cost increase from $35,062 to $44,598 (27%), but their bond payment reduced by $6000, resulting in an overall district increase of 1.9%. Disposal fees and hiring an additional water/sewer employee were given as reasons for the user fee and O&M increases.

The Woodstock library and fire district budgets, over which the town board has no authority, are increased 0% and 12% respectively. The proposed 2009 town-wide levy, exclusive of special district levies, is $5,837,935, an 8.6% increase over 2008.

Response on the town board to the budget and the message delivered with it was muted, with only general statements with regard to cutting some expenditures, perhaps in medical health insurance costs.

A decision to maintain annual funding in the amount of $10,000 to promote the town was effected by passage of a resolution, subject to permissive referendum. Notice of such resolution will be posted in both the Town's official newspapers. For those not familiar with the procedure of permissive referendum, if approximately 140 residents of Woodstock (the number representing 5% of the number of Woodstock voters participating in the previous gubernatorial election) sign a petition calling for a vote of the proposition the town board would be required to schedule a town-wide vote on the question.

As required by law proposed salaries for Town officials, representing a 5% increase over 2008 salaries, also will be posted in the official newspapers.

The town board scheduled special meetings to discuss the budget with the various department heads, to be held at the Town Offices on October 15 and 17 beginning at 9:00 am. The public is invited to attend.

Public hearings for the water and sewer budgets were schedule for October 21 at the Community Center beginning at 7:30 pm. The public hearing for the town-wide 2009 budget was scheduled for November 12 at the Community Center beginning at 7:30 pm.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Hollihocks (sic)

This opinion appeared in the Townsman, October 2 edition


How sad the tale of the Florentine painter Masaccio, who in 1423 began his frescoes in the Brancacci chapel and was dead four years later at age 27. Killed by poverty. He was hardly moldering in the potters' field before the world suddenly awoke to his astonishing genius, and painters came to the chapel from all over the Italian peninsula to study his technique; Masaccio is now recognized as one of the earliest major contributors to that historic pageant we call the Renaissance. His is by no means the only woeful story of genius gone unrecognized during the life of the artist; who can study a Van Gogh and not interweave their impressions with a meditation on his unhappiness when he painted, and his world's indifference to him?

Don't you want to wag your finger at the ignorant contemporaries who had let Masaccio and Van Gogh suffer in such need and shout, "You dopes." And don't we shudder and hope we won't be judged for a similar level of ignorance? It's a smaller scale, but some of us might think about John Ernst in this context.

Well, there's nothing to be done about it now. What's done is done. Misfortune, like the rain, falls on the deserving as much as the undeserving. Masaccio and Van Gogh and John Ernst will not be the last artists caught without an umbrella.

This does not intend to be a sermon; I'm thinking about the art scene in Woodstock, and why some of our area's very deserving artists are struggling for recognition, in some cases just trying to secure a venue to exhibit their work. We do, after all, have institutions and galleries devoted to art; how come it ain't happening for our local talent?

Years ago in Woodstock lived a painter who had emigrated here from France. I was a lad then, but I knew of the Fall of France and the occupation that ensued, and not surprised by this painter's leftist politics, for after all he had suffered under the P├Ętain regime installed by the Nazis. Image my great surprise when I asked him one day what he thought was the best form of government, and he responded, "Monarchy." I had to have an explanation. "When kings and queens become great they need to decorate their palaces and build great edifices, and this is good for artists." Mind you, this painter did not surround his subjects with pucci or depict idylls or create satyrs with lyres; actually he was a surrealist, and I'm not sure what monarch he had in mind for a patron since the institution of powerful kings and queens was long gone before surrealism came about.

But his point, I believe, was that there is a nexus between wealth and art. There is a built in tension to this nexus.

The tension is primarily founded on the fact that wealth chooses. It's as simple and plain and awful as that. If moneybags likes your stuff, you're in. If he doesn't, you're home re-reading Letters To Theo. When I say "wealth" I refer also to tax funded organizations like the National Endowment For The Arts, who have elated and broken just as many artist hearts, I'm sure, as say Bill Gates or Warren Buffet.

Rejection by wealth is particularly hard on the artist who may be used to hearing from the general public, "hey man, nice touch." The general public is seldom harsh in its artistic judgment; it doesn't need to be; it's not expected nor has the means to support nice touches. Occasionally, when tax dollars are spent to mount exhibitions of Madonna's created out of horse dung, the general public, at least a segment of it, will scruple loudly and bitterly, but as a matter of course popular criticism tends toward the "whatever makes you happy and so long as nobody gets hurt" school.

The artist finds himself either appreciated but not supported by the general public, or subject to the esthetic whim of the wealthy that will or will not sustain him. Not an enviable position.

I don't know of any way of avoiding this without Wal-Marting art. Do you?

Maybe recognizing the nexus or art and wealth is the best chance for our local struggling artists. It might be better to have a crapshoot than no shoot at all. There was no greater patron of the arts than the Medici. I'm sure the Medici said "no thanks" a thousand times more than they said "Honey, where's the checkbook?" It may have been sad for the poor artist to hear the former, but how sweet for the lucky artist to have heard the latter. How sad that many of Woodstock's art venues have become so stressed that the possibility for the latter has diminished, and may eventually be gone for many of our artists.

Some people will know what I'm talking about.

Film Festival Preview

This article appeared in the Townsman, October 2 edition

Woodstock, October 1

The ninth annual Woodstock Film Festival (October 1 - 5), which kicked off with an array of films, panels and concerts spread over venues that far transcend the Woodstock border, has come a long way, baby. Once a modest affair restricted to a few venues in Woodstock, it is now noted for its vast breadth of styles and tastes in film making, and for attracting top-notch actors, directors and writers to the event. Just about everything in film, from long to short, tragic to comic, real to animated, name it and it will most likely be found somewhere in the scheduled screenings.

So what else is new?

If you are a film aficionado and want to learn a few things about the industry (aside from turning out the lights before running a reel), try attending some of the panels; this year's line-up looks potent.

Film making still seem like a man's game? Let's hear from the ladies, who will be hosting a panel, "AMAZING WOMEN IN FILM" at the Utopia Studios (next to the Bearsville Theatre) on October 4 at 10:00 AM (admission $15.00). "Women in the film industry continue to carve a strong and meaningful path in a world that used to be traditionally dominated by men," says the program note. "With more women sitting in the Director's Chair and holding top positions as executives, producers and administrators, has the balance finally shifted to a point of equality?" Wow, this could be good, especially since "word has it" there is going to be plenty of humor. Thelma Adams, who currently writes film reviews for US Weekly and contributes regularly to The Independent, The New York Times, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, The Christian Science Monitor, The Huffington Post and Indie Magazine will moderate the panel that includes actor/producer Maggie Renzi, actor Rita Taggart ("Weeds," how special for Woodstock!), and two-time Academy Award¨ winning documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple. Google them, believe me, these are very accomplished women.

How about a close up "CONVERSATION WITH HONORARY TRAILBLAZER RECIPIENT JAMES SCHAMUS" at the Utopia Studios October 4, at 12:00PM (admission $ 15)? Mr Schamus, when not busy as a professor in Columbia University's School of the Arts, is perhaps best known for his longtime collaboration with writer/director Ang Lee, with whom he co-wrote and produced such films as Eat Drink Man Woman, The Ice Storm, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The moderator for this conversation, Karen Durbin, is the film critic for Elle magazine, where she also writes features, and articles on film for the Sunday Arts & Leisure section of The New York Times. Hey, let's hope she gets in the conversation, too.

What about those films that focus on environmental, political or social issues; do they make a difference or just sell popcorn? Find out at "MOVIES THAT MATTER: DO THEY COUNT?" at the Utopia Studios October 5 at 10:00AM (admission $ 15). "In helping to define the fabric of our culture, do filmmakers have a responsibility to address social issues?" is the question on the table. The discussion promises to explore "the impetus, the process and the impact of movies that matter on our world." Moderated by David D'Arcy, a critic for Screen International and who writes regularly for a wide range of publications, he is also a frequent commentator for BBC. The panel will include John Sayles (you read that right; writer/director of "Return of the Secaucus Seven"), Haskell Wexler, the noted cinematographer ("One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," another must-see for Woodstockers), Morgan Spurlock, writer/producer/director ("Super Size Me"), and producer Pamela Yates ("Witness to War"). Probably best to leave the popcorn home for this.

The above are just a taste, and say little about the huge variety of films, which have always received at least interest and in most cases out right kudos. It's not too late to get in on the action; tickets for films, panels and concerts (Wow, Donovan; alas sold out) are available on line from woodstockfilmfestival.com or at the box office located at 13 Rock City Road (across from the Chamber of Commerce building) between the hours of 9am and 7pm (the box office will close at noon on October 5), or call 845-810-0131 for information.

Winter Watch

This article appeared in the Townsman, October 2 edition

Woodstock, September 27

County, local and representatives of not-for-profit agencies hosted a well attended meeting at the Woodstock Library to unveil plans to address the potential problems for Ulster County residents associated with the high price of energy, especially home heating fuel this coming winter. The "Avoiding A Crises Forum" panel included Woodstock elected representatives, the county administrator Michael Hein and also the chairman of the Ulster County legislature David Donaldson. Also on the panel were Roberto Rodriguez, director of Ulster County Department of Social Services, Michael Berg, executive director of Family, Pat Courtney - coordinator, Mid-Hudson Energy Smart/ NYSERDA, and Kari Hastings - Medicare coordinator, Ulster County Office for the Aging. Hein, who then left the forum for other business, made opening remarks.

As indicated by the panel's composition, the issue was not restricted to the danger of residents freezing in their homes due to high fuel costs, but also the possibility that those able to meet home energy costs may then be unable to fund food, medicine and transportation expenses, among others.

Earlier this year, County officials formed the so-called Winter Watch task force, which reached out to the county's municipal officials, not-for-profit organizations including food panties, the United Way, Family, religious institutions, and also fuel distributors. The fruits of this endeavor were presented at the Woodstock library forum.

Emphasis was first placed on the necessity of residents to keep special tabs on their neighbors. "Make sure your neighbor is warm in their house," implored Dave Donaldson, chairman of the legislature. "We will need to get out and help each other." Residents who may be in need of emergency fuel assistance were strongly urged to arrange for a delivery before their fuel goes below a quarter tank. "It is very difficult to arrange for immediate deliveries," said Donaldson. "Don't wait until it's too late."

Rodriguez, who oversees approximately 300 employees and administers the County's 100 million dollar department of social services (DSS) budget, said the coming winter called for "a combination of vigilance, volunteerism and altruism." The goal of social services is to "minimize displacement," and he further noted that, "Winter Watch services are not just about DSS clients," that the intention is to "create a safety net for the whole county."

With regard to altruism it was announced that Heritage Energy and KOSCO have agreed to make donations of fuel for the needy (details have not been worked out), and that the United Way will fund energy costs as well. There are also plans for a fund raising concert to go off sometime in January.

The Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) grants, funded by federal monies and administered by local agencies, which are available to low-income residents and those on temporary assistance or SSI, are increased to an annual allocation to $800 per household. People who may qualify for this assistance are encouraged to call Ulster County HEAP office at 334-5436 for information and filing their grant application.

Directors of Ulster County Area Transit and Ulster County Emergency Services, Cynthia Ruiz and Art Snyder respectively, who were not present at the forum, were described as in the process of marshalling their departments' resources to meet this winter's challenge of providing additional transportation services for those who need it and to enhance emergency response.

Kari Hastings, Medicare coordinator for the Ulster County Office for the Aging, provided information to assist seniors in obtaining access to state and federal resources for medical expenses so that their personal funds can be directed toward food and fuel. Seniors were strongly encouraged to avail themselves of her office's services, which can be reached at 340-3583.

In an effort to head off spiraling home energy costs due to inefficient insulation or equipment, Pat Courtney, coordinator, Mid-Hudson Energy Smart/ NYSERDA, provided information on the availability of loans and grants to implement home energy efficiency measures.

Brian Shapiro, Ulster County legislator and recently appointed director of the Ulster County SPCA, rounded out the County's response to the potential problems of this coming winter by announcing the SPCA's program for housing household pets in the event of temporary displacements.

The most passionate speaker addressing the issue was Michael Berg. First speaking generally on Family's effort to stock food pantries around the county and crediting some entities for their contributions (Bruderhof Communities donated 3200 pounds of fresh produce), he then described the exponential increase of people availing themselves of assistance. He saw "big problems ahead for people" in Ulster County. With a slight nod to Woodstock councilman Chris Collins and supervisor Jeff Moran, who represent a community in an uproar over the proposed development of 53 affordable housing units behind the Bradley Meadows shopping center, Berg stated, "This problem largely comes from a lack of affordable housing. We need a balanced community. We do not have one because we are not amenable to mixed housing." He cited statistics indicating that Ulster County working families are in many instances spending 50 % or more of their income just on housing. "It is not just the unemployed and seniors who are suffering," said Berg. "Lack of daily necessities like food and medicine is affecting working families as well."

Moran and Collins also addressed the attendees, urging anyone in the Woodstock community in need of assistance or information for obtaining such to contact them. Brochures provided by the Town listing contacts for all the agencies represented at the meeting will be made available in the town clerk's office, the Woodstock library, Woodstock dispatch (at Town Hall), the Family of Woodstock facility on Rock City Road, and it is hoped in both the local drug stores.

Ulster County representative Don Gregorius, instrumental in arranging the forum with assistance from library director DJ Stern, and who served as host and introducer for each panel members, thanked the participants and again urged the community to "watch out for each other" this coming winter, and to spread the word concerning assistance. Gregorius in a subsequent statement said that the lack of Republican elected officials at the forum had no intended political implication, and went out of his way to describe County Republicans as participating and helpful in the Winter Watch program.

In a related topic, it was announced September 30th that DSS director Roberto Rodriguez was appointed by Governor David Paterson to serve on the governor's newly established HEAP commission.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

...And Taxes

This opinion piece appeared in the Townsman, September 25 edition

It is September, and of course a property owner's fancy turns to school taxes. For those of you with little scholars in the house the anguish can be soothed by simple arithmetic taught us long ago when our parent's wrote checks to the tax collector: divide the school tax amount by one hundred and eighty school days (180) and you will probably come out to somewhere between $8.00 and $20.00 per day. This is not an unreasonable expense to lavish on the future generation, especially when you consider the debt we are gifting it. The deal gets a lot better if you have two or more budding Einsteins, because schools charge by the roof and not by the number of children under it. When your little Johnny and Susie get on the bus it can be for as little as $4.00 to $8.00 a pop. Makes you sometimes wish you had had a tribe.

For elders, the term I prefer to "seniors" because it implies wisdom whereas "seniors" simply speaks to a successful accumulation of years, the school tax is tamped down with exemptions and can fall to amounts that provoke in younger property owners the temptation to lie seriously about their age. When people say 60 is the new 40 I think it's really forty year olds passing them selves off as sixty-five to get the senior exemption. I could have it backwards; maybe when you're only paying $300.00 in school tax, no matter how old you are, you look forty. You're not "old as you feel," you're "old as you are taxed."

Of course, the people who really get whacked are the second homeowners. Deprived of the right to vote in or vote out the school boards that establish the annual levy, they are also deprived of all exemptions, including STAR (School Tax Relief program). Fortunately for us their tax bills are mailed to far away places like Lodi and Riverside Parkway and we can't hear their gnashing of teeth.

This year, comparatively speaking, Woodstock got by lightly. The Onteora school district levy had the scantest increase (less than 1%), and the Kingston and Saugerties school districts, serving the eastern parts of Woodstock, saw only modest increases.

By now most of us are through the agony; we've hocked the jewelry, sold the extra car and shopped in Good Will for our autumn attire, and the school tax collector's September 30th deadline has been met. Happy with the remaining skin on our bones, we have nothing to dim our prospects until the… January town and county tax bill!

If you are still getting transfusions to replace the blood lost paying the school taxes, read no further.

It is very likely that town of Woodstock (and most likely many townships in the area) will see a significant percent tax increase, maybe even double digits.

Before reaching for the pitchfork, let's understand the situation facing our fiduciary officers -- another word for town board (yes, when not debating until midnight no-idling resolutions they watch our money).

There are two components to a budget, expense and revenue.

Expenses will see the expected increases, what with the escalating price of fuel and blacktop and other inflated costs, primarily labor. This by itself would not have a dramatic effect on the tax levy.

What's going to take the little pad out of our wallet is the plunge in non-property tax revenues, primarily mortgage tax and sales tax receipts. Combined, these revenues contributed $615,000 toward this year's $4,235,074 general fund budget, or 14%. When you add the $380,000 left over from the previous year's ('07) budget it covered almost 24% of the funds needed this year to sweep the streets, arrest the malefactors, inspect and assess the new construction and keep stray dogs off the street, among other municipal services.

This year mortgage tax revenue has plunged, sales tax revenue is wobbly, and although the previous town board left a generous rainy day fund in its wake, it will not by itself to make up for all the other lost revenues.

The Gang of Three on the town board is going to have a trip. This is the gang that diluted the town supervisor's authority to set the agenda, watered down his proposal to increase rental fees for use of the taxpayer funded buildings, and hissy fitted when he tried to adjust the schedule to increase paid parking revenues. Just imagine their eyes rolling when the 2009 budget is presented for their consideration.

Some predictions:

Finally, an answer to the question of who to blame for the meltdown of our nation's financial system; the Woodstock town supervisor! Look for these words: "Poor management." "Failure to take a holistic view." "When I worked in the corporate world…" Yes, finally an answer to why real estate tanked, banks collapsed and unemployment rates soared; it was the Woodstock town supervisor's fault!

Once that revelatory fact is thoroughly chewed and spat out and still no answer to how to address the problem of a big tax increase, then will come the discovery of the "previous administration's" total incompetence and misfeasance that led to today's debacle. At first we might be interested, like the first time we saw a cow chewing its cud, but it will get old quickly. The Gang of Three, dilatory but not stupid, will sense our boredom and move to the next step.

The next step will be to complain about the police department. If you think that Woodstock happens to have a nice police department you are in for a serious shock. By the time the Gang gets done you'll wonder why they don't fire them all. But they will fire no one. What they will do is cut the police car! That'll show 'em. The average property owner in Woodstock will save $5.00.

Anyway, the simple if unfanciful picture is this; we have a revenue shortfall. If we want to maintain the current level of municipal services it will require a hefty tax increase to make up for the lost revenues. (Warning: increasing fees for use of town buildings is off the table.) If we want to cut or curtail some municipal services, NOW is the time for you, taxpayer, to weigh in. If we want an autumn entertainment similar to mud wrestling then say nothing, tune into channel 23 and pass the popcorn.