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.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

A New Prez

This opinion piece appeared in the Townsman, October 30 edition

By this time next week we will have a new president of the United States. I realize there is still the formality of an inauguration, not scheduled until January 20th, 2009, but with W's approval rating in the tank with Lehman Brothers, real estate, the American auto industry, the stock market and the Detroit Lions (0-8) I don't think we can expect much leadership from the White House after next Tuesday. (Some of you will argue there was none before.) Exceptions to this may be W's forceful turn of the switch to light up the national Christmas tree, last minute appointments to federal benches, and then, of course, the issuance of pardons. Maybe Senator Ted Stevens has got a chance, after all.

With both major party candidates, including Senator McCain from his own party, repudiating W's conduct of the Iraqi War and his stewardship of the economy, no matter who wins the election next week the Age of W will come to an end sometime around midnight, November 4. With things being as they are I don't know whom I will pity more, the loser or the winner of the election to succeed him.

Both major candidates have followed paths toward the White House with unusual and counter-intuitive steps. Obama, representing the party that back in the post-Watergate era passed campaign election reforms that included public financing of presidential races in order to level the playing field, has eschewed public financing and has raised a huge wad of cash that would embarrass the most connected Republican fat cat. McCain's campaign retired poor, old Pat Nixon's "Republican cloth coat" in order to doll up its vice-presidential candidate in duds that would not embarrass Paris Hilton. I find these ideological shifts equally fascinating, but I think the former will have more impact, for better or worse, on our future elections than the latter.

The respective campaign mantras have been condensed to "Change" v "Experience." One promises a steady visit "across the aisle" to obtain compromise, the other promises a "steady hand on the tiller." Since neither of these assurances is detestable America's choice will not be guided by mantras, but by deep, personal responses to the men chanting them.

If you are looking for my endorsement of either Obama or McCain you won't find it here. Yes, I've made up my mind; yes I write an opinion column that gives me the freedom to publicly endorse. But I won't. If you are that curious you can drive by my house and see what lawn sign sits among the un-raked leaves. Please don't waste the gas. At this late stage of the game I don't think my opinion will affect yours.

If you vote for the candidate that I don't support I might, in a test of the bounds of friendship, tell you that your choice was ill conceived, hasty, fatuous, nearsighted, or dumb. But mind you, that would be my opinion of your choice, not you, so I hope we will be able to still shake hands afterward.

No matter who wins next week, we must agree to respect each other and work together for the good of the nation. I fear that we are in for a rough ride ahead. The Boomers, of which I am one, are finally going to understand the meaning of sacrifice. (I exclude from this the 8.7 million Americans who served in Viet Nam, 58,000 of them killed, 303,000 wounded, who unfortunately have seen their sacrifice conflated with futility, a fault of their leaders, not their's.) An environment that calls for sacrifice amid uncertainty will come as a tremendous shock to us. There will be hot heads to both sides of us urging us toward low feelings and rash actions. We must resist them, the way our parents and grand parents (oh, that more of them were still alive) resisted hot heads during the Great Depression, and held together to overcome fascism and totalitarianism and then build the nation of affluence that has spoiled us so.

The first job of the next president, who again will begin his presidency on November 5th, the day after the election, will be to level with us, tell us what the real problems are and how deep the hole we're in. Whether it's giving a "middle class tax cut" or vetoing "all pork barrel spending," either perhaps a successful campaign promise, neither is by itself a panacea for what ails America and our place in the world. I don't want to listen to a victory speech, even if it is my candidate delivering it. I want an honesty speech. Campaign's over; tell us what to expect from you, what will be expected from us, sound the bugles and get to work!

My generation will have one last opportunity to be Great. It's not to say we haven't done good things and even some nice things; we have. But Greatness is not possible without sacrifice, and there we have not been tested. It sure is a lousy time in our lives for it, what with loosening teeth and creaking joints, but really, with out this opportunity how would history look upon us? Frankly, I would like to be remembered for something more than taking advantage of easy credit. Wouldn't you?

By this time next week we will have a new president, and maybe the Detroit Lions' record will be 1-8. It will only be a start.

Woodstock Town Board Meeting, October 28

This article appeared in the Townsman, October 30 edition

A meeting of the Woodstock town board that had been scheduled for other purposes heard the announcement by the supervisor, Jeff Moran, that the last legal impediment to the Town's signing of the so-called Comeau easement has been struck down by the New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Third Judicial Department.

A letter dated October 23 to Moran from Steven Barshov of Sive, Paget & Riesel, the New York City law firm engaged by the Town to respond to the long on-going litigation, stated, "We are happy to report that the Appellate Division has affirmed Judge Work's grant of the Town's motion for summary judgment to dismiss LaBarbera's one remaining cause of action."

Woodstocker Vincent LaBarbera has put up a legal challenge dating back to just prior the November, 2003 referendum, which passed by a 1326-856 vote, that gave the Town the authority to place a conservation easement on the town-owned 76 acre parcel. His original petition to the court contained seven causes of action, the last of which was dismissed last year by Judge Mary Work of the New York Supreme Court in Kingston. LaBabera had appealed to the state's highest court to overturn that dismissal.

LaBabera, represented by the law firm of Galvin & Morgan, claimed that the Town had given insufficient information to allow voters in the referendum to make an intelligent decision, and also of providing inadequate notice of the election itself. Judge F. Lahtinen, writing for the five-member court of appeals, however, concluded, "The remaining contentions that arguably fall within the scope of the petitioners' second cause of action (the only cause of action that survived the earlier appeal) have been considered and found unavailing."

The decision was unanimous. Any further appeal would have to be considered by the United States Supreme Court.

Were the Town to now sign the conservation easement with the Woodstock Land Conservancy as its enforcer it would be bound by its terms, which in essence calls for the property to be maintained in its current state. Any improvements beyond the scope of the written easement would have to be agreed to by the Town and the Conservancy. The exception to this proscription would be if the Town determined that a proposed improvement would serve a "public purpose," in which case even with out the Conservancy's approval the Town could condemn the easement and effect the improvement.

The town board's discussion of the news was inconclusive, as were its discussions concerning the water and sewer district budgets, which were not adopted, and the comprehensive plan, which were the ostensible reasons for the meeting. A special meeting was schedule for November 10 at 4:00 pm at the Town Offices for more discussion on those matters.

The 5:00 pm meeting ended abruptly at 6:45 pm when the power went out.