One of Columbia County’s most serene stretches of unspoiled open land can be found at the border of Claverack and Churchtown. County Route 12 bisects two vast, undeveloped fields—uncluttered by anything but one small barn, a handful of cows, a couple of Percheron horses, and clusters of grazing deer.
So when residents suddenly saw earthworks underway on the north side of CR12, there was naturally some alarm and upset.
However, it now appears that the plans for this valued landscape is not cause for alarm, and maybe something quite welcome. Minutes of the County Planning Board from last February reveal that the Rockefeller-backed Foundation for Agricultural Integrity is establishing a dairy farm there, to be limited to a hoop barn, greenhouse, and farm store/farmstand. “We’ll be able to walk in and get fresh milk and cheese,” said one enthusiastic neighbor on Taghkanic-Churchtown Road, who tipped me to the plan.
With Churchtown having lost its general store some years ago, it also may be nice for this sleepy corner of the County to have something of a gathering spot. It’s sort of a shame to see anything built on this greenspace, but at least this will maintain its pastoral character—rather than being littered with spec homes; and if they’ll serve their cream with a side of coffee, they’ll get my business...
In the wake of August 1st’s inferno at TCI of NY, longtime Churchtown firefighter Nathan Chess has circulated the following email message, which is reproduced below by permission.
Chess writes that “it is with great trepidation that I push the send key with this message, but the mushrooming of this situation appears to be getting worse. And I care too much for my brother and sister responders to hold back any more.” He expresses his ongoing concerns about the health and safety of his fellow First Responders, noting that “We were only minutes away from bagpipes and flag-draped coffins.”
PCB testing is only part of the picture. What about tests for dioxins and furans—which on a toxicity level make PCBs look like lemonade?
From a cursory review of PCB incineration, the temperatures required are in the range 1000ºC with a extremely technical process to insure the complete breakdown of the PCBs without the subsequent creation of dioxins (a/k/a Agent Orange) and other highly toxic substances, I admit that my research is based on a quick skim of of highly technical information. But I am sure there are others within our community that are better educated on these procedures.
Additionally, as of this date it appears that no baseline testing have been done on the responders, command personal, EMS and other who where in close proximity to both the fire and plume for close to three hours. Thankfully, the majority of responders (including myself) were kept at what appears to be a safe distance from the incident. But as we have learned the hard way in such situations, distance does not ensure safety.
From my understanding this testing and comparison work would fall under the purview of the New York State Occupational Health Clinic Network, but I have seen no mention of any actions taken. No doubt it would also be their responsibility to have an ongoing procedure to monitor the workers currently involved in any remediation work.
And where is the Town of Ghent? [There’s] lots of praise for the bravery of the first responders, but sorry to be crude but action talks and we know what walks. It's good to see that one of the supervisors had the time to update his Facebook page with a posting that truly dealt with the ongoing situation—not!
And while I am on this point, it is only based on sheer luck that a serious loss of life was avoided. It was only based on basic “off the cuff” comment by the company’s “keyholder” that the responding units were advised that there was a substantial amount of solid sodium stored in the plant. This chemical is used as part of alternative treatment of low level PCB (< than 50ppm). But when exposed it creates an exothermic reaction and produces hydrogen gas (i.e.: Kaboom!)
We were only minutes away from bagpipes and flag-draped coffins.
I would also like to make perfectly clear that these comments and opinions are strictly my own and in no way represent my fire company or that any commanders, coordinators, supervisors and the many brave and dedicated responders, members, dispatchers, law enforcement, EMS and others who whose participation and selflessness make the Columbia County emergency services organization one of the best...
I have always taken great pride and satisfaction from my work with all of these individuals and organisations in the state and on par with any in the country.
But I feel it is my responsibility to express my beliefs, perceptions and and reactions to this event. Whatever the consequences, if it saves one life or prevents any injuries, it will be well worth it.
Churchtown Fire Company
As first reported here, voter turnout for Tuesday’s Democratic Congressional primary contest between Julian Schreibman and Joel Tyner was dismal. Fewer than 1 in 10 registered Democrats bothered to participate in the new 11-county 19th District.
That sub-10% figure also applied to Democrats here in Columbia County. Below is a town-by-town chart of how each municipality in the County did, turnout-wise, correlating Board of Elections tallies and voter registration data obtained last March:
Remarkably, County Democratic Chair Cyndy Hall characterized these numbers as a “tremendous victory” for her party committee... If 9 out of 10 voters staying home is a tremendous victory, one wonders what a tremendous failure would look like.
UPDATE: Primaries 0f course tend to attract fewer voters than general elections. However, as a point of reference showing how poor Tuesday’s turnout was: More than 550 Democrats voted in the 2011 primary between Nick Haddad and Linda Mussmann; but this week, fewer than 150 voters cast ballots in Hudson.
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Several thousand customers National Grid’s Hudson/Greenport/Claverack service are without power this late Friday afternoon. The company estimates on its outage map that electricity will be restored at 9:30 pm, but experience suggests adding at least a couple hours to that estimate.
One report says that some sort of mini-tornado may have ripped along 3rd Street, taking down trees and lines with it. Certainly great deal of wind and hail was observed this afternoon in town.
Some businesses closed up as a result of the outage. I’m told Spotty Dog is still serving (it is, after all, the end of the workweek). Another option while waiting out the outage might be to take the ferry across the river.
Philmont Beautification, the grassroots organization responsible to date for some $2.25 million in public/private investment in the Village, has released the following statement to its supporters regarding a recent article (and a subsequent letter) in The Register-Star questioning its finances.
As many of you already know through email and phone calls this week, PB Inc. received bad press last Friday in the Register Star. It has taken us most of the week to unravel the misleading information and innuendoes implied in the reporting.
We are very grateful to be able to say that due to a close handful of supporters PB Inc. has managed to rally to this assault launched from an unknown source. When the reporter called our office last week he referred to the unknown source as a “tipster.”
We wanted you, as our true supporters, to have the opportunity to read the PB Inc. response before it is published in the Register Star on the Opinion Page in the weekend edition.
As many of you know, the time involved for PB Inc. to address this challenge is way beyond our small capacity, putting incredible strain on the organization, when our time would be best put to use in pro-active activities of grant writing, and raising funds to support the organization’s programs and projects committed to the revitalization of Philmont.
Before printing the PB Inc response to the Register Star below, we would like to thank all of you for your incredible support experienced this week. Thank you.
Here’s the PB Inc response to be printed on the Opinion Page / Register Star / weekend edition:
Philmont Beautification, Inc. is issuing this statement to clarify the facts relating to a front page article published by the Register Star on 6/15/12.
The article reports that PB Inc. is late in paying property taxes for 113 Main St. in the amount of $3,000. We have taken pro-active fiscal management measures to address this issue and will meet these obligations to the County and the Village of Philmont as soon as possible. We apologize to the community for the delay.
Why is our organization late in paying the property taxes for 113 Main St.? One of the reasons is that the organization has experienced significant cash flow problems in relation to the development of the 116 Main St project to house a food co-op. This project has experienced delays beyond our control over a period of 18 months while at the same time incurring expenses. This, in turn, has created temporary cash flow problems affecting our ability to pay the taxes on 113 Main St. We have regularly addressed this delay with both the Philmont Village Board and County Tax Office, and both are aware the payments will be complete by the end of summer, 2012.
The article goes on to suggest that PB Inc. received $36,000 in donations which were used to pay expenses associated with development of the 116 Main St. property to house the co-op. This is completely incorrect. We have at no time in our 11-year history received this level of financial support in the form of donations from individuals.
The total amount of cash donations to Philmont Beautification, Inc. within the past 18 months is $998. The donations, generously made by individuals in support of four program areas dedicated to revitalization in the Village of Philmont, ranged in amount from $20 to a maximum of $200. The reporting of donations is contained in the annual 990 tax filing required of all non-profit organizations by the Internal Revenue Service.
The confused reporting by the Register Star leads directly back to a community presentation of March 6, 2012, attended by the same reporter who misrepresented the facts in the Register Star on March 8. Notes taken at that meeting can be viewed on the PB Inc. Web site posted on March 11, fully documenting the costs incurred for the 116 Main St project. $21,000 of expenses were incurred, combined with $15,000 attributed to the administrative time provided by PB Inc. To cover these costs PB Inc.’s co-founder and Executive Director, Sally Baker, took a reduction in compensation dating back to 2010. The reduction of Ms. Baker’s compensation will continue until the organization has covered every expense, including the property taxes owed on 113 Main St. which houses the PB Inc. Resource Center.
PB Inc.’s programs and revitalization projects have been, and continue to be, supported primarily through grants from funding organizations and New York State government grant programs awarded through a competitive grant application process.
The portion of grant money allotted for program expenses and administrative fees is the primary source of PB Inc.’s operating income. Contrary to what was reported in the Register Star, donations represent less than 1% of PB Inc.’s annual income. Over 90% of grant funds are applied directly to programs and projects, with the balance of 7.5% to 10% applied to operational expenses, according to specific grant guidelines.
As with donations, all grants and their sources are reported in the organization’s annual 990 tax filings. Copies are available for public inspection through the Charities Bureau at the NYS State Attorney General’s Office.
All grant-funded projects are listed on our web site at www.pbinc.org. Twenty major public-private revitalization projects have been successfully completed within the past five years. Among these projects are six storefront restorations, a Village public park, assistance for five new businesses, renovation of 7 affordable housing units, a farmers’ market, now in its 4th season, streetscape improvements, educational workshops, arts and trades exhibitions, newsletters and a community garden. These projects are considered by most people to be significant accomplishments for a grass roots organization operating on a shoestring budget.
On behalf of the Philmont
Beautification, Inc. Board of Directors
Word is that the counting of Hudson absentee and affidavit ballots will now occur on Monday, the soonest that Bill Hallenbeck’s attorney Giff Whitbeck is available.
With just 27 votes separating Hallenbeck and his mayoral opponent, Nick Haddad, there are an estimated 220-225 absentee and affidavit ballots to be considered, though 10-20% of those could prove invalid. Ballots for the Hudson race only came out of their impoundment yesterday, with recanvassing of the Hudson results and logging of the poll book information and affidavit ballots taking place yesterday. (The Board of Elections has to first verify the election night results, and also review the books to make sure no one who submitted an absentee ballot also voted on the machine on November 8th.)
Ballots for other close races in Claverack, Greenport, Hillsdale and Taghkanic will likely hit the tables today (Tuesday) and presumably will be complete before Thanksgiving.
The already-slow pace of the counts has been further reduced by the existence of a super-tight judicial race between Republican Catherine “Kiki” Cholakis and Democrat Ray Elliott, with lawyers for each observing counts in every town in a seven-county area.
Now occupied by Jim Ivory (of Merchant/Ivory), via the Library of Congress.
For your Monday morning, here’s an applecartload of local bits, pieces, odds, ends, fact, rumor and surmise... (I probably could get way more hits by doling these out one-by-one over the next two weeks instead, but why tease?)
• Rural Intelligence is rumored to be going on a hiatus (and if so, will be much missed);
• In other food-and-hospitality news, the Fillis recently opened a spacious lounge/seating area in the back of their Claverack market to complement their growing pizza business (but I’ll be taking advantage of it mostly for morning coffee);
• Meanwhile, Café Le Perche in the 200 block of Hudson has obtained its liquor license, and will start to stay open until 8 pm weekdays, 10 pm or later on weekends (and is looking for some good evening help);
• Back in Claverack, the Won Dharma meditation/retreat center is holding an open house on September 4th from 3:30-5:30 pm for local residents (and curiosity-seekers);
• Over to Chatham... Former Charleston owner/chef Carole Clark will have an opening of her new “totems and vessels” at Solaqua on August 27th from 1-5 pm (in a raw industrial space which she says most will love, but some will find alarming);
• In Taghkanic, Moyra Botta is hosting the 2nd annual Columbia County garden party to benefit the AIDS Council of Northeastern New York, with tickets starting at $75-per-head (which is worth it just to gawk at her Phifer-designed house, pictured above, while also supporting a worthy cause);
• The Sunday Farmer’s Market in Philmont is a hidden gem which will remain open through mid-October (hidden, at least, if you don’t normally pass through Philmont on a Sunday morning);
• A fourth Bourne sequel, The Bourne Legacy, is said to be coming to shoot scenes in Columbia County, allegedly in “an old mansion close to Hudson” (but it may not star Matt Damon, so don’t rush off to look for him eating pastry on Warren Street);
• Work has resumed on the old Schroeder's site on Green Street (evidently to make way for yet another beer store);
• Tuesday is the deadline for independent nominating petitions for candidates running on their own lines (and it will be telling whether Linda Mussmann actually files Bottom Line petitions for Mayor, as was done for Geeta Cheddie and John Musall last week);
• The only two Hallenbeck for Mayor signs spotted thus far are on (A) the candidate's own house and (B) an old car parked in front of a defunct store on Fairview Avenue... in Greenport;
• Peter Jung’s Gifford’s Grave project to restore the family gravesite of one of the Hudson River School’s leading lights, is now complete (but will wait to hold a celebratory ceremony in 2012);
• More photos of the Hudson Merchant House can be found at Laura Murphy’s SmugMug site, (which also features some fun pics of starlings and pigeons bathing in a large puddle on the roof of her 600 block building);
• Some ATMs in Hudson reportedly ran out of cash during the weekend of the NADA art fair at the Basilica Hudson (but as best as anyone can tell, most of it went to food, not art).
It’s hard to imagine any company turning up its nose at nearly $3,500,000 in free money... especially in this economy, and if that money would both expand the company’s customer base and also perform a vital community service.
But apparently, Mid-Hudson Cablevision is one such company.
As a result, potential rural customers in hard-to-reach “last mile” locations—including Yours Truly—are being told they’ll have to pony up thousands of dollars each just to get connected. Customers in densely-settled cities like Hudson or within 200 feet of existing lines typically pay no such fee.
During last year’s hotly-contested Congressional race between Scott Murphy and Chris Gibson, Murphy announced the award of a $3.5 million “rural broadband” grant to MH Cable. According to the then-U.S. rep’s August 2010 press release, the funds would come from the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utility Services programs.
Now, this funding was not forced upon Mid-Hudson. The company applied for, was awarded, and at the time celebrated the grant. MHC President James (Jim) Reynolds crowed last year that
We are very pleased to receive the news that we are being awarded this grant. These tax payer dollars will help us to continue the work we have been engaged in for 30 plus years. This government support will help make it possible to extend service to rural marketplaces that would otherwise be very difficult reach. We will be moving as quickly as possible to move forward with the outlined in our proposal and certainly appreciate all of the support and assistance that we received from Congressman Scott Murphy.
Murphy in turn gushed that the towns of Ashland, Cairo, Catskill, Coxsackie, Jewett, Lexington, New Baltimore and Windham in Greene County, plus Austerlitz, Copake, Claverack, Ghent, Chatham, Hillsdale and Taghkanic in Columbia County would benefit from this Federal program, stating that
Expanding rural broadband in our Upstate communities is key to building businesses and creating jobs. This is one of the most critical issues for our rural communities. This project will benefit everyone from farmers and small businesses looking to sell their products online, to volunteer firefighters needing high-speed Internet to keep the public safe. Broadband investments like this are a critical component of my Renew Upstate New York plan, and will help ensure the 20th District becomes a leader in the 21st century economy.
Yet according to Mid-Hudson engineer David Fingar, the company has since decided not to tap into these funds—at least for the moment.
Asked why (during a cordial visit to my property recently, after I'd placed multiple calls over the past three months to MHC about availability in my area), Fingar stated that there were “too many conditions attached” to the funding, but did not rule out accessing the funds later.
Until then, potential customers are being asked to come up with rather large lump sums—in my case $1,870 plus tax—for the privilege of then giving Mid-Hudson about $1,000-$2,000 each year in subscription fees, depending on what services one orders. (Fingar—a member of the local insurance clan, which includes County Republican chair Greg Fingar—did offer that if I ordered a significant enough package, they might be able to work out an installment plan on the hookup.) Others in my neighborhood have been quoted figures ranging from $2,000 to $2,600 for getting hooked up. Meanwhile, with an estimated 20,000 subscribers, MHC’s annual revenues are variously reported as between $20 and $50 million.
At the time that the Town of Taghkanic negotiated its franchise agreement with the company in 2007, MHC provided service to only 5.5 of Taghkanic’s approximately 49 miles of roads. Though most residents can opt for Dish network TV service, internet access is glaringly lacking, as many homes are eligible for neither cable modems nor DSL. Making do with either wifi hotspots, satellite internet from the likes of Hughes or Wild Blue, or even 1990s-grade dialup from AOL, many of the innovations of today’s dynamic, video-driven web are not feasible. Streaming movies from Netflix? Forget about it.
But this past fall and winter, Taghkanic residents’ anticipation mounted as MHC trucks were seen stringing heavy black wires in various parts of the Town. Here on County Route 27, activity was spotted to the immediate east and west of my property. But due to a fluke in how telephone poles are sited, a roughly quarter-mile chunk of 27 has no poles on the road, with phone and electricity lines routed through woods. This places homes in “line extension areas,” some of them a good deal more than the typical maximum of 200 feet from existing wires, and thus in the position of having to pay a large “contribution in aid of construction” (or CAC) to get hooked up. These are precisely the type of conditions meant to be addresses by Federal programs like the one to which MHC applied for funding it now has spurned.
The problem is compounded by many rural governments being woefully uninformed about their ability to negotiate better agreements from cable companies, in effect turning over rights worth hundreds of thousands or even millions without negotiating for more community services (such as public access channels, production facilities) or coverage. According to Metroland,
State law requires cable service providers to set aside public-access channels for home-grown programming [and] also give municipalities the opportunity to enter into contracts known as franchise agreements with these companies, whereby the cable-service providers must give up to 5 percent of their revenues to local governments.
The Town of Taghkanic demanded neither a franchise fee from MHC in 2007, nor secured any free goodies—besides one standard installation each for the town's handful of public buildings. The City of Hudson similarly made few if any requests from Mid-Hudson when they last came before the Council for renewal, despite getting expert advice from Troy media advocate Steve Pierce. In much the same way that insurance policies only get cursory review, many small towns and cities fail to realize how much more they are entitled to, deferring instead to highly-profitable cable enterprises as if they were doing the municipality a giant favor just by showing up. The Town of Ashland, by contrast, would appear to have taken a somewhat more responsible approach, asking Reynolds to answer a host of common-sense questions prior to approving a franchise renewal.
Still the larger questions remains: Since nearly $3.5 million was sought, received and touted by MHC less than a year ago, why not use it to overcome the obstacles to (in Reynolds’ own words) “extend[ing] service to rural marketplaces that would otherwise be very difficult reach”?
What about the stated reason—an excess of onerous grant “conditions”? Recipients do have to fulfill normal, routine responsibilities like keeping payroll documentation and other records; but typically grants cover the costs of such administration. A longer list of conditions can be found here.
One theory is that the decision is somehow ideological—that Mid-Hudson’s generally conservative and politically-connected leadership didn’t want to appear, in the age of Tea Party fanaticism, to be suckling at a government teat... But if that were the case, why did they apply in the first place—and why did they accept and use a $5.3 million loan (arranged with help from Murphy’s predecessor, John Sweeney) for expanding rural broadband access in much the same way? Back in 2009—while acknowledging the lesser-known costs of maintaining rural broadband networks—Reynolds predicted that his company would indeed seek more Federal funding opportunities in the future:
Based on [the Sweeney-backed loan] success, Reynolds said Mid-Hudson is likely to apply for stimulus funding ... While the earlier buildout was to areas with 20 to 25 homes per mile, the remaining unserved areas in his footprint are in locales with 10 to 15 homes per mile, butting up against the threshold for making the endeavor cost-effective.
Indeed, MHC cites this past Federal partnership in most of its applications to area towns and the State's Public Service Commission. Some thus speculate that the reversal may be in some way entangled with the Murphy-Gibson rivalry, i.e. that maybe a grant or loan from the new Republican Congressman would be treated differently.
Another theory—and the one I find more plausible—is that Mid-Hudson is simply testing the waters to see how many people they can get to shell out cash up front before dipping into the Federal pool to cover the rest. Once they've maxed out the folks who are willing to foot the bill themselves, they can in theory then start using the grant funds to hook up the rest, and thus get the most new customers possible at the lowest possible risk to the company. When I asked Fingar—who was quite amiable and forthcoming during our visit—whether those who agreed to pay now would get a refund if they used the grants later, he appeared bemused by the question.
According to a telecom legal expert I spoke with, they can probably get away with such temporizing, as the USDA rarely “claws back” such funding even when it doesn't get used as intended. The Federal government oversees about $5 billion in similar programs, and evidently making sure they get spent wisely is low on the list of priorities... Meanwhile, at least one publication, CC Scoop, has expressed skepticism about the grant programs, and The Columbia Paper is expected to publish an article on the topic as well shortly.
So for now, I've reluctantly extended my satellite internet deal, paying for commercial-grade (but still pokey) service at a steep cost. I’d vastly prefer to do business with a locally-owned company, and to not have to deal with the bandwidth limitations and service headaches common to satellite. But at about two grand to get started, it’s hard to justify at this point. If Mid-Hudson Cablevision waits too long, though, to access those funds and provide this community service, they may get left behind by the ever-increasing capabilities of cellular and other over-the-air networks.
NOTE: Calls to the USDA RUS department which handles the Mid-Hudson grant were not returned in time for publication.
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