hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News May 2019



Gun debate shapes Saratoga schools vote


A school board election this month in Saratoga Springs is turning into a costly proxy battle in the national debate over gun violence and the Second Amendment.

Seven candidates are competing for three seats on the city school board in the May 21 election, and much of the campaign so far has focused on the board’s decision last fall to prohibit grounds monitors at school events from carrying guns.

After that vote was featured on NRATV, the online network of the National Rifle Association, a local citizens group called Saratoga Parents for School Safety began organizing to press for a reversal of the board’s action. The group has called for more armed guards in local schools and is backing a slate of three candidates in the May 21 vote.

The Times Union of Albany reported last month that Saratoga Parents for School Safety had raised $33,000 so far to support its candidates – a huge sum considering that local school board candidates typically raise and spend $500 or less on their campaigns. Records show the group has spent $9,000 on payments to Go Right Strategies, a political consulting firm based in Florida that has worked on behalf of Republican political candidates around the country.

Heather Reynolds, an incumbent school board member who’s seeking re-election after supporting last fall’s decision to stop grounds monitors from carrying guns, criticized the use of the outside political firm.

“Spending $9,000 on a Florida-based conservative Republican consultant for a local school board race in a district our size really challenges the claim that Saratoga Parents for Safer Schools is an apolitical organization run by a group of concerned parents,” Reynolds told the newspaper. “What does a Florida-based political consultant know about our local concerns and the issues that impact our district?”

But Kara Rosettie, the founder of the citizens group, dismissed Reynolds’ criticism.
“I understand that the anti-school-safety candidates want to make this race about anything except the issues,” Rosettie told the paper.

She said the consultant is handling marketing and messaging for her group’s candidates, mainly through digital advertising.

The issue of guns came to the forefront after Saratoga Springs Superintendent of Schools Michael Patton discovered last fall that the grounds monitors, who patrol the exterior of the district’s eight school buildings during special events, were routinely carrying concealed weapons in violation of a state law that said they couldn’t do so without specific approval from the school board. In October, the board voted 5-4 against allowing the monitors to carry firearms.
Most of the district’s 14 grounds monitors are retired police officers who now work for the school system. That puts them in a different category from the active-duty police who work as school resource officers inside school buildings and do carry weapons.

Reynolds and others who supported October’s decision have argued that it’s a bad idea to have the monitors, whose training may not be up to date, carrying weapons – and that simply having more guns at school, as Reynolds put it, “does not make our school safer.”

Critics of the board’s decision have argued that, if a shooter were to attack a school event, armed monitors might be able to defend students and staff until police arrive.

The three candidates backed by Saratoga Parents for School Safety are Ed Cubanski, Dean Kolligan and Shaun Wiggins. All three support re-arming the grounds monitors.
In addition to Reynolds, two other candidates – John Brueggemann and Natalya Lakhtakia – oppose allowing the grounds monitors to carry firearms.

The seventh candidate, Connie Woytowich, supports re-arming the monitors but has not been endorsed by Saratoga Parents for School Safety. Of the candidates not backed by the group, only Brueggemann has reported raising more than $500 for his campaign; he raised $4,700, The Daily Gazette of Schenectady reported.

In other news from around the region in April:

Pot sales yield windfall for Berkshires towns
The first months of a legal marijuana market in Berkshire County have yielded brisk sales for retailers and a substantial source of new revenue for local municipalities.

The Berkshire Eagle reported that Theory Wellness of Great Barrington, which in January became the first recreational marijuana retailer to open in Berkshire County, reported nearly $6.2 million in sales in the first three months of this year. The state collects a 20 percent sales tax on all recreational marijuana products, of which a 3 percent share goes to municipalities.

Ed Abrahams, the vice chairman of the town Select Board, projected that if sales at Theory Wellness continue at their current pace, Great Barrington would collect more than $900,000 in revenue annually just from that one store. These figures could fluctuate, however, as additional stores open, and overall sales might drop if neighboring states, especially New York and Connecticut, move to legalize marijuana.

The Eagle reported that on a Wednesday afternoon in mid-April, about 45 people were waiting in line outside the door of the Theory Wellness store on Route 7 north of downtown. Outside, New York license plates were well represented in the parking lot, while the atmosphere inside offered “good aromatic cheer and a Grateful Dead soundtrack.” A spokesman said the store has expanded its work force to more than 30 people in an effort to keep up with demand.
In addition to the local 3 percent sales tax, Great Barrington collects a “community impact fee” that’s intended to be used to mitigate the effects of marijuana use, and Theory Wellness was expected to pay the town $185,000 in these fees for the first quarter of the year. Four additional cannabis retailers are seeking state licenses to operate in Great Barrington.

The stores are the result of 2016 referendum in which Massachusetts voters embraced legal, taxed and regulated sales of marijuana to anyone over age 21. Retailers are licensed and regulated by the state’s new Cannabis Control Commission.

In Pittsfield, Temescal Wellness became the city’s first recreational marijuana retailer when it opened Jan. 15. Based on its initial sales tax payment to the city, the Eagle projected that the retailer’s gross sales in January were less than one-quarter of what Theory Wellness sold in Great Barrington. A second retailer, Berkshire Roots, opened in Pittsfield last month.

Northern Berkshire County saw the opening of its first recreational marijuana retailer on April 24, when Silver Therapeutics opened its store at the Colonial Plaza shopping center in Williamstown.


Census estimates show decline
Newly released estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau show most of the region’s counties losing population since 2010.

Although the bureau’s estimates for 2018 showed Saratoga County’s population up by 4.8 percent, or about 10,556 people, since 2010, the estimates found every other county in the region stagnant or declining. Rensselaer County was the only other county that grew, but by only 0.008 percent, or 13 people, over the past eight years.

Columbia County posted the steepest decline since 2010, losing 3,180 people, or fully 5 percent of its population. Comparing the 2018 estimates with 2010 census figures, the results for other area counties were as follows: Berkshire, down 3.7 percent (4,871 people); Warren, down 2.2 percent (1,442 people); Washington, down 3.2 percent (2,019 people); Bennington, down 4 percent (1,494 people); and Rutland, down 4.8 percent (2,970 people).

The Census Bureau ranked Saratoga as the second-fastest growing county in New York in 2018. But the Albany-Schenectady-Troy metropolitan area of which it’s considered a part posted only a slight overall increase in population in the new estimates.

Some analysts suggested that a substantial portion of the Saratoga County’s growth is the result of suburbanization, meaning many of the county’s new residents are moving there from older, urban parts of the Capital District region.

Discussing the overall situation in the Albany metropolitan area, Mark Castiglione, the executive director of the Capital District Regional Planning Commission, told the Times Union of Albany, “We have growth of sprawl without population growth.”

Across the three-state region, the new census estimates showed a continuation of longstanding trends, with growth concentrated in metropolitan New York City and Boston while upstate New York and western Massachusetts declined. In Vermont, population growth is concentrated in Chittenden County, which includes Burlington, and several adjacent counties.

Recycling isn’t free anymore
The era of free waste recycling has ended in Washington County after the company that runs five area transfer stations announced it would begin charging fees to accept recyclables beginning May 1.

Earth Waste and Metal, which operates the former county transfer stations in towns of Granville, Greenwich, Jackson, Kingsbury and Whitehall, said the new fees are the result of “increasing costs to dispose of recyclables and the loss of global recycling markets.” Last year, county supervisors voted to sell the five transfer stations to Earth Waste, a Rutland-based company that had been leasing and operating the stations since 2013.

Other municipalities and private haulers around the region have begun charging to handle recyclables, or have increased their fees, over the past year. In Columbia County, for example, supervisors voted last year to require residents to buy a $50 annual permit to dispose of recyclables at the county’s transfer stations.

Much of the change is being driven by China, which until last year was buying the majority of recyclable wastes exported from the United States. At the end of 2017, China stopped accepting many types of recyclables altogether and imposed much tougher purity standards for the materials it still takes. The result has been a massive disruption in the global recycling industry, with recyclable materials being diverted to lesser markets or in some cases winding up in landfills or incinerators.

In Washington County, Earth Waste is now charging customers $2.25 per recycling bin or $4.50 per 30-gallon bag of recyclables. The $4.50 fee is the same as what the company charges to accept a 30-gallon bag of non-recyclable trash.

Greenwich Supervisor Sara Idleman, who last year opposed the sale of the transfer stations to Earth Waste, told The Post-Star of Glens Falls that she has heard from constituents upset about the change and will raise the issue for discussion when supervisors meet at 10 a.m. Friday, May 17, at the county Municipal Center in Fort Edward.

“I’ve gotten more phone calls and e-mails regarding this than I have gotten in long time,” Idleman said.

-- Compiled by Fred Daley