Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Little schoolhouse now big headache

Little schoolhouse now big headache
By Diane Valden
COPAKE FALLS--The historic Copake Iron Works Schoolhouse on Route 22 at the corner of Bain Road was given to the town six years ago with the intention that it be restored within two years as part of the preservation of the town's heritage.
Now, with restoration deadline past by four years, the donor wants the town to recommit to the project and get it done or give the schoolhouse back.

Since the March 2002 acceptance by the town of the 24-by-40-foot, one-room schoolhouse, which dates from the mid-1800s, little has been done in the way of building restoration, even though the deadline for completion of project was two years from when the building was donated.

In the original donation agreement, lifelong town resident Edgar M. Masters gave the town the schoolhouse, three-quarters of an acre surrounding the structure and $10,000 toward the restoration effort.

The terms of the gift required that the town in cooperation with the Roeliff Jansen Historical Society match Mr. Master's cash contribution two-to-one. The town anteed up $10,000 to add to Mr. Master's $10,000, and the historical society mounted a fundraising campaign that netted another $16,000 for the schoolhouse.
According to financial records provided to The Independent by town Councilwoman Linda Gabaccia, all of that $36,000 has been spent on foundation masonry and floor work.
There is $15,000 designated in the town's 2008 budget for schoolhouse work. In a March 2004 story about the schoolhouse in The Independent, the estimated cost to complete the project was $75,000.Most recently estimates were sought for putting a new roof on the structure.

The town was poised to accept the bid of one roofing contractor, but subsequently found he did not have proper insurance coverage. Currently, the town has two bid proposals for roof work: one from Kevin Carey Building for $35,285 and the other from Pinnacle Roofing, Inc., for $26,500 at non-union non-prevailing wages or $33,750 at state prevailing wages.

At the April Town Board meeting, Schoolhouse Restoration Committee member Ed Ferratto said the Pinnacle estimate would be $9,000 less for asphalt shingles as opposed to cedar shingles.

Yet another aspect of the schoolhouse story is the ongoing questioning by Copake resident John Keeler about how matters relating to the schoolhouse have been handled by the town from the beginning. He has questioned the Town Board on several occasions about how the town can spend money on the schoolhouse when it has so many other necessary expenditures, like skyrocketing fuel costs, roadwork and a highway garage that needs to be fenced in to prevent thefts of road materials and vandalism.

Mr. Keeler questions how the town came to accept the schoolhouse gift in the first place, whether the public had any say about it and whether bid requests for schoolhouse work have been properly advertised.

He has even suggested that the town should save itself any further expense where the schoolhouse is concerned and give it back.
At a special April 25 meeting of the Town Board, the subject of the schoolhouse came up again, with the receipt of a letter to Town Supervisor Reggie Crowley from Mr. Masters. In the letter Mr. Masters wrote, "It is my intention to instruct my attorney to initiate appropriate legal proceedings to compel the return of my cash gift and to re-convey the real property including the schoolhouse to me with all costs, including attorney's fees to be paid by the town if the following conditions are not met by May 8."

Mr. Masters wants all the town funds previously designated in this year's budget to be released so that restoration work can get moving. He also wants the town to approve a resolution at the May Town Board meeting that affirms the Town's "unequivocal commitment to complete the restoration of the building by September 1, 2009, in accordance with standards set by the Board of Directors of the Roe Jan Historical Society."

Town Attorney Kevin Thiemann said the letter did not make it "exactly clear what he wants the town to commit to" or how much has to be done by the date indicated to complete the work. He said he will have to check with Mr. Master's attorney, William F. Ryan, to get clarification.

Roe Jan Historical Society Member Elinor Mettler, who has taken over as chair of the schoolhouse renovation committee, told the board that the town had already invested money in the first step of the renovation, that grants are being sought for project costs and that many community members have already generously donated to the project because they believed in it. She said the town owes it to these people to see this project through.

Though some board members seemed inclined to release the appropriated funds in accordance with Mr. Masters' request, Mr. Thiemann advised against it saying, "If you release the funds and then do not comply with the second stage, you may be subject to legal action."

Councilman Daniel Tompkins noted his commitment to the project and pointed out that the state is investing $2 million in renovations at the nearby Taconic State Park in Copake Falls.

Councilwoman Gabaccia voiced her support for the project, but cautioned the board to investigate the potential financial outlay before taking on any project in the future.

In a phone interview Monday, Mr. Masters said that the determination of project completeness hinges on the Roe Jan Historical Society and "what they wish for the inside [of the building] and that the town has provided funds to complete the project by the specified date."

When he was considering making a gift of the schoolhouse to the town, Mr. Masters said he first approached the historical society about it. Since a precedent had been set with the Old Copake Falls Church, where the town took responsibility for/ownership of the building and the historical society handled the rest, the previous administration accepted it.

The current administration has done nothing but "procrastinate," he said. At the special meeting, the board decided to hold off on any action until the May 8 meeting.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Pump Prices Pinch Farms

Pump Prices Pinch Farms

HILLSDALE--With the price of regular gas ranging from $3.54 to $3.77 a gallon as of Thursday--and diesel fuel at nearly $4.70 locally, rising energy prices are rippling through the economy. And nobody is more aware of that than farmers. The problem for farmers is not just the price of fuel, although Eric Ooms, a farmer and the president of the Columbia County Farm Bureau, points out that the cost of filling a 100-gallon tractor tank has gone from $100 to more than $300 over the past couple of years. That's enough for 14 hours of fieldwork. At the same time, he and his fellow dairy farmers are also paying more to have their milk delivered to processing plants, and all farmers--organic or conventional--are paying more for fertilizer. "You come to realize that the whole economy runs on fuel," said Mr. Ooms.

"And I don't think anybody can say it's going to change any time soon." Increased costs for producers are already being reflected in retail prices. "Food prices in general have shown some major increases in the last 45 days," said Todd Erling of the Columbia Hudson Partnership and Hudson Valley Agribusiness Development Corporation.

"I've been going to the same bagel shop since 1995, and when I went in last week they felt compelled to tell me: 'Todd, the prices have gone up.'" The price increases reflect what products are costing retailers, said Mr. Erling, and much of the increase can be blamed on higher surcharges for deliveries. "It's going to go deep," he said. "Unfortunately, when food production prices go up it hits the pocket of every American."

The price of nitrogen fertilizer is up by about 30% over last year, according to Dipper Donahue of Caro-Vail in Niverville, a major supplier of agricultural products to area farmers. But Peter Vail Jr. of Caro-Vail's Salem, NY, outlet attributed those increases less to petroleum costs than to increased worldwide demand for grain. "Energy prices affect [fertilizer] prices, but it's not energy alone," said Mr. Vail. "The demand for fertilizer to grow grain in these countries that have discovered protein, combined with ethanol, has created a grain market that is very bullish." But many fertilizers are actually based on natural gas, according to Mr. Ooms. And petroleum is also used to make many of the pesticides and herbicides used in large-scale farming.

Over the long term, Mr. Erling hopes to see local biofuels production on a scale similar to the small iron foundries that dotted the Columbia County landscape in the early 19th century. A study carried out by his organization found that large-scale production of biofuels would not be cost-effective because of transportation costs, according to Mr. Erling. But he said smaller refineries can be built, and agreements could be worked out in advance between the refineries and local farms similar to those that currently exist between farmers and meat packers, ensuring them of a market for their products. "It's technologically feasible and the market is here," he said. "New York and Pennsylvania together are a larger market for diesel and home heating fuel than Texas or California." Mr. Erling said the area is well suited to such biofuel crop sources as rapeseed, which is used to make canola oil, and soybeans, which can be used as cattle feed even after the oil is pressed out.

Soybeans also have the advantage of being a nitrogen-fixing crop, making them ideal for rotation with corn. "Biofuels are not the silver bullet, but they're one piece of the solution," said Mr. Erling. "Trying to work it out is going to be a challenge. But even if petroleum prices go into a nosedive, it's only a matter of time before we get back into this situation again," he said. To provide more immediate relief from high gasoline prices, Congresswoman Kirsten Gillibrand (D-20th) wrote to President Bush this month requesting that he direct the U.S. Department of Energy to draw down the Strategic Petroleum Reserve by two and a half million barrels of oil per month over the next six months, while suspending purchases over the same period. "These two actions would keep more oil in the market and bring down fuel costs to save consumers money at the pump and provide desperately needed relief to our small businesses and farmers," Ms. Gillibrand says in the letter.

"Inaction could have disastrous, long-term effects on our nation's economy, and the American people's confidence in their government." Ms. Gillibrand has also co-sponsored legislation in the House of Representatives calling on the Energy Department to suspend purchases. She is also co-sponsor of a bill that would allow long-distance rural commuters a tax deduction when the local price of gasoline exceeds $3 per gallon, and another bill calling for an increase in corporate average fuel economy standards.