N ew town halls, water woes, more staffing cuts within the Whitehall School district, and a historic building reopens after a series of ambitious renovations. A beloved local event celebrates a significant milestone, the county tries to unload services, and a tiny insect invades the Champlain Canal. All of these reflect some of the top stories from across Whitehall and the surrounding region in 2012.
The following is a summary of the top five biggest events of the past year, as well as a few stories that didn’t quite make the cut but are worth mentioning.
A Tale of Two Town Halls
One of the biggest and most oft-repeated stories of the past year was also one of the biggest stories of 2010 and 2011: the Town of Whitehall’s search for a new town hall.
But unlike previous years’ stories, this one actually has an ending.
After squatting in the Canal Corp. Visitor’s Center for nearly six years, the town relocated to the former Skenesborough Volunteer Fire Company firehouse, known now as the Whitehall Municipal Center, earlier this fall.
Officials spent more than $40,000 and a few months of labor renovating the building, which includes a shared office for the town clerk, budget officer, assessor, and supervisor, as well as a large meeting room and handicap accessible restroom.
The renovations and the subsequent move were the culmination of a nearly six-year search that began after officials identified mold in their former offices, which were located in the building that housed City Steaks and Seafood on Main Street.
Instead of spending money to abate the problem, officials moved into the Canal Corp. Visitor’s Center while they search for a viable alternative.
When former supervisor Richard “Geezer” Gordon took office in 2010 he pledged to find the town a building it could call home and he left no stones unturned in the search. Officials considered the former Garden Time building, the Troy Shirt Factory, the Armory and the firehouse, several times.
Just before he left office, the town board settled on the fire house after the Skenesborough Fire Department dissolved and the village removed the now infamous “reverter clause.”
When Supervisor George Armstrong took office he forged ahead with those plans and on Oct. 15, the Whitehall Municipal Center opened for the first time.
Currently, plans are being developed that will one day result in the Town and Village Courts moving into the building and perhaps one day the Whitehall Police Department and the village.
Whitehall wasn’t the only local community that resolved issues related to its town hall. A few miles to the east, Hampton officials were busy laying the groundwork and the foundation for new town hall.
After years of dealing with inadequate space and a structure that was literally sinking into the ground, the Hampton town board decided early in 2012 it was time to address the long standing issues with its offices.
A public hearing was held last winter to determine what course of action voters would support: renovation of the old town hall or the construction of new building. After the public vetting it became clear that the vast majority of residents supported the construction of a new town hall and officials had a set of blue prints drawn up.
For the next few months, officials poured over the logistics and in August ground was broken.
Over the subsequent three months, contractors, residents and even town officials themselves, pitched in a modern-day version of a barn raising to construct the 1,460 square foot building on the east side of State Route 22A.
The building, which Supervisor Dave O’Brien estimated would have cost $250,000 to $300,000 under normal circumstances, cost only $82,000 to erect and was paid for completely by sales tax receipts.
A recurring problem for years, issues related to the village’s antiquated water system seemed to reach a breaking point in 2012.
In March, the village Board of Trustees discovered it was owed approximately$142,000 in unpaid water bills. One user was estimated to owe the village $29,000 and four others had a bill in excess of $11,000, officials said. There were approximately 21 properties that owed the village money for their water service.
All of the properties were located outside of the village where there was no mechanism in place to collect on the bills. In the village, if someone does not pay their bill, it’s reassessed onto the property taxes at the end of the year.
Village officials said the unpaid water bills had accumulated over a period of a few years and blamed the problem on convoluted and outdated computer software that made it difficult to detect the problem.
Officials moved quickly to remedy the problem and a few weeks after it was discovered they passed a resolution that gave them the authority to shut off service if the bills were not paid by the end of September.
Since that time, a handful of users have paid their bills in full and a few have had their service turned off. Others have or are working on payment agreements with the village. Those who have done nothing face legal action.
Shortly after it discovered the unpaid water bills, the New York state Comptroller’s Office released an audit that described the financial condition of the village’s water and sewer system as precarious.
The audit discovered that water and sewer rates were not sufficient to cover operating expenses and that the village could not account for 55 to 73 percent of the water it processed at a cost of $79,000 to $129,000.
Officials said much of the water loss was due to defects in the infrastructure of the water system, which is several decades old and in some areas corroding.
During the last half of 2012, the village took steps to address some of the problems identified in the audit.
A new water law was passed that mandates water meters are installed on every property in the village and bills from outside the village are reviewed by the board.
The village has also completed or will complete a number of water line replacement projects.
Mayor Peter Telisky said earlier this fall that the amount of water loss has decreased by approximately a third of what it was.
School district makes more cuts
Much like the stories mentioned above, staffing cuts made within the Whitehall Central School district weren’t necessarily a new issue, but they did seemed especially acute in 2012.
Faced with another year of declining state and federal aid and increases in everything from pension plans to energy costs, the district was forced to eliminate eight positions and reduce eight other to part time.
The cuts were made across the board and included teachers, staff and administrative positions. The district even went so far as to reduce its elementary school principal to part time.
2012 was the third consecutive year Whitehall has had to cut positions. In 2011, the district cut nearly 10 percent of its staff.
Administrators have admitted that some of the cuts are the result of declining enrollment within the district. Over the last decade, enrollment has dropped by approximately 50 students, roughly the equivalent of last year’s graduating class.
A lack of state and federal aid has also played a role.
According to officials, the total reduction in federal aid the district received from the 2008-09 school year to present, is $5.2 million. That reduction has corresponds with increases in health insurance and pensions, which are projected to represent 8 to 9 percent of the 2013 school budget.
At the same time, a state-mandated two percent tax cap has limited the amount of revenue the district can generate from taxes.
Despite the cuts, the district has managed to preserve most its programs, but that is not a trend that is expected to continue.
Superintendent James Watson said earlier this month the district will have to make additional staff cuts this year and will have to target programs this year if they are to remain financially viable.
And with Governor Andrew Cuomo telling school officials across the state that mandate relief isn’t coming, staffing and programming cuts at the school is an issue that will likely dominate headlines in 2013 and beyond.
Washington County goes private
A story that dominated headlines in Whitehall and beyond was the Washington County Board of Supervisors’ decision to privatize its Public Health Department and sell Pleasant Valley Infirmary.
Like some of the other stories on this list, the county’s privatization talks began long before this year even started. Supervisors first raised the topic of getting out of the health business more than two years ago and the idea steadily gained traction among board members who said the county lacked the expertise to run the departments, which were annually losing millions of dollars.
Officials have projected PVI was running at a $3 million deficit and Public Health was expected to cost the county more than $700,000 by year’s end.
In the spring of 2011, the board put out a request for proposals from companies interested in purchasing the infirmary and Public Health’s Certified Home Health Aide, Hospice and Long-Term Care component.
The county received several offers and despite objections from opponents who believe the sale will push out people who can’t afford private health care, the board decided to enter into negotiations with Centers for Specialty Care to sell PVI and with HCR Home Care to sell public health.
Last month, the County Board Health Committee agreed to sell PVI and its public health department and a few days later the full board overwhelming approved the sale.
Centers for Specialty Care will pay $2.4 million for the 122-bed nursing home in Argyle while HCR will pay $550,000 for the Public Health Divisions.
HCR could be running the divisions within the first quarter of 2013. The sale of PVI will take slightly longer, but barring the unforeseen, the nursing home should be fully privatized near the end of 2013.
But the county may not be done with its privatization efforts.
There is growing support among board members to sell the county’s five transfer stations, which officials project will run at a $600,000 deficit this year.
Earlier this fall, the board put out a proposal for bids from companies interested in purchasing the stations, which are located in Granville, Whitehall, Greenwich, Easton and Kingsbury.
The county received two bids and agreed to enter into negotiations with the Rutland-based Earth Waste and Metal, which submitted three proposals: a lease with an option to purchase, a lease, and a proposal to outright purchase the facilities.
Those negotiations are ongoing and officials haven’t indicated which proposal is most likely. But with the board in favor of getting out of the trash business the transfer stations could be sold, or at least under new management, sometime in 2013.
Invasion of the flea
A tiny insect, no bigger than the end of a person’s finger, created a big stir and an interstate debate, when it was discovered in the Champlain Canal earlier this summer.
In June, a group of scientists from New York and Vermont discovered two juvenile Spiny Water Fleas just north of Lock 9. The discovery was the first known occurrence of the invasive aquatic species in the Lake Champlain Basin and researchers said the creature had the potential to threaten the ecology of Lake Champlain.
The story was really ramped up when U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont demanded the Champlain Canal be closed to prevent the spread of the insect into the Lake Champlain.
The comments created a firestorm of debate among officials on both sides of the border with those in Vermont in favor of the canal closure and their New York counterparts vehemently opposed to such a suggestion.
The debate turned out to be moot when the insect was identified in Lake George, which is connected to Lake Champlain and with no barriers that can impede its movement, ensuring it was only a matter of time before it found its way into the lake.
Although the discovery put an end to the Spiny Water Flea’s brief moment of fame, the story did underscore an issue, the spread of invasive species, which scientists and politicians will have to address for many years to come.
Although not worthy of top-five status, there are a number of stories that deserve mention among the biggest stories of the year. Here are stories that achieved honorable mention status.
Rebirth of the Armory
Several months after purchasing the former Whitehall Amory in a public auction, Greg Gross reopened the venerable building to much fanfare earlier this spring.
What was once home to the local National Guard Unit reopened as a sprawling gym and banquet hall.
The building underwent an exhaustive renovation with refinished hardwood floors, a lounge area with a bar, gym, sauna and steam rooms and new furniture. A new wrought iron fence surrounding the property was also installed.
The facility quickly establish itself as the cultural epicenter of the community, becoming the new home of the Bridge Theatre and playing host to a number of events, including boxing matches, professional wrestling, mixed martial arts events and concerts.
The building also serves as sort of de facto club house for the Whitehall Field Club, a six-hole links style golf course located on 67 acres alongside the Mettawee River on Gray Lane.
Additional projects are ongoing and the historic building seems well positioned to be a focal point of the community in 2013 and beyond.
A Rocky Road
On Oct. 15, emergency crews from throughout the county emerged on Route 4 as hundreds of tons earth detached from a embankment, covering the roadway in debris and rock, some as large as houses.
Responders were on edge when an eye witness claimed to have seen a car disappear under the rubble. Fortunately that account proved not to be true and no one was hurt in the slide.
It did, however, inconvenience commuters who were forced to take a lengthy detour to access points on either side of the slide.
The road reopened several days later, but was closed again earlier this month as final repairs were made to both the roadway and the embankment.
A Golden Anniversary
In October, one of Whitehall most cherished and celebrated events celebrated a significant milestone as the Whitehall Jr. Miss program, known now as Distinguished Young Women, turned 50 years old.
Organizers began planning the event last February, and nearly 150 former participants attended the festivities.
This year’s event featured 16 girls from Whitehall’s senior class and was won by Rebecca Lavin. Megan Lane and Carli Varmette were named runners-up.
Near the end of February, Zach Diekel capped a tremendous varsity career by winning the division II New York State Wrestling Championships at 195 pounds.
Diekel gutted out a knee injury suffered on the first day of the tournament and defeated rival and friend Austin Hayes of Phoenix in the semifinals. He won the championship with a 9-3 victory over Avon’s Bryce Mazurowski.
Diekel joined his father Paul, Jaime Huntington and Dan Bishop as the school’s only state champions.
He also became the most accomplished wrestler in school history, finishing the season with a 40-2 record and a school record 234 wins.
Diekel went on to be named class valedictorian and is currently a freshman at Lehigh University where he is a member Mountain Hawks wrestling team.