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


News November 2014



County seeks refund as land deal raises questions


The chairman of the Columbia County Board of Supervisors is asking the local economic development corporation to pay back $114,000 in taxpayer funds that were used to buy land included in a deal that has become the focus of a series of conflict-of-interest allegations.

Supervisor Patrick Grattan, R-Kinderhook, wrote to the Columbia Economic Development Corp. last month asking the corporation to return county money it used to acquire a 33-acre property near the border of the towns of Ghent and Claverack. The economic development group has said it plans to sell the property for $1 to Ginsberg’s Foods, a wholesale food distributor that serves the Capital District and Hudson Valley, as part of a package of $2 million in tax incentives and other public benefits to aid the company’s expansion plans.

The Register-Star of Hudson reported that the existence of Grattan’s letter was revealed Oct. 9 at an emergency meeting of the economic development corporation’s board, at which the board began discussing its options for how to repay the money.

Although CEDC is technically an independent corporation, it receives more than two-thirds of its annual operating budget from the county.

Several county supervisors have recently raised questions about the ethics of the $1 land sale, given that CEDC President David Crawford is also the head of Crawford & Associates Engineering, the company overseeing the Ginsberg’s Foods expansion project. Supervisor Art Bassin, D-Ancram, called last month for Crawford to resign from his position at CEDC because of the appearance of a conflict.

Ginsberg’s Foods is building a new $11.3 million, 65,000-square-foot refrigerated warehouse at its existing complex in Ghent. The company says the project will create 51 new jobs while helping to retain another 233 jobs.

Kenneth Flood, CEDC’s executive director, has estimated the Ginsberg’s project will yield $11.6 million annually in benefits to the local economy. Flood is also executive director of the county Industrial Development Agency, through which Ginsberg’s is seeking a payment-in-lieu-of taxes agreement that would save it an estimated $700,000 a year in local tax payments.

Local journalist Sam Pratt raised some additional questions about county aid to Ginsberg’s Foods in a series of blog posts last month at www.sampratt.com. He pointed out that Ginsberg’s chief executive David Ginsberg served as CEDC president for several years prior to 2010 and remained on the corporation’s board until late last year.

Pratt reported that Ginsberg’s Foods is in the final year of repaying a $400,000 loan it received from the CEDC in an earlier economic development initiative. He then compared the terms of that loan to others issued by the CEDC and found that:
• The 1 percent interest rate on the Ginsberg’s loan was the lowest among the 50 businesses to which the CEDC had outstanding loans as of Sept. 30, most of which carried rates of 7 percent or more.
• The $400,000 amount to Ginsberg’s was the largest of the CEDC’s loans. The next largest loan, $284,000 to a Livingston dairy, carried a 5 percent interest rate.
• The 10-year term of the Ginsberg’s loan was tied for second longest among the CEDC’s outstanding loans. More than three-quarters of the corporation’s loans were for terms of six years or less.

In other news from around the region in October:


N.Y. reaches deal on public defenders
The public defender system in Washington County and four other counties around New York will be overhauled and expanded as part of the settlement of a long-running class-action lawsuit.
In a deal announced Oct. 20 as the case was about to proceed to trial, the state agreed to take responsibility for making sure that criminal defendants who can’t afford lawyers are provided with legal representation. The settlement is expected to cost at least $5 million over the next two years.

Lawyers for the New York Civil Liberties Union had argued that the existing public defender system, in which it was up to individual counties to provide legal counsel to indigent defendants, often amounted to no defense at all.

The Times Union of Albany reported that the class-action case got its start in 2007 when Kimberly Hurrell-Harring, a 31-year-old nursing assistant, was accused of trying to sneak a small amount of marijuana to her husband, who was a prison inmate in Washington County.

NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman told the paper that Hurrell-Harring’s court-appointed lawyer met with her for only a few minutes before a court hearing at which she pleaded guilty to a felony, even though the strongest charge appropriate to the offense was only a misdemeanor.

Hurrell-Harring lost her job and her home and spent four months in jail before the conviction was overturned in an appeal brought by a NYCLU lawyer.

Her original public defender, Patrick Barber, was disbarred in an unrelated case in 2010 after the Appellate Division of state Supreme Court concluded that he had fabricated court orders and documents “in an effort to mislead and deceive his clients into believing he had undertaken the tasks for which he was retained.”

Barber was the second Washington County public defender to be disbarred in recent years.

SolarFest canceled for 2015

After 20 years of serving as a kind of annual Woodstock of the alternative energy and green living movements in Vermont, SolarFest has been canceled for 2015 and its future is uncertain.
The summer festival, held for the past 10 years at Forget-Me-Not Farm in Tinmouth, has struggled with declining attendance and mounting debt in recent years, its organizers say.
The Rutland Herald reported quoted Patty Kenyon, who had served as the festival’s director until August, as saying attendance had fallen from nearly 8,000 in 2008 to only 3,500 this year. Kenyon said she stepped down as director when the nonprofit organization could no longer afford to pay her. The group is $20,000 in debt, she said.

Apart from its financial problems, the festival also is seeking a new home. Its lease at Forget-Me-Not Farm is expiring, and the farm’s owner, who serves on the SolarFest board, has told the group she doesn’t want to renew because she wants to focus more on therapeutic work she is doing with retired racehorses at the farm.

Kenyon told the Herald that the need for a new home might offer the festival a chance to relocate to a more populous location that would help solve its attendance problems.

“If it was closer to an urban location like Rutland, it might attract more people,” she said.
Rutland has become a focal point for solar energy development in recent years. But one of SolarFest’s challenges is that solar-power installations are no longer so rare, and it’s a lot easier to find out about green-energy technology than it was in the festival’s early years.

“In the beginning, it had a fairly major effect on getting information out there and helping to spread the word about renewable technologies that could work in the real world,” SolarFest board member John Blittersdorf told the newspaper.

“That influence has dropped over the years because there’s more information readily out there,” he added. “But I think there’s still a place for SolarFest.”


Glens Falls reaches deal to sell arena
City officials in Glens Falls have agreed to sell the city’s Civic Center to a coalition of local business owners for $600,000.

The 4,700-seat sports arena and performance venue at the foot of Glen Street has steadily lost money since it opened in 1979, and in recent years it required annual subsidies from city taxpayers ranging from $500,000 to nearly $1 million. Mayor John “Jack” Diamond has said the city can no longer afford the subsidies, and he began pushing earlier this year to sell the facility after Warren County supervisors balked at the idea of helping to support it.

The Post-Star of Glens Falls reported that the city’s Common Council voted unanimously on Oct. 21 to enter into a five-year lease-purchase agreement offered by the nonprofit Coalition to Save Our Civic Center. The coalition, which has about 30 members, presented Diamond with a check for $60,000 to cover a required, non-refundable deposit.

In making the deal, the city rejected the offer of the only other bidder, Adirondack Sports & Entertainment, which had offered $800,000 to buy the building outright. The company had said it wanted to set up a youth hockey academy at the Civic Center while continuing to use the building for sporting events and concerts. But Diamond had expressed doubts about the viability of the company’s plans.

-- Compiled by Fred Daley