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SARATOGA SPRINGS — A cutting-edge center of 21st century global technology and a venue honoring the traditional offerings of helping those in need met at the intersection of Franklin and Washington streets this week in a collaborative effort for the betterment of the local community, and all points beyond.
Elliott and Cathy Masie built the Masie Center on the east side of Saratoga Springs 20 years ago. This week, Franklin Community Center – which serves thousands of people every year locally - has purchased the Masie building and will be expanding their services. The new building, to be renamed the Michael & Stacie Arpey Family Community Center, will allow the Franklin the space it has needed to grow their programs.
Franklin Community Center has served as a social service hub for the less fortunate in and around Saratoga since 1983.
The Center's programs include a food pantry, a free after-school prevention program for local students and affordable housing for low-income individuals, as well as assisting with furniture, clothing and household needs, among others.
“At the beginning of 2019, our board really committed to obtaining more space,” explains FCC Executive Director Kari Cushing. “We were at a point where the space didn’t provide confidentiality for the people we serve.” A fundraising campaign was initiated with the idea of building an addition to an existing building to create more space.
“We were in the middle of it and had raised about $1 million toward our $2.5 million goal when the world stopped and COVID happened,” Cushing says. “We were no longer able to use our volunteers, so we repurposed all of our staff and since March we’ve been filling grocery bags, unloading trucks, delivering supplies and just doing what needs to get done.”
At the same time, she says, the need for services increased exponentially.
“The numbers have just gone through the roof. The need usually ebbs and flows and goes with the economy, but right now people are in dire need of just basic services. Since the start of the pandemic, just the food pantry has served 2,300 families – and of those 588 of them were brand new, they’d never been to a food pantry before. Those numbers are staggering,” she said.
“In September. I looked across the street and saw a For Sale out in front of the Masie building. It seemed way too good to be true, but we had to at least explore our options.” The building was listed at $2.6 million, and members of the board visited the location.
“When I tell you it’s perfect, that’s an understatement. It’s wide open and we could do whatever we need to do with the interior space, but we were still too far from our fundraising goal. We only had $1 million raised and being a non-profit we’re not comfortable taking out a loan for more than a million dollars. Our Steering Committee met to go over our options and that’s when Stacie Arpey, who’s on our board stepped up to increase her pledge from $100,0000 to $1 million and make it a reality for us. The Masies lowered their original asking price, and a deal was struck. “Between the two of them, it became possible.”
The Masie Center has served for a generation as an international Learning LAB working with global organizations.
“We’ve probably had tens of thousands of executives come from around the world. We helped launch E-Learning there. When the pandemic hit, I looked at my staff and said, ‘OK, go home.’ I gave them computers and lights and screens and after a couple of months predicted, well, we’re not going to go back to regular work soon. We looked at each other and said: maybe this is the time to sell the building.
“After we put the building up for sale, Franklin Community Center was intrigued and one of their board members, Stacie Arpey, and her husband Michael decided they really wanted them to have it and gave them a million dollar donation to get to the price, and Cathy and I lowered (the asking price) by many hundreds of thousands of dollars because we couldn’t think of a better buyer for it than Franklin,” Masie says.
“What I like about Franklin is that they service people who have deep and continuing needs as well as people who have newly arrived at the point of need,” Masie says. “I think we need to be quick to respond to people when they enter that and help put them on a pathway to becoming more self-sustaining. And Franklin does that. The other thing is they work a lot with kids.”
For Masie, the present world continues via video, having conducted keynotes for tens of thousands of people during the pandemic, right from his piano room at home in Saratoga Springs.
“They do so much in that cramped building they’re in now – to have that 10,000 square feet of space, it’s going to be exciting to see what they can do,” said Masie, who conducted a walk-through with FCC staff this week.
“This new home for FCC will help ensure that families in Saratoga Springs having an inviting place to receive the resources of FCC for years to come,” Stacie Arpey said in a statement.
The transition will happen gradually allowing FCC to ensure there are no disruptions to the services provided. The plan is to maintain the current venues and begin adapting some of the organization’s programs into the new venue. “In the beginning of 2021 our goal as a Board will be to really delve into that and see how we can be more efficient and make things easier to access for the folks who use our services. We want to make sure that we make things better for Franklin and for the entire community,” says Cushing, who has been with FCC for 18 years.
“COVID has obviously turned everything upside down and has disrupted all of our lives, but we have a unique perspective: we get to see the other side of it, and I have to tell you how heart-warming it has been to see our community come together to make sure that nobody has to go without,” Cushing says. “We were scared to death when it started and we saw our numbers going through the roof. We didn’t even know if we would be able to serve everyone that came to us.
“Every day we would post our biggest needs on social media and we have a contactless drop-off in the front of our building and every day when we would come in, it would be overflowing with the things we had asked for. We never had to turn anybody away, because people were so generous. This community is absolutely amazing. I think Stacie and Mike embody everything hat our community is and Cathy and Elliott – everybody made it possible, it’s such a group effort and it’s wonderful to see.”
The Michael and Stacie Arpey Family Community Center /Franklin Community Center is in fundraising mode and need just under $1 million to complete their expansion campaign which would include costs for moving and potential renovations to the space. For more information or to contribute to the campaign go to: www.franklincommunitycenter.org.
SARATOGA SPRINGS — You may know Jeff Brisbin in any number of ways.
He is a one-man Welcome Party at the Spa City’s daytime cafes; He is a night-time traveler on a never-ending tour of regional performance stages, trusty guitar cradled in his arms. Maybe you first came upon him as the songwriter who struck those solemn tones in the wake of the sad passing of local resident Nancy Pitts, capturing in the process a city’s emotions in his touching ballad “Homeless Heart.”
Brisbin - the godson of Sage of Saratoga Frank Sullivan, first began writing songs at the age of 13, tumbling along the frayed edges of understanding tone and transcending meaning as his literary godfather looked over his shoulder.
“Frank would come over to the house and say, ‘Hey, show me the lyrics.’ It would be something silly thing like, ‘Poor Amy Drew, what happened to you?’ and he would give me constructive criticism: ‘What’s this about? What are you trying to say here?’” recalls Brisbin, who has just released a new album “Blame It On Love,” featuring 10 original songs that track the landscape of communally shared human themes, offering blessings for what is, yearning for what may be, and holding love tight to the chest, at its heart center.
Musically, the 10-tune journey is accompanied by dips into a ying-yang of harmonies - a solid foundation of guitar-bass-and-drums augmented by tasteful teases via a bevy of instrumentalists; There are pianos and there are mandolins. There are cellos and saxophones. There are organs and accordions and even a tin whistle to accent the varied collection of ballads, up-tempo celebrations, and addictive sing-a-longs.
One stand-out track, “New Year’s Day,” kicks off with the pulled tension of Oona Grady’s violin - morphing gypsy and Celtic styles, tempered by the percussive paddles of Brian Melick’s multiple drum tracks.
Grady and Melick are among the nearly two dozen players on “Blame It On Love,” which features some of the region’s most recognizable names: George Fletcher and Joel Brown, Chuck Lamb and Jim Mastrianni, among them.
“When you pick these people, it’s like casting a movie, and we got the best,” says Brisbin, who credits producer Dave Maswick for his genius in style, and whom he refers to as “My George Martin.” The album is Brisbin’s third, and his follow-up to “Foreverly,” released in 2017 and also produced by Maswick – whose Ballston Spa studio is where the tracks for “Blame It On Love,” first began coming together, in late summer 2018.
The album’s title track holds special significance.
“The first song, the title song ‘Blame It On Love,’ is about Forrest Jenkins. Forrest and I were dear buddies when he was in town,” Brisbin recalls of Jenkins, who was known as a singer-songwriter and guitar player when he lived in Saratoga Springs.
“After he moved away, we would talk every 10 days or so. When I released ‘Foreverly’ he called me up on a Thursday morning and said, ‘Hey go look at my Facebook page. I just reviewed ‘Foreverly,’ I love it.’ So, the weekend comes and goes and it’s like Tuesday when I get a call from his mother. She says: ‘Jeff Brisbin. I’ve got to tell you, when Forrest was home this weekend he talked about you so much I thought I knew you personally. He loved you.’ Forrest went home, got his mail from his neighbor, and then collapsed right there. A heart attack.” Jenkins was 50 years old.
“I immediately went and found a video of Forrest at Caffe Lena,” Brisbin recalled. “In one of the songs, one of the lines was: You gotta blame it on love. I hit the pause, got out my legal pad and my guitar and in 10 minutes I had the song ‘Blame It On Love.’ The song itself is universal, but it’s about Forrest, my love for him, and what happens to us in life.”
“Blame It On Love” is available as a CD available at Celtic Treasures in Saratoga Springs, and via download at a variety of streaming services, including Spotify, Amazon, CD Baby, iTunes, and Pandora, and others.
SARATOGA SPRINGS — With the clock ticking to a midnight deadline that would have installed what Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan called a “skeletal budget” as proposed in October, the City Council Nov. 30 staged a Special Meeting during which it unanimously approved a less austere 2021 budget that maintains essential city services and preserves city jobs and salaries.
The initial budget proposed in October was set at $41.9 million – a $7 million reduction to the 2019 plan. The amended 2021 budget approved this week calls for a $46.2 million spending plan. It may be further amended after Jan. 1, 2021.
The plan calls for a 6% property tax increase, meaning a home assessed at $200,000 will require an additional payment of $72 annually; a home assessed at $400,000 will see an annual payment increase of $144.
Commissioner Madigan said with a vaccine seemingly on the horizon, she is feeling “optimistic” about at least some form of tourism returning to the Spa City next year.
• The city announced a COVID-19 Small Business Grant Program Application period opens Dec. 7, with 25 to 51 grants of $5,000 - $10,000 to be awarded. Funds may be used for: payroll, rent or mortgage, utilities, equipment to facilitate the outdoor conduct of business during winter months, or supplies and equipment that reduce risk of coronavirus transmission.
Grant recipients must preserve at least 1 FTE job held by a low-income person - designated as less than $33,950/year - for at least six months.
The COVID-19 Small Business Grant Program, administered locally by the City’s Office of Community Development (OCD), was funded by a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. All applicants must agree to federal program requirements. For full guidelines, eligibility information, and application forms go to: saratoga-springs.org.
• The comment period for Draft 2 of the UDO has been extended and the public is invited to submit comments through Friday, Dec. 11.
Members of the City’s UDO project team led six public Q&A sessions during the 60-plus days that Draft 2 has been available for review. Draft 2 documents and maps, including video recordings and presentation slides, are available on the UDO web page on the city’s website for review.
It is anticipated that a final draft of the UDO will be released and submitted to the County and City Land Use Boards for advisory opinions, prior to being presented to Council for a vote during the first quarter of 2021.
• A meeting of the Police Reform Task Force will be held at Saratoga Music Hall and livestreamed on the city website at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 9.
SARATOGA SPRINGS — The newly restored Saratoga Music Hall opened to the public last Tuesday when it hosted a city council meeting that featured the first public hearing of the proposed 2021 budget.
The proposed annual budget seeks to adjust to a near $7 million shortfall, due to what councilmembers referred to as “this COVID economy.” The 2021 proposal stands at just under $41.9 million, compared to the $48.7 million budget adopted late last year, for 2020. On the table: a 6% increase in property tax rates – which would increase the property tax payment on a home assessed at $200K by $6 per month, or $72 per year – as well as potential layoffs and budget cuts across all departments.
“These are very trying times,” Mayor Meg Kelly said during the meeting. “It’s $7 million short. We all have to take our hits (but) I think together we can all pull this off.”
This week’s public commentary largely focused on the potential Recreation Department budget – a topic amplified as a result of an email apparently sent from the recreation department, and circulated among thousands of residents during the previous weekend that pleaded with residents to attend City Council meetings and budget workshops to express concerns.
“Recreation in Saratoga Springs is at stake and we NEED YOUR HELP” read the email, “Ask our City to NOT DEFUND recreation.” Many did. With public seating limited to less than three dozen participants at one time due to COVID protocols, speakers briefly addressed the council regarding potential cuts to recreation programs then exited the building, allowing others who waited in line outside to enter and speak. The public hearing segment lasted approximately one hour. Members of the council warned of the danger of isolating one particular department and stressed the importance of looking at the budget as a whole.
“There’s been a lot of misinformation about the budget and about recreation in particular,” said Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan, who first presented the proposed 2021 Comprehensive Budget to the City Council earlier this month. “In this COVID economy the (emailed) communication lacked context and it lacked details and it lacked a lot of what we’re doing right now at the City Council… it was all over social media, and it was pure anger, rage, and panic, and that is unfortunate.”
“We all, in our own way, have a personal connection to the Rec Department and the tremendous effect it has on children’s mental health,” said Public Safety Commissioner Robin Dalton, who explained she has four children aged between 4 and 10, and realizes the impact of the recreation in the city. “I don’t want to set the tone here that we’re only out for who we represent. When you put out just one tiny piece of what the budget is going to look like and you play to people’s emotions to make it seem as if we don’t care about our kids and that that’s the first thing that’s going to go - it really sets a whole different tone for the budget season that I find regretful. The whole thing is we’re working together to make sure we have the best results for everyone in the city,” she said. “What I encourage people to do is to go to the individual workshops to understand what it means to the entire city.”
Budgeted expenses for the city’s Recreation Department have been reduced under the proposed budget, but not eliminated. There is currently $1.2 million in the budget, maintaining the costs of the Director of Recreation, one staff person, and building and grounds maintenance and utilities. “This means recreations programs cannot incur any additional costs to the city. It does not mean that Recreation is shutting down,” Madigan said.
Madigan has proposed increasing property tax rates by 6% and to minimize the number of required layoffs, the budget contains a 10% reduction in all city employee salary lines. “With a 10% pay cut we can limit the layoffs, but they are still significant: 25% reduction in Public Works labor lines and 15% in Public Safety - police and fire.” Basically, she said, a lower pay cut requires more layoffs, fewer layoffs will require a larger pay cut.
“We all appreciate recreation and need recreation, but we all have to get together as a council and see what we can do,” Mayor Kelly said. “Essential services are always first.”
“Right now, we do not have those essential services figured out. That has to be the first priority,” Commissioner Dalton said. “Water, sewer, roads, fire, EMS and police. Unless we can assure those essential services are intact – we have nothing. We can’t operate. You won’t be able to drive to the ice rink. We won’t be able to respond to a medical emergency. So that has to be our first priority as a city. Once we get those covered, then we can look at anything else.”
The Saratoga Springs Recreation Commission is a 7-member board of community volunteers appointed by the mayor to oversee the Recreation Department. Mayor Kelly pointed to Recreation Department Administrative Director John Hirliman. “We have to see if we can do this as budget-neutral and I have John Hirliman, who has always worked magic in this department, and as a council we all believe in his abilities,” she said. “I have great faith in my team to pull some programs together.”
“We all understand the tremendous financial crisis we face due to the pandemic. I’m going to work my tail off to make sure we have recreation programming,” Hirliman said.
Separate budget hearings are tentatively scheduled to take place this week involving the Public Safety Department, the Department of Public Works, and the Mayor/ Recreation departments. Visit the city’s website to confirm times and dates of those meetings, at: saratoga-springs.org.
A second public hearing of the budget will take place in November. Revisions of the potential budget may be made through the end of November, at which point the 2021 Comprehensive Budget will be adopted.
BALLSTON SPA — Mayor Woolbright walked through Wiswall Park on a sun-filled Wednesday afternoon draped in a shadow of memories of the grand San Souci Hotel. The fashionable multi-story structure which once stood a few yards away housed hundreds of guests during its 19th century heyday. It was the largest hotel in the nation at the time.
At this week’s ceremony, Ballston Spa Mayor Larry Woolbright showcased the newly restored fountain fed by the San Souci Spring, one of the initial springs that drew visitors to the village in the 1800s. If the restored fountain provided a visible symbol of the village’s renewal, the event’s unveiling of an economic development plan represents its rebirth.
“The release of this smart and strategic economic development plan heralds a new beginning for the village of Ballston Spa, and makes it abundantly clear that we are open for business,” Woolbright said, showcasing the 72-page economic development plan.
A product of the Saratoga Partnership’s Next Wave Communities initiative, the plan was guided by the input of residents, government leaders and members of the business community. More than 400 took part in local surveys, six focus groups were conducted, and a public forum staged. The development of the plan combines the community’s vision of itself, as well as recognizing village assets and resources.
“Ultimately this is your plan, based on your vision,” said Shelby Schneider, President and CEO of the Saratoga County Prosperity Partnership. The Partnership worked with the village for more than one year to create the plan, which outlines a strategic and tactical approach to attracting visitors, residents and businesses to Ballston Spa by enriching and promoting the assets, resources, charm and character of the historic village.
According to 2019 data, the village measures 1.6 miles and is home to 287 businesses and 5,469 residents. The median household income is $61,378 and the average home value just under $240,000.
The Economic Development Strategy seeks to enhance the Central Business District by achieving an environment that provides a positive shopping experience and bolsters the village atmosphere for businesses, residents and visitors alike. These would be attained by implementing, among other things, architectural and transportation/ walkability improvements, developing market rate housing for adults to “age-in-place,” fostering supportive conditions for small businesses, and updating the village master plan, which was last updated in 1994.
The 72-page economic development plan outlines four major goals, and includes a matrix of timelines for implementation, to strengthen Ballston Spa’s economic and fiscal vitality. They include: Enhancing the Central Business District; Enriching the Village’s Quality of Place; Providing support and resources to small businesses and creating an economic development and community branding strategy.
Mayor Woolbright said the plan will build on the rich and storied past of the village and “help create a thriving village for our children, and their children.”
The gathering in Wiswall Park included former longtime village Mayor John Romano, members of the current village board and regional business and tourism leaders, many of whom raised a toast with cups filled with spring water. Rory O’Connor, Chair of the Steering Committee called the plan “a declaration of opportunity.”
The survey points to downtown parking availability, infrastructure and repair upgrades and lack of business diversity as some of the top challenges the village faces. Nafeesa Koslik, who hails from the city of Hyberabad in India, said during the ceremony that she was confident she has found the perfect place to make her dream a reality. Her restaurant, Nani’s Indian Kitchen, is slated to open on Milton Avenue in the coming weeks.
James Beaudoin, owner of the prominent 125 Bath St. property, was also in attendance. Beaudoin said he looks forward to playing a role in the “exciting vision for the village’s future,” and helping to make it a reality. After many years of being unable to do so, the Bath Street property is slated for potential future development.
“You look around us here and the village is pretty well built-out. There’s not a whole lot of vacant space. Now this site is over six acres-plus, and it’s in the middle of the central business district,” Mayor Woolbright explained. “It was a tannery for many years and a Brownfield Site restricted by DEC that couldn’t be redeveloped. Jim (Beaudoin) bought it, cleaned it up and he now has permission to redevelop it. He can build, he can have businesses, he can have residences. He’s working with the village on the plan of what we would like to see there,” Woolbright said. “What we would like to see is mixed-use, some retail commercial on the bottom floor, some open space in the middle, some condos or something on the upper floors, and we’d like to see a connection up to the fair ground. It’s a strategically placed property and our vision calls for a bridge over the Gordon Creek, restaurants, bars and shops lining Washington Street.”
The Saratoga Partnership’s Next Wave Communities initiative involves creating tailored economic development plans for individual municipalities in Saratoga County. Similar efforts are currently underway in the towns of Galway and Malta. For more information about Saratoga County Prosperity Partnership, go to: saratogapartnership.org. For more information about Ballston Spa visit the village website at: villageofballstonspa.org.
SARATOGA SPRINGS — A Special City Council meeting was held at City Hall on the afternoon of Oct. 1 to address public safety concerns in light of recent protests and marches held in Saratoga Springs.
“The safety of the community and all involved is the number one priority of the Department of Public Safety,” Public Safety Commissioner Robin Dalton said, to begin the meeting. Dalton specifically cited a protest held the previous Friday night led by the group All of Us. The regional grassroots organization describes their goals as fighting for liberty through unity and active resistance and ending all forms of oppression and exploitation.
“Over the last six days we have received hundreds of complaints from residents, businesses and people who are visiting our city, over the protest that happened in our city Friday night. The Saratoga Springs Police Department recognizes the right to peacefully protest, however, one person’s constitutional right does not supersede another’s,” Dalton said during the meeting, attended by all council members, excepting DPW Commissioner Anthony “Skip” Scirocco, who was absent.
Accompanied by video clips of the protest, Dalton provided a timeline of the march, which commenced in Congress Park and proceeded through the downtown business corridor. For safety reasons, police blocked off streets around the Broadway and Lake Avenue intersection, she said, and a video clip depicted marchers moving along Phila Street.
“Frequently the group stopped in front of area businesses to intimidate and harass diners and pedestrians,” Dalton said, showing a five-minute clip that depicted one of the group leaders in close proximity to outdoor restaurant tables and loudly addressing diners with words at times peppered with profanity. “You all can have dinner, while black people are dying,” the clip showed. “You all feel comfortable, having dinner, while we’re being murdered? Come outside walk with us.”
“Suffice to say none of the customers came back to dine at those restaurants that evening,” Dalton said. “That also happened at several other businesses, where they stopped and harassed and intimidated people who were eating.”
Protests for social and racial justice have ramped up regionally much as they have nationwide since the May 25 murder of George Floyd, who died in Minneapolis after being pinned to the ground by a police officer’s knee. In early June, more than 1,000 attended a rally in Congress Park. In late July, Black Lives Matter/All of Us marchers protesting racial injustice crossed paths with another group supporting law enforcement in a Back The Blue rally.
Citing “intelligence collected by outside agencies” that police say reported one of the protestors was possibly armed with a handgun, the city added the assistance of the State Police, state Park Police, and the Saratoga County Sheriff’s Department. Later that same evening, as members of the group rallied on Broadway and impeded traffic in front of Congress Park, the sheriff’s department utilizing their MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicle, dispersed the crowd using pepper projectiles. The city Chief of Police authorized the action “once the situation started turning violent,” according to a statement issued by SSPD.
The most recent protest led by “All of Us” was staged two days after a Kentucky grand jury decided against charging police officers with homicide in the death of Breonna Taylor. The 26-year-old emergency room technician was shot multiple times in her apartment by officers executing a search warrant earlier this year in what the N.Y. Times described as a “botched raid.”
At this week’s special council meeting, Assistant City Police Chief John Catone read a prepared statement which said SSPD respects the right to peacefully protest at public property – “such as parks, government buildings, as long as they are not blocking access to the buildings or interfering with the other purposes the property was designated for.”
Citing the video clips played during the council meeting, Catone explained that marchers had obstructed vehicle and pedestrian traffic to the point that the safety of all had been compromised.
“Moving forward, should demonstrations and protests which have not been coordinated with our department occur obstruct vehicular pedestrian traffic and compromise the peace and safety of all community members, the police department will ask demonstrators, protesters to remove themselves from the roadway and stop obstructing vehicular and pedestrian traffic,” Catone said. “The demonstrators/protesters will be given the opportunity to move and if they fail to do so, the appropriate police action will take place, and they may be subject to arrest.”
He added the police department continues to make itself available to meet with rally organizers for safe protest planning purposes, but said members of All Of Us had thus far not agreed to meet with the department.
“It is time to make some changes here because we cannot have this happening time and time again in the city of Saratoga Springs – period,” Mayor Meg Kelly said. “We are not going to block streets; there’s going to be a time where somebody’s going to get run over by a car. There’s going to be a fight in the street and it’s going to be a bad scene,” she said. “I think this is a very important turning point.”
Lexis Figuereo, identified as a leader of the group “All of Us,” spoke to the council during the meeting’s public comment period.
“This is the first meeting I’m hearing anything about protests. Until people started complaining about restaurants last Friday - now you guys want to talk. Now we’re having a special council meeting. There was no Special Council Meeting when you guys shot at us,” said Figuereo, referring to the late July rally that resulted in law enforcement using pepper balls. “Why has it taken this long for this to happen, because we’ve been doing this since May. It seems to me what’s more important is property and money than people and people’s lives.”
All Of Us is advocating for what it calls its “13 Demands Against Police Brutality, State-Sanctioned Violence, and Abuse of Power.” These include structural changes be made to policing and incarceration, including the abolition of all no-knock warrants, anti-racism training for all persons working for law enforcement, and the abolition of chokeholds, among others.
In June, N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an Executive Order requiring local governments with a police force to perform a comprehensive review and develop a plan to improve current police force deployments, strategies, policies, procedures, and practices. The purpose of the order is to address the particular needs of each community, to promote community engagement and foster trust, and to address any racial bias and disproportionate policing of communities of color.
Earlier this summer, city Mayor Meg Kelly Mayor convened a Task Force to address the governor’s Executive Order. The next meeting is Oct. 14. When completed, the Task Force will present their recommendations to the City Council and the public. The council is required to adopt a plan by local law or resolution on or before April 1, 2021 and to implement the recommendations.
ALBANY — The state has launched a mobile contact tracing app in partnership with Apple and Google software that will alert smartphone users if they were in close contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19.
COVID Alert NY is a voluntary, anonymous, exposure-notification smartphone app created for the purposes of contact tracing. Contact tracing is key to slowing the spread of COVID-19 and helps protect individuals, their families, and entire communities, according to the CDC. It lets people know they may have been exposed to COVID-19 and that they should monitor their health for signs and symptoms of the virus.
“Contact tracing is awesome and our (Saratoga County) contact tracers have been working very hard – but it also relies on your memory,” says Tara Gaston, one of two Saratoga Springs Supervisors representing the city at the county level. “If you have COVID and you’re diagnosed, they ask you: Where have you been? Do you remember when you went to that gas station, and did you brush up against that person? Do you remember when you saw your neighbor out in the front?’ It relies on you remembering every place you’ve been, who you’ve been in contact with.”
The expectation is the app will “remember” contacts in greater detail than the human memory, and it will do so without compromising privacy or personal information.
“What I do right now is I have a Proximity List,” explains city resident Charlie Samuels, an awards-winning director and photographer and early supporter of the potential benefits of the system. “I’m a documentarian, so I write down everybody I come close contact with. I have my own list. But who else keeps a list? And sometimes I forget. This would be an easy, non-thinking way to do that.”
In April, Apple and Google – normally competitors in business - announced plans to collaborate on building COVID-19 software into iPhone and Android operating systems. On Oct. 1, in partnership with Google and Apple, the New York State Department of Health launched the COVID Alert NY app which enables the software to be used, for those who choose to do so.
The app leverages a private and secure Bluetooth-based technology that alerts you if a sick person spends 10 minutes or more within 6 feet of you, and lets you alert others if you have tested positive without revealing anyone’s identity, according to the state Department of Health.
“The important thing is it doesn’t tell you where you came in contract with them, or when – except that it would have been sometime in the previous 14 days,” Gaston said. “It can be beneficial, and I love the idea especially because there’s also so much privacy built into it. I’m a big pro-ponent of privacy and I don’t want people’s information being shared.”
The more people who download COVID Alert NY, the more effective it will be. The free mobile app is available to anyone 18 or older who lives, works, or attends college in New York or New Jersey, and is available for download from the Google Play Store or Apple App Store. COVID Alert NY is available in English, Spanish, Chinese, Bengali, Korean, Russian and Haitian Creole.
BALLSTON SPA — The Saratoga County Office of Emergency Services this week hosted a panel discussion with members of the region’s education and medical communities.
As the second week of school gets underway locally, Superintendents Oliver Robinson – of the Shenendehowa Central School District, and Patricia Morris – of Stillwater Central School District, say: so far, so good.
“School is different this year. One of the things we were worried about is wearing masks and how kids will comply, but I have to tell you: kudos to our students from kindergarten through grade 12; kids have been absolutely great about following protocols, which has made the reopening so much smoother,” Robinson said.
“There are certain logistics that we simply could not anticipate until we started, such as the number of parents who drive their kids to school. There are things we have to make adjustments for - and we have. Transportation the first day was a bit of a traffic jam, the second day was better and by the end of the first week things were flowing very well. Most of our kids are eating lunch in the classroom, and the food service folks have figured out a system that works very smoothly. So, a lot of people came together with a mindset of what can we do to make it a reality.”
At Stillwater, Morris said a lot of “angst” in preparation for the fall semester has largely been resolved as a result of careful preparation and planning in advance of the start of a return to classes.
“We were very excited to welcome students back and it has been a whirlwind. It’s been wonderful seeing the kids,” Morris said. The biggest challenge, she said, has been working out the logistics to make everything run as smoothly as possible – keeping students safe while providing them an education.
“We looked at the needs of each grade level: our youngest kids through first grade we wanted those kids in every day being that they’re new learners; replicating the experience of a regular education for them while keeping them safe was important to us. A hybrid schedule is not ideal for anyone, it’s not that face-to-face, and fully remote certainly is not,” Morris said. “We would want all of our kids back in- person, but to do that we need to be safe. So we created a schedule that would allow grades 2 through 5 and then 6 through 8 to come in intermittently a couple of times a week, and then 9th through 12th graders are in one day a week, but they have a double period of their core classes.”
Figuring out the financial aspects under a tight budget will be another challenge. At Shenendehowa, Robinson said the district has spent over 1 million on various Personal Protective Equipment, or PPE’s - masks, sanitizers, and machines among them, and those types of things will be ongoing, not one-time expenses.
Cathleen Medick of the county office of public health added that experts are predicting a potential second wave of COVID in the fall as people become more active and schools go back in session.
“I think the most important thing anyone can do right now is to get a flu shot,” Medick said. “It’s also the beginning of flu season, and COVID and Influenza have very similar symptoms. Getting the flu shot will help keep the flu down and hopefully keep illness at bay. On average in a slow flu season 36,000 people die here in our country from the flu, so we don’t want to add to what’s happening with COVID - we’re up to about 200,000 people who have died in our country with COVID.” Physician offices as well as many pharmacies offer a flu shot, she said.
“It’s very hard to tell the difference between COVID and flu,” said Dr. David Mastrianni of Saratoga Hospital Medical Group, who also served as a panelist at the forum.
“There are a few symptoms that may lean you one way or another. What we’ve seen with COVID is a loss of taste and smell, but the reality is it’s going to be hard to tell. There are some people who have gotten very sick and other people who had minimal to no symptoms. There’s no one-size-fits-all, so when people are sick, they’re going to have to be evaluated for both, and we have tests for both,” Mastrianni said.
“We have a lot of experience with flu vaccine over many years. We know the effectiveness and we know the side effects. It is very safe. There are only very rare various reactions to it. It’s really important this year as we seek to avoid this confusion of COVID and the flu,” he added.
Members of the local medical community are hopeful mask-wearing and social-distancing to avoid the COVID infection will also result in less cases of the flu being transmitted. “Masking is absolutely critical and then when you add social distancing - that really is very effective. We think this is a key going forward,” Mastrianni said.
“I think the people in this community have done the right thing. We’ve gotten through those tough first few months where we had our ICU full and we had to open a second ICU. We took patients from New York here, and we saw the decline in cases as people did the right thing. We’ve gone through the summer now where we’ve had spots here and there, but overall people have done a very good job,” Mastrianni said. “I think we are ready for this. We need to be cautious and to know there will be cases, but that we can handle them and that we can work through this together.”
Robinson cautioned it’s not a time to let one’s guard down.
“We try to emphasize that parents remind kids when they’re out of school, those same protocols need to be practiced, because COVID isn’t generated in the school. It’s brought into the environment. So, wear masks, maintain social distancing, have good hand-hygiene,” Robinson said. “If you have a child that’s sick in any form or fashion, keep the child home. If people are diligent about that, we will continue to have a successful year. School is part of the community and we’re in this together.”
SARATOGA SPRINGS — An expansion at the Excelsior Park complex is being reviewed by the city Planning Board.
The area of review is off Excelsior Avenue, located north of the VFW Post 420 in a wooded area bordered by Spring Run Trail. Excelsior Park Phase 1 has been constructed and Phase 2 has previously been approved and is under construction.
The Excelsior Park Project currently under review proposes a mixed-use development that includes 163 residential units, 36,200 square feet of commercial space, a banquet facility, spa, swimming pool, and a 60-room hotel with a 200-seat restaurant.
The residential component includes a variety of single and multi-bedroom apartments, townhouses and condominiums. The original application for the project was made in November 2017 and first presented to the Planning Board in early 2018.
Plans call for the construction of three new structures – the largest of which will stand 50 feet high and 250 feet wide. The Excelsior Park expansion is anticipated to occur over several phases and cover nearly 35 acres with a start date of June 2021.
The group presenting the proposal is represented by The Chazen Companies - a multi-disciplinary firm providing clients in both the private and public sectors with a everything from land surveying, planning, and landscape architecture to construction services.
SARATOGA SPRINGS — Buckle your seat belts, the battle lines have been drawn.
In November, on Election Day, city residents will be asked to consider a change in the only form of governing that Saratoga Springs has known since its inception as a city in 1915. The last time a citizen-led City Charter referendum proposed change, which took place in 2017, a tense nine-day post-election period was required to await the return of absentee ballots that would decide the winner. In the end, nearly 9,000 residents voted in all and the referendum to replace the long-standing commission form of governing was defeated by a total of 10 votes.
That razor-thin margin in 2017 was a continuation of an ever-tightening vote differential in community-led proposals for change: a 2006 referendum proposing a change to a strong-mayor form of government was voted down by roughly a 62-38 percent difference, and a 2012 proposal was defeated 58-42 percent.
This time around, the proposed charter reform calls for the creation of a six-person council whose members would be elected from six newly created neighborhood “wards,” a mayor elected by voters city-wide, and the hiring by the council of a city manager.
Last week, a pro-charter change citizens campaign committee called Common Sense Saratoga, staged their kick-off campaign at High Rock Park.
“Why am I here today? When I was in office, politics was the primary thing, unfortunately,” said Ron Kim, former city Public Safety Commissioner and currently a co-chair of Common Sense Saratoga. “Each of the commissioners protected their own turf. That’s not the way I wanted to operate, but that’s the way things were. Everyday citizens would meet roadblocks for the simple things,” Kim said. “It was open to those who were connected, who had their own attorneys, who had a voice through the political end. That’s cronyism. That’s not representative government.”
The current “Commission” form of governing features five council members – one mayor, plus four commissioners heading the departments of Public Safety, Public Works, Finance, and Accounts, respectively. Each council member is responsible for administering their own department as well as serving as legislators. In this council of five, each of whom is elected to two-year terms, decisions are made by majority rule.
Kim said the change in the form of governing would provide more accountability, representation and transparency. “City wide commissioners who manage bureaucracies don’t, as a first priority, represent people. They represent the department. I know. I was there.”
Saratoga Works - a group opposing the charter change and in favor of maintaining the status quo, launched their first gathering two weeks ago.
Led by co-chairs Connie Woytowich and Jane Weihe, the Saratoga Works group argue a change in Saratoga Springs’ current form of government would be risky during a time of a pandemic and subsequent economic crisis, deliver an “expensive version of charter change” and would politicize neighborhoods by dividing them into wards.
Kim and the Common Sense Saratoga group scoffed at criticisms that a ward-based system would pit neighborhoods in competition with one another as being “cynical” and argued that the ward system similarly aligns with most representative governments such as Congress and Senate representation.
Addressing costs, he said swapping the salary and benefit package costs of the five councilmembers and their five deputies in the current form in favor of a city manager, a mayor, and six ward council members in the proposed reform would provide taxpayer savings.
Saratoga Works argues that even as some city deputy or assistant salary costs would be saved, new workers would still need to be hired to conduct the work the current city employees are doing, increasing financial ramifications.
The designated wards of the proposed referendum are as follows: “Inner East Side” Ward 1 - Election Districts 4, 8, 9 and 12; “North Side” Ward 2 - Districts 1,2,3, 24 and 25; “Outer East Side” Ward 3 - Districts 5, 15, 17 and 22; “South Side” Ward 4 - Districts 10, 13, 14 and 23; “South West Side” Ward 5 - Districts 16, 18, 20 and 21; “West Side” Ward 6 - Districts 6, 7, 11 and 19. Each ward counts approximately 2,900 to 3,400 currently registered voters.
A total of 1,565 registered voters signed the petition to put the proposal on the ballot. If approved by voters in November, the measure is anticipated to take effect in January 2022.
The concept of a Commission form of government was founded in Galveston, Texas in 1901 after a storm ravaged that city, killing more than 5,000 people and creating the need for a useful way of post-disaster governing. It proved to be an efficient measure as well as a popular one. By 1912, 206 cities in 34 states had followed suit. Saratoga Springs adopted the commission form of governing shortly after it was incorporated as a city in 1915. Since its popularity in the early 20th century, however, many cities have since switched to other forms.
For more information about the pro-charter change referendum, go to: commonsensesaratoga.org. For more information about the group opposed to change of the city’s current form of government, go to: saratogaworks.org.