Historian eliminated from Schenectady County budget

Thursday, October 25, 2012
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— Longtime historian Don Rittner awoke Wednesday to find his job had been zeroed out of Schenectady County’s budget.

Legislators adopted a 2013 spending plan that removes the part-time position’s $24,761 salary along with a modest stipend afforded for the historian’s supplies. The budget instead includes a “professional services” line item with $15,000.

County spokesman Joe McQueen said the position was removed as part of the effort to reduce the tax levy increase. He said county officials have until January to decide how to spend the line item, but was unsure how and in what capacity the historian’s position would be filled.

“It’s a cost-savings measure,” he said. “What the county is looking to do is contract the service out to save money.”

It’s the second time in three years Rittner has fallen prey to the municipal budget ax. In 2010, members of the Schenectady City Council adopted a 2011 budget that eliminated the $20,000 salary he collected as the part-time city historian.

Rittner, who was hired to replace longtime county historian Larry Hart in 2004, was caught off guard by the change. He said he only heard of the change when someone alerted him of it several hours before the Legislature adopted the budget Tuesday.

“That was the first I had heard about it,” he said.

“All I know is that I’m out of a job.”

Rittner’s work with the position has brought renewed interest in Schenectady County’s heritage from within and beyond its borders. Among his accolades, he helped plan events for the county’s bicentennial in 2009, helped with the construction of the 17th-century Dutch sailing ship replica the Onrust, and lobbied for the city to adopt the Woodlawn Preserve as parkland.

Ritter also worked hard to bring the county’s heritage to a broader audience via national television. In 2008, he helped to bring the PBS television series “History Detectives” into the city’s Stockade neighborhood to do a program on a home that appeared to be a centuries-old British Army blockhouse.

Rittner also lobbied director Derek Cianfrance to shoot “The Place Beyond the Pines” in the county. The film, featuring Hollywood stars Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper, spent nearly two months shooting in locations throughout the county, bringing an economic impact that Rittner estimated in the range of roughly $2 million.

More recently, Rittner lobbied HBO film crews to use the Stockade area as a backdrop for a Vietnam-era feature following the years Muhammad Ali was barred from boxing while pursuing conscientious objector status. Then, in September, he helped bring the Fireball Run road rally, an event that was streamlined on the Internet and will later be made into a film.

Rittner questioned why the county would make such a change when it seemed to be paying dividends for the area economy. He said the move doesn’t make much sense.

“You’ve got someone bringing millions of dollars into the county and you can’t find a few thousand to pay his salary?” he said.

Fallout continues from the cuts included in the revised $295.48 million general fund budget passed Tuesday. The cuts also leave the Schenectady County Public Library in a grim financial position, prompting its Board of Trustees to evaluate the best options for moving forward next year.

The library system will need to contend with roughly $521,000 in cuts next year, including a $184,000 drop in funding to pay its hourly workers. Library Director Karen Bradley said she’s still evaluating what the adopted budget will mean for the system and what changes will need to come as a result. “There will be a challenge ahead,” she said.

And the challenge comes as the library system is already struggling to make ends meet. Bradley said the library will conduct a survey at its 10 branches next month to gather input from the people who use the system most.

“There are many needs in the community right now,” she said. “Our mission is to meet those needs the best we can.”

 

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