Five members of the Clifton Park Water Authority will decide whether to buy water from the Saratoga County water system, but behind the scenes, that decision has been marked by name calling, infighting and political maneuvering that has split the Republican Party on a town and county level.
The majority of Town Board members are not convinced of the plan’s merit despite overwhelming county GOP support for the $67 million plan.
Dominated by the Republican Party that has long supported the creation of a county water system, the county Board of Supervisors and water officials have been courting water customers, including Clifton Park, which would be the system’s largest municipal user.
The county water system has also become a contentious issue in the city of Saratoga Springs as well as throughout the county.
According to Clifton Park Water Authority Chairman Helmut Gerstenberger, town residents could pay as much as 40 percent more for water piped in from the county system than for water from the current town system.
“Most town residents don’t understand the numbers and how it would affect them if the town goes with the county water plan,” Gerstenberger said. “It has become an emotionally charged issue, and the water authority was established to be independent of elected officials for the very situation we’re seeing play out now.”
The Saratoga County water system, which will run a 28-mile pipeline from the Hudson River in Moreau to the Luther Forest Technology Campus in Malta and Stillwater, is currently under construction. The towns of Wilton and Ballston have signed on for a total of 875,000 gallons per day, and the Luther Forest Economic Development Corp. has agreed to buy at least 2.45 million gallons.
According to the business plan, the water system needs to sell 3 million gallons per day to break even.
Although the system now has enough customers to be profitable, water officials are seeking as many municipal customers to sign on as possible to keep costs contained and show support for the system to other potential customers.
The county water system is integral to attracting Advanced Micro Devices, the company that is considering building a $3.2 billion computer chip plant in Malta and Stillwater.
But county GOP leaders have pushed for the system as being a regional solution for supplying water now and in the future.
“I do think it’s a good move for Clifton Park, and the county will work with [the water authority],” said Clifton Park County Supervisor Anita Daly, a longtime supporter of the county water system.
Daly said she has met with the water authority and Gerstenberger several times, as recently as a few weeks ago, and that there will be more meetings soon.
Although the Town Board is responsible for water authority appointments, by town law, the water authority will ultimately determine the source of water for town customers.
“There isn’t evidence the county system will be good for Clifton Park residents, and I’m not going to come out in support of it until I see otherwise,” said Town Board member Scott Hughes. “It’s been made clear to us [that] other members of the county Republican Party want us to fall in line with our support, but I won’t do that.”
Clashes between town and county Republicans began last April, when Clifton Park Supervisor Phil Barrett, while serving as chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, was one of only two Republicans to vote against approving the county water project business plan.
Al Janik, Town of Greenfield supervisor, also voted against the business plan.
Barrett said his vote at that time was based on feedback from the water authority that there was no proof the county system would benefit town residents. He also said he was threatened with political consequences after his vote.
“I was brought into an illegal executive session [by the county Board of Supervisors] and told I wouldn’t be supported for any future run as town supervisor,” Barrett said. “But I ran that year, and I received 70 percent of the votes.”
Barrett did not elaborate on whether or not the GOP committee supported his campaign efforts.
The town GOP rift widened during the controversial appointment of newcomer John Ryan to the water authority two weeks ago. The move sparked political infighting and name calling amid allegations from Town Board members that county officials were trying to stack the town water authority with county plan proponents.
Hughes voted with fellow Town Board members Tom Paolucci and Lynda Walowit to add Ryan to the authority. Barrett also voted for Ryan’s appointment. Ryan spoke out publicly against the water authority 11 years ago, questioning rates and asking why residents weren’t being taught about water conservation efforts.
However, contacted after his appointment, Ryan said he has “no personal or political agenda.”
“I have a very broad business background and will look at all the information presented to determine what’s best for the Clifton Park Water Authority customers,” Ryan said. “I don’t have enough information right now to make any decision about the county plan, so that’s what I’ll be studying and looking at when the authority meets.”
Longtime Town Board member Sandy Roth was ill the night of the vote, but sent a statement read by town Planning Board Chairman Steve Bulger asking the board to delay the vote until his return.
Roth, who is the board’s liaison to the water authority, returned the next week to express his frustration, calling his colleagues “disgraceful and disrespectful.” Roth spoke for more than an hour at the meeting.
In memos to GOP committee members provided by Hughes, Clifton Park Republican Committee Chairman Bob Wilcox urged committee members to attend the board meeting and encourage the vote on Ryan be tabled.
“It would be politically stupid to push one way or another,” Wilcox said in an interview two weeks after Ryan’s appointment. “Unequivocally, we are not involved in any way in the decision on who will be on the water authority. I support a totally independent board.”
However, Hughes provided an e-mail dated April 21 in which Wilcox requested all GOP committee members “honor my request to pull/table this resolution until we have had an opportunity to speak about it.”
Another memo stated “the [Clifton Park GOP] Executive Committee is unanimously against this resolution, and it will be instructive to learn who votes for [Ryan’s] appointment this evening.”
In the e-mails before the Town Board vote, Wilcox also wrote that he had “solicited candidates to the water authority and received a positive response from Dan Keegan, a successful businessman and a financial and volunteer supporter of yourselves.”
Wilcox later said Keegan was just one of the other candidates who should have been considered, and declined to discuss specifics of the e-mails, but said they were not intended to influence appointments to the water authority.
Daly and Clifton Park GOP treasurer Hugh Burke attended the board meeting to express disapproval that Roth was not included in the vote.
“I came to support [Roth], who was not given an opportunity to have input, and that disappoints me,” Daly said. “For confidence in this government, things need to be done in the open, and by not tabling this it gives the idea it was done in secrecy.”
Paolucci said he and Gerstenberger met with Ryan before the appointment was made, and that the vote was done quickly to get Ryan up to speed before the next water authority meeting, scheduled for 7 p.m. on May 14.
“We socialized Ryan with every board member and would have had him meet with Sandy, but Sandy didn’t know when he would be medically cleared to return, and if we tabled the vote, we didn’t know how long it would be prolonged,” Paolucci said. “We wanted Ryan to get caught up on all the business at hand. It didn’t make sense to wait.”
A week after the vote, Roth told the Town Board that Ryan’s candidacy looked good on paper although he still felt he should have been included in the decision.
“He has an impressive resume, and I couldn’t say I wouldn’t have found him qualified,” said Roth, who also said Ryan contacted him to meet, but Roth refused. “Meeting with him now means nothing to me.”
DECISION UP IN THE AIR
Barrett is serving the first year of a two-year term that ends in 2009 and he has not indicated whether he will seek re-election. He said he believes the water authority may be close to making a decision.
“I’ve been told if Clifton Park commits, it will be a hero. It may, in the end, be the best option for Clifton Park,” he said. “We’ll likely be deciding by next year.”
But Gerstenberger, whose board has the ultimate vote, said it’s still too early to tell what’s best for town water customers.
“The bottom line is, quite candidly, today we don’t need more water. Three, four or five years down the road we don’t know,” Gerstenberger said. “There’s tremendous political pressure at work here because Clifton Park is the wealthiest town in the county, but that doesn’t mean residents should foot the bill for this.”
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