Schenectady County’s plan to contract out the historian’s duties could be illegal and may place it at risk of losing state funding for certain initiatives, the Association of Public Historians of New York State warned last week.
Association President Gerald Smith said a section of state law requires a county legislature or board of supervisors to designate a historian. Without an appointed historian, he said the county could be reported to the state Attorney General’s Office and then risk losing out on heritage-specific grants from other state agencies.
“Counties that do not appoint or abolish the position are technically in violation in the law,” he said Friday.
Smith acknowledged the law defines no specific punishment for violations. But he said the county without a designated historian could miss out on opportunity through Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Path Through History Initiative, which is providing the Capital Region with $100,000 in an effort to bolster heritage tourism marketing plans.
Smith conveyed his concerns in a letter addressed to Legislature Chairwoman Judy Dagostino and to the Office of the New York State Historian this week. Dagostino did not return a call for comment Friday.
Longtime historian Don Rittner is to leave the position in January, after the county Legislature zeroed his $24,761 part-time salary out of the adopted 2013 budget. The spending plan instead includes a “professional services” line item with $15,000.
County officials described the budget elimination as a cost-saving measure. They indicated Rittner’s duties would be contracted out, not eliminated.
Rittner, who replaced longtime county historian Larry Hart in 2004, brought renewed interest in Schenectady County’s heritage from within and beyond its borders. He also was integral in developing the Schenectady Film Commission and bringing several major productions to the county.
Smith, who serves as the Broome County historian, said he learned of Rittner’s position being unfunded by word of mouth. Though Smith regards Rittner as a capable historian, he said his aim is to keep the position filled in Schenectady County, not to save his colleague’s job.
“What we’re trying to do is preserve the position,” he said.
County officials haven’t decided how they will fill the position. County Attorney Chris Gardner said legislators are considering an agreement with the Schenectady County Historical Society, but haven’t made any final decisions.
“There will be a position of historian still,” he said.
Smith warned a partnership with a member-driven organization like the historical society might not work as well as the county envisions. He said similar partnerships in other communities around the state haven’t panned out too well.
Smith also fears Schenectady County isn’t looking at the big picture. He said heritage tourism in the state is a $5 billion industry that can be more readily tapped if a municipal government has a capable historian.
“It seems like they’re being penny wise and pound foolish,” he said.