Shandaken cuts healthcare benefits for employees, mulls $25 million sewer system

The Shandaken Town Board at Monday's meeting. Photo by Rusty Mae Moore.

On Monday, over the objections of one of the town's assessors, the Shandaken town board voted to slash its share of health benefits for town employees.

The board voted 4-1 to cut the town's contribution to the healthcare plan premiums for single town employees from 90 percent to 50 percent, and to cut the town's contributions towards dependent-care plans entirely. Town board member Doris Bartlett cast the lone dissenting vote.

The resolution, which will go into effect on January 1, 2012, applies only to newly-hired employees and newly-elected public officials.

Prior to the healthcare vote, Pete DiModica, who was elected as a Shandaken assessor in 2010, read a statement arguing that under the new benefits package, an assessor who makes less than $5,000 per year would be working for something like $3.98 an hour.

The town's healthcare benefits attract qualified people to give up two days of their work week to do assessment, DiModica said. With reduced benefits, he said, the town might not be able to recruit qualified people in the future.

Most of the public portion of Monday's meeting was devoted to a progress report by Henry Lamont of Lamont Engineers, an engineering firm that is working on a feasibility study for the proposed Phoenicia sewer system.

Lamont and the Catskill Watershed Corporation have been making regular appearances at Shandaken town meetings to discuss the firm's ongoing study of the Phoenicia sewer issue. Though the firm has yet to finish its study, the engineers have had a consistent message for the town all along: A Phoenicia sewer system is not going to be cheap.

Lamont told the room that the most likely solution for the town's sewage problems is an expensive conventional sewer system that will cost about $25 million.

The New York City Department of Environmental Protection has set aside $17.2 million for the Phoenicia sewer project. But in 2007, Phoenicia voters rejected a proposal to build a municipal sewer. Since then, the town of Shandaken has already spent some of the $17.2 million on studies like the one currently in progress, in the hopes of coming up with a cheaper system.

Lamont told the town board on Monday that the lower-cost alternative systems that have been proposed – constructing artificial wetlands to filter waste, and pumping Phoenicia's sewage to an existing plant in Pine Hill – were not feasible.

The two wetlands systems used in New York state do not work well enough to meet some environmental regulations, Lamont said, and  pumping to the Pine Hill sewer treatment plant is not possible because of capacity limitations.

The New York City DEP has been the brunt of much anger from anti-sewer Phoenicia residents, who feel that the town is being held to a higher standard because it is in the New York City watershed. But at an earlier town meeting in May, Lamont told the town that since Phoenicia is on a trout spawning stream, the state Department of Environmental Conservation would probably hold the town to similar water quality standards even if it were not in the watershed.

On Monday, several audience members said that new technologies with lower capital and operating costs should be explored. One woman in the audience commented that the DEP is "a big bureaucracy stuck in old models."

Kathy Nolan, the regional director for the High Peaks region of the Catskill Mountainkeeper, raised concerns about the estimated costs of sewage treatment per gallon.

“What are the costs for owner-owned septic systems versus the investment of $25 million for 200 hookups?" she said.

The engineers replied that individual septic systems were not feasible because current sewage treatment standards could not be met if the use of a property changed in the future. Since septic systems require drainage fields sized according to expected sewage flow, small lot size is an impediment for reliance on such systems.

Several speakers supported the wetlands sewer treatment technology. But cold weather impedes the operation of wetlands sewage systems, according to the engineers.

“We take your input seriously,” Lamont told the audience. “We are still looking at a wetlands system, but the design engineer must be satisfied [that it will work] too.”

The firm's final study is due in September, so the engineers stressed that their comments were preliminary. They will appear at the August and September town meetings.

Finally, it was reported that plans for Shandaken Day (to be held in Phoenicia this year on August 27) are proceeding well, and that the new director of the Shandaken Museum in Pine Hill is making a catalogue of needed repairs in the facility.

A proposal under consideration by the town board to re-zone a stretch of Route 28 to permit more commercial activity, which drew heated debate at a meeting in June, did not come up during this month's meeting.

After the meeting, the town board went into executive session behind closed doors to discuss what supervisor Rob Stanley called “an issue regarding a continuing legal battle that the town has been fighting for a couple of years.”

Stanley later told the Watershed Post that the issue under discussion was Windy Ridge Farm v. Town of Shandaken, a lawsuit filed in 2006 that challenged the town's tax assessments on large parcels of land. (Here's some background on the lawsuit from a 2006 story in the Phoenicia Times – scroll down to “The Town's Tax Revolt.”)

Stanley said that the case would go to court on September 22, and that during the executive session on Monday the board approved a resolution to hire expert witness Mike Burnholz to work with the town in the court case.

Correction, July 14, 2:00pm: An earlier version of this story stated that the lawsuit discussed during executive session was Windy Ridge Farm v. Boland, and that it would go to court September 27. The name of the lawsuit and upcoming court date have been corrected in the story. (See supervisor Rob Stanley's comment below.)