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As snow falls, highway budgets melt away

Dan Hitchcock, the highway superintendent in Johnsburg, can tell how bad a winter it has been by the size of the sand pile at his highway department.

“My sand pile is the smallest I’ve seen it in about 10 years,” he said.

That’s because his highway crews have had plenty of opportunities to put sand on slippery roads in recent weeks, thanks to a spate of winter storms that included two nor’easters in six days.

The last pay period, Hitchcock said, his highway crews put in 430 hours of overtime to deal with bad weather, including last week’s snowstorm. That bumps the payroll up by about 80 percent for the period.

After two relatively easy winters, the winter of 2017-18 is proving to be a tough one for highway crews around the region.

A number of local highway superintendents and town leaders say their communities are going to have a hard time staying within snow removal budgets in light of recent storms.

“We are watching our pennies, I will tell you that,” said Glens Falls Public Works Superintendent Bob Schiavoni. “Hopefully this storm will be the last one.”

Argyle Supervisor Bob Henke, chairman of the Washington County Board of Supervisors, said a major factor driving costs this year has been the number of weekend and overnight storms, which generally require overtime pay for road crews.

He said municipalities generally budget halfway between a bad winter and a good winter, banking savings from the good winters for the bad ones. The 2018 budget could be in rough shape if next fall and early winter bring snow and ice, he added.

“Sometimes you eat the bear, sometimes the bear eats you,” Henke said. “This year, the bear is going to eat us a little.”

Warren County Assistant Public Works Superintendent Kevin Hajos said the county just took a salt delivery that was the last for which it had budgeted this winter. The supply should last the rest of this season, he said.

The biggest issue has been the volume of smaller storms that has required roads to be treated, Hajos said. But he said it appears the county would not exceed its road crew overtime budget.

Horicon Supervisor Matt Simpson said his town has had to spend significantly more on snow removal this winter than the last two, which were relatively tame.

“We are definitely up in terms of our use of overtime,” he said.

Snowy winters create other unseen costs for highway departments, according to Hitchcock.

With the many miles of narrow, winding roads in Horicon, all of the trucks run with chains on the wheels in bad weather. The trucks take a beating from the vibrations caused by the chains.

“Chains take an awful toll on the equipment,” he said.

Hajos and others in the road-clearing business were heartened to learn Wednesday that the storm initially forecast to bring up to 20 inches of snow for parts of the region had taken a turn out to sea, resulting in a forecast that called for lesser accumulations.

Albany-based National Weather Service meteorologist Dan Thompson said the change in the storm’s track should limit the Glens Falls area to an additional 6 to 8 inches of snow by early Thursday.

“The storm shifted eastward a little bit, so we aren’t expecting as much as we thought,” he said.

While the weekend will be cool and quiet weather-wise, there is another possible nor’easter looming for late Sunday and early Monday, although Thompson said it was too early to predict.

The forecast for more snow prompted Glens Falls Mayor Dan Hall to declare a snow emergency that will be in effect from 6 p.m. Wednesday through 9 a.m. Thursday to allow city Department of Public Works crews time to clear city streets. During a snow emergency, all on-street parking is banned.

Fears of 'brain drain' hit West Wing amid Trump staff exits

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump once presided over a reality show in which a key cast member exited each week. The same thing seems to be happening in his White House.

Trump’s West Wing has descended into a period of unparalleled tumult amid a wave of staff departures, yet the president insists it’s a place of “no Chaos, only great Energy!” The latest to announce his exit was Gary Cohn, Trump’s chief economic adviser, who had clashed with the boss over trade policy.

Cohn’s departure has sparked internal fears of an even larger exodus, raising concerns in Washington of a coming “brain drain” around the president that will only make it more difficult for Trump to advance his already languishing policy agenda.

Multiple White House officials said the president has been pushing anxious aides to stay on the job.

“Everyone wants to work in the White House,” Trump said during a news conference Tuesday. “They all want a piece of the Oval Office.”

The reality is far different.

Vacancies abound in the West Wing and the broader Trump administration, with some jobs never filled and others subject to repeat openings. The position of White House communications director is soon to be empty again after the departure of its fourth occupant, Hope Hicks.

“They are left with vacancies atop of vacancies,” said Kathryn Dunn-Tenpas of the Brookings Institution who tracks senior-level staff turnover. Her analysis shows the Trump departure rate has reached 40 percent in just over a year.

“That kind of turnover creates a lot of disruption,” she said, noting the loss of institutional knowledge and relationships with agencies and Congress. “You can’t really leave those behind to your successor.”

Turnover after a year in office is nothing new, but this administration has churned through staff at a dizzying pace, and allies are worried the situation could descend into a free-fall.

One White House official said there is concern about a potential “death spiral” in the West Wing, with each departure heightening the sense of frenzy and expediting the next.

Multiple aides who are considering departing, all speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters, said they didn’t have a clue about whom the administration could find to fill their roles. They said their desire to be team players has kept them on the job longer than planned. Some said they were nearing a breaking point.

“You have situations where people are stretched to take on more than one job,” said Martha Joynt Kumar, director of the White House Transition Project.

She cited the example of Johnny DeStefano, who oversees the White House offices of personnel, public liaison, political affairs and intergovernmental affairs. “Those are four positions that in most administrations are each headed by an assistant to the president or a deputy assistant,” Kumar said.

The overlap between those qualified to work in the White House and those willing to take a job there has been shrinking too, according to White House officials and outside Trump allies concerned about the slow pace of hires.

Trump’s mercurial decision-making practices, fears of being drawn into special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation and a stalled legislative agenda are keeping top-flight talent on the outside.

“Most of all, President Trump hasn’t demonstrated a scrap of loyalty to current and former staff, and everyone knows it,” said Michael Steel, a former aide to onetime Gov. Jeb Bush, R-Fla., and ex-House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

Trump acknowledged that he is a tough boss, saying he enjoys watching his closest aides fight over policy.

“I like conflict,” he said Tuesday.

A number of other aides have expressed worry about the legal implications — and steep bills — they could face if ensnared in Mueller’s probe. It has had a chilling effect on an already sluggish White House hiring process, according to officials, and there is wide concern that working for Trump could negatively affect career prospects.

Morale has plunged among West Wing aides in recent weeks, too. Some point to the departure of staff secretary Rob Porter in mid-February as beginning the tailspin.

Porter was a popular figure, and his departure undid some of the progress made on streamlining the White House’s chaotic policy process. Allegations of domestic violence against him stunned co-workers.

Moreover, chief of staff John Kelly’s shifting explanations for how he handled the Porter matter — including, in the eyes of some, outright lies — damaged his reputation among staffers who had seen Kelly as a stabilizing force in a turbulent West Wing.

The administration has been understaffed from the onset, in part due to the president’s refusal to consider hiring even the most qualified Republicans if they opposed him during the campaign, according to a White House official not authorized to speak publicly about personnel matters.

In a riff Saturday at the Gridiron Dinner, an annual white-tie affair featuring journalists and officials, Trump engaged in a rare bout of self-deprecating humor, comparing the Oval Office job with his past career as the host of the reality-television show “The Apprentice.”

“In one job I had to manage a cutthroat cast of characters, desperate for TV time, totally unprepared for their roles and their jobs and each week afraid of having their asses fired, and the other job I was the host of a smash television hit.”

Several White House aides in the audience laughed in their tailcoats and ball gowns. But the joke, they knew, was on them.

Committee agrees to second sick bank option for county workers

FORT EDWARD — Washington County may soon offer a perk to the handful of longtime employees who never call in sick.

Supervisors agreed in committee to let those workers start a second sick bank because they’ve maxed out the number of days they’re allowed to save in their regular sick bank.

The new bank could only be used if the employees were sick for at least six consecutive workdays. They would be required to get a doctor’s note verifying the illness.

There are only a few employees — fewer than 10 — who have used sick days so rarely that they’ve maxed out the number of days they can save up.

Every year, those employees get more sick days but lose them on Dec. 31 because they can’t save more than 205 days. That encourages them to call in sick for a minor — or imaginary — illness, Treasurer Al Nolette said.

He proposed creating a second sick bank for each of them. While they would have plenty of sick days for any crisis, 175 of the days they’ve already saved up can be turned into service credit upon retirement, increasing their pensions. The county also pays out for 25 percent of the remaining days in that bank when the employee retires.

The new bank would let them cover a serious illness without giving up those pension-enhancing days.

It would also apply to some small illnesses, board Chairman and Argyle Supervisor Bob Henke said.

“You can get the flu for a week,” he said.

Without the second bank, employees near retirement might choose to come to work with the flu, warned Kingsbury Supervisor Dana Hogan.

“If they have the flu, we don’t want them here. We don’t want to deincentivize them from using their sick leave,” he said.

Nolette said he was more worried that an employee would save the maximum, have extra days that were going to be erased at the end of the year and just go on a sick leave vacation.

“And now I’m filling a shift, and if it’s the sheriff’s department, it’s probably someone on overtime,” Nolette said.

Committee members liked the idea of a secondary sick leave bank and will vote on it as a board next week.

Greenwich Supervisor Sara Idleman suggested going even farther.

She floated the idea of a shared bank, which any employee could donate sick days to, for other employees who have a severe illness.

“I think it’s something we need to look at,” she said, recalling how she needed major surgery three months into her first year as a teacher. She was out for two months and hadn’t had the chance to save up sick days yet.

Hartford Supervisor Dana Haff said it would be better to let employees donate time to a specific co-worker. An anonymous bank might give sick days to someone who was legitimately ill but had wasted sick days in the past, he said, noting that co-workers often know which employees use sick days as impromptu vacations.

“If your money goes to him, you’d be complaining at the water cooler,” Haff said. “I think one-to-one donations acts as its own safety net.”

The county approved one such donation in the past, he recalled, and suggested the supervisors formalize a policy allowing those donations.

Nolette said the county could set up such banks, though it wouldn’t be as easy as the one he proposed.

“It’s a little heavier administrative lift,” he said. “Now you’re talking about different pay grades. I wouldn’t be opposed to it.”

Neither idea has been formally proposed to the Board of Supervisors.

Lake George group forms to fight cut of school position

LAKE GEORGE — Parents and community members upset with the decision to eliminate the vice principal job at Lake George High School are forming a nonprofit and are not ruling out legal action over what they consider an improper action by the school board.

People upset that Cody Conley’s job was eliminated and an interim K-12 curriculum director was hired instead have coalesced into a group called Lake George United for Education.

The group grew out of the February board meeting, during which residents urged the board to reconsider. Cutting Conley would harm the social and emotional well-being of students, they argued.

The school board abruptly closed public comment and took no action on the matter.

“People were concerned that the message that we were trying to convey to them is not being taken into consideration,” said parent Katie Bruening.

Bruening said lawyer Greg Teresi is volunteering his services to investigate whether the board violated the Open Meetings Law by discussing the issue behind closed doors.

Teresi is also helping the group organize as a nonprofit. The group has not ruled out a lawsuit.

“Our goal is certainly not to have a lawsuit,” Bruening said.

The group wants a reversal of the decision and more involvement from the community before any decisions of this magnitude are made, according to Bruening.

“We also want the board and the district administration to provide parents and community members with verifiable data and objective information before they consider structural changes,” she said.

In an open letter to the board and school superintendent, the organization states that the school board met in executive session five times from Nov. 24 to Feb. 1 and four of those times were to discuss the employment history of a particular person.

“It now appears that, after going into executive session for the purported reason to discuss an employment history, the board also or instead discussed the plan to eliminate the assistant principal position. Two board members have since conceded those events,” the letter stated.

Members are asking residents who want to keep the vice principal’s position to attend a meeting at 4 p.m. Sunday at the Holiday Inn in Lake George. The group plans to speak out at the next school board meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the high school library.

The group has the support of former school board member Clark Perkett, who said he objects to the board’s lack of transparency in making the decision. He disagrees with school officials’ stance that they had to keep quiet about a personnel matter.

“We are talking about a position. We’re not talking about a person,” he said.

Perkett believes it would be a mistake to cut Conley’s job.

“He helps so many students in the high school. To make that change is really going to have a negative impact,” he said.

Also supporting the effort is Patricia Dow of the Lake George Steamboat Company, who said eliminating the position is a “step in the wrong direction.”

“The assistant principal, working with the principal, has the authority to forge a workable solution for a troubled student,” she said in a news release. “The very real problems associated with school violence, opioid addiction and bullying should compel school districts to further protect and support the healthy school climate necessary for the transmission of knowledge to all students in the district.”

People who would like to join the organization are being asked to send an email to

Superintendent Lynne Rutnik said Wednesday she had not heard of the group’s efforts.

“You think they would be working with the school district. I’d like to know more about the organization and who’s heading it up,” she said.

She wanted to see more information about the group before making further comment.

School board President Tim Collins said in an email that he was not aware of the group and it has not contacted him or the board to his knowledge. Collins said he needed time to review materials from the group provided to him by The Post-Star.

“As far as the decision to hire an interim curriculum position and eliminate the assistant principal position, the board and Superintendent Rutnik have been receiving and listening to feedback from many stakeholders in the last several weeks,” he said. “I anticipate that Superintendent Rutnik will review with the board the facts and data used to propose this administrative reorganization and that the board will consider all of this information in making a decision.”