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Railroad to shut down following snow train run on April 7

Saratoga & North Creek Railway notified its local partners that it plans to halt its operations after the April 7 “snow train” run between Saratoga Springs and Thurman.

The company will not operate tourist trains after that date, but does not plan to lay off its employees at that point, according to Justin Gonyo, the railway’s general manager.

He would not say for how long workers would stay on if the railroad is shuttered. The announcement came after company President Ed Ellis told Warren County leaders last week that mounting financial losses would force a closure, unless the company can sell a rail line it owns in Essex and northern Warren counties for $5 million to develop freight business for mined stone. The line is known as the Sanford Lake, or Tahawus, line.

The railway has also contracted with Revolution Rail Co., which offers rail bike rides on the Tahawus line, for rail bike trips. The company’s voicemail and Facebook page show business as usual for a late-May seasonal opening, and Gonyo said the railway’s decision about its operations will not affect the rail bike business.

The shutdown comes months after SNCR had worked with Stony Creek Ranch Resort on a new holiday train program, and talks on additional partnerships between the railway and the resort were ongoing. A new platform was built at the resort to accommodate the train.

Carol McLean, general manager of the resort, said in an email Saturday her business had been working with groups wanting to take dinner train trips, which will apparently become “moot” now. She could not be reached Monday.

The company had recently entered into a contract with Barton Mines of North River to move stone south. It was unclear what effect Ellis’ comments would have on that contract. A call to Barton’s headquarters in Glens Falls was not returned Monday.

A Tupper Lake contractor bought the former NL Industries mine in Tahawus, and also plans to move stone tailings from the site via rail.

Ellis’ comments about closing down the railroad company came after Warren County notified his company that the contract between the county and SNCR had been “breached” as of earlier this year, when the company’s revenue payments were overdue. The county gets a portion of the revenue that the rail company takes in, but SNCR has repeatedly been late forwarding the money to the county and town of Corinth, which owns the line between Corinth and Saratoga Springs.

Ellis is president of Iowa Pacific Holdings, which owns SNCR and at least nine other railroads around the country and in Great Britain.

He said the company has lost millions of dollars because it has not been able to develop freight traffic to balance bills for its tourist train, which does not produce enough revenue to support itself.

The controversy last fall over Iowa Pacific storing out-of-service tanker cars on the rail line north of North River, in the state Forest Preserve, chased away potential storage customers, and the county’s vote to oppose car storage “broke” his company’s relationship with county leaders, Ellis said last week.

“We aren’t able to continue to operate the railroad financially and lose money,” he said. “There is either a purchase of the Tahawus line or we are done.”

Warren County leaders have indicated the county will hire a lawyer who specializes in rail issues to help the county plot its actions going forward.

Bruce Squiers, Special to The Post-Star 

Departing his parked car, a fisherman carries his gear and walks early Sunday morning toward the Rexleigh covered bridge, which spans the Batten Kill in Salem, as trout season opened at sunrise. Despite gloomy and even cold weather conditions, the day is popular for serious fishermen in the area.

Early voting, Child Victims Act left out of New York budget

ALBANY — Several high-profile proposals didn’t make the cut for New York state’s new budget, but supporters aren’t giving up.

The proposals include measures to authorize advance voting, extend the statute of limitations on child molestation and set aside more money for school security in the wake of school shootings.

Supporters will try again to pass the measures before lawmakers adjourn for the year in June. Prospects for the Democrats may improve later this month after two special Senate elections that could tilt control of the chamber to Democrats.

Here’s a look at measures left out when lawmakers completed the $168.3 billion budget Saturday:

EARLY VOTING: New York is now in the minority of states that don’t allow voters to cast ballots early. Good government groups have long pushed for the change, noting New York’s historically low voter turnout rates and saying that a more flexible voting system might help. Republicans in the Senate question the benefit, however, and also expressed concerns about making local governments pay to expand voting.

Advocates say voters are looking for ways to make it easier to participate in their government.

“The Legislature’s ongoing refusal to respond to the will of the voters is itself a crisis of democracy,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause-New York.

CHILD VICTIMS ACT: The Democrat-Assembly and Gov. Andrew Cuomo are pushing to extend the statute of limitations for child molestation and create a one-year window for victims to sue their alleged abusers even if the statute of limitations has already expired. The Roman Catholic Church leads the opposition to the litigation window. The Republican leaders of the Senate have long blocked the measure from getting a vote and did so again this year when Cuomo attempted to insert it in the state budget.

Supporters are now pinning their hopes on the April 24 special Senate elections in Westchester County and the Bronx, saying that Democratic control of the state Senate might finally allow the bill to proceed to a vote.

SCHOOL SECURITY: Republicans in the Senate offered up proposals to increase funding for armed school security officers but they were blocked by Democrats who said gun control was a better way to address the threat of school shootings.

“Our children are sitting ducks in our schools — all because progressive Democrats cannot stomach the reality that police, law enforcement, and security actually protect us,” said Sen. Robert Ortt, R-North Tonawanda.

BAIL REFORM: Cuomo and lawmakers introduced different versions of proposals to eliminate cash bail in misdemeanors and non-violent cases to ensure criminal defendants aren’t imprisoned simply because they are poor. In the end Republicans objected to including the measure in the budget but said they’d be open to considering it later in the session.

ETHICS REFORM: Despite the conviction of Joe Percoco, a former top aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, lawmakers again opted not to pass new ethics rules. The Legislature also once again ignored proposals to close the so-called LLC loophole, which allows wealthy individuals and companies to funnel almost unlimited amounts of money into state politics without disclosing their identity. Good-government groups are urging lawmakers to take action still this year, but similar calls in the past went unheeded.

Local counties don't see much in new state budget

What Washington County really needs is a mortgage tax increase, but at least it is getting funding for Raise the Age.

The 2019 state budget did not impress local politicians. State aid stayed exactly the same for each town and village in Warren and Washington counties — down to the dollar. There was no mention of the requested one-quarter percent increase in Washington County’s mortgage tax.

But $100 million was included for statewide costs to keep 16- and 17-year-olds out of adult jails and holding cells. State officials promised $100 million would be enough to cover each county’s costs in the first year of Raise the Age. That, at least, was a relief.

“It doesn’t mean there’ll be a Year Two, but Year One is good,” said Washington County Treasurer Al Nolette.

He expects Washington County will spend a great deal of money keeping children out of jail. Social Services, Alternative Sentencing and the County Attorney’s budgets will all increase significantly, he said.

“A very high impact on the county attorney’s office, because he takes a lot of the Family Court cases,” Nolette said.

Teenagers who are diverted out of the adult judicial system will likely go to Family Court.

Every town that has Adirondack forestry lands also dodged a bullet in the budget. Originally, the budget proposed changing the way the state pays taxes on those lands. That idea was dropped.

Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury, was pleased by that victory.

“We had to really make sure people understood,” she said.

Currently, each municipality sets its tax rate, and the state pays at that tax rate for its assessed properties. The change would have allowed the state to determine its payment, which would increase by no more than 2 percent a year, and less than that if inflation were less than 2 percent.

Towns and villages that hold large swaths of state-owned land rely on taxes to stay operational. They said the change could devastate them.

“Local governments, environmentalists and many others were unequivocal in their united and vocal opposition to this plan,” Little said in a statement after the plan was dropped. “All were concerned that it would have overturned a more than century-old practice clearly defined in statute and would have unfairly cost local taxpayers. Getting this out of the budget was a priority for me and I am very pleased we’ve gotten the result so many wanted.”

Little had several other victories in the final budget.

Warren and Washington counties will get $185,000 to start a joint program called peer-to-peer veterans. Inspired by a program in Saratoga County, it would allow veterans to help each other. Little pushed for it after a veteran attended the Saratoga program and asked her to help create something similar here.

The budget also made a slight change in definition that will help veterans make their homes handicapped accessible.

Previously, the Home for Heroes fund could only be used by veterans who were injured in service and had become disabled because of that injury.

“We don’t have a lot of takers,” Little said. “It’s not getting utilized.”

So, in the budget package, the definition of “disabled” was changed. Now, any veteran who becomes disabled for any reason can access the funds.

Agriculture also got a lift in the budget, with more funding for hemp research and maple production.

The budget also includes funds to continue the Regional Economic Development Councils, including an eighth grant round next year.

“We have gotten some good money through those we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise,” Little said.

The counties will be getting a little more in CHIPS funding too, for its road paving projects.

“Which they need desperately,” Little said. “I have explained to my colleagues — we have freezing temperatures and a lot more water.”

They agreed that North County counties deserved more CHIPS funding.

But there was one gaping hole in the budget, as far as Washington County was concerned. The county didn’t get a mortgage tax increase, which would have allowed it to pay its loan on the new SUNY Adirondack building. It would bring the county’s tax rate up to that of its neighbors.

“Look, I am trying,” Little said. “It’s a tough one for me to get. We rejected every tax in this budget.”

She managed to get the increase approved once, but Assemblyman Dan Stec hadn’t gotten it through his chamber that year.

“I got it at the last minute. It was a lack of communication between Dan and I: He had always introduced it, but that year he hadn’t,” Little said. “If I see anyone getting a local tax increase, that’s how I got it. A couple towns downstate were getting a bed tax, and I said if they get a bed tax, I get the mortgage tax.”

The budget does give SUNY Adirondack and other colleges an increase of $100 per full-time equivalent student, but that won’t help Washington County pay its loan. The first payment is due next year, and the county doesn’t yet know how it will come up with it.

“It’s unfortunate, because others have already gotten it,” Little said. “They say no more taxes and I say, that’s because you already raised your taxes.”

Assemblyman Stec, R-Queensbury, is introducing a request for the mortgage tax increase again.

He said he was pleased the plan to change the way taxes are paid on Adirondack forest lands was dropped. But overall, he isn’t happy with the state budget.

“But like the Assembly One-house Resolution, and the governor’s budget proposal before that, I cannot help but be disheartened by the continuation of the state’s tax-and-spend culture,” he said in a statement. “New Yorkers are being buried under high taxes, and forced out of state by the high cost of living. As legislators, we need to be focusing on reducing the tax burden and making New York more affordable for its residents.”

Alexander West files appeal, seeks lesser sentence

Lawyers for Alexander West have filed an appeal of his convictions and sentence for the July 2016 fatal boat crash on Lake George, arguing that numerous legal issues warrant a new trial or dismissal of the weightiest charges and that the sentence imposed on West was “excessive.”

West is serving a 5- to 15-year state prison term for the July 25, 2016 boat collision near Cramer Point that killed 8-year-old Charlotte McCue and seriously injured her mother. He was piloting his father’s boat after drinking and using drugs for hours earlier that day, and ran over the top of a boat that was carrying the McCue family and Charlotte’s grandfather and stepgrandmother. The McCues, residents of California, were on vacation at the time.

Fatal boat crash on Lake George, trial

West’s legal team, led by Cheryl Coleman of Albany, filed the appeal in recent weeks in the Appellate Division of state Supreme Court in Albany, a mid-level appeals court that hears felony appeals. It lists seven perceived legal issues with the trial, as well as a claim that the 5- to 15-year prison sentence, which prosecutors and defense lawyers agreed was not the maximum, was “unduly harsh and excessive.”

“The end result was a jury, who had not been selected in accordance with the law, that were privy to a tremendous amount of inadmissible and prejudicial evidence, that were prevented from hearing admissible and probative opinion testimony from a qualified expert,” Coleman wrote. “Taken individually or collectively, these errors deprived appellant of his right to a fair trial.”

Warren County District Attorney Jason Carusone said his office was preparing a response to the appeal. The prosecution’s response is due April 20. The two sides will argue before the appeals court later this spring or summer, with a ruling likely by the end of the year.

The court could affirm the verdict or order a new trial on all or some of the charges.

The issues singled out by the defense are:

  • The evidence against West was not legally sufficient to convict him of the weightiest charge, second-degree manslaughter, which required proof he was reckless. There was limited evidence that West had been drinking, and experts testified he was either going slightly below or slightly above the 25 mph lake speed limit at the time, the appeal claims. Only one passenger on West’s boat testified about speed, saying he was going 30 to 35 mph at some point before the crash.

“The record is devoid of any evidence indicating appellant operated his boat in a reckless manner,” the appeal reads.

  • West was “deprived of a fair trial” by Warren County Judge John Hall’s decisions to limit a defense expert witness’ testimony and allow testimony from a prosecution expert. The experts discussed their views of how the boat collision occurred, and the defense claims that Hall “sharply curtailed and limited” the defense expert. Hall had pointed out that the defense expert was not a boat crash “reconstructionist,” but Coleman claimed that “prejudiced” the defense.
  • A juror was wrongly excluded after prosecutors learned he had been accused of a sexual assault. The juror had been sworn in, when police revealed they had fielded a rape complaint against him. Hall dismissed him without a required inquiry, which “cast a doubt on the legitimacy of the verdict even before the trial begins,” Coleman wrote. The juror was not charged.
  • “Irrelevant and highly prejudicial” evidence from prosecution witnesses was allowed at trial that included impermissible “hearsay” testimony, photos and text messages, while the defense was barred from eliciting testimony about an interaction between West and his father.
  • Allowing the grand jury that indicted West to hear testimony about blood tests that were later not used as evidence because of procedural problems tainted the grand jury. “It is inconceivable that the blood test evidence and corresponding toxicology testimony ... didn’t have a prejudicial impact on the grand jury in terms of its resolution of the issue and its decision to charge appellant,” the appeal states.
  • The jury that convicted West heard evidence about drug use for which he wasn’t charged, including the arrangement of a cocaine sale, which was improper evidence of “uncharged” crimes.
  • Prosecutors improperly “impeached” the testimony of their own witness as he talked about West’s condition after he and his boat passengers fled the boat crash scene. The witness, Michael Kenny, testified at trial that West was “coherent” but had earlier told police that he seemed “slightly impaired.”
  • West asked for a lesser sentence “in the interest of justice,” arguing that the 5- to 15-year prison term was “excessive.” He did not receive consecutive sentences for the manslaughter and leaving the scene of an accident charges, although both the prosecution and defense agreed they were legally permissible. He could have received 7 1/3 to 22 years if consecutive sentences were imposed.

West, 26, is serving his prison sentence in Collins Correctional Facility. He is eligible for parole in April 2022 if his appeal is not granted.