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ALBANY — The first confirmed case of the UK strain of COVID-19 virus in New York State was detected in Saratoga Springs, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said on Jan. 4.
The new strain was detected by the Department of Health’s Wadsworth laboratory as part of the state’s UK strain testing program and was traced back to someone affiliated with Broadway’s N. Fox Jewelers.
“It’s a gentleman who is in his 60s. He was symptomatic, but he is on the mend and he’s doing better,” Cuomo said. The sample was originally done in Saratoga Hospital and then was one of the samples that Wadsworth received as part of their UK testing program. Three others at the jewelry store tested positive for COVID-19, but it was not immediately known whether that was also part of the UK strain.
The COVID variant first discovered in the U.K. is reported to be 70 percent more contagious than the normal COVID strain, although it is not believed, on its own, to be more lethal.
“It seems to be a little bit more easily spread and travel a little more quickly than the virus we know,” said Saratoga County EMS Coordinator Mike McEvoy. “It does not appear at this point to make people more sick or cause different types of illness and seemingly can be vaccinated against with the same vaccine. It concerns us in a sense that if there is a wide-spread outbreak of it, we would have more people ill in the community faster and our capacity to take care of those people in public health and in the hospitals could potentially be compromised with the speed that we’ve seen it spread in other locations,” McEvoy said.
“The key thing is the message we’ve been preaching since March or April: wear your mask, wash your hands as often as you can, and try to limit your social interaction with large groups of people. Stay with people who you know.”
The state Department of Health initiated what it called “aggressive contact tracing” related to people who may have visited the jeweler between Dec. 18 and Dec. 24, to learn if the specific viral strain has infected others. Starting on Tuesday, Jan. 5, the department set up a free testing area near Peerless Pool in the Spa State Park to specifically test people who were in contact or in the Spa City jewelry shop Dec. 18-24, for the UK COVID strain. Pre-registration was required. Howard Zucker, Commissioner of Health for New York State said it takes about 44 hours to learn results regarding the B117 strain, as it is known.
N. Fox Jewelers released a brief statement to say it is working with the state health department on COVID-19 UK strain tracing and is voluntarily extending its store closure until further information can be provided by state and county health officials.The store reopened late in the week.
“Containment is vitally important,” Cuomo said. “This is a virus we have to be extra careful with. The numbers are frightening on the increase of the transmittal of (this strain of) the virus. Even if the lethality doesn’t go up the fact that it is so much more transmittable is a very real problem.”
SARATOGA SPRINGS — Two COVID-19 vaccines have been approved for use in New York and more may be on the way as the state moves through its first designated phase of vaccinations.
“The vaccine is here. It’s a light at the end of the tunnel and we see this ending the pandemic ultimately, but to do that we need to have 70% of our population vaccinated. In Saratoga County that’s 168,000 people we need vaccinated. So far, we’ve been able to vaccinate about 3% of the population, so we have a long way to go,” Mike McEvoy, EMS Coordinator for Office of Emergency Services at Saratoga County, said this week.
The amount of vaccine the state receives is based upon the allocation made to New York by the federal government. It is up to the state to determine who most needs it first, which is reflected in the phased approach.
“There is a limited supply of vaccines – there certainly is not enough to go around to everybody, so people have been divided into groups to determine who will get the vaccine first, who will it second, who will get it third. The timing of this is based on who is first at risk,” McEvoy says.
The process is currently in Phase 1A – which includes at high-risk hospital workers, ICU staff, nursing home residents and staff, EMS workers and others. McEvoy said he anticipates Phase 1B – which includes teachers, first responders, people aged 75 and older - may begin by early February. But there are may variables.
The first priority is protecting hospital capacity and staff, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said this week. “Vaccinating the hospital staff is vital. They are the front line. The UK strain complicates the issue because if more nurses and doctors get sick, it reduces your hospital capacity. And if you reduce your hospital capacity, then you have the worst-case scenario. And the worst-case scenario is a very real possibility. You overwhelm the hospitals, people die. You have to close down the economy. So, it’s game over if the hospitals get overwhelmed.”
As of this week, New York has received 950,000 dosages toward the first 2.1 million-plus people in the healthcare and nursing home Phase 1A category. By the end of this week, the state expects it will have distributed approximately 911,000 first doses of the vaccine to providers for administration to eligible New Yorkers. The state is receiving about 300,000 dosages per week from the federal government, a rate that would take several weeks to fulfill first-shot doses for millions of people in the first phase.
“Everyone wants to know: When will they get vaccinated? 1A is the healthcare workers and that’s what we’re doing now. 1B are the essential workers and those over 75,” Cuomo said. That 1B category includes: 870,000 educational workers, 207,000 first responders – such as police and firefighters, a combined 200,000 public safety and public transit workers, plus 1.3 million people aged 75 and older, among others.
The governor said he is hopeful the federal government will be increasing production. “They say they will, I believe they will, and frankly the private market is increasing production,” Cuomo said, pointing to current vaccines Pfizer and Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson – which is undergoing efficacy tests and requires just one shot, and Oxford-AstraZeneca. “I can’t say to any New Yorker right now ‘How Long’ until we know exactly what the supply is going to be. The experts are talking about March-April for large-scale, general population distribution.”
The FDA and New York State’s independent Clinical Advisory Task Force has thus far approved two vaccines: Pfizer and BioNTech, and another developed by Moderna. Each requires two shots and individuals must receive two doses of the same vaccine, with the second dose administered 21 days later with the Pfizer vaccine, or 28 days later with the Moderna vaccine. Other COVID-19 vaccines under development include Johnson & Johnson’s proposed COVID-19 vaccine, which reportedly plans to seek emergency use authorization in February and could potentially only require a single dose. In New York State, Cuomo has stipulated the vaccines will be provided at no cost.
The program is being led by hospitals in each region. As such, “Saratoga County does not have the capacity to determine who gets vaccinated, how many vaccines we have or even when we get them,” said Saratoga Springs Supervisor Tara Gaston. “I understand the information on vaccinations is not where the public would like it, where the city would like it, where I would like it. The information the state is positing on their vaccine distribution page is all that has been released publicly or otherwise. We are requesting additional information and as soon as we get it, we will be putting it out. There are currently no facilities (yet approved) in Saratoga County that provide vaccination to the public generally,” Gaston said.
“Despite the fact that we do not have the full timeline, Saratoga County is working diligently to plan the broader release of this vaccine. The county is reviewing several sites throughout the city of Saratoga Springs and the remainder of the county so we may institute PODs (Points-of-Dispensing) for the delivery of vaccines with less than 24 hours’ notice.”
Gaston added that anyone who may meet the qualifications to administer vaccines may register to volunteer at www.amc.edu/CapitalRegionVax. “This is the site that’s been set up by Albany Med – who have been assigned the role of leading vaccinations in the Capital Region.”
For the most current information about vaccines in New York, go to: covid19vaccine.health.ny.gov.
New York State is currently in Phase 1A of vaccine distribution.
Eligible New Yorkers for the vaccine currently include: High-risk hospital workers; Residents and staff at nursing homes and other congregate care facilities; Federally Qualified Health Center employees; EMS workers; Coroners, medical examiners and certain funeral workers; Staff and residents at OPWDD, OMH and OASAS facilities; Urgent Care providers; Individuals administering COVID-19 vaccines, including local health department staff, as well as all front-line, high-risk public health workers who have direct contact with patients, including those conducting COVID-19 tests, handling COVID-19 specimens and COVID-19 vaccinations, among others.
Once Phase 1A vaccinations are satisfied, the state will move to Phase 1B distribution.
Following vaccinations for the health care sector, New York will move to Phase 1B of the distribution, which will include:
• Teachers and education workers
• First responders
• Public safety workers
• Public transit workers
• People 75 and older
CDC: Frequently Asked Questions About Vaccines
Q: Can a COVID-19 vaccine make me sick with COVID-19?
A: No. None of the authorized and recommended COVID-19 vaccines or COVID-19 vaccines currently in development in the United States contain the live virus that causes COVID-19. This means that a COVID-19 vaccine cannot make you sick with COVID-19.
Q: If I have already had COVID-19 and recovered, do I still need to get vaccinated with a COVID-19 vaccine?
A: Yes. Due to the severe health risks associated with COVID-19 and the fact that re-infection with COVID-19 is possible, vaccine should be offered to you regardless of whether you already had COVID-19 infection.
Q: Will a COVID-19 vaccine alter my DNA?
A: No. COVID-19 mRNA vaccines do not change or interact with your DNA in any way.
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
BALLSTON SPA — The Saratoga Center for Rehabilitation and Skilled Nursing Care, a 257-bed facility formerly operated by the county as Maplewood Manor, is anticipated to close early in the new year.
The state Department of Health approved a plan submitted by the leadership of Saratoga Center for Rehabilitation and Skilled Nursing Care to close, said DOH spokesman Jeffrey Hammond.
“According to the approved plan, all of the residents will be relocated to other long term care facilities as soon as possible. DOH will monitor the facility as closure activities commence to help minimize the impact of this closing on the community, and to make sure every resident is relocated to an appropriate level of care,” Hammond said, in a prepared statement.
After learning of the potential closure, Ballston Assemblywoman Mary Beth Walsh sent a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state DOH Commissioner Howard Zucker, dated Dec. 11, requesting the nursing home closure “be extended appropriately, in consideration of the current pandemic.”
Walsh called the deadline for closure, which is Feb. 15, 2021, a challenging one, even under the best of circumstances.
“With the pandemic, this type of major transition could be unsafe for residents or worse yet, deadly,” Walsh wrote. “Transferring these residents to facilities within the required 50-mile radius necessitates that they will be entering facilities with active COVID cases.”
The Saratoga facility has thus far reported no COVID-19 positive resident cases.
“Given the recent surge in cases in Saratoga and nearby counties, many facilities are not accepting new admissions. This may result in residents having to relocate far from home and far from family supports. I do not question the business judgment of the owners and operators of this facility to make the business decision to close. However, I remain very concerned about the health, safety and well-being of these vulnerable residents,” said Walsh, reporting that 87 residents will be required to relocate. “Allowing sufficient time for residents to be vaccinated against COVID-19, and for the holiday surge in cases to dissipate, would be a reasonable accommodation,” she added.
The Saratoga Center for Rehab & Skilled Nursing Care, is located at 149 Ballston Ave. According to the DOH, the center will continue operations until the last resident is “placed in the most appropriate level of care,” that a full range of appropriate services for all patients/residents must be provided throughout the entire closure process, and that the closure plan must include provisions for the maintenance, storage and safekeeping of patient/resident medical records.
BALLSTON SPA — In March, the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors authorized $1 million to be directed to battling the spread of COVID-19. There were 16 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Saratoga County at the time.
In May, the Board authorized Saratoga County Administrator Spencer Hellwig to hire as many as 50 Contact Tracers at the rate of $25 per hour – the costs to be paid from the appropriated $1 million fund.
Seven months later, with the number of cases nearing a total of 4,000 in Saratoga County, $800,000 of that $1 million has remained unused, and only 23 Contact Tracers employed.
“We authorized 50 Contact Tracers. In November it came to my understanding that we only had 23 Contact Tracers,” says Tara Gaston, one of two city supervisors who represent Saratoga Springs at the county level. “Whether anyone in leadership knew about it, I don’t know, but that’s when I learned we had only hired 23. Before that, it hadn’t been discussed. And it was about this same time that we determined that New York State - which had promised us to be able to use their Contact Tracers – was going to limit our access. So, it became an even larger concern,” she says.
“I do think mistakes have been made - some at the individual level, and some as a result of the Board of Supervisors not setting this forth as a priority,” Gaston says. “When the request was made for 50 Contact Tracers, we were under the impression that was sufficient, and we were also under the impression that if it was insufficient someone would come and tell us.” There are 21 municipalities represented by 23 supervisors from all across Saratoga seated at the county board. “We have not done what we should have done. I should have done better. We all should have done better.”
On Dec. 15, Gaston introduced a measure to allow the hire of 25 additional Contact Tracers – which would bring the allowable number of hires up to 75 in all – as well as 5 Supervising Contact Tracers. That number of 75 would bring the number of county Contact Tracers in line with the Johns Hopkins standard of about 30 Tracers per 100,000 people, as well as allow a slight buffer zone should any workers step down.
A second measure she introduced targets $100,000 of the $800,000 remaining in COVID county funds for the purchase of PPE and masks for distribution in the community.
The $100,000 PPE allotment is broken down this way: $75,000 targeted for masks to be distributed to the general public in the community; $25,000 specifically set aside for any form of PPE – masks, gowns, gloves, or face shields – targeting the local population at higher risk like EMS workers, police officers, and “communities of lower economic power,” Gaston says, such as those who are unhoused.
Saratoga Springs City Supervisor Matt Veitch expressed his support for both resolutions. The county Board subsequently approved both measures.
After spiking in the spring, local infection rates subsequently were reduced and remained below 1 % through most of the summer. The 7-day rolling average COVID-19 positive infection rate doubled from 0.6% on Oct. 1 to 1.2% on Nov. 1 in Saratoga County. From Nov. 1 to Dec. 1, it more than tripled to 3.8%, and has subsequently continued to rise – by mid-December climbing to near 6%, the highest 7-day average rate registered in Saratoga County since April.
Contact tracing helps prevent the spread of COVID-19 by rapidly interviewing positive patients, identifying and alerting their close contacts to prevent the spread of the infection to others.
Here’s how it is designed to work: When a person tests positive, a COVID Contact Tracer works with the person to identify and reach out via phone and text to anyone they’ve been in contact with while infectious to trace and contain the spread of the virus. People who have come in close contact with someone who is positive are then asked to stay home and limit their contact with others. The Tracer will also connect persons infected with support and resources they may need through quarantine, such as help getting groceries or household supplies, child care, medical care or supplies.
Saratoga County’s contact tracing program operates 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day. This week’s vote by the Board authorizes the additional hiring of up to 25 Contact Tracers at the rate of $25 per hour, and up to five Supervising Contact Tracers at a rate of compensation of $30 per hour.
On Nov. 19, the county’s Department of Public Health posted a flyer indicating it was seeking individuals interested in working as Contact Tracers. A subsequent notice, posted Dec. 11, indicated a large number of applications had been received and that no new applications were being accepted. It is unclear whether the Board’s actions of Dec. 15 would trigger a new “Contact Tracers Wanted” request. The Dec. 11 post informs: Please check back on Dec. 18 for an update. The Saratoga County website may be found at: saratogacountyny.gov.
SARATOGA SPRINGS — With the swift shearing of a green ceremonial ribbon, the long awaited City Center parking facility – and the 600-plus parking spaces it brings to downtown Saratoga Springs – was unveiled this week and announced itself open for business.
Through the end of this calendar year, the first four hours of parking is free of charge. Parking rates for 2021 will be free for the first hour of parking, and $1 per hour after that first free hour, with a $15 cap charge in the 12 a.m. to 11:59 p.m. period.
The $16 million multi-floor structure features secure covered parking for over 620 vehicles, four electric car charging stations, two green spaces, a pair of elevators and an open, flat, roof top area that can be used for parking and for convention related events.
A glass-enclosed pedestrian walkway extends over Maple Avenue, connecting the parking structure with the City Center complex.
The structure was unveiled Nov. 10 during a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by regional business and economic leaders and city officials. Saratoga Springs Mayor Meg Kelly city councilmember Anthony “Skip” Scirocco addressed the crowd.
“It is so exciting to bring this needed project to fruition, and to be part of the City Center’s continued growth, but the credit for this project also belongs to many current and former city council members, City Center Authority members, City Center employees, and members of the business community,” said Ryan McMahon, executive director of the Saratoga Springs City Center.
The City Center, located at the north end of Broadway, opened in 1984 and has served as host to corporations, New York State Associations, trade groups and northeast regional organizations, gate shows, fundraising galas and social events. The conference complex offers a total of 58,000 square feet of conference space when partnered with the adjoining 242 room Saratoga Hilton Hotel.
The development of an adjoining parking structure has been debated, often vehemently, for more than a decade and the project has undergone a multitude of suggested variations.
Community concerns targeted the facility’s size, its design, and its location atop prime city-owned land. Conversely, a large contingent of business owners have long advocated for its creation, reasoning that the additional parking spaces would increase the economic vitality for downtown retail shops and restaurant. And City Center officials have discussed the need of easy parking for potential clients to compete in a marketplace with other regional centers vying for convention business.
“You always want to improve your game,” Tom Roohan, chairman of the Saratoga Springs City Center Authority, told reporters at Tuesday’s ceremony. “In December 2013 we started this process, and I think we ended up with a great project with more than 600 parking spots, a well-lit, safe and secure parking facility that will help encourage companies to come into town.” During evening hours, a security guard will be on premise to offer an added layer of safety. A limited number of yearly parking passes are available for purchase from the Saratoga Springs City Center.
The structure, which stands one block east of Broadway, was developed atop a surface lot that saw the elimination of 188 previously free parking spaces. For the time being, parking continues to be free of charge in most of the other existing public parking areas downtown, as well as on city streets.
SARATOGA SPRINGS — A cutting-edge center of 21st century global technology and a venue honoring the traditional offerings of helping those in need met at the intersection of Franklin and Washington streets this week in a collaborative effort for the betterment of the local community, and all points beyond.
Elliott and Cathy Masie built the Masie Center on the east side of Saratoga Springs 20 years ago. This week, Franklin Community Center – which serves thousands of people every year locally - has purchased the Masie building and will be expanding their services. The new building, to be renamed the Michael & Stacie Arpey Family Community Center, will allow the Franklin the space it has needed to grow their programs.
Franklin Community Center has served as a social service hub for the less fortunate in and around Saratoga since 1983.
The Center's programs include a food pantry, a free after-school prevention program for local students and affordable housing for low-income individuals, as well as assisting with furniture, clothing and household needs, among others.
“At the beginning of 2019, our board really committed to obtaining more space,” explains FCC Executive Director Kari Cushing. “We were at a point where the space didn’t provide confidentiality for the people we serve.” A fundraising campaign was initiated with the idea of building an addition to an existing building to create more space.
“We were in the middle of it and had raised about $1 million toward our $2.5 million goal when the world stopped and COVID happened,” Cushing says. “We were no longer able to use our volunteers, so we repurposed all of our staff and since March we’ve been filling grocery bags, unloading trucks, delivering supplies and just doing what needs to get done.”
At the same time, she says, the need for services increased exponentially.
“The numbers have just gone through the roof. The need usually ebbs and flows and goes with the economy, but right now people are in dire need of just basic services. Since the start of the pandemic, just the food pantry has served 2,300 families – and of those 588 of them were brand new, they’d never been to a food pantry before. Those numbers are staggering,” she said.
“In September. I looked across the street and saw a For Sale out in front of the Masie building. It seemed way too good to be true, but we had to at least explore our options.” The building was listed at $2.6 million, and members of the board visited the location.
“When I tell you it’s perfect, that’s an understatement. It’s wide open and we could do whatever we need to do with the interior space, but we were still too far from our fundraising goal. We only had $1 million raised and being a non-profit we’re not comfortable taking out a loan for more than a million dollars. Our Steering Committee met to go over our options and that’s when Stacie Arpey, who’s on our board stepped up to increase her pledge from $100,0000 to $1 million and make it a reality for us. The Masies lowered their original asking price, and a deal was struck. “Between the two of them, it became possible.”
The Masie Center has served for a generation as an international Learning LAB working with global organizations.
“We’ve probably had tens of thousands of executives come from around the world. We helped launch E-Learning there. When the pandemic hit, I looked at my staff and said, ‘OK, go home.’ I gave them computers and lights and screens and after a couple of months predicted, well, we’re not going to go back to regular work soon. We looked at each other and said: maybe this is the time to sell the building.
“After we put the building up for sale, Franklin Community Center was intrigued and one of their board members, Stacie Arpey, and her husband Michael decided they really wanted them to have it and gave them a million dollar donation to get to the price, and Cathy and I lowered (the asking price) by many hundreds of thousands of dollars because we couldn’t think of a better buyer for it than Franklin,” Masie says.
“What I like about Franklin is that they service people who have deep and continuing needs as well as people who have newly arrived at the point of need,” Masie says. “I think we need to be quick to respond to people when they enter that and help put them on a pathway to becoming more self-sustaining. And Franklin does that. The other thing is they work a lot with kids.”
For Masie, the present world continues via video, having conducted keynotes for tens of thousands of people during the pandemic, right from his piano room at home in Saratoga Springs.
“They do so much in that cramped building they’re in now – to have that 10,000 square feet of space, it’s going to be exciting to see what they can do,” said Masie, who conducted a walk-through with FCC staff this week.
“This new home for FCC will help ensure that families in Saratoga Springs having an inviting place to receive the resources of FCC for years to come,” Stacie Arpey said in a statement.
The transition will happen gradually allowing FCC to ensure there are no disruptions to the services provided. The plan is to maintain the current venues and begin adapting some of the organization’s programs into the new venue. “In the beginning of 2021 our goal as a Board will be to really delve into that and see how we can be more efficient and make things easier to access for the folks who use our services. We want to make sure that we make things better for Franklin and for the entire community,” says Cushing, who has been with FCC for 18 years.
“COVID has obviously turned everything upside down and has disrupted all of our lives, but we have a unique perspective: we get to see the other side of it, and I have to tell you how heart-warming it has been to see our community come together to make sure that nobody has to go without,” Cushing says. “We were scared to death when it started and we saw our numbers going through the roof. We didn’t even know if we would be able to serve everyone that came to us.
“Every day we would post our biggest needs on social media and we have a contactless drop-off in the front of our building and every day when we would come in, it would be overflowing with the things we had asked for. We never had to turn anybody away, because people were so generous. This community is absolutely amazing. I think Stacie and Mike embody everything hat our community is and Cathy and Elliott – everybody made it possible, it’s such a group effort and it’s wonderful to see.”
The Michael and Stacie Arpey Family Community Center /Franklin Community Center is in fundraising mode and need just under $1 million to complete their expansion campaign which would include costs for moving and potential renovations to the space. For more information or to contribute to the campaign go to: www.franklincommunitycenter.org.
SARATOGA SPRINGS — You may know Jeff Brisbin in any number of ways.
He is a one-man Welcome Party at the Spa City’s daytime cafes; He is a night-time traveler on a never-ending tour of regional performance stages, trusty guitar cradled in his arms. Maybe you first came upon him as the songwriter who struck those solemn tones in the wake of the sad passing of local resident Nancy Pitts, capturing in the process a city’s emotions in his touching ballad “Homeless Heart.”
Brisbin - the godson of Sage of Saratoga Frank Sullivan, first began writing songs at the age of 13, tumbling along the frayed edges of understanding tone and transcending meaning as his literary godfather looked over his shoulder.
“Frank would come over to the house and say, ‘Hey, show me the lyrics.’ It would be something silly thing like, ‘Poor Amy Drew, what happened to you?’ and he would give me constructive criticism: ‘What’s this about? What are you trying to say here?’” recalls Brisbin, who has just released a new album “Blame It On Love,” featuring 10 original songs that track the landscape of communally shared human themes, offering blessings for what is, yearning for what may be, and holding love tight to the chest, at its heart center.
Musically, the 10-tune journey is accompanied by dips into a ying-yang of harmonies - a solid foundation of guitar-bass-and-drums augmented by tasteful teases via a bevy of instrumentalists; There are pianos and there are mandolins. There are cellos and saxophones. There are organs and accordions and even a tin whistle to accent the varied collection of ballads, up-tempo celebrations, and addictive sing-a-longs.
One stand-out track, “New Year’s Day,” kicks off with the pulled tension of Oona Grady’s violin - morphing gypsy and Celtic styles, tempered by the percussive paddles of Brian Melick’s multiple drum tracks.
Grady and Melick are among the nearly two dozen players on “Blame It On Love,” which features some of the region’s most recognizable names: George Fletcher and Joel Brown, Chuck Lamb and Jim Mastrianni, among them.
“When you pick these people, it’s like casting a movie, and we got the best,” says Brisbin, who credits producer Dave Maswick for his genius in style, and whom he refers to as “My George Martin.” The album is Brisbin’s third, and his follow-up to “Foreverly,” released in 2017 and also produced by Maswick – whose Ballston Spa studio is where the tracks for “Blame It On Love,” first began coming together, in late summer 2018.
The album’s title track holds special significance.
“The first song, the title song ‘Blame It On Love,’ is about Forrest Jenkins. Forrest and I were dear buddies when he was in town,” Brisbin recalls of Jenkins, who was known as a singer-songwriter and guitar player when he lived in Saratoga Springs.
“After he moved away, we would talk every 10 days or so. When I released ‘Foreverly’ he called me up on a Thursday morning and said, ‘Hey go look at my Facebook page. I just reviewed ‘Foreverly,’ I love it.’ So, the weekend comes and goes and it’s like Tuesday when I get a call from his mother. She says: ‘Jeff Brisbin. I’ve got to tell you, when Forrest was home this weekend he talked about you so much I thought I knew you personally. He loved you.’ Forrest went home, got his mail from his neighbor, and then collapsed right there. A heart attack.” Jenkins was 50 years old.
“I immediately went and found a video of Forrest at Caffe Lena,” Brisbin recalled. “In one of the songs, one of the lines was: You gotta blame it on love. I hit the pause, got out my legal pad and my guitar and in 10 minutes I had the song ‘Blame It On Love.’ The song itself is universal, but it’s about Forrest, my love for him, and what happens to us in life.”
“Blame It On Love” is available as a CD available at Celtic Treasures in Saratoga Springs, and via download at a variety of streaming services, including Spotify, Amazon, CD Baby, iTunes, and Pandora, and others.
SARATOGA SPRINGS — With the clock ticking to a midnight deadline that would have installed what Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan called a “skeletal budget” as proposed in October, the City Council Nov. 30 staged a Special Meeting during which it unanimously approved a less austere 2021 budget that maintains essential city services and preserves city jobs and salaries.
The initial budget proposed in October was set at $41.9 million – a $7 million reduction to the 2019 plan. The amended 2021 budget approved this week calls for a $46.2 million spending plan. It may be further amended after Jan. 1, 2021.
The plan calls for a 6% property tax increase, meaning a home assessed at $200,000 will require an additional payment of $72 annually; a home assessed at $400,000 will see an annual payment increase of $144.
Commissioner Madigan said with a vaccine seemingly on the horizon, she is feeling “optimistic” about at least some form of tourism returning to the Spa City next year.
• The city announced a COVID-19 Small Business Grant Program Application period opens Dec. 7, with 25 to 51 grants of $5,000 - $10,000 to be awarded. Funds may be used for: payroll, rent or mortgage, utilities, equipment to facilitate the outdoor conduct of business during winter months, or supplies and equipment that reduce risk of coronavirus transmission.
Grant recipients must preserve at least 1 FTE job held by a low-income person - designated as less than $33,950/year - for at least six months.
The COVID-19 Small Business Grant Program, administered locally by the City’s Office of Community Development (OCD), was funded by a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. All applicants must agree to federal program requirements. For full guidelines, eligibility information, and application forms go to: saratoga-springs.org.
• The comment period for Draft 2 of the UDO has been extended and the public is invited to submit comments through Friday, Dec. 11.
Members of the City’s UDO project team led six public Q&A sessions during the 60-plus days that Draft 2 has been available for review. Draft 2 documents and maps, including video recordings and presentation slides, are available on the UDO web page on the city’s website for review.
It is anticipated that a final draft of the UDO will be released and submitted to the County and City Land Use Boards for advisory opinions, prior to being presented to Council for a vote during the first quarter of 2021.
• A meeting of the Police Reform Task Force will be held at Saratoga Music Hall and livestreamed on the city website at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 9.
SARATOGA SPRINGS — The newly restored Saratoga Music Hall opened to the public last Tuesday when it hosted a city council meeting that featured the first public hearing of the proposed 2021 budget.
The proposed annual budget seeks to adjust to a near $7 million shortfall, due to what councilmembers referred to as “this COVID economy.” The 2021 proposal stands at just under $41.9 million, compared to the $48.7 million budget adopted late last year, for 2020. On the table: a 6% increase in property tax rates – which would increase the property tax payment on a home assessed at $200K by $6 per month, or $72 per year – as well as potential layoffs and budget cuts across all departments.
“These are very trying times,” Mayor Meg Kelly said during the meeting. “It’s $7 million short. We all have to take our hits (but) I think together we can all pull this off.”
This week’s public commentary largely focused on the potential Recreation Department budget – a topic amplified as a result of an email apparently sent from the recreation department, and circulated among thousands of residents during the previous weekend that pleaded with residents to attend City Council meetings and budget workshops to express concerns.
“Recreation in Saratoga Springs is at stake and we NEED YOUR HELP” read the email, “Ask our City to NOT DEFUND recreation.” Many did. With public seating limited to less than three dozen participants at one time due to COVID protocols, speakers briefly addressed the council regarding potential cuts to recreation programs then exited the building, allowing others who waited in line outside to enter and speak. The public hearing segment lasted approximately one hour. Members of the council warned of the danger of isolating one particular department and stressed the importance of looking at the budget as a whole.
“There’s been a lot of misinformation about the budget and about recreation in particular,” said Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan, who first presented the proposed 2021 Comprehensive Budget to the City Council earlier this month. “In this COVID economy the (emailed) communication lacked context and it lacked details and it lacked a lot of what we’re doing right now at the City Council… it was all over social media, and it was pure anger, rage, and panic, and that is unfortunate.”
“We all, in our own way, have a personal connection to the Rec Department and the tremendous effect it has on children’s mental health,” said Public Safety Commissioner Robin Dalton, who explained she has four children aged between 4 and 10, and realizes the impact of the recreation in the city. “I don’t want to set the tone here that we’re only out for who we represent. When you put out just one tiny piece of what the budget is going to look like and you play to people’s emotions to make it seem as if we don’t care about our kids and that that’s the first thing that’s going to go - it really sets a whole different tone for the budget season that I find regretful. The whole thing is we’re working together to make sure we have the best results for everyone in the city,” she said. “What I encourage people to do is to go to the individual workshops to understand what it means to the entire city.”
Budgeted expenses for the city’s Recreation Department have been reduced under the proposed budget, but not eliminated. There is currently $1.2 million in the budget, maintaining the costs of the Director of Recreation, one staff person, and building and grounds maintenance and utilities. “This means recreations programs cannot incur any additional costs to the city. It does not mean that Recreation is shutting down,” Madigan said.
Madigan has proposed increasing property tax rates by 6% and to minimize the number of required layoffs, the budget contains a 10% reduction in all city employee salary lines. “With a 10% pay cut we can limit the layoffs, but they are still significant: 25% reduction in Public Works labor lines and 15% in Public Safety - police and fire.” Basically, she said, a lower pay cut requires more layoffs, fewer layoffs will require a larger pay cut.
“We all appreciate recreation and need recreation, but we all have to get together as a council and see what we can do,” Mayor Kelly said. “Essential services are always first.”
“Right now, we do not have those essential services figured out. That has to be the first priority,” Commissioner Dalton said. “Water, sewer, roads, fire, EMS and police. Unless we can assure those essential services are intact – we have nothing. We can’t operate. You won’t be able to drive to the ice rink. We won’t be able to respond to a medical emergency. So that has to be our first priority as a city. Once we get those covered, then we can look at anything else.”
The Saratoga Springs Recreation Commission is a 7-member board of community volunteers appointed by the mayor to oversee the Recreation Department. Mayor Kelly pointed to Recreation Department Administrative Director John Hirliman. “We have to see if we can do this as budget-neutral and I have John Hirliman, who has always worked magic in this department, and as a council we all believe in his abilities,” she said. “I have great faith in my team to pull some programs together.”
“We all understand the tremendous financial crisis we face due to the pandemic. I’m going to work my tail off to make sure we have recreation programming,” Hirliman said.
Separate budget hearings are tentatively scheduled to take place this week involving the Public Safety Department, the Department of Public Works, and the Mayor/ Recreation departments. Visit the city’s website to confirm times and dates of those meetings, at: saratoga-springs.org.
A second public hearing of the budget will take place in November. Revisions of the potential budget may be made through the end of November, at which point the 2021 Comprehensive Budget will be adopted.
BALLSTON SPA — Mayor Woolbright walked through Wiswall Park on a sun-filled Wednesday afternoon draped in a shadow of memories of the grand San Souci Hotel. The fashionable multi-story structure which once stood a few yards away housed hundreds of guests during its 19th century heyday. It was the largest hotel in the nation at the time.
At this week’s ceremony, Ballston Spa Mayor Larry Woolbright showcased the newly restored fountain fed by the San Souci Spring, one of the initial springs that drew visitors to the village in the 1800s. If the restored fountain provided a visible symbol of the village’s renewal, the event’s unveiling of an economic development plan represents its rebirth.
“The release of this smart and strategic economic development plan heralds a new beginning for the village of Ballston Spa, and makes it abundantly clear that we are open for business,” Woolbright said, showcasing the 72-page economic development plan.
A product of the Saratoga Partnership’s Next Wave Communities initiative, the plan was guided by the input of residents, government leaders and members of the business community. More than 400 took part in local surveys, six focus groups were conducted, and a public forum staged. The development of the plan combines the community’s vision of itself, as well as recognizing village assets and resources.
“Ultimately this is your plan, based on your vision,” said Shelby Schneider, President and CEO of the Saratoga County Prosperity Partnership. The Partnership worked with the village for more than one year to create the plan, which outlines a strategic and tactical approach to attracting visitors, residents and businesses to Ballston Spa by enriching and promoting the assets, resources, charm and character of the historic village.
According to 2019 data, the village measures 1.6 miles and is home to 287 businesses and 5,469 residents. The median household income is $61,378 and the average home value just under $240,000.
The Economic Development Strategy seeks to enhance the Central Business District by achieving an environment that provides a positive shopping experience and bolsters the village atmosphere for businesses, residents and visitors alike. These would be attained by implementing, among other things, architectural and transportation/ walkability improvements, developing market rate housing for adults to “age-in-place,” fostering supportive conditions for small businesses, and updating the village master plan, which was last updated in 1994.
The 72-page economic development plan outlines four major goals, and includes a matrix of timelines for implementation, to strengthen Ballston Spa’s economic and fiscal vitality. They include: Enhancing the Central Business District; Enriching the Village’s Quality of Place; Providing support and resources to small businesses and creating an economic development and community branding strategy.
Mayor Woolbright said the plan will build on the rich and storied past of the village and “help create a thriving village for our children, and their children.”
The gathering in Wiswall Park included former longtime village Mayor John Romano, members of the current village board and regional business and tourism leaders, many of whom raised a toast with cups filled with spring water. Rory O’Connor, Chair of the Steering Committee called the plan “a declaration of opportunity.”
The survey points to downtown parking availability, infrastructure and repair upgrades and lack of business diversity as some of the top challenges the village faces. Nafeesa Koslik, who hails from the city of Hyberabad in India, said during the ceremony that she was confident she has found the perfect place to make her dream a reality. Her restaurant, Nani’s Indian Kitchen, is slated to open on Milton Avenue in the coming weeks.
James Beaudoin, owner of the prominent 125 Bath St. property, was also in attendance. Beaudoin said he looks forward to playing a role in the “exciting vision for the village’s future,” and helping to make it a reality. After many years of being unable to do so, the Bath Street property is slated for potential future development.
“You look around us here and the village is pretty well built-out. There’s not a whole lot of vacant space. Now this site is over six acres-plus, and it’s in the middle of the central business district,” Mayor Woolbright explained. “It was a tannery for many years and a Brownfield Site restricted by DEC that couldn’t be redeveloped. Jim (Beaudoin) bought it, cleaned it up and he now has permission to redevelop it. He can build, he can have businesses, he can have residences. He’s working with the village on the plan of what we would like to see there,” Woolbright said. “What we would like to see is mixed-use, some retail commercial on the bottom floor, some open space in the middle, some condos or something on the upper floors, and we’d like to see a connection up to the fair ground. It’s a strategically placed property and our vision calls for a bridge over the Gordon Creek, restaurants, bars and shops lining Washington Street.”
The Saratoga Partnership’s Next Wave Communities initiative involves creating tailored economic development plans for individual municipalities in Saratoga County. Similar efforts are currently underway in the towns of Galway and Malta. For more information about Saratoga County Prosperity Partnership, go to: saratogapartnership.org. For more information about Ballston Spa visit the village website at: villageofballstonspa.org.