Plant stubs out closing rumor

Ancram Mill exec says smoking paper plant plans to remain open and busy

ANCRAM–Recent layoffs at the Ancram Paper Mill have provoked speculation about what the future holds for the historic mill that has been a fixture of the community and landscape along the Roeliff Jan Kill for 266 years.

Fears of closure are unfounded, says the mill manager, who condemns rumors about the mill’s impending demise and is working to revive business in new ways. The latest layoffs may only be temporary.

The current state and ultimate fate of the mill, owned by Schweitzer-Mauduit International, Inc., is not a topic of conversation limited only to company employees. The topic was openly discussed near the end of the Ancram Town Board’s August 20 meeting.

Schweitzer-Mauduit, based in Georgia, is the world’s largest supplier of fine papers to the tobacco industry, according to the corporation’s website, Its subsidiaries do business in more than 90 countries and employ 3,200 people worldwide, with operations in the U.S., France, Brazil, the Philippines, Indonesia, Canada and a joint venture in China.

The company purchased the Ancram Mill in 1955, where it produces cigarette filter papers and brown paper for small, machine-made cigars.

Town Councilwoman Donna Hoyt brought up the matter of recent layoffs at the mill, telling the nearly 100 people present at the Town Board meeting that the mill workforce “is the lowest it’s ever been” and there is talk of the plant “phasing out in two years.”

Mrs. Hoyt called for town involvement in finding out exactly where things stand at the mill, because if it were to close the negative impact would not be confined to local jobs. It would also affect town revenue. “We need to know. We need foresight,” said the councilwoman.

Contacted at a conference in South Carolina Tuesday, Mill Manager Gary Kennedy said that in the early 1970s the mill had fewer employees than it does now and statements about the Ancram Mill’s closing are downright false.

There have been three rounds of layoffs since the beginning of this year, said Mr. Kennedy, who has been associated with the Ancram Mill since 1997. On April 25, 7 people were laid off, though 2 were later brought back; on May 4, there were 5 people laid off and 2 were later brought back; and on August 14 the company laid off 23 people, leaving a net loss of 31 jobs.

All those laid off are part of the hourly-employee workforce, which now numbers 66, according to Mr. Kennedy. The mill also has 29 salaried employees. At its peak, the company employed a total of 133 people, he said.

As a market leader in supplying paper products to the tobacco industry, Mr. Kennedy says, “You can imagine business has decreased over time.”

He also said that cutbacks at Schweitzer-Mauduit production facilities are not limited to Ancram. Mr. Kennedy listed job cuts of a similar scale at company plants in New Jersey and the shutdown of plants in Lee, Mass., and at Malaucene, France.

Across-the-board cutbacks are not unique to the paper industry, said Mr. Kennedy, noting that U.S. mills have been hard hit by the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) legislation, which is funded by taxes levied on smoking products, effective April 1.

“I’m doing everything I can to replace [lost] business,” he said. Those measures include development of other paper products, like the paper in tea bags, coffee filters and manufactured flooring.   

Another aspect of Ancram Mill addressed at the meeting was the mill’s property tax assessment, which, according to Mrs. Hoyt, has been “kept low” because of the jobs the mill provides to the community.

Town Assessor Kenneth Leggett said the mill assessment has been kept at $2 million in accordance with “an agreement with the mill.”

Mr. Leggett said that an appraisal presented by the mill to the firm conducting the town-wide property revaluation last year led to an agreement that “$2 million was a fair assessment” because the mill “is not an up-to-date place.”

Mrs. Hoyt said she did not see how a $2 million assessment was adequate since the mill had recently put on a $13 million addition.

Schweitzer Mauduit’s Senior Corporate Tax Manager Jack Arogeti, reached at corporate headquarters Tuesday, told The Columbia Paper that the corporation hired a third party to conduct a property appraisal of the mill during the recent townwide property revaluation, because the company believed the property had been overvalued based on comparable property sales.

The process of submitting an appraisal and engaging in negotiation is the same followed by all taxpayers, each of whom has the right to grieve his or her assessment and provide documents supporting that position, said Mr. Arogeti.

Though he did not have the figures at his fingertips, Mr. Arogeti dispelled the notion of a special agreement of any kind, saying the mill’s assessment is a matter of public record and the mill property remains overvalued in the company’s estimation.

Mr. Kennedy said the mill did undergo an expansion in 1995, which was paid for by a customer who wanted to “experiment with something.”  Though he did not know the cost of the construction, Mr. Kennedy said ultimately the experiment “did not do anything” and the structure in not in use.

The mill currently has no state Department of Environmental Conservation or federal Environmental Protection Agency enforcement actions against it and recently spent more than $100,000 to improve the operation of its waste water treatment plant, Mr. Kennedy said. “I have worked in the paper industry for 32 years and [the Ancram Mill] is one of the most environmentally friendly mills I have encountered,” he said.

The August layoffs are temporary, said Mr. Kennedy, noting that the business for the machine operated by those workers is not completely gone, but it fell off rapidly leaving a high level of inventory, that has to be corrected over time.

The manager said he expects to bring the workers back by mid-September. “It’s going to be hand-to- mouth, and it could happen again,” but Mr. Kennedy hopes that further layoffs will not be necessary.

Ralph Macchia, president of the Ancram Mill’s United Steel Workers Union, characterized the mill lay-offs as “something that is out of our hands” and “a wait-and-see situation.” He said workers were told that the corporation has experienced a “slow-down in business” and the lay-offs could last for six weeks or maybe a shorter period of time.

Mr. Macchia said the workers laid off are those most recently hired and were members of the machine crew, helpers or operators in the tobacco room, helpers in the plug wrap room or laborers. They make between $47,000 and $55,000 a year.  

Those with seniority who are still employed have had to be trained to fill in at the jobs of those laid-off, said the union president.

“We hope the corporation brings these people back so we can get back to running business as usual,” Mr. Macchia said.

The statements heard at the Town Board meeting certainly “sound ominous,” said Mr. Kennedy.

But the truth is “we are the largest longstanding employer in the area and have a great relationship with our employees. We are simply trying to make the best of our market conditions. We have a good experience here and are not looking to leave Ancram,” the manager said.

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