Better to look forward than back

CALL IT ADVANCED AGE, human nature, a bad attitude or unfounded optimism–it’s hard to recall a year that we hoped would go on forever. Even if one came to mind, it wouldn’t be 2009. By any standard 2010 looks a more promising.

Good things did happen in 2009; think of the passengers and crew standing on the wings of an airliner floating in the Hudson River. But on balance ’09 summons images of natural disasters like floods–one of the worst last summer caused an estimated $5 million in damages to public property in the county–and blight that threatened to wipe out local tomato and potato crops. It also gave us the swine flu pandemic, which fizzled here, though health experts warn it could re-emerge.

The year saw illegal dump operator Sal Cascino continue to flout the legal system from his misnamed “farm” in Copake, and a teenager face vehicular manslaughter charges after allegedly drinking before he got behind the wheel of his mother’s car and fatally injured another driver in Canaan.

For the economy, the word “ugly” leaps to mind. County unemployment consistently tracks lower than state and national averages, but the number of people out of work here has remained higher than anything seen in a generation. Two new box stores opened in Greenport, creating new jobs and giving shoppers more choices at lower prices. But the relocated Walmart and the new Lowe’s also suck business away from smaller, locally owned firms, especially those that sell hardware, lumber and appliances. That diminishes whatever net gain the community could expect, assuming there was a positive impact to begin with. And benefit calculations ignore the long-term social and environmental costs of additional strip development that comes at the expense of traditional business districts.

Politics? Republicans remain firmly in control of the county Board of Supervisors after the November election, even as the last twitches of the party’s ill-advised attempt to bully second-home voters peters out in the courts. The new year will see some changes, with Germantown Supervisor Roy Brown anointed to take over as chairman of the county board, replacing Art Baer of Hillsdale.

Mr. Baer shook up county government with a vigorous determination to remedy so many festering problems so quickly that it seemed for a while as if he confronted a new crisis or controversy every week. The plan to relocate the Department of Social Services underwent a series of changes, including a non-starter proposal to turn the only hotel in Hudson into an emergency shelter. And then there was the suggestion to move the county nursing home from Philmont to Valatie which, it turns out, didn’t want it.

Mr. Baer’s technocratic zeal, as logical as it was in an abstract sense, ignored political reality. In the end, that cost two supervisors their bids for reelection, and Mr. Baer lost his post as leader. Now the GOP majority has chosen Mr. Brown as leader, but he was closely associated with his predecessor’s plans and did not raise objections in public to the direction the county was headed with these projects.

We wish Mr. Brown success as chairman in 2010. He will need all the support he can muster. The public antagonism toward Mr. Baer’s initiatives does not alter the fact that each of his schemes addressed a serious issue facing county government: the social services department requires more space; the county spends too much on emergency housing; the nursing home must be replaced.

To top off the challenges faced by Mr. Brown, Mr. Baer highlighted a huge flaw in the way the county accounted for social services funding. The discovery substantially diminishes the county’s fund balance–money set aside for unanticipated expenses. Under these conditions, Mr. Brown will need not only a keen sense for what’s wrong but the political savvy to get it fixed.

One other item. Last February the corporate owner of a twice-weekly newspaper called The Independent abruptly closed that paper, which had served the county for 36 years. Less than a week later, we started a website,, full of local news, written and produced by people who used to work at The Independent. Within six weeks, we published our first newsprint edition of The Columbia Paper. A new edition has appeared each week since.

It wasn’t the route we would have picked to start a newspaper, but we didn’t have a choice. On balance, 2009 was a pretty good year. We hope 2010 will be a lot better. And we’re grateful to everyone who’s contributed to this new local voice in Columbia County.

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