By JOHN PURCELL
Recorder News Staff
The city of Amsterdam experienced a year of transition in 2016 as a new administration took over the reins of city hall and a new leader settled into her role in the Greater Amsterdam School District.
Amsterdam Mayor Michael Villa was sworn into office Jan 1., along with returning 1st Ward Alderman Edward Russo and newly elected Common Council members 2nd Ward Alderman Paul Ochal, 3rd Ward Alderman Chad Majewski, 4th Ward Alderman Rodney Wojnar and 5th Ward Alderman James Martuscello.
A few months later, the Greater Amsterdam Board of Education selected then-Rochester City School District administrator Vicma “Vicky” Ramos to succeed Thomas Perillo as superintendent following his retirement on June 30. Perillo worked in the school district for 39 years and had served as superintendent since 2008.
The Mohawk River was present in the city’s biggest celebration and ongoing challenge this year.
The Mohawk Valley Gateway Overlook pedestrian bridge was open with much fanfare on Aug. 31, with Lt. Gov. Kathleen Hochul pointing to it as a “signature bridge” marking a pivotal point in the revitalization of Amsterdam.
Villa said during the opening ceremony the pedestrian bridge not only provides a new north to south accessway, but also a “new heart of Amsterdam” replacing the east to west downtown core lost to urban renewal. Villa cited the bridge as another step toward re-establishing the city as the urban center of the lower Mohawk Valley.
Several representatives credited Rep. Paul Tonko, an Amsterdam native, for developing the initial vision of the pedestrian bridge and pushing for it to be constructed. The idea was initially conceived decades before it finally opened.
The ongoing issues of the city spilling sewage in the Mohawk River into the Mohawk River placed Amsterdam at the center of statewide discussions to investment more in aging infrastructure.
Amsterdam’s Westside Wastewater Treatment Pump Station spilled approximately 517,153 gallons of sewage into the Mohawk River on July 13, which city officials blamed on an equipment malfunction.
Wastewater Treatment Chief Plant Operator Gene Hutchings had said this incident was the third time in 2016 the city has had an issue with the equipment faulting and an overflow occurring, but the two prior incidents were minor amounts. Crews did not quickly address the valve fault, because the alarm system reportedly malfunctioned and the issue was not immediately known.
Hutchings in June had requested an expedited repair after discharge valves were discovered to have been installed upside down several years ago. The overflow in July reportedly stemmed from the improperly installed valves.
Amsterdam Common Council members approved a resolution June 21 transferring nearly $132,500 to purchase and install three check-ball style valves and three manual chain-wheel operated plug valves for the pump station.
Near the end of July, Amsterdam spilled more sewage into the after a sewer line break was discovered along Forest Avenue, which would go on to be the longest running discharge this city tackled this year.
The sewer line break on Forest Avenue was estimated to have been leaking 50 gallons per minute of untreated sewage into North Chuctanunda Creek, which empties into the Mohawk River, until a bypass was installed. The total duration of discharge was reported to be 173 hours, which at the estimated rate would have totaled approximately 519,000 gallons of untreated sewage.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo directed state officials on Aug. 1 to meet with Amsterdam officials to evaluate options for fixing the city’s sewer system following. Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos and staff members from his office conducted an on-site review. Cuomo also directed the DEC and Environmental Facilities Corporation to provide technical assistance to the city while permanent repairs were completed.
Cuomo on Aug. 5 announced Amsterdam would receive $5 million to improve its aging water infrastructure. The assistance included $1.25 million grant from the state Water Infrastructure Improvement Act and a zero interest loan totaling $3.75 million from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund.
Amsterdam officials had applied to received the funding package prior to the leak, but state officials worked to expedite transferring the awarded funds to help with the Forest Avenue repair work.
In late October, city officials revealed untreated sewage continued spilling into the North Chuctanunda Creek at a reduced rate even after a new sewer line was installed along Forest Avenue in the summer.
The leak is believed to finally be stopped after a section of new sewer line was installed along Sloane Avenue between Smith and Clarke avenues this month, replacing the extensively damaged clay pipe with modern plastic piping.
Transitions outside of city hall
* The Amsterdam Municipal Golf Commission experienced a significant transition after three of the five members resigned as the Common Council proceeded with plans to shift the authority to set fees and rates from the commission to itself.
Chairwoman Pamela Ritter and Vice Chairman Robert Karutis both emailed their resignations Feb. 18. Fellow commission member Dustin Swanger resigned from the commission two weeks prior, but his departure had not been publicly announced at that time.
Ritter and Karutis said their resignations were spurred by a lack of support from elected officials. However, Swanger, who is president of the Fulton-Montgomery Community College, said he resigned because he’s too involved in other things and “can’t give the appropriate time” required to serve on the commission.
Less than a week later, Villa announced his appointments to fill vacancies on golf commission were Montgomery County Executive Matthew Ossenfort, Greater Amsterdam School District Business Manager Kim Brumley and retired city firefighter Peter Bylina.
* The Amsterdam Transportation Department saw a change in leadership with Fabrizia Rodriguez hired as the new director, which included the position changing to part-time. Cheryl Scott retired this past summer from her full-time position as director of the department.
Amsterdam officials amended the city charter after Scott’s departure to allow the position to be part or full time. Villa had said the department did not require a full-time director anymore, because of how much the department had shrunk over the years.
Earlier this month, Rodriguez implemented more of a traditional loop style route system from the demand-based taxi style service, which is aimed to bring clarity to services offered and increase ridership.
* The Amsterdam Department of Public Works also received new general foreman recently, with Villa appointing Phil Bracchi to the position following the retirement of Raymond Halgas, who led the DPW for more than 15 years.
* Michael Donyell Norwood, the man who police say stomped his pregnant girlfriend to death in their Garden Street apartment in March was sentenced on Dec. 14 with 25 years to life in state prison. Norwood, 39, plead guilty on Oct. 31 to second-degree murder of Beth Ann Logan, 30. Police said the Norwood raped and stomped Logan’s head and body while wearing work boots. According to court documents, Logan’s four children ranging from 9 to 13 years old, were present for the attack, along with another five-year-old relative. Logan later died in Albany Medical Center due to her injuries.
* Several opiate overdoses in the city has shed a light on a growing epidemic in the city this year. There were approximately four deaths in December allegedly tied to heroin overdoses with at least one death found to be connected with fetanyl-laced heroin. From Dec. 2 to Dec. 23 there were eight overdoses reported, with two reported on Dec. 6 and two reported Dec. 11. There were another three overdoses reported in November.
* An extensive marijuana operation was discovered in September at the former Fownes Brother’s Factory at 26 Elk Street. The operation was discovered on the sixth floor of the factory after a storm knocked the power out in the neighborhood where three men had been living. One room contained mattresses, a pile of clothes, canned food, a small refrigerator and other appliances. There was even a shower constructed in a bathroom, along with an air freshener in the stall.
Many pieces of equipment — lights, air conditioners, air circulators and fans — were found but had not been assembled yet. A tractor trailer was brought in so police could remove and store the equipment. The overall value of equipment was estimated to be worth approximately $500,000, according to police.
The men allegedly constructed a roughly 300-foot long growing room on the floor. Hydroponic growing blocks were found inside along with lamps, heating and cooling equipment and an irrigation system. There was a white board with what appeared to be a water schedule for the different types of plants.
The men were were charged with unlawfully growing cannabis, third-degree criminal possession of marijuana and fifth degree conspiracy.
Ongoing developments in the city
* The Sentinel at Amsterdam is planned to open in March or April as construction continues through the winter to convert the the former America’s Best Value Inn on Market Street into a new assisted living facility, according to Eric Newhouse, of Eliot Management Group.
Developers had set an aggressive target to complete construction of the new assisted living facility by the end of this year, but construction should now be completed in February. Model rooms are planned to be ready for show by early next year.
Eliot Management Group, through its company 10 Market Street LLC, obtained the deed for the vacant property around 11 months ago after purchasing it through an online auction for $1 million. The facility was essentially gutted and renovated to serve its new purpose.
The Amsterdam Industrial Development Agency is submitting a a grant application through the state Community Development Block Grant program for Eliot Management Group, which AIDA Executive Director Jody Zakrevsky said would be for around $700,000.
AIDA approved a $12 million tax exempt bond to Eliot Management Group in March, along with a sales tax abatement for materials used to construct the facility. Newhouse said constructions costs have been on target to date.
In February, the agency granted a 10-year payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) agreement to the company. The PILOT agreement will allow the company to pay a reduced amount of the parcel’s taxable value, which will increase by 10 percent annually until reaching the full assessment.
* Amsterdam officials are also continuing discussions to potentially bring the city’s ambulance service in-house through the Amsterdam Fire Department.
Third Ward Alderman Chad Majewski held a Public Safety Committee meeting in June to start preliminary discussions. Last week, the Amsterdam Common Council introduced a local law amending the city charter to allow city firefighters to operate an ambulance service.