A TOWN WITHOUT A "HOME" SCHAGHTICOKE OFFICIALS LEARN TO LIVE WITH NO TOWN HALL

Laurie Anderson The Knickerbocker News
Section: MAIN,  Page: 1A

Date: Wednesday, September 17, 1986

For almost two months, Nancy Harder, the town bookkeeper, had a state auditor working in her living room.


Jean Carlson, Schaghticoke clerk, must cook family dinners in her office. To create a jury box, Town Justice Edgar Davey has to unfold six metal chairs in the front of a room in the Pleasantdale Firehouse.


Running a town without a town hall calls for compromise and innovation, according to officials in this small, rural municipality just north of Troy.


Since its founding in 1788, town leaders in Schaghticoke, the only town in Rensselaer County without a town hall, have had to work out of their homes, meet in firehouses, coordinate new legislation by phone or letter and make house calls.


This system of government has worked well enough in the past, when Schaghticoke was a quiet farming community, officials said. Today, however, the town appears to be on the verge of a major building boom, and the fact that it is without a town hall is causing more and more confusion.


"We still get all of our work done," said Mark Zaretzki, part-time supervisor of the town, which has a population of about 7,100. "But it's getting harder and harder. We're one of the fastest growing towns in Rensselaer County. I'd have to guess that about 500 to 600 new residents have moved into the town since 1980. Now with the new Route 7, it only takes about a half hour to get from here to Albany. We have the first plans for major subdivisions coming in. And this is only the beginning."


New residents are having trouble finding town officials, he said. The surge in the town's growth is making it necessary for more contact between the officials, Zaretzki said, and the distance from office to office is starting to take on more importance.


Zaretzki, who lists his office address as P.O. Box 180, works out of his home in the north end of town, off Master Street.


The bookkeeper, who has converted part of her son's bedroom into a work space, resides on Pleasant Avenue, near Schaghticoke Village.


The building inspector works out of his home, a few blocks from the bookkeeper, and, since he is always out on the job, has to have his wife take phone messages.


Justice Davey's courtroom, in the Pleasantdale Firehouse, is 12 miles from the second town justice's court, which is located in the Municipal Building in the village. The assessor works out of the concrete-block building on Route 40 that houses Joseph P. Mitchell Insurance Co.


Once a month, officials pick up their files and paper work and head over to the Melrose Firehouse for the town meeting.


"The new people don't understand why we don't have a town hall," said Carlson, whose front door opens into both the town clerk's office and the kitchen of her farmhouse on Route 40. "They'll call and I'll direct them to the assessor or the supervisor or the building inspector and they'll always ask me to switch them over. I'll have to say 'I can't.' I wish I could. I have to give them another number."


Carlson said the workload of her full-time job had quadrupled since she placed the words "Town Clerk" under the "Viewmere Farm" sign posted in front of her family's 400- acre spread three years ago.


"We gave out 20 building permits total my first year," she said, as her collie dog slept under the wood- burning stove in the part of the kitchen separated from the clerk's office. "This year we've handled 80 building permits already."


The town recently put in a new sewer system and received a $400,000 federal grant to rehabilitate low- income housing. In addition, it is in the process of drawing up permits for its landfill. All of this requires a lot of paper work, she said.


"When I started, I could take a break and go out and cut the lawn," she said. "Now the phone is always ringing."


"We still get the job done," Carlson said, "but it's becoming more and more frustrating."


Nancy Harder, who has been the town bookkeeper for three years, has invaded her 12-year-old son's room, which is decorated with posters of the rock group "Motley Crue," and converted half of it into an office. While she said she enjoyed the comfort of working at home - stocking feet are allowed - she agreed that the town could use a central headquarters.


"It used to be that the only person that would call me was the supervisor," she said. "Now I couldn't count how many calls I get."


From the end of June to mid- August, Harder said, a state auditor conducted an audit of town books in her living room.


"He thought it was a little strange that he had to work here," she said. "But I just rolled up the rug and set up a spot on the couch for him and he went to work."


"Despite the fact that the town is running differently from other towns, we still manage to get everything done," she said. "But having a town hall sure would make things run smoother."


Running the court in the Pleasantdale Firehouse has called for some improvisation, said Davey, whose office is located in the basement of his home.


His courtroom is a small bare place with "no atmosphere," he said. The jury box consists of six metal folding chairs. He must sit at a regular table. There is no phone for use by court officials.


"I definitely think we need a better place to hold town court," he said, adding that a town hall would make it much easier to take care of town cases, which usually involve petty crimes and traffic violations.


"We handle a lot more cases now than we did in the past," he said. "One of the worst things about this arrangement is that the two judges don't know what is going on in each other's courts. If we had a central town hall, this wouldn't happen."


More than a year ago, the town took the first steps necessary for the construction of a town hall, Supervisor Zaretzki said.


With a $50,000 grant received from the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, the Town Board hired an architect to research what the town needed and draw up plans for the hall, he said. The plans, Zaretzki said, call for only a basic building with a meeting room, space for the town court and offices for town officials.


The building would be located on 13 acres of town land on Northline Drive, which was purchased in 1976 for just such a purpose.


While the blueprints for the hall currently hang in the clerk's kitchen, the $380,000 price tag has put the project on an indefinite hold.


Residents are trying to raise private money for a town hall, but so far only one pledge of matching funds for $10,000 has been made by Doris Buffett, a Washington, D.C., resident, whose family once lived in Schaghticoke.


Buffett, who was in the town recently trying to dig up information about her ancestors, said she was amazed that there was no town hall. The town, she said, needs a "rallying point."


According to Buffett, because there was no central storage area, she found historical documents hidden in all kinds of strange places. "I started to think if you looked hard enough you could find (records) in car trunks," she said. "The people were very helpful, but by the very nature of the arrangement, things get scattered."


Zaretzki said that he did not think there would be enough willing donors in the area to fund the construction of the hall. What will eventually happen, he said, is that taxes will have to be raised to cover the costs of the building. That could take a few years, he said, because taxes are already being raised to cover the increase in town insurance and operating expenses.


"It's still a big 'if,'" the supervisor said of the building's construction. "Basically, we all agree that we need the town hall. But we must explore when the town could afford it."