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Colonie passes local law meant to improve cell phone service

A photo of Colonie Town Hall
Jim Levulis
Colonie Town Hall

The Colonie Town Board recently passed a local law meant to improve cell phone service in the Capital Region’s largest suburb, in Albany County. The law provides a process by which wireless carriers may apply for permits to add cell nodes to existing poles and structures. WAMC’s Jim Levulis spoke with Republican Town Supervisor Peter Crummey about why the measure was needed.

Crummey: All too often, I have been told by our police and volunteer fire personnel that calls, emergency calls are being dropped. And that's just from the public safety point of view. I've also heard the same stories from many residents in our town. Our town suffers from a variety of dead spots for cell service. And in the new technology that I saw in play in January, the first month of my term here as town supervisor, new technology has become available where small cell nodes can be placed on top of existing poles, and they can push a signal 2,000 feet in all directions. And it seemed to me that that was just the type of thing that we need here in Colonie to fill in these dead zones. So in looking at our current law, or what was then the current law, even for an applicant or a carrier to propose the utilization of a cell node, it'd still had to go through the protracted process of zoning application, go to the zoning board for approvals and consideration. And it was a very unusually protracted process, which did not meet today's technology. That process still exists for applications which may come before the town for mono poles, and other taller antenna in the town, that process still applies. But I decided to create a law that would allow for a simpler process to meet today's technology and get these signal boosters up and running for the town.

Levulis: And have you spoken with the wireless carriers active in the area about these cell nodes? And are they interested in installing them?

Crummey: Yes, they are. In fact, I did a site visit in January within the first 30 days of my term to see one in play. And currently, we went down to the corner of Osborne and Exchange in the town of Colonie. And that's a county right of way that Osborne road piece. And they showed me what a cell node looked like on top of an existing pole. I took pictures of it, etc, just to have them. And as a result of that, and as a former zoning board attorney here for the town for 13 years, I thought there's probably a better way that we could manage these very small cell nodes and encourage their utilization. And I have met with officials from, so far I've had meetings over the course of the spring with Verizon and AT&T representatives. And they've both embraced the concept wholeheartedly. This was my idea to put forth and the town board was wholly supportive and voted unanimously to adopt this streamlined process for these small cell nodes. And it was not something that the carriers had asked us to do but I want to encourage them to step up now and take care of these dead zones for the public safety of the citizens of the town of Colonie.

Levulis: Outside of that streamlined process and you know, good will as it pertains to public safety, is there in your mind any incentive for the wireless carriers to roll these out?

Crummey: I believe yes, because under the other law that's still available in the town of Colonie, it was a much more protracted process where they had to develop applications, go through the zoning board and the publication requirements, the meeting requirements, there was such a delay and such an expense in moving forward in that way that they may not have enjoyed the incentive that I believe the town now provides to get these signals boosted in these dead zones so that we can protect the citizens of the town of Colonie and stop the dropped call situations. Sometimes I've had people come to me and say they were in a fender bender on the road. Well you can imagine I mean, how busy our roads are and that can happen once in a while and they call for emergency service and the calls dropping. I had a neighbor recently told me that they were contacting EMS because a senior citizen had fainted in their backyard. And the call to EMS dropped. I mean, it's inappropriate, to me it's a public safety issue. And I believe by providing this process, the carrier should be stepping up as soon as possible to start implementing these small cell nodes to fix this public safety problem.

Levulis: And when do you think the first node might go up?

Crummey: Well, it was interesting, because a representative from Verizon was in the audience during the public hearing on this particular local law, and I spoke to him briefly after. And he certainly recognizes now how this can streamline the process. And I've urged them to step up, and deliver these small cell nodes. The technology has advanced so much from 20-30 years ago. We can advance these signals in these special locations without these very large poles that may interfere with view escape, etc. These are on existing poles in the town and on the town’s right of way. So I believe that they're very excited about the opportunity as well. And I expect a rollout this fall. I'll be looking for one, I can promise you that, Jim.

Levulis: And do you have a list of the top spots that you want to see addressed first?

Crummey: Well, I know they do. Because when I met with them, I met with Verizon, and I've met with AT&T as well. And I know, they know where their service is weak. And there's no question even in major corridors, Route 9 right outside of town hall, as you move south on Route 9 toward the Albany line. These calls are dropping. And it's not only just for the people in their cars who might be calling for emergency help. But it's all of the homeowners that live along that same Route 9 corridor, highly traveled corridor. And that's just one of many. We have Albany-Shaker Road, right in front of the firehouse. I mean, this is where, you know a year ago, when I started my eight-month campaign for town supervisor, it was one of the issues that was brought to my attention the whole time. And I made it a campaign issue. And we've delivered on our promise to figure out how to encourage these carriers to step up and to complete the service that is so vital to the citizens of the town of Colonie.

Levulis: Does this local law come at any financial cost on the part of the town? Is the town promising any money for the cell nodes, anything like that?

Crummey: No, not at all. In fact, whether a carrier applies for an antenna, or any type of service enhancement through the existing zoning board avenue, or even if they choose to do the small cell nodes, there's a fee. But the fees are much less if you do the cell nodes under the under the brand new local law. If a carrier is proposing to add a cell node, it's a $150 highway work permit because they will be in our town right of way as they're working. So there's a $150 highway work permit, which applies to anyone who's working in a town right of way. And then there's an application review fee of $100. And then an annual right of way occupancy license fee of $270. The fees are far more modest, and in connection with promoting the cell service, but the fees are paid for by the carrier not by the town of Colonie.

Levulis: Now before taking over as town supervisor this January, you said you intended to increase the miles of roads to be repaired this year. Are you hitting the goals you set?

Crummey: Absolutely. I'm happy that you asked and in fact, I embarked on the most aggressive road repair program that the town has ever engaged in. And I thank the town board for continuing to support my efforts in this regard, just as they supported my efforts in creating this local law to enhance our cell service here in the town of Colonie. Historically, the town had been renovating and repairing up to 13 miles of town road each year. I stepped that up, we'll be doing 20 miles of town road this year. And my plan is to do more than that next year. We're behind in our road repair. We're catching up now. Mind you Jim, we have 1,400 town roads and we're doing 89 this year, and we'll do more than 89 next year. So it takes some time. But we're at it. And I think from what I can tell, the residents who stopped me, everywhere I am in public have they've recognized the road repair, and they're pleased to see it happen. And we're going to continue to do it. It can’t all be done in one year. But we're on an aggressive campaign to catch up on our road repair. And 89 roads are scheduled for this year. And we'll be doing more next year. But as you know, I mean, we have 330 miles of town road to care for. And we'll take care of 20 of them this year. And we'll do more than 20 next year.

Levulis: Supervisor, how are the town's finances doing?

Crummey: I think that, you know, overall, you know, I find that it's always a challenge here in the town. In part because historically, for instance, the town budget was based largely on sales tax revenue. That's always a concern for me, because a major part of our town budget is based on the whim of the purchaser. And that can fluctuate. And here we are now all of us are well aware of the characteristics and fear of recession or inflation. And it's challenging. It's a very challenging time in town government to be able to maintain what we're trying to do here when a key component is based on sales tax. And it has been that way for decades. It's not new. But I don't think it's the soundest approach for stability. We've been fortunate in the past, to develop, you know, the sales tax revenues to make it work. But I think that, I would love to be able to long term figure out methods and mechanisms to pull away from counting on that, because you don't control that year after year. I mean, you’re guessing what sales tax revenue might look like. And, you know, running the town of Colonie should not be a guessing game. So but otherwise, I believe that, you know, I'm working with a budget that was adopted by the town board last year. I'm currently working on my first budget for a presentation to the town board in October, and meeting with each department individually. And I believe with caution and care we’ll be in good shape. However, remember this. I mean, there are some costs that have skyrocketed, just like in our families. Energy prices are times two. We're budgeting times two for next year. Gasoline prices. We use a lot of petroleum in our work, we have police cars, we have EMS ambulances and cars we have water department we have sewer department, we have highway department trucks. So when you think about adding times two to all of the energy needs, we're told that the power that we need to manage the sewer plant and the water plant and Town Hall and the public safety buildings times two. The energy is a huge challenge for all governments certainly the town of Colonie. And when we have to do times two, how do I backfill that? What kind of creativity will be needed in order to match just the energy costs alone the town that we'll be facing this year. We're looking at a variety of different opportunities, we're comparing or contrasting, we're drilling deeper into energy right now and trying to get the best prices available as we move into the future. I'm finding that a lot of our providers don't want to give annual rates for next year. Nobody knows what it's going to look like. So they don't want to lock down. So it's harder for us to navigate, because providers don't want to lock down, because the uncertainty that's been injected into the economy here, not only in Colonie, but the entire United States of America makes it exceedingly challenging, just like it is for everyone in their own home and family.

Levulis: Supervisor, you mentioned your concern over the reliance on sales tax revenue for the town. You mentioned putting together the budget proposal to go before the town board in October. Will this proposal try and address that, steer the town a little bit away from that reliance on sales tax revenue?

Crummey: I would suggest that long term, the town should start to consider ways to lessen its dependence and reliance on sales tax revenue, because of the fact that you're guessing at what it might be. And that's not a very strategic way to develop sound economies. It will certainly be a part. I can't imagine eradicating any reference or dependence on sales tax revenue, it is here. And it will take quite some time. But I think that you know, over the course of time, I would like to see us looking at ways in which we can decrease the emphasis on sales tax so that if we had a great year one year, and we didn't rely on it so much, maybe we could get it back into, continue to build, you know, these rainy day funds and things that we need to you know, further strategize. As you know, the town has been under the state comptroller's watch list for a number of years now. And my goal is to get us out from under the watch list, so that we can proceed to the future with a stronger basis. So that's my first goal is to make sure the town of Colonie no longer is listed on a municipal watch list by the state comptroller's office. And that's number one. And also, while I'm here and going through every department, let's look where we can find ways to cut. I mean, if there are opportunities for maybe purchasing in more bulk, as opposed to department by department, maybe we can have better opportunities of savings and certain quantities of items that the town uses. So and just economies of scale for us and trying to get and we're trying to obviously, you know, get a better price on our energy needs. But so far, what we're being told is twice as much. Twice as much. I mean, when you're running a municipality of this size, not only do we have 85,500 residents in this town, but on any given day, we can have as many as a quarter million people in our town. So think of the services that we're maintaining for that quarter of a million people who come here to live or to work and play shop, whatever. And as a result, you can imagine, and I saw it in the court system for years that our court was so busy, if we only had demand as the 85,000 residents, that would look a lot easier to do than managing 250-[thousand] people in the town. So it's spun up the police activity spins up EMS activity spun up the court activity because we're addressing that type of population, not just our own. And it does have an impact. I mean, certainly, you know, now being the downtown of the Capital Region, which Fred Field used to say years ago when I first got to town hall 42 years ago. There are issues that come into play when you are the downtown of the Capital Region. I now need to provide water on a daily basis that could potentially serve a quarter million people. I have to deal with pure waters department and our sewer service for 250-[thousand]. Maybe visitors come in, maybe they're working here all day. And they may well be utilizing our pure waters department as well. And drinking water, so that we have water, not just for the 85-[thousand]. But it also comes with a cost because we also have water supplied to over 200,000 people come into the town on a daily basis. So there's a lot of uses that the town has to step up for. And managing that and all the while providing what I believe is a community second to none.

Levulis: And with all that you’re facing, even back in December 2021 we chatted, this was before you were sworn in, you told us that “Lord willing,” you plan to be on the ballot for town supervisor in November 2023. Is that still the case?

Crummey: Absolutely. Yeah. And I'll tell you this, Jim, I didn't step off the bench after 21 years to offer my service to our town residents for one term.

Levulis: And I forget now, would that be a four-year term now or a two-year term still?

Crummey: I'm glad you asked. Late last year, under the leadership of Paula Mahan and the town board then, they adopted a local law moving the town supervisor office and the town clerk office from two years to four years. But that was just step one of the process. But I commend the town board last year in a bipartisan way to move that local law. Under state law now it becomes a ballot proposition this fall. So the town residents will be asked this fall when they go into vote, there'll be a proposition on the ballot, asking the town voter to consider moving the supervisor’s two-year term and the town clerk's two-year term to four years. And I believe it's wholly appropriate to do so considering the length and breadth of this town and the type of activity that happens here on a daily basis. Giving the CEO a two-year term is very challenging. Every mayor has a four-year term whether the village has 4,000 people in it, or whether it has 10,000 people in it. Our town board members have four-year terms. I believe that town supervisor and town clerk at the pace that this town is moving, demands that that be the right choice to go to four years, no matter who is elected next November. If the town residents vote yes on the proposition this year, what it means is that in the next supervisor race of November 2023, that person, whoever's running, will be running for a four-year term.

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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