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We want our liquor (license): (l-r) Scott Feuerstein, Cris Scharder and Brian Stanley are petitioning the state to open their martini lounge.

Dry Martini

Seemingly arbitrary enforcement of liquor laws stalls would-be bar owners from joining the successful nightlife on Troy’s River Street

Walk into the Meka’s Lounge to day and you’ll see a dream put on hold. Turn on the dim lighting and blow away the dust, see the hand-painted mural leading into the backroom and the walls painted with bright colors, sit at the empty bar and you can imagine the light, refined atmosphere Meka’s Lounge would have, were it open.

Listen to the State Liquor Authority, and you would think that Christopher Schrader and his colleagues Scott Feuerstein and Brian T. Stanley were ready to open a shady bar, contrary to puritan values, right across the street from a church. But even through the dusty mess that is the under-construction Meka’s, it’s pretty clear that bringing down the class of the neighborhood isn’t the dream of these three graduates of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

“I think our vision is to have a high-class wine-and-martini place, with a more comfy feel and more loungey feel,” said Stanley, “and we’re trying to get the young to mid-professional grade, maybe grad students from RPI, people coming in to visit RPI, guest speakers, too. I think this is a place where a lot of business will get conducted, and a lot of people will meet.”

The three had the idea several years ago while at Ryan’s Wake, a bar just two doors down the street.

“Well Ryan and I both had gone to RPI and were pretty familiar with the Troy area, and he was a big martini guy. Myself, I’m a wine guy, and we tossed around the idea of opening up a place in the area, and Troy was always our main location,” Schrader explained. “One night we were walking down the street going to Ryan’s Wake and we noticed this space was open and available, so we immediately we called on it and that’s how we got the ball rolling.”

After investing nearly $100,000 in the project, along with time and energy to remodel what was once an interior-design firm into this sophisticated establishment, they applied in early February for a liquor license, which they were told they would receive soon and without delay. When they discovered their application had been denied, they were shocked. “We’d been told we were getting a liquor license within two weeks,” explained Schrader. “So the letter of disapproval came out of nowhere in our mind, and send things spiraling.”

The official reason, as explained to Meka’s’ owners, is that they are within 200 feet of a church. Meka’s is next to Revolution Hall, where Terra Nova Church conducts weekly services. So, to be safe, they checked off on the form that they were within 200 feet of a church, though Terra Nova had no problem with Meka’s opening next door.

According to Ed Marcelle, Terra Nova’s lead pastor, the church even wrote a letter of support for the bar. “The opening of Meka’s Lounge doesn’t present an issue for us.”

The Salvation Army building, which the State Liquor Authority says is a church, is across the street.

However, neither Revolution Hall—primarily a music venue and bar—nor the Salvation Army building across the street are used exclusively as churches. Were they, the law would prevent not only Meka’s from opening, but would also stop River Street establishments Revolution Hall, Ryan’s Wake, Brown’s Brew Pub, and Jose Malone’s from serving alcohol.

“The whole city, including the mayor, people who live in the city, people who visit the city, everyone on this block, Alma and John Riley [the administrators of Salvation Army]—we have their support,” Stanley said.

“We’re not trying to open up another crazy wild nightlife place,” Schrader said, “but just more of a relaxed lounge where you come in, get a drink of wine, enjoy a nice martini.”

“I believe basically us checking the box is what triggered it,” he said. “I don’t think it has to do with anything other than that they went into a thorough investigation. They initially looked at Terra Nova, realized that we were correct that they were not exclusively a church and then went beyond that scope. We wanted to mark it down as due diligence and doing the right thing, and it ended up creating the situation we’re in now.”

Gary Brown, owner of Brown’s Brew Pub, which is only a few dozen yards down the street, told Metroland the bar had similar problems when opening in the early 90s; Salvation Army had picketed and strongly protested the opening, but Brown’s received their license anyway, which legally would create a precedent. Brown’s is in support of Meka’s opening.

But should this fall through, Schrader doesn’t see how they can open.

“I don’t think you can open a wine or martini bar without a liquor license,” said Schrader, adding, “We’ll appeal the situation, send a letter of reconsideration . . . to the state requesting a hearing to discuss the situation, and then our explanation why we believe we deserve the liquor license based on the 200-foot rule, and state our case. We’re obviously using all the resources that we have and trying to do the right thing.”

The Salvation Army and State Liquor Authority could not be reached for comment.

—Steve Keller


What a Week

 




Full Cost Mystery

The Albany Common Council won concessions for reform in exchange for the bonding Rapp Road Landfill expansion—but what did it really win?

The controversial expansion of the Rapp Road Landfill, which the city of Albany will bond $41 million to undertake, received the go-ahead last week in a narrow vote in the Common Council. Prior to last week’s bonding vote, an ad hoc group of Albany council members met with the city administration to iron out concessions that the council wanted to vote in favor of the bonding.

Albany Common Councilman Richard Conti (D-6th Ward) was a member of this ad-hoc group, along with councilwoman, and council president candidate, Carolyn McLaughlin, and councilmen Mike O’Brien, Jim Sano and Daniel Herring. Each voted in favor of the expansion bonding.

Conti said that the council had outlined in caucus a list of concerns that the group of the council members took to members of the administration, including the deputy mayor, corporation counsel and budget director. Top of this list: the terms of obligation for the various bonding proposals, the issues related to the restoration plan, issues related to council oversight of the landfill, and a better financial accounting of operations.

“The issue has always been the revenues and expenses related to the landfill,” Conti said. Currently, the landfill’s revenues are funneled into the general fund, and the expenses come out of the same.

The administration has, in the past, released a financial review to the council. This review shows that the landfill made $5,568,597 in revenue in 2008, but the document is concise. Filling less than a half page, it breaks down the expenses and revenues only into broad categories.

The administration agreed to release more thorough information, Conti said. This information is similar to what the city submits to the Department of Environmental Conservation and includes data relating to the capacity at the landfill, the increasing and decreasing in the charges of tipping fees, the changes in tipping contracts and so on. “What we were looking for was ongoing reports on tipping fees, contracts, amounts tipped and tonnage, levels of recycling, etc.”

The reports will go through the council’s General Services committee. Conti held up a copy: It was several pages of charts and numbers. “It is an overwhelming amount of information,” and a first for the council

The goal, Conti said, is to move the landfill to full-cost accounting. This is the approach recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency to auditing municipal waste management.

“Making cost-effective and informed decisions about municipal solid waste (MSW) programs requires access to a broad spectrum of information. Local government officials need to know what solid waste management really costs,” the EPA Web site reads. “Unlike other common methods of accounting that record only current outlays of cash, FCA takes into account all of the monetary cost of resources used or committed to MSW programs, which may differ from cash outlays.”

Some states, according to Albany Common Councilman Dominick Calsolaro, mandate FCA.

“I am the one who brought up full-cost accounting originally,” Calsolaro said.

The administration said that it will explore moving to FCA, but Calsolaro said that there is little time to waste. An aggressive move to the full-cost accounting can take up to three years.

Calsolaro said that he is considering sponsoring legislation that would compel the executive to prepare an FCA of the landfill. Councilman and mayoral candidate Corey Ellis said that he too is considering such legislation.

Albany treasurer candidate Kathy Sheehan offers a back of the envelope example as to the necessity of FCA.

“Some people say that the expansion is going to last six years, some people say seven. I am going to say six because they were so wrong with this last expansion, which was supposed to last until 2015. But if you say that it is going to last six years: You take that 41 million dollars, and it is probably going to take another 10 million to close it, so now you are at 51 million.”

So, she said, you take the $51 million, which doesn’t include the finance charges, divide that number by six, the profitable life of the landfill, and that is what you have to charge to get that investment back.

“I looked at the annual operating costs in 2007,” she said, which was $4.3 million. “If you divide that by the number of tons they are allowed to dump by year, and you get to a number that is 65 dollars a ton.” Well above what the landfill currently charges.

“I don’t think the expansion makes fiscal sense, but I reserve the right to get smarter. So if somebody could bring all the numbers, and be transparent and show us that we make a profit, then I would be happy to stand corrected,” Sheehan said. “But if we are still paying for the landfill six years from now, because we didn’t make enough money, and then we have to pay to dump our trash, we will have to be paying twice.”

—Chet Hardin

chardin@metroland.net


Drastic Measures

Oppostition is raised against plan that cuts back hours for Albany County employees

Albany County Executive Mike Breslin is putting 1,400 county employees on furlough in an attempt to help close the county’s $20.5 million budget gap. The employees are from all but two of the 21 county departments that Breslin’s office oversees. The Nursing Home and Sewer District departments are being spared due to the nature of their duties.

Breslin’s plan calls for each of the 21 departments to be closed the fourth Friday of every month starting in August. According to Mary Duryea, communications director for the executive, this will amount to $1.4 million in savings in 2009. She said the budget deficit is due mainly to a sharp loss in sales-tax revenue that the county has suffered.

“This is one of the largest midyear budget gaps we’ve ever seen, so we are looking at every possible action we can take in order to close this gap,” said Duryea. “The furloughs are just one part of our plan.”

Breslin is calling upon other county departments not under his control to follow suit. Of these six departments under separately elected officials, only Albany County Clerk Thomas Clingan has agreed to furlough his employees.

“The county is obviously having serious financial difficulties, and I think that’s reflected by the county executive’s decision to put almost all of the county workforce on a five-day furlough from now till the end of the year,” said Clingan.

He said that the furloughs in his department will generate $16,800 in savings, about half of one full-time employee’s annual salary.

Albany County Comptroller Michael Conners is among those resisting Breslin’s push for furloughs, calling them financially unnecessary.

“The furlough is something that I think is just a plain bad idea,” said Conners, adding that the county hasn’t explored all its options and that there are other ways to save money. He said a letter sent from his office to Breslin’s office detailing key ways that the county could save money was ignored because it didn’t line up with what Breslin wanted to do.

Conners also said that his office found that the $20.5 million dollar budget gap overstated the amount of interest revenue lost in 2009 by about $1.5 million—a point that, according to Conners, was also ignored by Breslin’s office and the Department of Management and Budget.

Shawn Morse (D-Cohoes) agreed with Conners’ take on the situation.

“Before we take steps to furlough county employees, we need to be able to confidently assure them that we looked under every rock for savings,” said Morse in a press release that spoke out against Breslin’s plan.

Morse also said that initiatives he offered to the county were largely ignored, including a Canadian drug plan that he said has already been enacted with success in Schenectady and Rensselaer counties. Morse introduced the legislation more than four years ago, and it is now approved by the legislature.

Why hasn’t it been signed into law? “I asked that question five times with no response,” said Morse.

Morse mentioned other ways the county could avoid furloughing its employees.

“We have a fund balance of over $30 million. We have a Canadian drug plan that could save millions of dollars. We have county departments that have made concessions to give back money to ease the burden. We have an accounting error of about a million-and-a-half-dollars,” said Morse. “I think, right now, we have not done enough to look at every single item.”

Both Morse and Conners have also questioned the legality of imposing furloughs on county employees, saying that, according to their reading of the county charter, the county executive may propose a plan to furlough employees, but in order for it to be enforced, it must be passed by the legislature.

Morse raised another similar concern that the county could be opening itself up to increased costs in the form of litigation fees if the public employee’s unions decide to pursue the matter in court.

However, Duryea said that the executive’s office has spoken to its attorney, Craig Denning, and believes that it is within its bounds to institute the furloughs.

Clingan dismissed Conners’ concerns.

“I don’t think any of the short-term measures that the county comptroller has proposed will do the trick,” said Clingan.

According to a document released Wednesday by the county executive’s office, if the other departments not under Breslin’s control were to participate in the furlough program, an additional $116,800 could be saved.

Clingan said that there is a need for everyone to pull together and shoulder the burden of the financial crisis. “I’m very pleased with how well people are participating in this and understanding that we’re doing this in order to save the jobs of fellow county employees.”

Clingan is calling for more solidarity in county government, specifically in the offices not overseen by Breslin, he said. “It is disappointing that some of the elected officials have chosen not to participate in helping us solve this problem.”

—Daniel Fitzsimmons

Now We’ve Been Served

Metroland has received summons in NXIVM’s $65 million lawsuit

On July 9, Metroland was served the lawsuit that was filed March 12 with the Supreme Court of the State of New York in Niagara County, alleging, among other things, that the paper defamed the controversial company NXIVM and its founder, Keith Raniere [“We’ve Been Served—Oh Wait,” Newsfront, April 2].

NXIVM is a Capital Region-based company that offers personal and professional training seminars.

The article cited in the $65 million lawsuit, “The Stars Come Out in Troy,” was written by news editor Chet Hardin and published on March 13, 2008. The article reported that television actresses Nicki Clyne, of Battlestar Galactica, and Alison Mack of Smallville, reportedly adherents of NXIVM, were considering starting a business and had met with Troy Mayor Harry Tutunjian. In it, Hardin quoted at length longtime NXIVM critic Rick Ross.

The crux of NXIVM’s lawsuit against Metroland stems from one line: “Raniere, according to Ross, is not allowed, by law, to be involved in a discount buyer’s club, due to the collapse of CBI.” Consumers Buyline, Inc. is a company that Raniere started and ran throughout the 1990s until it was shuttered after multiple investigations.

NXIVM had been contacted for the article, and president Nancy Salzman was quoted.

The suit maintains that Ross’ claim is false, and alleges that Metroland either knew this claim to be false or were “grossly negligent” in its reporting.

The suit also alleges that Metroland was involved in a conspiracy with Ross, among others, to defame NXIVM. The suit claims that NXIVM has suffered great financial loss from this product disparagement.

“The complaint is baseless,” said Metroland editor and publisher Stephen Leon, “and 97 percent of it has nothing to do with Metroland.” The passage from Hardin’s story that is cited in the lawsuit, Leon said, “isn’t even remotely defamatory.”

Leon said that he is talking with legal counsel, and hopes to have the case quickly dismissed. “I am frankly surprised that they [NXIVM] have gone to the trouble to do this, because it seems so pointless,” he said.

In the April story, Metroland reported that NXIVM had filed the suit, and quoted NXIVM president Nancy Salzman as saying, “We believe Metroland will engage in a meaningful dialogue with us relating to these issues.” Leon said he is not sure what Salzman meant by that statement, and that Metroland was never contacted by a representative of NXIVM after that story.


Loose Ends

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