Harrietstown pulls together plans for airport work

Williams volunteers for airport duty

SARANAC LAKE — The Harrietstown Town Council is dealing with the fallout of its 3-1 decision to remove a proposed $20,000 stipend for Supervisor Jordanna Mallach from its budget last month.

The stipend, which would’ve raised the supervisor’s salary by 99%, was intended to pay for Mallach to temporarily take on additional duties at the town-owned airport in Lake Clear. With the council’s vote, there is no new funding for help at the airport — so Councilman Johnny Williams may be volunteering to put in hours to get certified as an alternate security coordinator and emergency responder at the airport to cover for Airport Manager Corey Hurwitch when Hurwitch is away from town.

At a meeting on Thursday, Hurwitch told the town council that he has two jobs at the airport that he had expected Mallach to do — alternate security coordinator, which is a job that fills in for him when he’s not available, and an emergency responder position for aircraft incidents when he’s away.

“I mean, my needs and wants are way more than that,” Hurwitch said, but as he has a rare vacation scheduled in the near future, he immediately needs these two positions filled.

After a bit of discussion and a long silence, Williams agreed to take the duty on. This position requires certification through a 40-hour online course and an additional certification to be on file with the TSA.

The council will need to approve Williams’ appointment at its next meeting on Dec. 14 at 6 p.m. in the basement of the town hall. To attend it virtually over Zoom, go to tinyurl.com/3uy4zpv5 or use meeting ID 849 5204 3140 and passcode 313222.

This training for Williams is a direct consequence of cutting Mallach’s raise from the budget.

“I would have served as an alternate for him,” Mallach said.

Hurwitch had said he personally wanted Mallach to do the job, saying he felt that was the smartest decision. He said there has been a “tremendous” increase in the workload at the airport, primarily because of the $8.5 million terminal building renovations and a PFAS investigation, lawsuit, compliance issue, an issue the town has never dealt with before.

The council voted to remove the stipend for the supervisor after feeling pressure from the public as several taxpayers spoke out against the plan in budget hearings, and after several councilors said they wanted a job description for the position.

Hire or volunteer

Williams asked if Hurwitch had anyone in mind or an idea of fair compensation for the needed roles. Hurwitch said he did up until the last meeting, when the council cut Mallach’s proposed raise from the budget.

“If it’s not going to be me, then, ideally, it’s one of you,” Mallach said to the councilmembers.

“I’ve told you I’m going on vacation,” Hurwitch said. “I’ve told you the requirement for an airport security coordinator. You’ve given nothing in the budget, even though I told you during budget season that I needed help at the airport. So I’m coming back to you and saying ‘These are the requirements. How do you want me to fill them?'”

Williams asked Hurwitch what they should do.

“Budget some money,” Hurwitch said.

There was a long silence as Williams mulled the situation over.

“I could do it,” he eventually said. “I could be your back-up dude, at least for the next two years of my term. But I know that’s probably not your best-case scenario. … It’s certainly not mine.”

Williams would be doing this for no additional compensation. He said the course work is a “heavy lift” for him and he doesn’t want to spend 40 hours on the internet taking a course.

“Quite frankly, Corey, I feel like I owe you something,” Williams said. “Don’t know why I feel that way.”

Last month, Williams said he had reservations about the initial plan, but didn’t pursue resolving them enough. He felt he should have.

He said “it’s probably time for me to earn my airport committee stripes,” last month, and now he is following through with that.

Williams owns several local businesses and has a young family, but said he can can tear himself away when Hurwich needs. Hurwitch said he said he appreciates William’s offer.

Williams said he is banking on the hope that it’s something that’s not needed. Because if it is, that means something bad has happened.

This certification course costs $500, which would be paid for by the town.

That’s just the start of it, Hurwitch said. The emergency responder role would take lots of in-house training, which would be much longer than the 40-hour certification, he said. If Williams also takes on the emergency responder work, Hurwitch said it would be nice to have more trainings. At the “bare minimum,” he said he needs someone who makes good decisions under pressure.

The council discussed having an airport employee taking this role, but Hurwitch said all staff have other duties during an emergency and since they are unionized, their job duties and salaries are all set in stone through the union contracts, so this isn’t possible.

They also talked about hiring someone just for this position. But that would require creating a job description, salary and going through Franklin County to get permission to create it.

Why is this happening?

The town’s initial preliminary 2024 budget had funding for an assistant manager at the town-owned Adirondack Regional Airport in Lake Clear, estimated as costing $89,000 total, including benefits. Hurwitch has been wanting some extra help with the airport undertaking several large projects currently — a major redesign of the terminal building with an $8.5 million grant from the state and ongoing remediation of potentially cancer-causing chemicals called PFAS in the airport’s groundwater.

Mallach offered to do the work herself for additional compensation of $20,000. This would have amounted to a 99% raise, nearly doubling her salary.

Councilwoman Tracey Schrader said the airport has an unprecedented need, and what the town proposed was an unprecedented solution.

But the council voted 3-1 to eliminate Mallach’s proposed raise. Schrader was the only councilmember to vote against this.

The council put $10,000 into a contingency line in the general fund for “unforeseen circumstances,” and removed the other $10,000 from the budget entirely.

Salary supporters

Last year, Mallach attempted to receive a similar $20,000 pay raise. This was because she said she was putting in full-time hours at the town. She said by working these extra hours, she was saving the taxpayers a lot of money. A large enough contingent of taxpayers and council members who felt the supervisor job did not need to be a full-time job, and therefore did not need full-time pay, voiced their opposition. The debate came down to whether the supervisor position was a full-time job or not. The board was divided at the time. It was controversial enough that the raise was eliminated, and Mallach got the same 10% raise everyone else did and remained part-time.

The raise proposed in this year’s budget had a different purpose and would have been temporary for the 2024 budget year only. Still, several people showed up to oppose this, saying it was a “backdoor” way for the supervisor to get a raise.

On Thursday, several community members said they support Mallach getting a raise, airport or otherwise.

Harrietstown resident Chrissie Wais said she was “alarmed” by how low Mallach’s salary is and asked the town council to revisit the decision. She compared what Mallach makes to what some other local supervisors make.

North Elba is $68,695, Keene is $62,718, St Armand is $59,440, Wilmington is $55,805. All these towns are in Essex County, where town supervisors are also county supervisors.

Tupper Lake in Franklin County pays $16,000 for its supervisor.

“Even if the actual workload was 20 hours per week (which it does not appear to be) and all these others are 40 hours, we are still underpaying, especially considering this supervisor salary should be at the north end of the range given the population size of the town relative to others,” Wais wrote in an email to the council.

By her calculations, looking at owner occupied residential property data, the impact of a raise to the typical tax payer would be “pennies on the dollar.”

In “hindsight,” she said, she thought it would have been good to see an analysis like this reported before the town council took a vote. It “may have persuaded some of the naysayers,” she said.

She said Mallach has been getting “visible results” for the town.

“The airport issue seems like simple math to me. Savings for the tax payer and dedicated coverage,” Wais wrote.

She said the town is at risk of compliance violations or worse without proper assistance at the airport.

“I urge you to consider what happens if Corey burns out. No or little vacation and dimming hope for assistance is not a great recipe for retention,” Wais wrote.

Lindy Ellis, a Franklin County legislator, said she was speaking as a Harrietstown resident. She said the focus on the airport role in this budget is a “distraction” from the real issue — that the supervisor position needs a raise. Ellis called it a “very underpaid role.”

She said the grant opportunities Mallach finds exceed the cost saved by keeping her salary and hours low.

With her pay, even if she’s only working 20 hours a week, Ellis said she’s getting paid $19 an hour. And that does not reflect the leadership qualities needed for an effective supervisor, she added.

Mallach said there is a process to change the supervisor’s salary outside of the regular budget schedule, but that would require the council’s action and three votes among them.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $4.75/week.

Subscribe Today