Top stories of 2015

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 31 December 2015 at 12:00 am

With several contentious issues, race for sheriff tops the list

Photos by Tom Rivers – Randy Bower answers a question during a candidate forum on Oct. 20. Bower ran for sheriff against Don Organisciak, center, and Tom Drennan, left. Bower emerged the victor in an upset after Drennan was endorsed by the Republican Party and Organisciak had the backing of the Democratic Party.

There was no shortage of news in Orleans County in 2015. The news was often dominated by three contentious issues.

In January, Medina village residents voted whether or not to dissolve the village. That topic was a big story in 2014. On Jan. 20 it finally went to a vote and it was defeated, 949-527. The village government will stay intact. The issue seemed to fade from the spotlight after the vote.

Two other issues spurned significant citizen involvement throughout the year: the race for a new county sheriff and the proposal for a large-scale wind turbine project in Somerset and Yates.

The wind turbine plan has been met largely with opposition. A citizens’ group, Save Ontario Shores, formed and ran candidates for the Yates Town Board. Two of those candidates, including Jim Simon for town supervisor, were elected in November.

Orleans County generally has quiet elections with most candidates at the county level typically running unopposed. This year three candidates vied to replace Scott Hess, the retiring sheriff. The race was contentious and Randy Bower, a public safety dispatcher the past 30 years, emerged as the winner.

Here are Orleans Hub’s picks for the top 10 stories for 2015 in Orleans County:

1. Sheriff race stirs passions in community

Randy Bower is out in front of his group of supporters on July 4 during the parade at Lyndonville. Bower attended several parades with a big following on supporters on the parade routes.

Scott Hess announced in January he wasn’t seeking re-election as sheriff and would end a 32-year career in law enforcement, including 12 years as sheriff.

Tom Drennan, the chief deputy of the Sheriff’s Department, seemed the likely successor. He was the No. 3 in the Sheriff’s Department, where he worked for 23 years. He also was endorsed by the Orleans County Republican Party in May, gaining the support of the party leaders.

But Randy Bower, a public safety dispatcher, believed he had the vision for the Sheriff’s Department and support of the community to serve as sheriff. Bower mounted a vigorous challenge to Drennan and would defeat him in the Republican Primary, 1,671 to 1,650.

Bower and Drennan both had big groups of supporters in local parades, and they spent a lot of money in the campaign.

They would face each other again on Election Day in November and Bower was the victor getting 47 percent to Drennan’s 42 percent. (Drennan ran under the Indpendence and Reform parties.) Don Organisciak, a retired Medina police investigator, ran as a Democrat and received 10 percent of the vote.

Normally the local election season is pretty quiet and turnout is low. The turnout on Nov. 3 was 38.2 percent.

That compares to a mere 24.5 percent in Erie County, which had a race for county executive in a market with lots of television and radio ads. In Orleans County, the sheriff candidates used door-to-door campaigning, lawn signs and local ads to get the word out.

2. Wind turbine proposal fires up Yates residents

These signs against a wind energy project were distirbuted on April 1 during a meeting at the Barker Firehall.

The Town of Yates generally sees little controversy. But that changed in December 2014 when Apex Clean Energy announced its plan for Lighthouse Wind, a large-scale wind turbine project. Apex wants to build as many as 71 turbines in Yates and Somerset near the Lake Ontario shoreline.

A citizens’ group, Save Ontario Shores, formed in opposition to the project and two of its leaders were elected to the Yates Town Board in November.

The Somerset Town Board and Niagara County Legislature opposed the project after a June survey of town residents showed strong oppisition to the project. State Sen. Rob Ortt, Congressman Chris Collins and the Orleans County Legislature came out against the project in December.

The Town of Yates also surveyed residents about the issue and about two-thirds of the respondents oppose the project.

Apex in November submitted its preliminary scoping statement about the project to the Public Service Commission. Company officials say they will answer concerns and are committed to advancing the project.

3. Dissolution is rejected in Medina

About a year of bitter and divisive debate, village residents went to the polls in droves on Jan. 20 to answer the question, “Shall the Village of Medina, New York be dissolved?”

Dissolution was rejected 949-527 in one of the largest turnouts for a Medina election in recent memory. (There was a village election for trustee position on March 18 and only 311 voters came out to elect Todd Bensley and Owen Toale.)

Dissolution proponents said dissolving the village government would reduce taxes for vllage residents by about 25 percent. But opponents said some of those savings would raise taxes to Shelby and Ridgeway residents outside the village. Resdents also worried the village would lose responsive fire, police and other services.

“We still have a declining tax base, a shrinking population and climbing costs,” said Mayor Andrew Meier, after dissolution was defeated. “Our sustainability predicament remains.”

4. Parents, students opt out of state tests in big numbers

Julie Wantuck, president of the Holley Teachers Association, wore this button in March in protest of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plans and actions about education.In Holley, 40 percent of students would opt out from tests in April.

A movement from parents against standardized testing of students in grades 3 through 8 became a phenomenon this spring with widespread “opting out” of the tests.

About 20 percent of students did not take the grades 3-8 math and ELA tests in April, but the “opt-out” rate was higher in Orleans County.

“This year, there was a significant increase in the number of students refusing the annual assessments,” Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl H. Tisch said in a statement in August. “We must do more to ensure that our parents and teachers understand the value and importance of these tests for our children’s education.”

Gov. Cuomo would later announce the state wouldn’t test students so much and teachers’ evaluations wouldn’t be so closely tied to student performance on the standardized tests. He called Common Core “deeply flawed” in New York.

The opt out rates in Orleans include: Albion – Math, 29 percent; ELA, 22 percent; Holley – Math, 43 percent; ELA, 40 percent; Kendall – Math, 34 percent; ELA, 30 percent; Lyndonville – Math, 26 percent; ELA, 19 percent; Medina – Math, 30 percent; ELA, 21 percent.

Despite the outcry about the tests and the state linking them to teacher evaluations, local school superintendents urged parents to have students take the tests.

“We appreciate and understand parent’s right to refuse the assessments,” said Julie Christensen, Kendall school superintendent. “However, this is an adult political debate that places students in the middle of the discord and that is unfortunate.”

5. December 2015 was warm, but February was coldest ever

This tractor is pictured in a field of snow along Holley Road in Albion last February when about 2 feet of snow were on the ground.

It was never colder in Western New York for an entire month than February 2015, according to National Weather Service. Buffalo averaged a temperature of 10.9 degrees and never once went above freezing. That average temperature broke the previous record-low of 11.6 degrees in February 1934, according to the National Weather Service.

Rochester was a little bit warmer but the 12.2-average temperature was below the previous record of 12.6 degrees also set in February 1934.

It was a punishing winter with long stretches of bitter cold that closed schools and made travel difficult in Orleans County. Holley in particular was plagued with frozen waterlines that burst and needed to fixed in the dead of winter.

When winter came back later in the year, the weather was the opposite extreme. It was in the 50s on Christmas and several days topped 60 and even 70 degrees in December. There was no measurable snow until close to Christmas and that snow quickly vanished.

6. Pride Pak commits to Medina, first tenant lined up for STAMP

Steve Karr (right), chief executive officer for Pride Pak Canada, in October meets village officials and others working on the company’s new 64,000-square-foot vegetable processing facility. He is pictured with Mauro LoRusso, vice president of finance for Pride Pak (center); Gabrielle Barone, vice president of business development for the Orleans Economic Development Agency (far left); and Marguerite Sherman, village trustee (second from left).

Two big economic development projects were announced within a day of each other in October.

Pride Pak officials attended a Medina Village Board meeting on Oct. 6 and presented the company’s plan to build a 64,000-square-foot vegetable processing plant on Route 31A, across from the GCC campus. Pride Pak is from Canada, and the Medina site will be its first U.S.-based facility.

The company is spending about $15 million for the new facility in Medina and expects to hire 85 to 100 people in 2016. The site could be expand to up to 200 workers.

Just south of Orleans County, for years Genesee County officials have been working to develop a high-tech business park known as STAMP. The first tenant for the site was unveiled on Oct. 7, with Gov. Andrew Cuomo joining leader of 1366 Technologies at the annoucement in Batavia.

1366 Technologies Inc. of New Bedford, Mass., committed to an initial $100 million manufacturing plant at STAMP, which is about 2 miles south of the Orleans County line.

The company has revolutionized manufacturing silicon carbon wafers – considered “the heart” of solar panels. It looked at 300 sites for its new factory and picked the site in the Town of Alabama.

1366 Technologies expects to expand and make a $700 million investment in the area, starting with 600 full-time workers and growing to 1,000. The company will use about 100 acres of STAMP, a 1,250-acre site.

Cuomo said the project will be a “game changer” for the area by providing hundreds of high-paying jobs.

7. Wyoming County man opens fire on police in Clarendon

A vehicle driven by James Ellis hit a telephone pole on Route 31A at about 3 a.m. on March 21 and the vehicle came to a rest in front yard of Christopher and Denise Wing.

In the dark, early morning hours of March 21, James Ellis of Wyoming County went to an ex-girlfriend’s house in Shelby. Ellis had a gun and a friend of Ellis’s ex-girlfriend called 911.

Ellis fled from the property and was chased by police. He would crash into a telephone pole on Route 31 in Clarendon. His vehicle was in a resident’s front yard and Ellis fled to the nearby woods.

When police arrived, he opened fire, hitting Deputy James DeFilipps twice in the abdomen. DeFilipps was wearing a bullet-proof vest. He fatally shot Ellis, ending the threat. DeFilipps was found to have acted with justifiable force by a grand jury.

It was an unusual to have a shootout for law enforcement in Orleans County. DeFilipps, who works the night shift, recovered from a wound to his stomach and returned to work.

Pastor sentenced to 15 years in prison for sex abuse

Roy Harriger is led to the courtroom on April 6 when he was sentenced to state prison.

There were other high-profile incidents in the county this year. The sex abuse trial of Roy Harriger, a former local pastor, attracted media attention from Rochester and Buffalo.

Harriger was convicted by a jury after testimony from family members, including grandchildren, who claimed he sexually abused them.

During his sentencing on April 6, Harriger, 71, was called “a wolf in shepherd’s clothing,” by Orleans County Court Judge James Punch.

Harriger maintained his innocence and many parishioners sent letters to the judge in support of Harriger and his work as a church leader.

The judge sentenced Harriger to 15 years in state prison.

“One could say you were a wolf in sheep’s clothing, but you are a wolf in shepherd’s clothing and that’s much worse,” Punch said.

“The bullying, the use of charisma, the power of your personality were all brought forward to victimize these children and keep them quiet.”

8. Organizations merge to preserve services

Mike Woodward, a member of the Self Advocate All Stars at The Arc of Orleans County, is pictured on the group’s float during a parade in Holley in June. The All Stars won a first place award in the parade.

It was a big year for organizations merging with others. The Arc of Orleans County and Genesee County ARC announced the groups would merge into a single agency serving people with disabilities in two counties. Both have operated independently for about 50 years.

The merger will reduce administration expenses and better ensure services and programs for people with disabilities and their families, said Donna Saskowski, executive director for both agencies.

“We are rural, neighboring, agricultural communities, roughly the same size in area and among New York’s smallest in terms of population,” Saskowski said. “Looking ahead, we feel our similar cultures will allow for a smooth transition.”

The Mental Health Associations in Orleans and Genesee also merged. The Boards of Health in the two counties also formed a single joint board, a first for two counties in the state. Genesee and Orleans share the same ublic health director and other staff.

Leaders from the two counties say they are looking for more cooperation and perhaps consolidation of services. Orleans and Niagara counties have formed the Niagara-Orleans Regional Alliance to advocate for shared issues such as broadband Internet access.

9. Kendall schools transformed with renovation project

Photos by Kristina Gabalski – Kendall Junior-Senior High School students check out new lockers during an open house in September for the community to tour the renovated school campus.

Kendall Jr./Sr. High School Librarian Sara Baglioni stands in the newly renovated, tech-savy library. Upgrades include a smart board and wired tables for laptops and other electronic devices. New upholstered seating offers space to relax, read and study. “I was completely taken aback with the change and how wonderful it is,” she said.

Kendall Central School received some radical changes to the elementary and junior-senior high schools this year.

The improvements are part of a $25 million capital project.

The work included a new cafeteria in the junior-senior high school, new roofs for both school buildings, as well as energy efficient improvements, heating and ventilation work, and updated security measures.

Contractors also made improvements to parking lots and sidewalks.

“People are walking in and saying ‘Wow,'” Kendall Superintendent Julie Christensen said during the open house.

“They say it is beautiful and amazing. People who went to school here are shocked at the transformation.

“The kids are beaming.”

Community members have gushed about the improvements.

“I haven’t been here in 16 years,” former Kendall student Kate Czeh said.

“I’m getting lost. It’s so different. It’s beautiful. I don’t even recognize it as Kendall.”

10. Orleans County grapples with decline

Photo by Tom Rivers – Wargo Enterprises, an Akron company specializing in demolition, takes down the Clarendon Street bridge in Albion on April 7. The Albion Village Board opted not to replace the bridge due to the costs of the project. The street is now closed off by the railroad tracks.

It was a tough year for Orleans County with decline. One bridge was demolished and wasn’t replaced. The Lake Ontario State Parkway continued to fall into disrepair, making for a bumpy ride that many motoroists are choosing to avoid.

Local officials worry about infrastructure in the county. They have pressed state officials to better maintain canal bridges, in particular. The closed bridges or ones with weight reductions limit school buses, fire trucks and farm equipment from crossing the canal.

Some Medina village officials pushed dissolution of the village government due falling tax assessments and rising tax rates. Some organizations and government services have merged with neighboring counties.

School districts have shrinking enrollments and some districts are sharing athletic teams and extracurricular programs.

The 50 members of the First United Methodist Church in Albion held their final Sunday service at its historic church at the corner of Platt and East State streets on March 29.

The church left the building due to the expense of fixing the roof and building at a cost of about $1 million. The church building has been for sale for seven months with no buyers. The United Methodist congregation has been meeting since Easter at Christ Episcopal Church.

Other churches have small congregations faced with the upkeep of large, historic buildings.

Pat Davis has been coming to the United Methodist since she moved to Albion 25 years ago. She marvels about the architecture of the building from 1860. It’s one of seven churches that are part of the Courthouse Square, which is included on the National Register of Historic Places.

“It’s a beautiful church,” Davis said on March 29. “We have to remind ourselves it’s a building and the people make the church.”