Democrat File Photos
TOWN OF CALLICOON Supervisor Candidates Linda Babicz, a Democrat, and Gregg Semenetz, a Republican, are both looking towards the future of the Town.
Semenetz Faces Babicz's Challenge
Semenetz: 'Not Ready to Retire.'
By Jeanne Sager
NORTH BRANCH September 25, 2007 It’s no secret that Gregg Semenetz likes to be the boss.
The Democrats who’ve launched a campaign to unseat the 10-year incumbent in the Town of Callicoon supervisor’s office consider it his biggest flaw.
Semenetz says it’s what makes him good at his job.
He started his first business just out of Bayside High School in Queens, renting some 500 acres in Sullivan County and hiring his friends to cut hay.
He set his college schedule at C.W. Post so he could drive the hay down to his urban customers on Mondays when he returned to classes.
Raised in the city, Semenetz spent the better part of his childhood visiting his grandparents on their farm in Sullivan County.
He played Little League in the Jeffersonville area, made his friends here, met his future wife here.
When he finished college, Semenetz moved here for good.
He married Bridget Bowdren, got into the sawmill business then expanded to a lumberyard just outside Jeffersonville. Four years ago, he sold the business and started a new one, opening Millhouse Properties as a real estate broker again in Jeffersonville.
“I’ve been a boss my whole life,” Semenetz said with a shrug. “I’ve never worked for anyone.”
Except the people of the Town of Callicoon.
Semenetz was elected to the town board in the early 1990s.
At the time, the board of supervisors ran the county, and Rodney Gaebel was the supervisor of Callicoon.
Four years later, the county made a switch to the Legislature, and Gaebel was elected to the District 5 seat.
That left an opening in the supervisor’s office, and Semenetz threw his hat in the ring.
He won the seat and took office January 1, 1996.
Eighteen days later, the biggest flood in 50 years washed through Sullivan County, causing damage in the township.
“I was indoctrinated by that flood,” Semenetz said with a rueful grin. “The ’96 flood was probably the worst disaster we’d had since ’47. We were in uncharted territory.”
He got a crash course in managing a town in crisis one that well-prepared him to respond to three floods in three years in the latter part of his career.
That response is one of Semenetz’s proudest moments.
His decision to order machinery into the floodwaters of Youngsville during the flood of June 2006 made him an easy target for groups like the Department of Environmental Conservation who favored a wait-and-see approach.
But presented with the same situation, Semenetz said he’d make the same choice.
“There was such devastation there,” he explained. “If you were there and looked at it it was a no-brainer for me.”
With another storm expected and debris still lodged upstream that could easily shake loose and further plug up the bridges, Semenetz said he termed it an emergency situation.
And in an emergency, it was up to the town supervisor to act.
“We made the decision right then and there, that day we had to do something drastic,” he recalled.
“We didn’t care who it was, we helped everybody,” he continued. “A week after that flood, you couldn’t tell there even was a flood in Youngsville.”
“I don’t regret what we did. We did the right thing, and the whole project got funded,” he concluded.
Fixing an eyesore
FEMA funding from the 1996 flood played a role in another of Semenetz’s career highlights the park in Callicoon Center.
The junkyard at the entrance of town was an eyesore, Semenetz said.
Thanks to the hard work of then Highway Superintendent Pete Cummings, the town had enough money set aside to purchase the property and hire George Deckelman’s crew to clear it out.
What they created is a work-in-progress, he said, with the soccer fields and basketball courts in place and more planned when the town has the finances to expand.
“I think the park is great,” Semenetz said. “If you don’t have things for kids to do, they find things to do.”
For 182 children in the Jeffersonville area, the park provides room for soccer practice and games.
Hundreds more play baseball or tee-ball at the park, and Semenetz can’t even account for how many people use the court for pick-up basketball games.
He’s drawn flack for not having a written plan for the park, but Semenetz said it’s already an improvement over what once was.
Future improvements, done when funding is available, will be icing on the cake.
And though he said it’s certainly on the board’s agenda, the park is still secondary to the main business of running a town.
Defending his record
When they head to the polls, he’d like residents to remember his efforts to develop a dog and cat law, outdoor furnace regulations and the free spring and fall clean-ups that last for at least four days at a clip.
Semenetz says his record on paper is spotless the only debt service incurred during his tenure enabled the Callicoon highway department to move from its 1940s structure into the 21st century.
The town moved when it was appropriate, he said, costing taxpayers $900,000 for the same project that cost the Town of Lumberland $1.3 million just a few years later.
The vast majority of the town’s projects have benefited from outside funding, Semenetz said, including $400,000 Housing and Urban Development grants used in both the Callicoon Center/North Branch area and Youngsville, a $250,000 grant for new water lines in Youngsville and $75,000 earmarked for new sidewalks in Jeffersonville.
That’s where running the town differs from running a business, he explained.
“The hardest part of business is getting paid,” Semenetz said.
The town can depend on a tax base, but government has to spend it wisely.
That’s where his business acumen comes in, he said, crunching the numbers and making things work.
A “full-time” part-time job
Semenetz isn’t afraid to work.
Supervisor is considered a part-time position in Callicoon, but Semenetz said he wouldn’t be able to do it if he weren’t self-employed and situated right in the Jeffersonville area.
“I may not be in the town hall, but I do it every day,” he noted. “It’s a full-time job without being a full-time job.
“And I work at it as hard as I can.”
Semenetz said he’s been lucky in the past 10 years to have a strong crew behind him in the town’s offices.
“The Town of Callicoon has the best people in each position,” he noted. “There’s not one weak link.
“If someone walks in and needs help, no one says ‘it’s not my job.’”
With a new home in North Branch and his real estate business to run, Semenetz could say it’s time to throw in the towel, tell people, “it’s not my job.”
But he wants to be involved in his community, and this is his way.
“I’m not ready to retire,” he said with a grin.
Babicz Has New Ideas For Town
By Jeanne Sager
YOUNGSVILLE Linda Babicz has ideas; but so does everyone else.
The Democratic candidate for supervisor in the Town of Callicoon has a laundry list of “to dos” for her time in office.
But she doesn’t want to get too specific too quickly.
“I have my own ideas on how things should be done, but I know they’re not the only ideas,” she said. “I will be taking other people’s opinions to heart I will be listening.”
Planting roots in Youngsville
Babicz and husband Joe stumbled on Youngsville almost by accident 31 years ago.
Looking to set up a wood shop somewhere upstate where they could have a home and business on the same site, the Long Islanders weren’t having much luck.
On a visit to Sullivan County to see Joe’s sister and brother-in-law, they learned there was an old appliance shop for sale in Youngsville with a house right there.
“We were young,” Babicz recalled. “It was a place where we could afford to have the wood-working shop and house.”
Ultimately, they fell in love with the quiet town and the friendly neighbors.
Since October 1976, they’ve expanded Youngsville Custom Kitchens to a second location in Middletown, raised two children and welcomed two grandchildren to the world.
They’ve also thrown themselves into their community.
Linda served in the ladies auxiliary of the Youngsville Fire Department until she had to step down because of the demands of the business.
She helped out as the library that’s now on Center Street in Jeffersonville got off the ground, filling the “story lady” role when the library was still in the Pfanstiel building.
Getting involved in politics
More recently, Babicz has been a major force in the Youngsville Environmental Preservation Committee and a familiar face at Town of Callicoon Board meetings where she sits with note cards filled with carefully crafted questions and comments.
Her interest in town government was piqued initially by the flooding issues in Youngsville, and Babicz is adamant that more be done to alleviate the devastation she and her neighbors have suffered over and over since the flood of 1996.
Last year, Babicz lost her car, yard and a great portion of her livelihood to the floodwaters.
Only now is the Youngsville office of Youngsville Custom Kitchens getting back on its feet.
Frustration leads to engagement
The floods sent Babicz to board meetings to get better informed and more involved, but it’s her attendance and the knowledge she’s gained that spurred her to run for office.
Frustrated with what she felt was a government closed off from the people, she began attending meetings of the Town of Callicoon Democratic Party.
This spring, the Democrats asked her to run. She accepted.
“They felt I was a viable candidate,” Babicz said.
Working for her is her experience in business as co-owner, designer and bookkeeper at Youngsville Custom Kitchens; her ability to work well with others and a well-honed sense of organization, she said.
“When I take on a task, I have every intention of completing it,” Babicz said with a grin.
Based in the Youngsville office of the business, with her grandchildren enrolled at Sullivan West, Babicz said she now has the time to devote to the supervisor’s office.
She also has the energy.
“I believe I have a vested interest in the Town of Callicoon,” she explained. “I live here, I intend to stay here.
“I think a lot of changes are coming our way, and I want to be part of it.”
Babicz would like to see a new comprehensive plan crafted for the Town of Callicoon, with input not just from the members of the town board but the planning board and the residents themselves.
Callicoon should learn from the mistakes of the Town of Bethel, which recently welcomed a developer with open arms, leading him almost all of the way through the approval process before suddenly slamming the door shut.
“We should know what we want, where we want it, what we don’t want,” Babicz said. “When someone comes and approaches the town, we should know where we stand.”
In other words, Babicz said, she’d like to see a Town of Callicoon that’s proactive rather than reactive and a town government that’s in touch with the wishes of its constituents.
“I would like to restore communication between the town board and the community being served,” Babicz explained.
What she would do
One of her first moves after her swearing in would be the creation of a town Website complete with the minutes of the board meetings, town policies and other information residents need to know.
“If it’s not illegal to know, it will be on the Website,” she said.
Babicz has also put out the call for a code of ethics to be adopted by all elected officials in the Town of Callicoon, aimed at increasing accountability and eliminating potential conflicts of interest.
Whether the entire slate of Democratic candidates is elected or not, Babicz said her strength lies in being able to work with others.
Often in her business, she’s found that opening up her designs to the comments of other designers has resulted in a better product.
She’d like to see the same thing happen on the town board.
She’s open to delegating, she said, not to pass the buck but to use the talents and skills of other members of the government.
A voice for the people
In 31 years in business, Babicz has met people from every corner of the Town of Callicoon, from every walk of life.
“In my business, everyone needs a kitchen!” she quipped.
The farmers, the educators, the second homeowners all have a unique perspective and something to add to the conversation.
That’s why she’s running the promise to be “your voice” with “your support.”
Babicz isn’t afraid to look for help for the town outside its borders either.
She’d like to see more efforts to secure grant funding to boost the town’s coffers and remove the burden from the taxpayers for projects.
That can also be tied to her pet project the watershed.
As secretary of the Youngsville Environmental Preservation Committee, Babicz was instrumental in bringing the US Fish and Wildlife Service and Congressman Maurice Hinchey to town to discuss federal funding for mitigation and remediation.
Elected or not, Babicz promises those types of efforts will continue.
“Things need to be looked at in a different way than they have been,” she noted.
Her first trouble with flooding came in 1996, and the streambeds have been filling since that time with silt, gravel and debris.
What needed to be done was to clean them out before a flood, she explained, not after.
She’d like to see stream maintenance in western Sullivan County, yet another move to be proactive.
That’s why Babicz is running for supervisor.
“I’m not really interested in the politics of the township per se,” she explained. “I want to be the supervisor because I want a more proactive town board.
“I want people to know when they come to the town board their participation is welcomed.”