Sixteen years ago, Phil Skowfoe decided he better get involved in his town’s government, lest it end up adopting zoning rules that he saw as a bad fit for the rural community where he was born and raised.
“They tried to push zoning down our throats,” Skowfoe said, “and I’m not a proponent of zoning. It has its good points and its bad points. It creates more headaches than it’s worth some times.”
This month, Skowfoe, a 65-year-old retired boilermaker and the town supervisor for his hometown of Fulton, became the chairman of the Schoharie County Board of Supervisors — the first Democrat to lead that body in almost 20 years.
“If you want to make a difference, you have to get involved,” he said when asked what attracted him to become involved in local civic affairs.
“You don’t get in this business for the money, not at this level,” said Skowfoe, noting his pay as Fulton’s town supervisor amounts to about $4,500 a year. “You do it because you enjoy helping people.”
Skowfoe said he doesn’t see himself as a highly partisan holder of a public office, noting when he parceled out committee assignments to fellow board members, he put Republicans in charge of eight panels while handing chairmanships to five Democrats.
“If you look at the committee structure, I think I’m fair and bipartisan,” he said. “I tried not to shut anybody out. I tried to take care of everybody.”
As for his immediate mission, Skowfoe said Schoharie County continues to recover from the walloping it took when flood waters unleashed by Hurricane Irene in 2011 damaged many local communities, particularly the village of Schoharie.
“We got to get our county building back up and r unning and we have to get our jail running again,” Skowfoe said when asked about his priorities.
He said he is also hoping that the regional trash authority known as MOSA — a joint venture between Montgomery Otsego and Schoharie counties — can stay intact despite efforts by Otsego County to break away and set up its own public-private partnership for waste management.
“I honestly don’t think Otsego County can go in the garbage business and do it as cheap as MOSA does now,” said Skowfoe, who serves on the MOSA board of directors.
Another major project that could impact Schoharie County is the $750 million Constitution Pipeline that, if approved by federal regulators, would channel natural gas extracted in Pennsylvania to two existing pipelines in the town of Wright.
While the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is the only government agency with authority over such interstate transmission systems, Skowfoe said he thinks towns should be able to assert home rule power in determining whether they be located within their borders.
He said he helped champion a one-year moratorium against heavy industry in his own town until the adequacy of local land use laws is reviewed.
Asked where he stands on local bans against hydrofracking, he said: “I probably could support one. I have a lot of people here who are dead against it. You have to do what the majority of your people want to do.”
Schoharie Town Supervisor Gene Milone, a Democrat, said he has high hopes that Skowfoe will be an effective leader for Schoharie County.
“He is very much acquaint with county operations, and he’s had a lot to offer over the years,” said Milone.
Skowfoe said he is concerned with the lack of employment opportuniteis for young people in New York’s rural communities, and he is also deeply troubled by the impact unfunded state mandates have on county taxpayers. Many people, he said, struggle to pay their property taxes.
The board became enmeshed in acrimony last year after the previous chairman, Harold Vroman, changed committee assignments abruptly, triggering a legal challenge that has since been settled.
“I hope to mend fences, but whether I can or not I don’t know,” he said.
While Skowfoe was being interviewed the other night, he took another call, this one from the town dog catcher. His vehicle had slid off an icy road and had become stuck in a ditch.
“I’m going out now to pull him out,” the new chairman of the county legislature said.