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January 2, 2010

 

Gallagher reflects on challenges of office

Outgoing 3-term mayor says he will stay active by serving on community boards

By HOLDEN B. SLATTERY
Staff Reporter
hslattery@cortlandstandard.net

Cortland Mayor Tom Gallagher says he has enjoyed the myriad challenges he has faced as head of city government and wishes he had run for the office earlier.
“There’s a challenge every day, whether it’s a personnel challenge or an equipment challenge or a state issue or a federal issue,” Gallagher said. “It’s just been great.”
Some of his biggest challenges were dwindling finances, fires, floods and businesses closing.
After serving as mayor for six years, Thursday was Gallagher’s last day in office. He plans to stay active in the community by serving on boards for numerous local organizations and giving advice to people who seek it, he said Tuesday in his City Hall office. He also plans to spend more time with his family and play more golf.
Gallagher has resided at 15 Floral Ave. with his wife, Antoinette, for more than 40 years. His three children live in Cortland, North Carolina and Georgia. His two grandchildren attend Cortland Junior-Senior High School.
Gallagher said his accomplishments as mayor include making the Water Department and the Youth Bureau Maintenance Department part of the Department of Public Works to eliminate 21 positions; making the wastewater treatment plant a municipal operation; and overseeing the renovation of low-income housing in the south Main Street area as part of a project run by the Syracuse nonprofit organization Housing Visions.
He said he also helped to attract several businesses to the city, including Cayuga Press, Advance Auto, Tim Hortons and CFCU Fingerlakes Credit Union.
He oversaw the creation of strategic plans for the city’s South and East ends, which will guide future development in those areas. Thoma Development is now finishing a comprehensive plan for the city that will replace a plan from 1991.
Gallagher said his biggest regret is that he was not able to enlarge and modernize the city’s central fire station. An architect drew up a plan for a 30,700-square-foot addition to the Court Street fire station for about $7.3 million, but the plan was put on hold in the fall of 2008 because the city lacked funding.
The Court Street fire station is too small to hold the large fire trucks being made today, he said.
Gallagher also wishes that Rochester-based Conifer Realty LLC had been able to build a proposed 56-unit low- to middle-income housing complex on Pendleton Street. The project fell through when the city declined to help with funding and New York state denied the company federal tax credits. Local residents opposed the project, citing an influx of traffic and people.
He said he admires the housing projects Conifer has developed in Ithaca when he drives by them.
“I just saw that as a real positive for the city,” he said.
A Groton native, Gallagher was co-owner of Crown City Distributors, a local Pepsi-Cola distributing company on Luker Road in Cortlandville, for 18 years; a sales representative at the Cortland Paper Co. for eight years; and executive director of the Cortland County Chamber of Commerce, before he ran successfully for mayor in 2003.
Gallagher said he has been surrounded by knowledgeable people who have helped him to make decisions, and good employees who carry out the city’s day-to-day operations.
“I told everybody I’m just like the coach of a football team. The coach gets a lot of credit, but he never scores a touchdown or makes a tackle,” he said.
Many of the challenges Gallagher faced involved the city’s finances. The biggest blow to the city was the closing of the Buckbee Mears factory, which employed more than 1,000 people at its peak in 1997 and used about a million gallons of water per day, bringing in about $250,000 to $300,000 in Water Department revenue per year, he said.
The city also had four major fires and two floods during Gallagher’s term.
He said the city’s financial troubles are mainly a result of state mandates, such as the state retirement program, and the increasing cost of health insurance. Also contributing to the problem was the city depleting its reserve funds instead of raising taxes, starting before he was mayor, he said.
The city has also had difficulty collecting property taxes. The city has to pay the school district and the county for unpaid property taxes. The city then tries to collect the back taxes from the property owners.
Gallagher was involved in forming the city’s program to seize properties that have owed the city taxes for at least three years. The program is set to start in 2010, and Gallagher said the program will aim to collect about $2 million owed to the city in delinquent taxes.
Chuck Sheridan, owner of Sheridan s Jewelry on Main Street, helped influence Gallagher to become involved in public service. While Gallagher was working for Cortland Paper he said he asked Sheridan why there were so many empty storefronts on Main Street, and Sheridan encouraged him to do something about it.
“He is a positive thinker and he talked to people and did what he could do,” Sheridan said. “He’s made a lot of friends and he’s just put a positive influence on the city.”

 

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