January 11, 2007

Gratton found guilty


Bob Ellis/staff photographer
Judy Gratton covers her face with her handcuffed hands as she is led to the Cortland County Jail this morning.

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — Judy Gratton appeared shocked, grabbing the arm of a plainclothes guard, as a Cortland County jury found her guilty on several counts this morning, including starving her 5-year-old son.
The 49-year-old mother of six faces up to 25 years in state prison for the most serious charge.
The jury deliberated for nearly four hours between Wednesday evening and this morning before finding Gratton guilty of first-degree assault, a felony, three counts of endangering the welfare of a child, a misdemeanor, and unlawful possession of marijuana, a violation.
Gratton also was charged with first-degree reckless endangerment, a felony. Jury members were instructed that the reckless endangerment charge was to be considered “a lesser included charge” of the assault, and that they were only to consider her guilt on that count if they found her not guilty of the assault charge.
Gratton is scheduled for sentencing on Feb. 2.
Gratton was arrested during a drug raid at her home at 6 Union St. in March when police found her son in a playpen infested with cockroaches. Police testified the boy was wearing two soiled diapers when they found him, and he weighed only 15 pounds.
Several doctors testified throughout the trial that the boy was near death when he was taken from the home.
Two of the endangering charges were related to Gratton’s older children, a 12-year-old girl and 13-year-old boy. Police said the raid was sparked by the girl’s decision to bring marijuana to school as a cry for help.
“Elated,” Lt. Paul Sandy of the city police said about the verdict. “I think they (the two older children) were instrumental in their assistance in taking the necessary action to bring us in on the case.”
After the verdict was read, defense attorney Ira Pesserilo refused to comment about the case. He said he had another court date to attend as he ran out a side entrance of the courthouse in an attempt to avoid reporters, setting off an alarm in the process.
Lawyers gave their closing statements Wednesday afternoon before sending the jury into deliberations.
In his summation, Pesserilo argued that his client was not able to take care of her three young children properly because she was an alcoholic. He claimed that she weighed only 89 pounds when she was arrested. Gratton testified Tuesday that she now weighs 134 pounds.
“Judy Gratton is not a monster,” Pesserilo said. “For 20 years her approach to every problem was to get drunk. Then with (her son) she had something she had never coped with before, a Down syndrome kid who wouldn’t eat. So what did she do when she was confronted with that situation? She got drunk. She was afraid of DSS (the county Department of Social Services) and afraid of getting arrested.”
Pesserilo said that although his client may not have taken proper care of her children, she is not guilty of “depraved indifference to human life,” or of acting with a “wicked, evil or inhumane state of mind.” Depraved indifference is a key component of the assault charge.
He said the boy was so thin when police found him because of his inability to eat solid foods, adding that he came down with a “world class case of diarrhea” just before police raided the home.
“For 10 months no expense has been spared to help (the boy) to eat solid food,” he said, referring to the time that the child has been in DSS custody since Gratton’s arrest. “Despite expert after expert having done all they could, (the boy) still won’t eat solid foods.”
In his closing statement, District Attorney David Hartnett addressed many of Pesserilo’s arguments that doctors misdiagnosed the 5-year-old. Several doctors testified that the boy had been starved for several months.
“Instead of taking care of her kids, she sat around drinking beer,” Hartnett said. “The dogs in the house were better fed than the kids.”
Near the end of Hartnett’s argument, Assistant District Attorney Robert McGraw stood up and began to play a videotape of the 5-year-old made by city police on March 24.
The tape — which was shown to the jury on the first day to the trial — showed the malnourished boy writhing in pain as nurses moved his limbs. He was so thin that his spine could be seen through his back.
While pointing at the screen, Hartnett told the jury, “Sometimes in situations like these I worry about my eloquence. I’m not worried about my eloquence in this situation. Right there is my eloquence.”



Education Dept.:

Three local schools need to improve

Staff Reporter

Freeville Elementary, Dryden High School and George Junior Union Free School District in Tompkins County were included on a state list of schools in need of improvement, while all schools in Cortland County were listed as performing in good standing.
The list was released Wednesday by the state Education Department.
Audrey Ryan, Principal of Freeville Elementary, said her school teaches kindergarten through second grade and the school does not administer state tests.
“Us coming up on the list is kind of silly,” said Ryan.
Schools with younger students who are not required to be tested must fill out a form with the state listing those students’ academic standing, Ryan said.
Ryan said the form was not completed.
“It is simply a paperwork issue,” Ryan said. She added that the form would be completed this week, “Hopefully we will be off that list.” Ryan said she was not sure if the school would be immediately removed from the list.
The William George Agency for Children’s Services Superintendent Brad J. Herman said “The instrument that is used is for a normal population in a typical school district and not a district that handles exclusively handicapped students. I hope that the state education Department develops a tool that is more reflective of this population.”
The William George Agency operates the school district that serves the facility for troubled youths.
Officials at Dryden High School could not be reached for comment.
Seventy-three schools typically in neighborhoods with high poverty were added Wednesday to the state’s list of schools in need of improvement.
But 52 high-needs schools were also removed from the list of schools required to improve or face sanctions under the federal reform known as No Child Left Behind.
Much of the change was in New York City: 45 schools were added and 27 were removed.



Wal-Mart zoning splits planning board

Staff Reporter

CORTLANDVILLE — The town Planning Board deadlocked 2-2 Wednesday on a vote to recommend a mixed-use zoning designation for a proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter on Route 13.
The proposal will now move to the Town Board without a recommendation from the Planning Board. The Town Board will make the final decision on the zoning issue, but must hold a public hearing before the vote.
The Town Board meets next on Wednesday.
More than 20 area residents attended the meeting, which did not involve any public comment period.
Planning Board members Nick Renzi and Gene Waldbauer voted against granting the 33.7-acre site a planned unit development designation, while Chris Newell and board Chairperson Kathy Wickwire voted in favor of it.
Board member James Bugh was unable to attend the meeting, but did provide a letter stating he would not support a PUD designation.
In his letter, Bugh said Wal-Mart and its representatives had yet to identify any community need, or even what kind of mixed uses would be provided by the Supercenter or the outparcels, adjacent stores that would be leased to other businesses.
The purpose of the PUD zoning designation is to allow more flexibility in land development, but a PUD also requires more in-depth scrutiny from Planning Board members.
Concerns over stormwater management also affected Bugh’s decision.
Throughout the State Environmental Quality Review process, Wal-Mart has done “a good job” in preparing its application, Renzi said, but he believes it’s still incomplete.
Wal-Mart has not shown that the Supercenter will fulfill any kind of community need, nor does it provide for an appropriate mix of uses in “the spirit of the town code,” although it might meet the letter of the law, Renzi said.
Wickwire and Newell felt the requirements of the PUD had been met and the project should move forward.
“All you have to do is go to Wal-Mart at night on the weekend or before Christmas, and the place is packed,” indicating the need for a larger store, Wickwire said. “The community loves Wal-Mart.”
Likewise, the requirement that a PUD should be consistent with the surrounding area — such as the big-box, retail-packed Cortlandville Crossing plaza — is also met, Wickwire said.
Renzi contended everything that Wal-Mart provides is already available, although not under a single roof.
One of the main points of contention centered around the lack of any indication of what kind of businesses would be located on the two outparcels on the proposed Supercenter site.
Wal-Mart’s representatives have repeatedly stated that the businesses, which would have to be commercial and cannot include restaurants, would comply with town code.




BDC gives $17,000 to two city businesses

Staff Reporter

The Cortland County Business Development Corp. has granted funding for two local businesses, one looking for a hand in moving costs, the other seeking funding for training.
Cayuga Press, which is in the process of relocating much of its operation from Dryden to south Main Street in Cortland, will receive a $10,000 grant from the Grow Cortland Fund, pending approval of the county Legislature, to move a new printing press from Germany to Cortland.
Meanwhile, also pending legislative approval, is a $1,725 grant to BorgWarner to train employees at its Luker Road factory. BorgWarner produces components and systems for automobiles.
“These are two great companies who’ve really invested in our area,” said Linda Hartsock, executive director of the Business Development Corp./Industrial Development Agency. “These are the sort of projects this funding was meant for.”
Cayuga Press has purchased _a six-color, Heidelberg Press from a company in Germany for $1.5 million.
The $10,000 grant would assist with moving and setting up _the machine, which is estimated to cost Cayuga Press a total of $116,000. The company has estimated its total cost for the relocation to south Main Street at _$3.8 million.
Cayuga Press is expected to bring 25 new jobs, along with another 85 from its Dryden operation to the city in the next two years.
The company should begin moving into its new building this month, and is expected to start operation in Cortland by the end of February.
Meanwhile, BorgWarner is the first company to apply for Grow Cortland funds for training rather than relocation, and is looking to use the money to provide specialized “lean manufacturing” training for its employees.
The training is aimed at increasing productivity and efficiency on the company floor, Hartsock said.
The Grow Cortland grant would match $1,725 paid by BorgWarner for the training, she said.
The Grow Cortland program was started in 2005, Hartsock said, with a one-time allotment by the county Legislature of $50,000 to be used for moving costs and training.
Two other companies have each received $10,000 in Grow Cortland funds: DB Gatti, a company that moved into the former Cortland Glass building on Tompkins Street, and Cortland Plastics, which will share the former Impact Sports Building with Cayuga Press.



Homer OKs $3.1 million village budget

Staff Reporter

HOMER — Nine residents attended a public hearing Wednesday on a proposed 13-percent village tax rate increase, asking questions about the numbers and requesting the Village Board stop criticizing the residents who sued the village over a senior housing proposal.
The board unanimously approved the proposed $3.1 million budget for 2007-08 after the hearing. Spending is up 3.5 percent from the $3 million budget in the current year.
The budget sets a tax rate of $8.79 per $1,000 of assessed property value, a $1 rate increase. Under that rate, a resident with a home assessed at $100,000 would pay $879 in village taxes for 2007-08, compared with $780 for 2006-07.
The village’s fiscal year begins on March 1.
The 13-percent increase is largely due to a $25,000 budget note — which is basically a loan against revenue from the coming year, said Village Clerk Jo Anne Williams.
She said the budget note will be necessary, as the village expects by the end of this budget year it will have used up all of its contingency money — $15,000 — on unexpected fees.
Those fees include lawyer fees as a result of the senior housing project lawsuit, lawyer fees as a result of village employees looking to unionize, and higher garbage collection costs after the previous village trash hauler could not fulfill its contract.
The village also is budgeting $5,000 more in contingency funds for the 2007-08 budget year.
The tax rate increase also results from a 10 percent increase, or $14,376, in health insurance costs and 3 percent employee pay raises, which add $100,000 to the budget.
Legal fees for the housing project lawsuit totaled about $12,000, Williams said.
Janet Steck, of 113 Clinton St., said those residents who successfully sued the village over the housing project were being blamed for the lawyer fees, when it is really the Planning Board members who are to blame. Steck was not part of the lawsuit.
If they hadn’t improperly conducted the environmental review process for the project, a lawsuit would not have been needed, she said.
“The Planning Board is at fault because they did not properly follow the SEQR process,” Steck said. “I would like to correct that.”
Maribeth McEwan, who lives at 52 Cortland St., and is one of the residents who sued, said the village has continuously blamed her and the other people who sued for the costs, which is unfair.
“Don’t keep putting that out,” she said.
Most of the public hearing was a question-and-answer period between residents and the board about elements of the budget.
Steck asked about the numbers in the community development fund.
Williams explained that the village budgeted $14,500 for next year to cover half the cost of a comprehensive plan, and will budget the same amount next year to cover the other half.
McDermott said there’s a chance it won’t have to budget that much money next year, though, if it can get the county or a company to come up with the plan for less than $30,000.
Jae Harris, of 10 Stanford Drive, asked the board to explain the “shade trees” listing in the budget. The board proposes budgeting $13,000 for shade trees, a $1,000 increase over this year.