January 23, 2007

‘Putting his country first’

Friends, school staff say fallen Homer soldier was friendly, dedicated


Bob Ellis/staff photographer      
A tribute to 1999 graduate Shawn Falter was posted Monday on the board in front of Homer High School. Falter, shown above in his yearbook photo, was killed in Iraq Saturday. 

Shawn FalterShawn Falter

Staff Reporter

HOMER — As a senior on Homer High School’s varsity basketball team in 1999, Shawn Falter stood out for his willingness to put the team first, his former coach Jeff Tobel said.
“That’s just the way he played basketball, and I think you see that same attitude in him going out defending our country, putting his country first,” Tobel said.
Falter, 25, an Army private enlisted since August 2005, was killed in combat Saturday in Iraq, according to Sgt. Raymond Swift, a casualty assistance officer for Falter’s family.
Neither Swift nor the U.S. Department of Defense would confirm how Falter was killed, but he was among 25 U.S. troops reportedly killed in Iraq Saturday, the third deadliest day for the United States since the war started in 2003.
The violence that occurred Saturday included:
l five U.S. soldiers killed, three wounded, in an attack in Karbala;
l 12 U.S. soldiers killed in a Blackhawk helicopter crash in northeast Baghdad;
l four soldiers and one Marine assigned to Regimental Combat Team 5, who died of wounds sustained in enemy action in Anbar;
l a Task Force Lightning soldier assigned to the 105th Engineer Group killed by a roadside bomb in Northern Iraq; and
l two Multi-National Division Baghdad soldiers also killed by roadside bombs, one in a northern section of Baghdad, the other northeast of the city.
Falter was deployed out of Fort Richardson, Alaska, Swift said.
He is the first soldier from Cortland County to die in the war on terrorism, according to Carl Bullock, county director of Veteran’s Service.
This morning, Swift released the following statement from family members:
“The outpouring of love and support from the local community has been a great comfort in this time of grief. We are extremely proud of Shawn’s service and sacrifice to our country.
“When Shawn joined the Army, he was following in the footsteps of his three older brothers, who are presently serving their country on active duty.
“We are grateful for all the kind thoughts and wishes we have received in this difficult time.”
Falter’s death was announced at Homer High School on Monday morning, and teachers, coaches and friends were shaken by the news.
“Homer is a very small town, and to lose somebody of Shawn’s caliber is just a kick in the teeth,” said Larry King, director of instruction and evaluation and a former Intermediate School principal at Homer. “He was the kind of kid everyone enjoyed having as a friend, and the people who knew him best are going to miss him the most.”
Falter was remembered as a hardworking student, a good friend who transcended typical high school cliques, and a “jokester” with impeccable timing.
“Some kids cut up and it’s always a distraction, but Shawn had a knack for knowing just when the time was right to be a goofball,” said Gary Podsiedlik, a math teacher at Homer High and Falter’s football coach. “He would always make sure we weren’t taking things too seriously, he knew how to break up a moment at the right time.”
Jeff Niswender, of Little York, a friend of Falter’s throughout his school days at Homer, said he’d lost touch with his friend in recent years, but had hoped to regain contact when Falter returned from Iraq.
“He was a great guy. I remember growing up, doing the normal boy things — we used to trade baseball cards together and play video games … have sleepovers at each others’ houses,” Niswender said.
He recalled Falter as friendly, outgoing and popular, “but not just friends with a certain clique at school — he was friends with everyone,” Niswender said.
Although Falter did not join the military immediately after high school, it was something he always expressed an interest in, King said.
“His brothers were in the service and I think he always had a sense that serving was something he wanted to do,” King said.
When Falter was younger, he had issues with his ankles that required braces, King said, but he still managed to excel at sports.
“He always had the attitude that there’s nothing I can’t do, and I think that carried over into everything he tried,” King said.
A free safety on defense and a wide receiver on offense, Falter’s lanky frame set him apart on the football field, Podsiedlik said.
“He was a legit 6-1,” but I don’t think he quite weighed the 175 we had him listed at,” Podsiedlik said. “He sort of looked like a twig in the wind running around out there, but he was a good player for us.”
As a forward on the basketball team, Falter was an “offensive cog” his senior year, Tobel said, and also played solid defense.
“He was really a great kid, always respectful, always tried his hardest,” Tobel said.
Although his academic records were no longer on hand at Homer, Diane Latin, Falter’s guidance counselor at Homer, said Falter had always been a good student.
“I never had to deal with anything but positive things with him,” Latin said. “I had been dreading this day — when we found out the war had hit home — and losing such a truly great kid makes it even harder.”
Brian Thrush, another longtime friend of Falter’s, said he wasn’t surprised that Falter had gone to Iraq.
“That’s just the kind of person he was, he’d be the first guy to volunteer,” Thrush said. “He always put others before himself, he was a real leader, so it’s not surprising at all that he’d put himself in harm’s way for something like this.”


State rejects disaster loan

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — The state has turned down Cortland County and surrounding counties’ request for a state disaster declaration for a lack of snow and cold temperatures this year.
The declaration would have allowed winter-related businesses showing a drop of at least 40 percent in sales to apply for low-interest loans.
The decision was based on a federal law voted into effect in 1988, said Carol Chastang, spokeswoman for the U.S. Small Business Association.
The law states that lack of snow is not a disaster, she said.
Chastang said the law was a change from earlier in the ’80s, when Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Maine all received disaster declarations for a lack of snow.
Brenda DeRusso, assistant coordinator of fire and emergency management for Cortland County, said she had not known about the 1988 law when applying for the disaster assistance.
“I know none of my colleagues in the region or regional folks knew about it,” DeRusso said. “Even in Albany they think this kind of damage statewide was something that should move forward and go quickly.”
DeRusso said it was not until state Small Business Administration employees sat down with U.S. Small Business Administration employees that they became aware of the law, she said.
DeRusso said she is still glad the area tried to get help. She said Linda Hartsock, executive director of the Cortland County Business Development Corp., may be looking to help the winter-related businesses in other ways.
Hartsock was unavailable this morning for comment.
Eleven businesses sustained more than $2.5 million in losses and 398 job losses, according to a press release issued earlier this month by the Cortland County Business Development Corp./Industrial Development Agency.
Jim Dempsey, director of tourism for the county, said he also had no idea about the law. He said he hopes local winter-related industries will be able to overcome the tough season without the loans.
“We’ll keep out fingers crossed,” Dempsey said.
Rick Bunnell, director of marketing for Labrador Mountain ski center, said he is disappointed the resort will not be eligible for the low-interest loans, though the resort will pull through.
“It’s a considerable loss, and I don’t know about the other business, but Lab Mountain is very, very financially sound and we will definitely move forward with low-interest loans or without the low-interest loans,” Bunnell said.


Petition opposes Homer PILOT

Housing project again seeks tax deal

Staff Reporter

HOMER — More than 120 signatures have been collected from village residents opposed to the village granting tax breaks to the East Syracuse-based company building a 24-unit senior housing complex in the village.
Janet Steck, who lives at 113 Clinton St. and has the signatures, said village residents who won a lawsuit against the village Planning Board over the project collected the signatures. The proposed payment in lieu of taxes agreement would be similar to what Two Plus Four Housing, the company building the development, had asked for before the project was delayed in March  after the lawsuit, said Barb Lamphere, company vice president.
Lamphere said now that the project is back on track the company will seek an agreement that would let it pay about $12,000 a year in taxes for the first five years of the 30-year agreement, as opposed to about $95,000 annually.
Steck said petitioners are opposed to a PILOT agreement largely because they believe the project would not stimulate Homer’s economy.
The project depends on thousands of dollars in federal subsidies, yet it creates no jobs, she said.
Lamphere said the project will create two long-term jobs — a part-time manager and part-time maintenance person — which will likely be filled by Cortland County residents.
She said the project will contribute significantly to the economy, as apartment renters, some of whom may come from outside of Homer, will spend their money in the village.
Mayor Mike McDermott agreed.
“If they live in the village, there are stores downtown and restaurants.” he said.
McDermott added that the project will generate more tax, even with the PILOT agreement, than the empty land at the corner of Cortland Street and Orson Drive does now.
Under the PILOT agreement, the amount the company pays in taxes would go up 10 percent every five years until the end of the agreement.
The tax breaks would allow the company to reduce tenant rates by more than $300 a month, Lamphere said. The extra money would help stretch out the project’s federal and state subsidies, which total almost $750,000, she said.
With the PILOT, monthly rents would be $500 for one bedroom and $614 for two bedrooms, she said. Tenants will pay approximately 30 percent of the rent and utilities, with the subsidies covering the rest of the cost, she said.
Ward Dukelow, a real estate agent in Homer, said one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments in Homer typically range from $450 to $575.
Lamphere said if the company does not get the PILOT agreement, it will apply a recently passed law to let its taxes be determined by the project’s income and not its assessed value.
That would ensure that rents stay around what they would be with the PILOT agreement, she said.
Under the PILOT agreement, tax money would be split between the village, town, county and school district in percents the company must negotiate with the village, Lamphere said.
Lamphere said Two Plus Four Housing has built about 140 projects and that 99 percent of those have PILOT agreements. Lamphere said she did not know when Two Plus Four Housing would approach the Village Board with its request.
Some residents, such as Steck, have expressed concern that the PILOT issue won’t be voted on until after village elections on March 20.
A public hearing would be necessary before a board vote on the agreement, she said, and if it is before village elections it would put more pressure on the board to vote the way village residents want.
McDermott said he does not know whether he or the board will approve the PILOT agreement at this point, even if Two Plus Four Housing asks for the same things it asked for the first time.



Cable commission study gauges opinions on local public access

Staff Reporter

The cable commission recently sent out a survey seeking public input on public access and customer service that will be used as a basis for a new franchise agreement with Time Warner Cable.
Negotiations between the cable company and the eight-member commission are still weeks, if not months away.
The last agreement was completed in 1995, and was signed with Time Warner’s predecessor, Sammons.
The city of Cortland, town of Cortlandville and the villages of Homer and McGraw have the right to negotiate the agreement as part of the cable commission because the cable company has to pay a franchise fee to use the municipalities’ public space.
“We’re in the process of it now. We’re in the final stages, and then _it goes to negotiation,” said cable commission Chairman John Nagelschmidt. “Once it’s negotiated, it goes to a public hearing.”
The agreement is then forwarded to the state Public Service Commission for approval. Although the franchise agreement process is late, Nagelschmidt said the state has granted the cable commission four six-month extensions since the contract expired in 2005.
The city’s Common Council, the Cortlandville Town Board, and the two village boards must approve the contract as the final step, but Nagelschmidt said he does not expect the contract would be ready for the public hearing until late May or June.
Contracts generally last between five and 15 years, with the standard being 10 years, Nagelschmidt said.
The survey asks how often people watch either the public or education access programming on channels 2 and 6, and what types of public access programs they would like to see.
It also asks about the response to customers calling Time Warner about their bill or a cable problem, and whether their problems were resolved.
The Public Service Commission’s requirements for call response is that Time Warner has to answer 70 percent of its incoming calls within the first 30 seconds, said Jeff Unaitis, the vice president of public affairs for Time Warner’s Syracuse region.
Response time has been a problem in the past, he said, but the company is much closer to reaching that goal.
“We have gotten much, much better,” Unaitis said. “I remember that there were some early concerns when we first started taking customer calls in Syracuse.”
For basic cable service, Unaitis said that the 2006-07 rate that took effect on April 1 of last year was $16.95 a month, down from $18.26 a month the previous year. The basic service provides 21 channels, including the public access and education access programs.
The standard package of 79 channels costs $48.
A rate change would most likely take effect on the first of April, after being announced in March. Unaitis said he did not know what the rate change would amount to.
There’s a chance that this might be the last franchise agreement negotiated, Nagelschmidt said, referring to legislation that passed the House of Representatives last year but did not come before the Senate for a vote.
Nagelschmidt said it seems likely a bill similar to the Communications Opportunity, Promotion, and Enhancement Act of 2006 would likely be passed by the current Congress, and the state has communicated this belief to him.
The bill would have ended local agreements between municipalities and cable companies, in the interest of increasing competition, and therefore eliminated any requirements for cable companies to provide public access.