January 23, 2008


Local school districts see state aid increase

School Reading

Bob Ellis/staff photographer
First-grader Devin Lancaster peers over the shoulder of classmate Tess Engst-Mansilla as she reads the book “Happy Haunting, Amelia Bedella,” at Barry Elementary School this morning. Gov. Elliot Spitzer has released his budget numbers for local school districts.

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — Local school districts are getting significant increases in state aid, though some districts say they are getting less than initially promised and that the proposed increases mask new costs for school districts.
The governor’s proposed 2008-09 state budget would increase aid to local school districts between 3.3 and 13.6 percent. The increases are part of a proposal to increase spending on school aid by 7.4 percent to $21 billion statewide.
Gov Eliot Spitzer announced the increase during a speech Tuesday when he presented his proposed $124.3 billion 2008-09 state budget. A final state budget is due April 1.
City of Cortland Superintendent of Schools Larry Spring said he is thankful for an 8.5 percent increase in aid to $24.4 million. But he is somewhat disappointed the aid is not several hundred thousand dollars more, as Spitzer promised last year.
“It (the promise) was based on an assumption of, ‘Here’s what it costs to provide a good education for every child.’” he said.
Being short several thousand dollars puts the district in the difficult position of possibly not filling positions or passing cost increases on to taxpayers, he said.
The district was counting on the extra money, he said, and without it the district cannot do everything it had hoped to, though he could not be specific.
Spring said the district’s priorities include improving service to special education students, improving literacy, smaller class sizes and more advanced and advanced placement classes.
Groton Superintendent of Schools Brenda Myers said she has numerous problems with Spitzer’s proposed budget. While the budget would increase state spending on the district by 5.8 percent to $10.9 million, it is passing on costs to the district that could negate the increase.
Spitzer proposes reducing the amount of BOCES aid, she said, but has not yet spelled that out. That could cost districts hundreds of thousands, she said, especially rural districts that depend heavily on the aid.
Also, Spitzer proposed requiring schools to pay the cost of pre-kindergarten for special education students, whereas that has been counties’ responsibility in the past, Myers said.
“That’s 32 additional children,” Myers said about the Groton school district. “It’s an enormous additional cost and responsibility.”
The district has considered adding after-school programs, she said, but that won’t happen with the budget as is and a proposed 50-percent decrease in federal funding for academic intervention services, she said.
“If you look at the wealthier schools they have after school programming,” she said. “We can only afford teachers during the school day.”
Aid figures are derived from a formula that gives priority to “high needs” districts. A district’s need level is determined in part by its wealth and demographic information.
The proposed budget figures released by the state Tuesday do not necessarily reflect what schools will be getting. While the state Senate and Assembly will likely modify the proposals prior to adopting a final budget, there are also certain proposed aid categories that schools cannot take advantage of.
Homer Superintendent of Schools Doug Larison said his district would not be able to use the $153,000 in universal pre-kindergarten funding Spitzer has proposed. The district has no space for universal pre-k, though it should have space following the additions of classrooms at Homer Elementary School as part of its upcoming construction project.
The district hopes to be able to implement universal pre-k in the 2009-10 school year, Larison said.
Taking the district’s inability to use state pre-k funding in the 2008-09 school year into account, under the proposed state 2008-09 budget it will receive a 5.1 increase in state aid, or $20.3 million total.
“That’s a great place to start because normally increases out of the governor’s office are much less,” Larison said. “We’re hoping for more later. If this is the starting point, we’re hoping the Legislature is looking to improve it.”

City in line for 9 percent aid increase totaling $190,000

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — The city intends to use $190,000 in additional state aid to replace its city hall and fire station roofs. Other local municipalities plan to use smaller amounts of extra aid toward basic maintenance, fuel and utility costs.
Local municipalities will be seeing a 3- to 9.5-percent increase in direct state aid under the governor’s proposed 2008-09 budget that was unveiled Tuesday.
The city would see the largest percent increase in aid to municipalities funding, while municipalities including the town of Truxton, the village of Marathon and the town of Dryden will see the lowest percent increase in state aid.
The percent increases are based on the municipalities’ level of fiscal distress, which is measured by whether full valuation of taxable real property is less than 50 percent of the state average; more than 60 percent of the constitutional property tax limit is exhausted; population loss is greater than 10 percent since 1970; and the poverty rate is 150 percent greater than the statewide average.
All four indicators were met for the city of Cortland, according to the state Division of the Budget’s Web site.
Cortland is proposed to get $2,192,027 in direct state aid for the 2008-09 fiscal year, a 9.5 percent increase over the $2,001,851 it received this year.
Mayor Tom Gallagher said the extra money might also fund repairs to roads and replace equipment such as Department of Public Works vehicles and police department vehicles.
“I will guess that it will be gone pretty quick,” he said of the extra money.
The city budgeted $2 million for the aid, Gallagher said. The additional aid will go into the general fund.
For some small municipalities, the increase in aid would not have much of an impact.
Under the proposed state budget, the village of Groton would get $20,916 in aid to municipalities funding, a 5 percent increase over its current $19,920.
Mayor Dennis Toolan said the increase would not stretch far.
“All you can probably do is buy the same amount you bought last year, with cost increases for fuel and equipment,” Toolan said.
He also noted that although state aid to municipalities is going up under the Spitzer administration, it is still far below what it was a number of years ago. The village used to get about $30,000 in direct state aid, Toolan said, but the state cut that amount to save money.
“It still is nowhere like it was,” he said about the proposed 2008-09 funding.
Homer Town Supervisor Fred Forbes added that over the years the percentage of court fees the state takes from municipalities has gone up, serving as a counterbalance to the recent increase in aid to municipalities.
Politicians do not always provide the full picture when touting their spending increases, he said.
“I say it’s about parties trying to make it a political game,” he said. “It’s nothing against Spitzer — the game gets played no matter who’s in office.”
Spitzer’s proposed 2008-09 budget gives the town an extra $2,416, for a total of $50,740.
That money would go toward lighting at the Town Hall and other Town Hall costs, Forbes said.




Recyclables pile up over holidays

County looks to expand hours or add staff to deal with backlog

Staff Reporter

County officials are hoping to add a few extra hands at the Cortland County Recycling Center off Pendleton Street to eliminate a glut of recyclables left over from the holiday season.
The county Legislature will likely approve an increase in personnel at the center at its meeting Thursday.
Large piles of recyclables tower over the workers in the Recycling Center.
County Highway Superintendent Don Chambers said he was concerned about the possibility of an accident, similar to the one in March 2006 that damaged the overhead door area not even a year after it had opened.
“It cuts down on the maneuverability of the vehicles and makes for tighter quarters, so I was concerned about personnel’s safety, also,” Chambers said Tuesday. “No problems, we just have a backlog of material that needs to be sorted and bailed to be sold.”
Chambers said that the holidays also ate into the amount of hours the staff was working.
Two full-time county employees staff the center, Chambers said. A contract with the J.M. Murray Center provides eight recyclable sorters, working four hours a day, five days a week.
Chambers said the contract stands at $125,000, and he is asking the Legislature to increase it by $10,000.
Whether this amounts to an increase in the number of workers or an increase in their hours still has to be worked out with the J.M. Murray Center.
Last year, a county employee left the Recycling Center and the J.M. Murray Center added an additional worker to make up the difference, Chambers said.
Last September, the crews had gotten behind on sorting and Chambers said additional hours were added at that time.
County Administrator Scott Schrader said that if a contract increase is approved Thursday, the increased staffing could likely be implemented by Monday.
Chambers and Schrader said it would be a matter of only a couple of weeks before the sorters were caught up.



Seniors question request to take down cross

Staff Reporter

Residents at a senior apartment building are questioning regulations covering religious symbols displayed in federally funded facilities after a tenants association was asked to remove a cross from a community room at the Church Street building.
Pat Chapman, president of the tenants association at the senior apartments at 42 Church St. in Cortland, said she was asked by a Cortland Housing Authority employee who works at the building, who she would not name, to remove the cross that was placed over the mantel in the community room with Christmas decorations.
“I was told it was a HUD policy,” she said. “It’s a nondenominational building so I guess they thought it wasn’t appropriate.”
There are two senior housing buildings in Cortland located on Church and Port Watson streets, which are run by the Cortland Housing Authority and funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, commonly known as HUD.
Although often referred to as the “senior towers,” the buildings at 42 Church St. and 51 Port Watson St. are also home to low-income and disabled individuals who are not necessarily senior citizens.
The Housing Authority maintains 380 apartments in Cortland County, including 240 between the two apartment buildings, which are generally one person per apartment, said Glenn Goldwyn, executive director at the Cortland Housing Authority.
Goldwyn said to his knowledge, neither the Housing Authority nor HUD have regulations on displaying religious symbols.
“I guess the principle is that it is an interdenominational building,” he said.
Brian Sullivan, a spokesperson for HUD in the Washington, D.C., office, said this is an issue that comes up every holiday season at HUD-funded housing around the country.
“This is a seasonal story we deal with all the time,” he said. “Religious symbols are fine, provided there is no prohibition.”



Groton adopts new village zoning regulations

Code makes it easier to change existing buildings uses, more complicated to build new ones

Staff Reporter

GROTON — The village Board of Trustees approved an updated zoning code Monday.
The village zoning map will not be altered by the revision, but the new code makes it easier to change uses of existing buildings but more complicated to develop new structures or make physical changes to buildings.
Those are the most significant of several changes to the zoning code, said Groton Village Administrator Charles Rankin.
The village adopted a new comprehensive plan in 2005, which Rankin said is normally the occasion for a review and update of the village code.
The last comprehensive plan and code update was in 1992.
While the revised code makes it easier for businesses to move into an existing structure, the new rules are also more demanding of businesses when new buildings are constructed or when major changes are proposed for an existing structure.
Under the new code, a business would only have to go through the site plan review process if significant changes were planned to the site that would alter the look of the property or impact pedestrian or vehicle traffic, said Wes Pettee, a program manager and planner with Thoma Development Consultants in Cortland. Pettee helped draft the proposed code revision.
“We started the process well over a year ago,” Pettee said. “It’s an effort to streamline the land-use planning process in the village.”
Rankin said the village began working with Thoma and the village planning board on the code update in April 2006, and work continued through December of that year. In January 2007, the proposal was turned over to the village Board of Trustees.
A public hearing was held on the proposal was held at the Village Hall board trustee room, and Debbie Barron, chairperson of the Village Board, said about five local residents attended.
“We got a lot of good input,” Barron said.
Some residents wanted a few items in the proposal re-worded, but Barron said there were no “major concerns.”
Removing the requirement for businesses to go through the site plan review process for changing a property’s use will mean the Village Board will spend less time reviewing plans for sites that are not going to be changing the village’s look or traffic flow.
“We feel it’s going to help by cutting down on the number of site plan reviews we do,” said Barron. She said an average site plan review takes about two months to complete, even for a simple change of use application. More involved plans can take much longer.




Public no show at Homer school budget meeting

Staff Reporter

HOMER — No one from the public showed up to a public budget input session at the high school on the school district’s 2008-09 budget.
Board of Education members suspected the cold weather played a role in the absence of public voices.
Members of the public can still call school board members to share their thoughts on the budget. Board members’ names and phone numbers are listed at
A public feedback session and a public hearing on the proposed school budget are scheduled for March 18 and May 7, respectively.
The board has not formally begun talking about the upcoming budget, but will do so over the next couple of months.
Proposed administrative and school building budgets are due Friday, and the board will review and possibly make changes to those budgets in February.
At its regular meeting Feb. 26, the board plans to hold its first budget workshop, when it will review the first draft of the 2008-09 budget.
That meeting, as well as future budget workshops, is open to the public.
A second budget workshop is scheduled for March 4. The board plans to address specific parts of the budget, including BOCES programs, employee benefits and transportation costs.
Subsequent budget workshops are scheduled for March 11, the date of a regular board meeting; March 18, which includes a public feedback session; and March 25, the date of a regular board meeting.
The board intends to vote on the proposed budget on April 8 at its regular board meeting.  A public hearing is scheduled for May 7, and budget reviews for the public will take place in Truxton, Preble and Scott on May 8, May 14 and 15, respectively.
The public vote on the budget is scheduled for May 20.