January 31, 2007

Volunteers brave cold to track homeless

Cortland County survey part of a nationwide effort 


Bob Ellis/staff photographer
Susan Williams uses a flashlight to peer through a fence, looking for homeless people, in a parking lot off Port Watson Street Tuesday night. Williams and Autumn Pifer, left, along with others conducted searches as part of a nationwide program to count the number of homeless people.

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — It was a cold night for anyone to be outdoors, with temperatures in the high teens and the snowfall increasing as the late night, early morning hours wore on.
The volunteers scouring the city had the luxury of warm vehicles and a home base at Access to Independence with food and hot coffee to keep the chill out of their bones — as well as the knowledge that they would end up in their own beds at the end of the night — but those for whom they were searching, the unsheltered homeless, would have to do their best to stay warm.
A “point-in-time” survey of homeless people in the county took place between 10 p.m. Tuesday and 2 a.m. today, as four groups of volunteers split the city of Cortland and immediate areas into quadrants and checked all locations that might offer someone without anywhere else to go just a little bit of shelter.
The Cortland County survey was part of a federal effort by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to ensure as accurate a count as possible for a very transient section of the population.
An informal and unscientific count last year found 76 homeless people in Cortland County.
The Cortland County Continuum of Care, made up of service providers who help the area’s disadvantaged, recruited the volunteers and organized the count, which, it is hoped, will help the county apply for federal funding through HUD to bolster the local agencies.
About 25 volunteers fanned out in groups of three and five, checking railroad tracks, convenience stores, all-night restaurants, abandoned buildings, hotel lobbies and stairwells, laundries, and even the Cortland Regional Medical Center.
Armed with surveys, informational cards listing phone numbers and the specialties of local service providers, and care packages containing a loaf of bread, a phone card, toiletries, a bottle of water and cans of food, the volunteers drove to a location, got out of their vehicles, and combed their assigned destinations and anyplace else they thought might be a likely location.
Despite the intensity of the search and the volunteers, only a single woman found sleeping in an alley off Owego Street completed a survey with their help. The volunteers found it difficult to get a coherent response from the talkative woman, but finally did.
“There were a lot of anecdotal stories that people heard,” said Mary Ewing, the executive director for Access to Independence. “There were definitely signs that people have been in some of these places.”
Susan Williams and Autumn Pfifer, both of Cortland, were not able to locate any unsheltered individuals, but they appeared to be hot on the trail as they encountered those who knew that the homelessness is not just a big-city problem.
In Frank and Mary’s Diner on Port Watson Street, customer Jerry Hanson said he was glad to see an effort being made.
“I appreciate what you all are doing, to help these people, who don’t have no money, no food, no shelter,” Hanson said.
Frank and Mary’s had donated vouchers for a free cup of coffee, in the event that someone needed to get off the street.
Peggy O’Connell, a night auditor at Country Inn & Suites on Route 281, in Cortlandville, said her hotel did not see many unsheltered people coming in from the cold.
“I would guess that they’re at the other end of town, because right here, I think they’d be scared to walk down the highway,” O’Connell said at about 1 a.m., adding that she heard stories from other night-shift hotel workers in more centralized areas.
Williams and Pfifer checked hotel lobbies and stairwells in the city, to no avail.
Williams is the services supervisor at the Cortland Youth Center, and Pfifer is a work-study student at the center through Tompkins Cortland Community College.
“I got in this originally because there’s a survey I want to do, to find out how many runaway homeless teens there are in the county,” Williams said as she drove her minivan down the slippery college hill.
Trails of footprints led up to doorways and behind buildings but never to someone huddled against a wall or under an overhang to escape the elements. The two women crisscrossed the city and Cortlandville, their eyes scanning the alleyways and their flashlights the corners of parks, searching for any sign in the snow.
Steve Potts, a volunteer at Loaves and Fishes, a city soup kitchen, said the snow certainly was a help to his group as they walked along the railroad tracks and checked to see if any footprints led under a bridge or into the sheltering trees.
“We tried really hard out there — up and down the railroad tracks, abandoned buildings, we even made it out to Blodgett Mills.”
Although not nearly as many surveys as had been hoped had been completed, Potts said that on the bright side, at least there didn’t appear to be a lot of people braving the cold and snow.
“One of the last people I talked to, a guy I knew was homeless — he had been sleeping in his car — but he said he had just found a hotel two weeks ago, with reasonable rates,” Potts said.


Failed county land deal could end up in court

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — Property owners involved in a now defunct deal with the county to sell their homes for a new health center on south Main Street are saying they plan to hold the county to the agreement, and aren’t ruling out the possibility of a lawsuit.
After initially voting in favor of acquiring 2.4-acres spread out over nine separate parcels for $894,000 in December, the Legislature on Jan. 25 voted to rescind the original resolution, and a revote on the matter failed.
The properties were to be used for an approximately 30,000-square-foot public health facility that was to house the departments of Mental Health and Public Health, and carried a total price tag of approximately $5.5 million.
Lawyers representing three of the six property owners involved in the deal said Tuesday that they believe the Legislature’s original vote validated the county’s contracts with their clients, and both said they would be proceeding with closing procedures regardless of the county’s latest decision.
“We think there’s a contract there, so we’re going to go deliver them the title documents and ask them to close,” said Russell Ruthig, a Cortland attorney representing the Moose Lodge, which owns three parcels involved in the deal, and David Cole, who owns one, at 11 William St.
“We have a binding agreement that was concluded on Dec. 22, and the county doesn’t have any ability to break that contract any more than if you signed a contract and said tomorrow, ‘I changed my mind.’”
Ruthig said he had been in contact with Cortland attorneys Larry Knickerbocker, who represents Mark and Linda Abbatiello, of 9 Williams St., and Calvert Fitts, who represents the owners of Robbins Tobacco, both of whom agreed that the county is still bound to its initial vote.
“We’re taking the position that the contract is valid, and we’re looking to move forward with the transaction,” Knickerbocker said.
Fitts could not be reached for comment, but both Ruthig and Knickerbocker said Fitts told them he would take a similar course.
Two other property owners involved in the deal, Steve Lissberger, who owns the property at 9 Randall St., and Anna Maria Maniaci, of 8 Randall St., could not be reached for comment.
Neither Ruthig nor Knickerbocker would say what the next step would be should the county decline to move forward with the acquisitions, but both said they were committed to their positions and would continue to pursue legal avenues to compel the county to proceed.
Legislature Chairman Marilyn Brown (D-8th Ward), who has supported the project since its inception, said she was not surprised by the property owners’ recourse.
“It’s not something I’m surprised about at all, especially with the two commercial properties,” Brown said. “As far as I’m concerned, we go ahead with the closing, but what the county attorney will say, I don’t know — he hasn’t given me any information to this point.”
County Attorney Ric Van Donsel said Tuesday he did not want to comment on the issue before speaking with the lawyers involved.
In a memo to all county legislators sent Friday, Van Donsel said he is negotiating to try to avoid liability, and he asked that county officials refrain from making public comment on the issue.


Legislature official requests probe of land purchase

Staff Reporter

Allegations of impropriety surrounding the county’s bid to purchase property along south Main Street have prompted legal maneuvering by the county attorney in anticipation of a legal challenge, and have one legislator calling for an investigation.
Majority Leader Ron Van Dee (D-5th Ward) said today that he plans on forming a three-person committee to investigate the process with which the county reached agreements to purchase $894,000 worth of property along south Main Street.
The committee will be chaired by Legislator Sandy Price (D-Harford and Virgil) and will also likely include Tom Williams (R-Homer) and John Troy (D-1st Ward), Van Dee said.
“We’re not witch hunting, we’re not out to chop heads off, we’re not out to point fingers,” he said. “I’ve just got a lot of questions and I know others do to, and if mistakes were made, we want to know it.”
Minority Leader Danny Ross (R-Cortlandville) agreed.
“I think it’s a good thing, I think we need to see where the money’s gone,” Ross said.
Price said she hoped to be able to do a thorough investigation within a time frame of 30 days.
“I think everyone wants to know exactly what transpired, and I want to be able to give a written report to the Legislature and the public giving an exact timeline of what was done,” Price said. “I look at it as a fact-finding mission, and I want to be fair and open about the whole process.”
Van Dee declined to elaborate on what issues he wanted the committee to address, saying he would leave that up to the committee, but he recently questioned, for instance, the county’s decision to pay Cinquanti Real Estate $38,000 prior to closing on the properties.
That payment to Cinquanti — which was originally questioned by Kathy Wilcox, one of the residents opposed to the public health project and a real estate agent herself, with Yaman Realty — apparently caught the attention of County Attorney Ric Van Donsel.
In a memo to Legislature Chairman Marilyn Brown (D-8th Ward), Van Donsel, claiming a conflict because of a close friendship with Cinquanti, said he would retain Cortland attorney James Baranello to handle “questions concerning the payment of a real estate commission to Cinquanti Real Estate.”
Brown countered by questioning Van Donsel’s authority to hire an outside attorney without legislative approval.
“I answered his memo and said that I don’t know under what authority he’s hiring an attorney when, to my knowledge, there hasn’t been anything forthcoming about him having a conflict or about this being an issue,” Brown said.
Van Donsel responded to Brown’s memo with a memo of his own that cited County Law 501, which states: “The county attorney may employ council to assist in any civil action or proceeding brought by or against the county.”
Brown said she was not going to get into a legal argument with Van Donsel, but said she did not know of any legal action against the county at this point.
Van Donsel could not be reached for comment regarding the hiring, and neither could Baranello.



5th, 8th ward residents call for master plan

Staff Reporter

A week after vocal opposition from some residents of the 5th Ward helped derail plans for a public health building on south Main Street, many of those same residents seemed intent Tuesday on solving the county’s long-term problems.
At a meeting of the 5th and 8th wards at the County Office Building, residents called on the county to develop a master plan in coordination with the city to avoid an outcry similar to the opposition to the public health building proposal.
“Where is the master planning process in all of this?” asked Vincent Minella, of 64 Church St. “It seems like whenever a decision is made, it doesn’t come from an overall plan, it’s just sort of spontaneous.”
Diane Batzing, of 70 Church St., agreed, and suggested the county form a committee made up of county legislators, city aldermen and other interested parties to develop such a plan.
Legislator Ron Van Dee (D-5th Ward) and Aldermen Dan Quail (R-5th Ward) and Tom Michales (R-8th Ward) agreed that a comprehensive master plan would be a good next step, and Van Dee said he would bring the idea up with other legislators.
Meanwhile residents also were adamant that the county and its municipalities try to consolidate services whenever possible.
“That’s where we need to be going, consolidation,” said Ann Gebhardt, of 14 William St., noting that consolidation could save taxpayers money.
Van Dee noted consolidation is always difficult, because agencies don’t want to give up control, and Quail noted that eliminating certain levels of government can potentially eliminate access for residents.
“I think one thing you get with less layers with government is it gets a little difficult to get a problem taken care of right away,” Quail said.
Still, Van Dee and Quail agreed consolidation should always be considered, and both pointed to the consolidation of the city and the county’s 911 dispatch centers as examples of consolidation working.
Regarding the proposed project on south Main Street, residents were pleased with the county’s decision to cancel the property acquisitions, and said that, although they would be open to discussing other uses for the property, they hoped for a commercial development.
“I think there could be a good business in there, I think we should be aiming higher,” said Barry Batzing, Diane Batzing’s husband.




Arcuri, fellow congressmen call for restoration of COPS funding

Staff Reporter

Rep. Michael Arcuri has joined a bipartisan group of more than 100 representatives calling for restoration of the Community Oriented Policing Services, a program known as COPS that puts more law enforcement officers on the street and funds technology improvements for police departments.
Congress failed to fund the COPS program last year, even though the program has proven to reduce violent crime, Arcuri (D-24th District) said in a press release issued Tuesday afternoon.
“As a former district attorney, I know from experience how important it is for our police officers to have the funding and resources they need,” Arcuri said in the release. “I saw time and time again the results of increased police presence in reducing crime in a neighborhood or community.”
More than 100 representatives sent a letter to House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) and Ranking Member Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) asking that the program be included in the 2007 budget.
Cortland County, and the villages of Dryden and Groton have received about $1 million in COPS grant money, according to figures from the Department of Justice.
Cortland Police Chief Jim Nichols said a $487,500 COPS grant his department and the county Sheriff’s Department received together helped fund the installation of laptop computers in all police cars in the county.
He said the technology has helped his department improve its efficiency, which is something it has needed as the number of calls the department receives goes up, potential crimes become more sophisticated and the department’s number of officers remains static as a result of a the city’s tax base.
“It’s allowed us to implement the technology that provides the officers we do have to be more productive, efficient and able to respond to needs,” he said.
Nichols said the grants have helped the department more with efficiency than with lowering the crime rate. The crime rate has stayed relatively stable, he said, since the COPS program began.
Nichols said he fully supports Arcuri’s efforts to restore COPS funding.
“If we did not have this funding, we could not be as far advanced as we are with technology to perform our duties,” he said.
Margaret Ryan, police chief for the village of Dryden, agreed that more funding for police departments is necessary. She said in an e-mail that over the years more and more funding opportunities have been taken away from local municipalities.
That is difficult for her department, she said, as its calls for service have increased from 954 in 1994 to 1,804 in 2006.
“Several factors including additional businesses, increased public transportation, and educational opportunities have brought an increased transient population to the village’s area,” she said in the e-mail.