April 04, 2007

County land deal sent back to committee

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — Work will continue for an ad hoc committee reviewing a contentious county proposal to build a public health facility on south Main Street after the Legislature failed to decide the fate of the facility at a special meeting Tuesday.
Twelve of 19 legislators voted to suspend the rules of the Legislature so that another vote could be taken on the purchase of nine properties for the health building.
The votes were not enough to secure a needed two-thirds majority to suspend the rules of order. Legislator Steve Dafoe (D-Homer) was absent.
The following legislators voted against taking another vote at the Tuesday meeting: Merwin Armstrong (R-Cuyler, Solon and Truxton); Kay Breed (R-Cortlandville); Sandy Price (Harford and Virgil); John Troy (D-1st Ward); Ron Van Dee (D-5th Ward) and Newell Willcox (R-Homer).
Legislature Chairman Marilyn Brown (D-8th Ward) said the proposal for the health facility would go back through the committee process, starting with the ad hoc committee.
She said any proposal made by the special committee would also go through the General Services (formerly Buildings & Grounds) Committee, Health Committee and Budget and Finance Committee.
After the meeting, the ad hoc committee members met briefly in the legislative chambers. Carol Tytler (D-3rd Ward), who heads the special committee, said members have set a meeting at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday to continue discussions. “I feel we did what we were asked to do,” she said.
The committee had been tasked with reviewing the purchasing process, identifying problems with the process and identifying choices the county has now.
Tytler said the committee would discuss what could be included in a smaller facility. “They’re looking for a concrete plan that they can vote on — yes or no,” she said of the legislators after the meeting.
The county originally proposed purchasing nine properties — including the former Moose Lodge — along south Main, Randall and Williams streets for $894,000 to build a $5.5 million public health facility that would have housed the county’s Health and Mental Health departments. The purchase was approved in a late December meeting and then retracted the next month.
Legislators and residents continued to express their opposition to the project at the meeting Tuesday.
“I am very concerned about the size requirement,” said Breed, noting she was not convinced there was enough property for the facility and necessary parking. The building itself would take about 15,300 square feet. The building would be two stories tall, creating about 30,600 square feet of space.
Breed also said the need for space for a county jail should be settled first because if that moved, there would be space available in the existing jail facility on Greenbush Street.
“I will vote no again if we vote on purchasing — let the chips fall where they may,” she said.
Barry Batzing, a resident at 70 Church St., noted that even County Administrator Scott Schrader, in a letter to the Cortland County Board of Realtors, estimated a lot size of 4 to 7 acres was needed for a one or two-story facility. The lot for the health facility was about 2.5 acres, but one private property that would have been part of it has been sold.
Batzing said a compromise with a smaller facility has been discussed. “I want to see this new plan, and I want a guarantee that no private houses will be in the plan,” he said.
Price brought up the concern that the meeting was advertised as a discussion session, not necessarily a meeting where a decision would be made, in her decision to vote no.
Tytler made the motion to take the vote, saying if the vote passed, she would like to revise a proposed resolution that called for a consolidated facility, saying she was not sure a combined program would be best for the two departments.
“I’m torn. I understand we do not have substantial agreement,” she said in proposing the vote.
“I haven’t heard anything new tonight that I haven’t heard before,” said Legislator Tom Williams (R-Homer), before he cast his yes vote to suspend the rules of the Legislature, which would have allowed a new vote.



Council weighs legality of moratorium

Staff Reporter

Potential legal barriers might snuff out hopes for a temporary halt to the conversion of single-family homes to multi-family homes — and the construction of new apartment complexes — in the College Hill area of the city.
The Common Council discussed the proposed moratorium at its regular meeting Tuesday night, which was attended by about 20 residents. The council will revisit the idea at a scheduled work session before its April 17 meeting.
The proposal would only apply to the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th wards and would last through the end of the year.
Alderwoman Sue Feiszli (D-6th Ward) had the item placed on the agenda at the end of last week, and explained that the concern of herself and others stemmed from a Planning Commission meeting last week that dealt with two apartment building development proposals by local developer John Del Vecchio. He was not present at the meeting.
Several community members voiced their support during the public comment portion at the beginning of Tuesday’s council meeting.
“We have more than enough multi-houses in this city, and especially in the 2nd Ward,” said Ann Doyle, of Lincoln Avenue. “Unless you participate, the city will be destroyed by those who only care about profit and greed.”
Ric Van Donsel, of West Court Street, asked that the council consider the proposal, citing the strain that high housing density can have on city services such as code enforcement and police protection. Van Donsel, the county attorney, was speaking as a private homeowner.
“The population of the city of Cortland hasn’t grown, and they’re converting all the single-family homes,” Feiszli told the council.
However, Alderman Jim Partigianoni (D-7th Ward) was concerned about isolating certain wards from the moratorium, as well as the basic premise of the proposal.
“I think we’re overstepping it a little bit,” Partigianoni said.
Although Feiszli had concentrated on the wards surrounding the college to make the moratorium more “manageable,” Mayor Tom Gallagher cautioned against using wards for anything other than election boundaries.
Alderman Tom Michales (R-8th Ward) reminded the council that student housing exists throughout the city.
City Corporation Counsel Larry Knickerbocker said that he had not had time to review the law on the matter, but he did see several legal roadblocks.
“If you’re doing it only in certain wards, could that be discriminatory in that matter?” Knickerbocker asked.
Also, Knickerbocker felt that it would likely be illegal to try to put a halt to any projects, such as Del Vecchio’s, that have already begun to move through the approval process.
He also pointed out that a moratorium requires that quantifiable, positive steps to address problems would be taken during the break.
The main purpose of the moratorium, Feiszli and residents said, is to give the city time to address issues surrounding zoning, code enforcement and the “need” for more student off-campus housing.
While agreeing that these issues are critical, Gallagher instead recommended that the establishment of a permit system for income properties might be more workable than a moratorium.
“I would rather look into a rental permit process that we can control, that the Planning Commission can control,” Gallagher told the council.
Knickerbocker pointed out that proving that more than three unrelated people are living in a building — the city’s definition of a multi-family property — requires a large amount of evidence in court.
Revisions to the city’s zoning and master plan are crucial, council members agreed.
The council decided to discuss the moratorium, and zoning issues in general, at a 5:30 p.m. work session before the regular April 17 meeting.
Although Knickerbocker is going to be unable to attend, he said he would provide his recommendations to the council in writing.
Council members Amy Cobb (D-3rd Ward) and Tom Michales expressed their support for the moratorium, depending on whether it is, in fact, legal.
By the end of the meeting, the council members were discussing the needs of housing with the audience members.


Dryden voters approve school project

Staff Reporter

DRYDEN — Voters approved a $4.2 million school construction plan Tuesday that will allow Dryden High School and Middle School to undergo what officials say are much needed renovations.
“We are delighted,” Superintendent of Schools Mark Crawford said after the proposal passed, 421-76. “The margin is significant and we are very happy about that.”
The funding for the capital project will not affect local property taxes, and will be 86 percent funded by state aid.
Of that 86 percent, $578,430 will come from EXCEL or Expanding Our Children’s Education and Learning aid.
Crawford said the project will update several areas at the school, including windows, roofing and boilers that have been in place since the 1960s.
Under the project the district also hopes to put in a wheelchair-accessible parking lot, replace sidewalks, stairs, auditorium lighting and an updated security system.
The district will now choose an architect to design the project, said Board of Education President Andy Young. The decision will be made over then next few months.
When the architect is chosen the project will then be put out to bid, Young said.
Crawford and Les Cleland — who is on the Building and Advisory Committee and is the school’s former business administer — said the district is unsure when construction will begin but hopes it will be underway by summer 2008.
“That’s the best way to do it,” Cleland said, explaining that the project will be done in the summer and possibly take two summers to complete.


Assessment update under way for city

Staff Reporter

The city’s reassessment has already gotten underway, but won’t kick into high gear until after the 2007 tentative assessment rolls are completed in August.
The new assessments wouldn’t be taken into account until the 2009 city, county, and school tax levies.
City Assessor David Briggs briefed the Common Council at its Tuesday night meeting, following a presentation regarding a proposal to increase the upper income limits of tax exemptions for seniors and the disabled.
The last reassessment had been completed in 1996, Briggs said. Although many smaller, surrounding communities have reassessed their property values every three to five years in order to keep up with a volatile real estate market, the city has been more stable and has been able to hold off for the last decade.
The city’s current total assessed valuation is about $600 million, but only about $400 million is taxable.
The 2006 equalization rate was 84 percent, Briggs said, and it appears that it could be 80 percent or less for 2007, meaning assessed property values are 80 percent of their market value.
More than 3,000 pictures of city properties have already been taken Briggs said, and these will provide some of the basis for conducting the reassessment. Briggs said the bulk of the properties in Cortland only require one photograph.
In 1996, the city had Briggs’ firm perform detailed, on-site inspections of the city’s 5,200 properties in order to obtain the most realistic values possible, and the cost of the operation was about $106,000.
However, Briggs said that this is not necessary this time around, and accurate assessments could still be made based on previously recorded information, photographs of the properties and conferences with property owners.
The estimated cost is about $60,000. If done in accordance with state regulations, the city is eligible for a $5 reimbursement from the state for each parcel, a total of about $26,000 back to the city after the reassessment is completed.
Briggs uses the current condition of a property to determine what comparable properties would be, and he then uses a computer program to establish what the comparable homes in the same neighborhood are selling for. The average provides the new assessment.
Briggs said taxes only increase if the property has improved relative to its peers — following Marathon and Lapeer’s reassessment last year, tax rates decreased, he said.
“The last time the city did this, the shifts were very minimal, and I expect this to be the same,” Briggs said.