Consensus forming on sales tax deal

The county and municipalties are working on a six-year agreement to distribute the annual revenue.

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — Cortland County and its municipalities on Tuesday came within $100,000 of reaching an agreement on the distribution of the county’s annual sales tax revenue.
Representatives for the county, city, towns and villages agreed on a graduated reduction of the county’s share over a six-year period to 52 percent of sales tax dollars, the level it was prior to the current three-year contract, which is scheduled to expire this fall.
The county currently receives 56 percent of the tax revenue while the remaining 44 percent is split among municipalities.
After numerous offers and counter offers, both sides agreed on a 55 percent county share for 2007 and a 54 percent share for 2008.
The only holdup was the speed at which the county share would reach 52 percent, as the municipalities, represented by city Director of Administration and Finance Andy Damiano and Cortlandville Town Supervisor Dick Tupper, wanted the county to receive 52 percent of revenues beginning in 2009, continuing through 2012.
The county, represented by County Administrator Scott Schrader, Budget and Finance Committee Chairman Ron Van Dee (D-5th Ward) and Legislative Chairman Marilyn Brown (D-8th Ward), asked that the county’s share be 52.5 percent in 2009, and 52 percent in 2010, giving the county an extra year to defray the loss of revenue.
The county received $12.2 million from sales tax in 2005, and has budgeted for $12.7 million in 2006. The total sales tax revenue in 2005 was $21.9 million, according to the Cortland County Treasure’s Office.
Both sides of the negotiation said the 0.5 percent difference, which accounts for about $100,000 in revenue, was a minor sticking point, and lauded the smoothness of the negotiations.
“That half a percent is just something to take back to the Legislature and let them know where we stand,” said Van Dee. “To get this far in two hours is pretty good, I’d say.”
Both Damiano and Tupper cited better input from the city, towns and villages and better representation and preparedness as reasons for the ease of the negotiations, compared with previous years.
“We assumed the county would come in with a gradual reduction so we were prepared for that,” Tupper said. “We didn’t realize they’d want a six year contract but that’s a real plus for everyone because we don’t have to renegotiate for a long time and we all know where we’re at in tax revenue for the next six years.”
The municipalities contend the last agreement favored the county, which was struggling financially.
“They were in dire straights, and the city was sympathetic to that,” Damiano said. “Their financial conditions have significantly improved since then, and we want to get some of that revenue back.”
Getting the split back to 52 percent for the county and 48 percent for the municipalities is important, Damiano said.
“It’s important because it’s a symbolic number, being where we were before the last agreement,” he said. “The city was criticized by some of the towns and villages for conceding to the county, so we’d like to be able to say that we got it back to 52 percent sooner rather than later.”
The county is willing to funnel revenue back to the municipalities, Van Dee said, but it needs to be careful not to put too much of a strain on its own financial situation.
“It’s their money and they should get it back, but we have to give it back in a way that isn’t going to raise the county taxes,” Van Dee said.
The county is bound by a constitutional tax limit, a limit on property taxes imposed by the state, Schrader pointed out during the negotiations, and it has little leeway to raise taxes to make up for lost sales tax revenue.
“Right now we’re at 98.5 percent of that limit , so we have to be very conscious of it,” Schrader said.
Schrader anticipated an increase of about $1.6 million in spending for the county in 2007, and, with a 1 percent decrease, or $220,000, in sales tax revenue, he said that the county would need to find a way to make the budget work despite having to make up that total of $1.8 million.
“Any loss in revenue means that we have to mitigate somehow,” Schrader said. “We have to eliminate expenses, find other revenue streams, anything is possible.”
Tupper suggested the county use its surplus, which Schrader quoted as approximately $9.2 million heading into 2007, to cover for lost revenue, but Schrader said that such an action would not be prudent.
“Any time you’re using a general fund balance to mitigate the loss of revenue, it’s a mistake,” Schrader said, noting that the surplus allowed the county to receive much more favorable bond ratings. “That’s one-time revenue that should be used for one-time expenses.”
One potential obstacle that still needs to be discussed is the division of the municipalities’ share among the city, towns and villages.
The city now receives 17.5 percent of the total sales tax revenue, and the remaining 26.5 percent is divided up among the rest of the municipalities based on town assessment valuations.
In 2005, the city received $3.8 million in sales tax revenue.
The town of Cortlandville will be seeking a bigger piece of the pie, Tupper said, asking for a set percentage of the total revenue like the city receives. Cortlandville took in about 7 percent of the sales tax revenue in 2005, or approximately $1.8 million.
“Cortlandville is in a growth mode, but with that comes the need for infrastructure,” Tupper said. “We generate a lot of revenue, but with that comes a lot of expenses.”
The municipalities have a basic formula for how to divide the money, Damiano said, and the city, towns and villages would see increased revenue from the new agreement.
The county will not agree to the contract until the division of the revenue is settled, Van Dee said.
“My biggest concern is the small towns,” Van Dee said. “I want to know what the formula is to divide between the towns and villages, and I don’t want to see the small towns hurt.”
The county representatives will bring the results of the meeting to the Democratic and Republican caucuses this Thursday, Van Dee said. After receiving input from the caucuses, Van Dee thought an agreement could be reached in the next couple of weeks.



Survey will gauge public transit needs across Cortland County



Bob Ellis/staff photographer
Phil Hammond sits at the bus stop outside the Cortland County Office Building on Tuesday. Hammond says he frequently takes the bus to places around Cortland. The operator of the public bus system in the county plans to survey the needs of local residents, agencies and companies to find ways to improve service. The company also plans to introduce a new logo and paint scheme for its buses, as  shown below.

Staff Reporter

A company that operates the public bus system  in Cortland County is trying to find ways to improve its service and attract new riders.
Its plans were discussed Tuesday at a meeting of the Cortland County Transportation Advisory Committee.
 The needs assessment will survey existing customers as well as the general public and agencies who might consider using First Transit services, with the eventual goal of increasing usage of the public transit system.
James Gorman, a representative of First Transit, which operates locally as Cortland Transit, said bus ridership for April and May has remained fairly consistent.
“We haven’t seen any real increase (in the number of customers, due to high gas prices),” Gorman said. “They (gas prices) have actually been going down a little bit. Hopefully they’ll stay that way, although usually in the summer we see a little spike.”
First Transit’s daily fixed routes saw 14,529 passengers in April and May of 2006. The park and ride program to Tompkins Cortland Community College transported 1,334 passengers, and Dial-a-Ride transported 334 passengers in those months.
Contract services, such as those provided for CAPCO Headstart, transported 2,321 passengers.
The committee looked over the draft of a request for proposals, which outlined the scope of the work involved in performing a needs assessment. The request will be submitted to possible consultants.
“What we’re looking for is a needs assessment from the entire county,” Gorman said after the committee meeting. “All of the different agencies will make contributions as to what their needs are.”
Gorman said the study should hopefully be completed by May 2007, but otherwise there is no solid timetable.
Last year the committee had conducted a survey of current Cortland Transit users. The proposed surveys that will be involved in the upcoming study will broaden their scope and include the general public as well, Gorman said.





Fugitive may have stolen van from Delaware Co. home
Fingerprints from a neighbor’s car matched those of ‘Bucky’ Phillips

Staff Reporter

HANCOCK — Ralph “Bucky” Phillips, wanted in the June 10 shooting of a state trooper, is believed to have stolen a minivan early Tuesday from a home in Delaware County, according to State Police.
A maroon 2002 Dodge Caravan with the New York state registration DFM6538 was stolen between 1:30 and 6:45 a.m. from a home on Walker Street, police said.
The resident woke up Tuesday and noticed the van was missing, police said. The person called police and also alerted neighbors.
Police said the next-door neighbor’s car had also been tampered with —_the blue Mercury station wagon had been pushed out of the garage and onto the lawn.
Police were able to obtain fingerprints from the station wagon, which later tested as a positive match for Phillips. Using that print information, police are assuming Phillips stole the van, Trooper Nelson Torres said this morning.
Police were unsure whether the van had been parked in the driveway or in a garage. The keys were not in the van; police said Phillips hotwired it.
No one witnessed Phillips Tuesday in the Walker Street area, police said.
Phillips, 44, a suspect in the shooting of Trooper Sean Brown near Elmira, is considered armed with a handgun and possibly a sawed-off shotgun, police said.
Phillips has been on the run since April, when he escaped from Alden Correctional Facility in Erie County. Reports indicate he used a can opener to pry his way through a prison ceiling.
Police are unsure where Phillips headed Tuesday after stealing the vehicle, and they believe he could be anywhere in the state. Police also believe he could have taken Route 17, which runs directly into Pennsylvania.
Police are still unsure why Phillips was in the Hancock area.
“He could be anywhere,” Torres said.
Torres said police have not ruled out that Phillips may have already switched cars, leaving the minivan behind.
Police also are investigating the theft of New York dealer license plate 8120637, which Phillips may have taken from the Scoville-Meno car dealership in Bainbridge, Chenango County, between June 9 and 12.
During their investigation, police discovered Monday the plate was missing from the dealership. Police believe Phillips may be using the plate on the minivan or another vehicle.
State Police are offering a $25,000 reward for finding Phillips.
Brown, 30, was shot in the stomach as he approached a car he had pulled over on the side of a road. He was released from St. Joseph’s Hospital in Elmira on June 13, according to an Associated Press report.
Police are asking anyone who comes in contact Phillips or the minivan to immediately call 911.