October 05, 2007


More attractions planned for Great Cortland Pumpkinfest


Bob Ellis/staff photographer 
Don Scott carries pumpkins to a bin on the front of a tractor operated by Darrel Reakes in a field off Route13 in Truxton Wednesday morning. Reakes will be supplying pumpkins for the annual Pumpkinfest in Courthouse Park this weekend.

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — The tents have started to spring up in Courthouse Park in preparation for the 12th annual Great Cortland Pumpkinfest on Saturday and Sunday.
Festival co-chair Jim Dempsey, executive director of the Cortland County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the goal of the event is to ensure that everyone has a good time.
“What do they say? If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it,” Dempsey said Thursday afternoon as he finalized Pumpkinfest preparations.
“We’ve maximized all the space we have in the park. In the past, we talked to vendors about whether they would want to expand beyond the park, to the streets adjacent to the park, but they all had the same response, that they want to be on the grass.”
Former attendees be warned — the prize pumpkin weighing contest has been moved from Sunday to Saturday, said event co-chair Diane Higgins.
“The reason we’re changing the weigh-in to Saturday is because there are several weigh-ins around (the region) and it really gives people the opportunity to participate in more of them,” Higgins said Thursday afternoon.
Dempsey said that Pumpkinfest stands out as one of the last outdoor festivals of the season and that attendees flock in by the thousands to squeeze in that last bit of Indian summer — temperatures are expected to be well above average this weekend and the weather should be clear during both days.
“In the back of their minds, they’re thinking this could be our last hurrah, it’s our last opportunity to get outdoors for festival food and activities, and then we’re inside until the Maple Festival,” Dempsey said.
Last year, Dempsey said that an estimated 10,000 visitors made it to the event over the weekend and he expects similar numbers this year.
“It really has developed into a kind of community event where people get out and spend some time with their family and friends and see the neighbors they maybe haven’t seen in a while,” he said. “It’s also gained a reputation and we are seeing more and more visitors from adjacent counties coming in.”
He’s been taking calls from out-of-towners who attended the Ithaca Applefest last weekend and heard about Cortland’s “fest.”
Although the Pumpkinfest has probably hit its size limit, Dempsey pointed out that there are always new attractions from year to year.
Higgins said event coordinators have expanded the different kinds of merchandise available at the fest and are always changing designs and offerings between years.
A T-shirt highlighting the microbrew beer tent will be available inside the microbrew tent — which is only in operation on Saturday — as well as at the merchandise table, Higgins said.
“We’ve kept the original Pumpkinfest logo, but we’ve redesigned it for some women’s apparel,” Higgins said. “We are doing some different colors this year, we’re doing some different styles for the sweatshirts … Every year, we try to change it a little bit.”
And although more than 100 crafters — some new and some old — are setting up in the Courthouse Park, Higgins said even more are in line for next year’s event.
The Mohawk Valley Frasiers bagpipe and dance ensemble always opens the event on Saturday morning, and this year they will be joined by local classic rock band Mickey Sometimes later that day.
“We like to have a local group because the people who like the band will come for sure,” Dempsey said.
The Excelsior Cornet Band and the Ithaca New Orleans Dixieland Band will take the stage on Sunday, the former beginning at noon and the latter starting at 2 p.m.
In addition to the stage entertainment, kids will have the chance to play the nine games that Higgins has organized.
In addition to four old favorites like Pumpkin Fishing and the Pumpkin Ring Toss and Pumpkin Fishing, Higgins has organized five new games, including tic tack toe and Squash the Pumpkin — not literally “squashing” pumpkins, but tossing plastic squashes at fabric pumpkin cutouts and trying to aim the projectiles for the jack-o-lantern’s face.
The games cost 25 cents each to play a round. The price pays for the prizes at the tables where participants can hand in their tickets.
“Everybody always wins — you can’t lose,” but everyone has fun, Higgins said.
More than 130 volunteers will be helping to run this year’s Pumpkinfest, and Higgins said she knows 82 volunteers have come forward from Cortland and Homer high schools alone. SUNY Cortland is sending down about 40 volunteers, she said.
Local residents will also be helping out, in addition to the 15 year-round volunteers who help organize the event, Dempsey said.



County tax rate may drop for 2008

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — Buoyed by a positive independent audit of Cortland County’s 2006 finances, county officials are cautiously optimistic the county’s overall tax levy will be lowered in 2008.
Independent auditor Rick McNeilly reported to the county Budget and Finance Committee in September that by increasing its unreserved fund balance to approximately  $12.7 million, the county has put itself on firm financial footing in regard to cash flow and its bond rating.
In the final published audit report released this week, McNeilly writes that the fund balance is strong enough that it can be maintained in the future at its current level “with cautious optimism for use.”
The audit report also states that both County Auditor Dennis Whitt and County Administrator Scott Schrader anticipate a reduction in real property tax rates.
“We’ll know more once we get through the budget process, but conservatively, I’m optimistic we might have a tax savings,” said Legislature Chairman Marilyn Brown (D-8th Ward). “We’re really in solid financial shape, I think we should pass some of that back to the taxpayers.”
Schrader, who is in the process of preparing a tentative budget for 2008, could not be reached for comment.
Because of the county’s strong fund balance, Whitt said that he thought the overall tax rate could be reduced by 3 to 4 percent for 2008.
The Legislature passed a resolution in 2004 announcing its intent to keep the county’s fund balance at approximately 10 percent of the overall budget, Whitt said.
In years past, particularly in the early part of this decade, the county spent the bulk of its fund balance to keep taxes down, he said, which led to much higher tax increases the following year.
“Of course you don’t want to empty the bank, but we’re at a point now where we’ve got a comfortable cash flow, and we can start making judgments about taxes that are prudent and aren’t going to eventually wind up costing the taxpayers,” Whitt said.
The 2007 budget was $108 million, with an overall tax rate of $14.91 per $1,000 of assessed property value, and an overall tax levy, the amount the county needs to raise through local property taxes, of $24.9 million.
The 2007 budget included a tax rate increase of 3.4 percent.



DEC investigating Charles St. pollution

Contaminants from former coal-gas storage tank have been found in soil below  houses at 43, 45 Charles St.

Staff Reporter

Two houses on Charles Street are sitting on the former site of a large coal-gas storage tank that the state and New York State Electric & Gas are investigating for possible soil contamination. The state has said there is no public health risk.
The 22,000-cubic-foot tank was part of the distribution network that supplied the city with manufactured gas, made from coal, for lighting and heating homes and businesses at the end of the 19th century and into the first part of the 20th century.
It was removed in the early 1900s.
Lori O’Connell, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said the site is being investigated by NYSEG and a fact sheet describing the results should be made available later this month, with a public information session to follow shortly thereafter.
The state first became aware of the Charles Street site in 2005 when the DEC discovered the previous existence of the former gas storage tank while reviewing historic maps of the area.
The DEC is working with NYSEG to clean up a gas manufacturing site in Homer that supplied the gas network.
Contaminants found within the soil on the former tank site include both volatile and semi-volatile compounds, with the semi-volatile organic compounds consisting primarily of polyaromatic hydrocarbons.
O’Connell said the compounds detected are similar to what is found in driveway sealer made from coal tar.
“These compounds have not found a pathway to leach through the ground or escape through the air — meaning there is no pathway for the compounds to be exposed to humans,” O’Connell said in an e-mail message last week. NYSEG did not return repeated calls for comment.
The two residential properties at 43 and 45 Charles St. are directly above the tank site and the rear of St. Mary’s School is directly across the street.
Sister Harriet Hamilton, the principal of St. Mary’s School, said she is not concerned about the site and has been in contact with the state.
“I just want to make sure that the school is safe for the children that are here, and that’s why I was looking for the facts,” Hamilton said.
The owner of 45 Charles St., Sharon Summerson, could not be reached for comment.
The property at 43 Charles St. was sold to NYSEG on Sept. 13 for $130,000. Former owners Paul and Jerralynn Misco could not be reached for comment.
The Miscos bought the house for $41,000 in 2004 from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, according to the Cortland County Clerk’s office.




Homer begins work on comprehensive plan

Residents say plan should focus on preserving village’s small-town atmosphere, architecture

Staff Reporter

HOMER — Village residents want a small town atmosphere, architectural preservation and a more welcoming appearance at the village’s entrances as goals of a new comprehensive plan.
“The (Route) 281 strip should be cleaned up like they did in McLean,” said Judy Barbash Laure, a Burgett Drive resident.
Laure and approximately 40 village residents attended the first public planning session Wednesday for a new village comprehensive plan.
The meeting, which took place in the village’s Community Building behind the fire station, was the first of a series of public meetings on the plan. The village decided earlier this year it was time to replace its current comprehensive plan, which was adopted about 30 years ago.
An 11-person steering committee will base the comprehensive plan it eventually creates largely on public input, which will also come from a random survey of 500 residents.
The survey was sent out last month, and so far 46 percent of recipients have filled it out and returned it, said Ann Hotchkin, a program manager for Thoma Development Consultants, the Cortland-based company hired to oversee the comprehensive planning process and write the plan.
The village is paying Thoma Development $26,000 plus fees for supplies, copying and services up to $2,000 more.
At Wednesday’s meeting residents were asked by Hotchkin and Rich Cunningham, also a Thoma program manager, what they like best about their village and what they like least about it.
Many people were content with the state of the village.
Barry Ryan, a North Main Street resident, said he moved 3,000 miles to buy a house in Homer. He said he loves the architecture of the houses, their historic quality and the easy access to Interstate 81.
“Maybe the community doesn’t want any changes,” he suggested at the beginning of the meeting.
Others cited the Village Green, the village’s overall history, school district, Center for the Arts, green space, downtown business district, 24-hour village police coverage and small-town feel as village assets they would like to maintain.
Hotchkin said about 95 percent of people who’ve responded to the surveys so far noted the village’s small-town feel as one of the village’s most valuable assets.




McGraw teachers want calendar change

Staff Reporter

McGRAW — Teachers are looking to the Board of Education to change parent-teacher conference days, especially in the elementary school, so they do not fall on a Friday before a holiday.
Several teachers said at Thursday’s Board of Education meeting that having the conferences in just one afternoon and holding them the day before a holiday will make it difficult for parents to attend.
The teacher’s union set up a meeting for this morning with board representatives and the superintendent to discuss a possible solution.
Two parent-teacher days are scheduled during the school year, and the first one falls on Nov. 9. The conferences are a half-day in the afternoon.
Beth MacRae, president of the McGraw Faculty Association, and Robert Schlicht, the union’s vice president, explained that in the past these conferences would be held on a Thursday afternoon to evening and then teachers would get a half day off Friday afternoon.
In the elementary school students would have Friday off and teachers would have conferences in the morning also.
Beth Kanalley, an elementary teacher, said typically elementary teachers see every parent, not just the parents of students who are having social, academic or other problems and parents are usually available either at night or in the morning.
Schlicht said the district, Board of Education and teachers share the same goal of educating children but have so much friction over school issues.
Board President Michelle Stauber said the calendar was approved in April, and she said it addressed the concern that there were too many half days in it.
Administrators scheduled full days for staff development and only two half days for conferences.
Stauber said there were many meetings and days that teachers could have brought this before the board instead of waiting until now.
Stauber said the calendar was not just the board’s doing — teachers, administrators and the board had input.