Homer board considers $7 million in renovations at elementary school

Staff Reporter

HOMER — The school board is considering spending $7 million to renovate Homer Elementary School, in addition to $8 million it already earmarked for district-wide repairs.
At Tuesday night’s board meeting, board members voted unanimously for architects to create a rendering of the finished project. The board will review the rendering at its next meeting on Oct. 24 and vote on whether to pursue the project.
Anne Siegel, a member of the Facilities Committee, told the board the committee thought Homer Elementary School was in worse shape than other district buildings.
It’s the oldest building and the one with the most problems, she said.
Siegel said the committee, which has met 15 times over the past two years to discuss renovation ideas, thought it would be best to channel the money into one project as opposed to many projects in different buildings.
That’s in large part because the board decided earlier this year to spend approximately $8 million on repair and maintenance of each of the buildings in the district, she said. The work would include replacing the heating system in the intermediate school and junior high school.
If the board votes on using the $7 million to improve Homer Elementary School, a referendum will take place in February or March for all the renovations.
The board has not yet decided if the whole project will be one proposition or two.
The project would require approval from the state Department of Education. That could take a number of months, said board President Forrest Earl. Once construction begins, the work would take about three years to complete.
The project would not require higher property taxes, said Mike Delair, the district’s director of business and finance.
The district has $800,000 in its repair fund and is looking to receive $700,000 in building aid from the state. That $1.5 million would comprise 10 percent of the costs; the state would pay the remaining 90 percent.
If the board approves using the funds toward renovating Homer Elementary School, some of them could go toward putting a preschool in the building, Siegel said.
Siegel said this morning that a number of federal legislators have been talking about making universal preschool a requirement. If that happened, Homer would have space it could use, she said.
Siegel declined to discuss the other proposed renovations to the elementary school. But she did say that the cafeteria was too small, the layout of the school is not functional and the school’s age makes it pretty dreary.
Earl said the facilities committee’s recommendation made sense. It’s a good idea to invest money in one building at this point, as the other buildings would be renovated with money from the repair fund or have been renovated in the past, he said.
“All of the buildings across the district will see improvements,” he said. “And we’ve targeted most of the other buildings before in other projects.”
The projects would follow $35 million in district spending on construction and renovation in recent years. Those renovations include an overhaul of the kitchen and cafeteria at Hartnett Elementary School in Truxton, a new facade at Homer Elementary School, an overhaul of the electrical, plumbing and heating systems at Homer Intermediate School and an addition to Homer High School.
In 2005 the school spent $5 million of that money on upgrades to athletic fields, a new high school auditorium, elementary school roofs, improved water lines, athletic field lighting and air conditioning.
Siegle also recommended the board consider sharing a bus garage with another district. The district’s current garage is in bad shape, but the district does not have money to improve it, she said.
At Tuesday’s meeting, school board members also decided they would vote on whether to appoint Mary Beth Mathey to fill Robert Rosato’s empty board position at the next board meeting. Mathey, of Homer, ran for a board seat in May and finished just behind the top three finishers — Nicole Sprouse, Scott Ochs and Dave Quinlan.



Despite opposition —

County to vote on conflict attorney

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — The Legislature finally will vote this month on a local law that would create a new conflict attorney position, despite opposition from the Cortland County Bar Association.
The proposed law, which would set up an office to handle cases that pose a conflict for the Public Defender’s Office, twice has been pulled from the legislative agenda for procedural purposes, and was put on hold for the month of September because the Bar Association questioned its legality and asked to have a voice in drafting it.
Bar Association President Bruce Fein addressed the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee Tuesday, re-emphasizing that his organization was not behind the idea of the conflict attorney.
“This is one possible solution, but we, as the practitioners in the county, are not sure this will address the issues,” Fein said during the meeting. “We’re not sure if it’s going to be the magic bullet you’re looking for.”
However, County Attorney Rick Van Donsel said he believed setting up the new attorney position was well within the county’s bounds, and the committee voted 6-1 to send the law to the full Legislature for a vote at its Oct. 26 meeting.
“There’s nothing I have found that would prevent us from designing our own public defender system,” Van Donsel said. “There’s no legal prohibition in my mind.”
With assigned council costs in the Public Defender’s Office expected to more than double the amount budgeted, County Administrator Scott Schrader, who drafted the proposed law, has said that a conflict attorney could save the county up to $250,000 per year.
“We’re just trying to save the county money,” Legislature Chairman Marilyn Brown said after the meeting. “We will still need assigned council and we will still use attorneys in Cortland County, but hopefully we’ll save a little money, too.”
Fein said the Bar Association understands the county’s concerns about the expense of the current assigned council program, which assigns local bar members to handle all conflict cases, but suggested that the county look at other solutions.
When asked if he or the bar had a legal opinion, Fein said he personally would not dispute Van Donsel’s assertion the law was legal, but suggested the board seek other opinions, pointing to a pair of past attorney general’s opinions that consider the law illegal.
“The Bar Association is always in favor of seeking more legal opinions,” Fein said after the meeting.




High gas prices have hit county hard

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — Cortland County residents who were hit hard at the gas pumps this summer weren’t alone.
The county will have to move an additional $160,000 from its fund balance to pay for fuel costs beyond the approximately $500,000 budgeted by the Highway Department for 2006.
The Legislature’s Highway Committee voted in favor of the fund transfer Tuesday, and the issue will go before the full Legislature Oct. 26.
Highway Superintendent Don Chambers said high costs, especially during the summer, were to blame.
“Prices were high for a significant period of time during the summer and that hurt us because it’s right in the middle of our construction season,” Chambers said.
The county contracts for the purchase of gas and prices are generally slightly above wholesale prices, based on the commodity market, Chambers said.
Because the county has tanks that allow for a minimum delivery of 9,000 gallons, it is able to get its gasoline cheaper than a state bid would allow, he added.
The county’s most recent shipment cost, on average, $1.73 per gallon, Chambers said, but costs were as high as $2.80 per gallon this summer. “We always try to budget appropriately, but its hard to get an idea with such wild fluctuations in prices,” he said.
The county budgeted in 2006 for right around the current per-gallon cost, Chambers said, but will up its budget projection to around $2.50 per gallon in 2007.
This adds up to an increase in budgeted fuel costs from $500,000 to approximately $750,000, in the Highway Department’s proposed 2007 budget, he said.
“Unfortunately it’s hard to tell what it’s going to be this far ahead of time because fuel prices go up and down so much,” he said.
The county receives, on average, two deliveries of 9,000 gallons per month, Chambers said, and it allows various county departments, including the Sheriff’s Department, and the city of Cortland to use the fuel.
Of the additional $160,000 spent this year, between $35,000 and $40,000 would be recouped through sales to the city, Chambers said.
Increasing funding for fuel was an unfortunate necessity, Committee Chairman Dan Tagliente said after Tuesday’s meeting.
“The county has to run, people want their roads plowed, so there’s not much of a choice,” Tagliente said. “The good news is we will recoup some of it by selling to the city.”




Advance Auto alters signs

Staff Reporter

The proposed signs for an Advance Auto Parts store on the corner of Pomeroy Street and Clinton Avenue have been scaled down from its original design, in response to concerns by the county Planning Board. The new proposal was accepted Tuesday evening by the city Planning Commission.
The original design had extended 90 feet off the ground, and included one 10-by-30-foot sign at the top and one 6-by-18-foot sign below and perpendicular to the larger sign.
Under the new proposal, only one, 8-by-24-foot sign would be 40 feet above the ground at the site where the store is being constructed. The sign would be internally lighted and would be perpendicular to residential neighborhoods, facing northbound and southbound Interstate 81 traffic.
Planning Commission members even seemed a bit hesitant to approve the new design, citing the potential for light pollution.
Commissioner Jo Schaffer asked if after the store opened — as it is expected to do in mid-December — and light pollution had become a problem, if Advance Auto Parts would consider removing or significantly altering the sign.
The engineer for Advance Auto Parts, Joe Barrier, told the commission that he could not speak for the company, but that the lights are shut off after business hours.
“Advance does want to work with the area, they don’t want to be bad neighbors,” Barrier said.
Commissioner Bill Kline was especially concerned that allowing signs of this size to be built adjacent to a residential area would set a bad precedent.
“I don’t think that that sign is really in proportion to the neighborhood,” Kline said at the meeting. “This is a buffer — we’ve changed a residential lot to a commercial lot.”
Barrier suggested that Taco Bell’s nearby sign on River Street was also a large, internally lighted sign, Kline pointed out that the Taco Bell _sign was not next to a residential neighborhood.
As a businessman, Kline said, he certainly would want to erect the largest sign possible. However, he and others were concerned about the consequences of adding another sign to the area surrounding the Interstate 81 Exit 11 ramp.
The proposed sign was “consistent” with others in the area, said Commissioner Doug VanEtten.
“It is an improvement over the first proposal. It is a significant compromise,” VanEtten said. “I’m not a huge fan of this sign, but I’m also not a fan of all the signs that are already down there.”
The revised sign design is consistent with city code, and the commission members emphasized the need to revise city code. Schaffer told _the commission the city was in _the process of revising its zoning _ordinance.
“You need to not give false impressions to developers as to what’s acceptable,” VanEtten said.



County, city at odds over equipment move

Staff Reporter

As it prepares to relocate its dispatch center, the county is asking the city to pay the cost of moving a piece of city-owned equipment.
The city, to this point, has declined, saying it needs hard figures on the cost of the move before it can make a decision.
County maintenance workers are working to move the dispatch center  from the first floor to the third floor of the Public Safety Building by November, but county officials believe that the cost  of moving a large attenuator, a machine that monitors pull stations and alarm systems at public and private locations throughout the city, should fall to the city.
County Administrator Scott Schrader told both the Legislature’s Buildings and Grounds Committee and Judiciary Public Safety Committee that the county had asked the city to pay for moving the attenuator, but the city had declined.
“They dismissed it,” Schrader said of the county’s request. “They stated that it’s the county’s responsibility to move the dispatch center, and that they shouldn’t be held responsible.”
City Director of Administration and Finance Andy Damiano said that the city was simply reluctant to commit to moving the equipment without a solid cost estimate.
“Our problem is we don’t have any knowledge of the cost of moving the equipment,” Damiano said. “My position has been ‘no’ until you can tell me a number.”
Schrader was instructed by the JPS Committee to provide the city with a full cost estimate, and guessed at the meeting that the relocation would cost approximately $5,000.
“It won’t exceed that,” he said, adding that he hoped to have an estimate for the city by the end of the week.
Damiano said he had talked to Sheriff Lee Price this morning and received the $5,000 figure, and was awaiting a full estimate.
“Up until 15 minutes ago, the city was being asked to approve a project without a price tag,” he said this morning.
“We have an adopted budget and we really didn’t make room for this, but if we had known about this cost, we certainly could’ve made arrangements.”
The attenuator allows dispatch to monitor about 100 alarm systems citywide, in both public and private buildings, Price said at the Judiciary and Public Safety meeting.
The county has been monitoring the alarms for the city, and the city has paid for repairs and upgrades over the years, and the arrangement has worked well, Price said.
“We get a quicker response if we monitor it,” he said.
Price noted that the equipment would likely require upgrades to coincide with upgrades to the dispatch center — Schrader said preliminary estimates for upgrades were around $30,000 — but said relocation was the most critical at the moment.
“Right now we just need the money to move the system up,” Price said.
Noting that many of the alarms the equipment monitors were located in private buildings, both Schrader and Price questioned whether the county should be doing monitoring for private alarm _systems.
“We shouldn’t be offering services that the private sector offers,” Schrader said.
Price, meanwhile, suggested the county seek payment for monitoring private alarms.
Schrader also suggested that a larger issue was at hand than the seemingly simple dispute with the city.
“The main issue is lack of cooperation and assistance that the city has shown for the past three years in working with the county to better the community,” Schrader said. “It’s somewhat disturbing that we constantly have the perceived attitude, at least from this end, that the city is so intractable.”
Damiano disagreed with Schrader’s assessment.
“Cooperation is a two way street, and I’ll leave it at that,” he said. “The city is more than willing to work with the county on any issue, but they have to provide us with information in a timely manner.”




Purr Fect World files suit against city for tax exemption

Staff Reporter

An organization that cared for cats until being raided by city police in September has filed a lawsuit against the city.
The suit brought by Purr Fect World Inc. claims the city improperly assessed its property at 7 Wheeler Ave., denying the company tax-exempt status.
The organization’s attorney, Matthew Neuman, of Riehlman, Shafer and Shafer, states in the suit that the company filed for tax-exempt status on July 21, but that the application was denied later that month. According to the suit, the company then filed an appeal of the denial on Aug. 23, but that was denied on Sept. 5.
Neuman said Tuesday that the suit, which was filed in the Cortland County Clerk’s Office on Thursday, is a standard way to challenge a current tax-exemption status, and his clients have similar litigation pending for 2005.
The litigation comes with Purr Fect World in the midst of legal trouble, stemming from a raid conducted by the city on Sept. 1. The raid of the home and clinic on the property resulted in the city taking a total of 279 cats out of the buildings.
Eugenia Cute, 51, who was living in the house, and Lisa Alderman, 45, of 503 Third St., Liverpool, president of Purr Fect World, have since been arrested on 49 counts of failure _to provide food and water for an _impounded animal, an unclassified misdemeanor.
Alderman also was arrested in Liverpool on Thursday for improper confinement of animals, also an unclassified misdemeanor, after a similar raid conducted by the Central New York SPCA took around 130 cats from one of her two Liverpool homes.
Officials said the day of the raid the conditions at 503 Third St. were “disgusting,” but the adjacent property, 505 Third St., which Alderman also owns, was “spotless.” That house contained approximately 75 cats that were not taken by the SPCA.
City Assessor David Briggs said Purr Fect World has filed with the federal government as a not-for-profit organization, but that he has denied the tax exempt status for the last two years for two reasons: Purr Fect World was not authorized by the city to use the home in front of the clinic for organization business, and he believes, based on case law, that Purr Fect World would have to perform animal cruelty prevention enforcement in order to be eligible.
“They were just into collecting and distributing,” he said. “You need to be in the enforcement of cruelty prevention (to be eligible for a tax exemption).”