State: Light competition driving up gas prices

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — An inquiry by the state Consumer Protection Board into relatively high gas prices in Cortland County found a lack of competition is the most likely cause.
The inquiry was sparked by a letter from Sen. James Seward (R-Milford), who asked the CPB to look into the matter after a story regarding gas prices ran in the Cortland Standard three weeks ago.
In an Oct. 20 letter to Seward, CPB Executive Director Teresa Santiago cited a number of possible reasons for the increases:
-- Gasoline suppliers in Vestal, the primary supply point for gas sold in Cortland County, experienced a shortage of several grades of fuel in late September and early October, causing suppliers to charge more to transport gas from other locations.
-- The number of suppliers in Vestal has dropped from 10 a decade ago to three today, two of which are owned by the same company.
-- Cortland area prices have been high historically, and were high during the period looked at because “retail price margins are primarily determined by the extent of retail competition. Where competition is not vigorous, retailers are often slow to reduce retail prices in times of declining wholesale prices.”
Essentially, with fewer gas stations than areas like Syracuse and Binghamton, prices in the Cortland area stay high longer.
CPB spokesman Jon Sorensen said the competition issue seemed to be the most likely factor.
“It appears that it’s the retail that’s the primary problem,” Sorensen said. “The relative lack of competition is not helping, in comparison to other parts of the state.”
Duncan Davie, Seward’s spokesman, said his office had heard a number of complaints about Cortland gas prices from constituents.
“This seems to be pinpointing issues with distribution and competition,” Davie said of the CPB’s letter. “The senator is in the process of reviewing the letter and deciding what the next step will be.”
Davie said that Seward had also contacted the Attorney General’s Office, and was waiting to hear back.
New York state currently has an average price of $2.40 per gallon of regular unleaded fuel, according to the American Automobile Association.
According the Web site, which breaks down prices by county, Cortland County has an average price of $2.56.
Surrounding counties with enough data for an average:
-- Tompkins County — $2.54
-- Broome County — $2.38
-- Onondaga County — $2.42
-- Madison County — $2.42
-- Cayuga County — $2.44




Police look into use of videotaped confessions

Staff Reporter

During almost every jury trial held in Cortland County Court, the defense lawyer asks the lead investigator the same question: “Did you videotape my clients statements during your investigation?”
The standard answer generally follows what State Police Inv. William Sperger told defense attorney Ira Pesserilo during a trial Tuesday:
“We don’t tape record the statements given at Homer (State Police barracks) nor do we have the capabilities to do so.”
Although the State Police videotape confessions in three of the seven Central New York counties that its  Troop C patrols, and will begin doing so in a fourth shortly, the agency does not tape confessions in Cortland County.
In fact, no police agency does.
Capt. Glen Mauzy, of the Cortland County Sheriff’s Department, said his agency does not tape confessions for a few different reasons. Cortland County District Attorney David Hartnett plays a large roll in the decision, he said.
“Well, to be honest, because the DA’s office doesn’t want us to right now,” he said. “I don’t call that shot. We won’t do that until the DA is comfortable with that and ready to defend that.”
Mauzy added that logistics issues arise when taping confessions, and that consistency problems can be created because each investigation is different.
“The prosecution and the law enforcement have to work together,” he said. “There are some issues with videotaping. Once you videotape you always have to videotape.”
When asked if his office has told police agencies in Cortland County not to tape confessions, Hartnett said he has no policy on taped interrogations.
“We don’t have a policy per se. It’s just never been done,” he said. “There has been some discussion as to whether or not the current situation should change.”
Hartnett would not elaborate on the discussions, or set a timetable for when a decision will be reached.
“We are trying to initiate a policy as to dealing with it appropriately, to discuss the abilities to implement videotaping in appropriate settings,” he said. “Just to say we need a videotape policy in place, it’s not that simple. That’s why we are being methodical about it.”
Although he was an assistant district attorney before being elected to his current position, Hartnett wouldn’t say whether the issue was discussed before he took office.
“I can’t speak to what any of my predecessors did or didn’t do,” he said.
Lt. Paul Sandy, of the Cortland Police Department, said his agency began researching the issue in the summer. He said there hasn’t been a decision made either way, and that he doesn’t know when a decision will be reached.
“We don’t do it and we don’t have the equipment to do it,” he said. “We are reviewing studies and we are conferring with other agencies that do it.”
Sandy said Hartnett has not told the city not to tape confessions but that he would be part of the discussion when the city comes closer to making a decision.
“I don’t think the DA has said not to,” he said. “We have discussed the matter with him and told him we are looking into it.”
In Tompkins County, both the State Police and the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Department tape confessions.
Sheriff Peter Meskill said his office worked with former District Attorney George Dentes four or five years ago to install a taping policy and has not had any problems with it since.
“We just thought it was a good way to go,” he said. “It is clear, concise and doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room.”
Tompkins County District Attorney Gwen Wilkinson said from a prosecutorial standpoint, she thinks the technology is a strong tool.
“I think it is a strength,” she said. “You can always put a police officer on the stand but if you’re a juror, which are you going to credit, a video or a police officer sitting on a stand? I like them (videotapes).”



Legislature hires auditor to assist treasurer

Staff Reporter

The Cortland County Legislature approved hiring certified public accountant and independent auditor Rick McNeilly to help the Treasurer’s Office balance some accounts, despite opposition from a handful of legislators.
The contract with McNeilly calls for him to work with the Treasurer’s Office from around Nov. 15 until the end of the year, and will pay him a standard hourly rate of $90 per hour, which adds up to a total fee of between $8,100 and $10,800.
The Legislature voted 13-3 in favor of the contract, but those opposed questioned whether it represented a conflict of interest for McNeilly, who has audited the county’s finances for a number of years, and whether the money was being well spent.
“It seems to me like a flagrant conflict of interest to have him work on these accounts and then come back and audit that work,” said Legislator Kay Breed (R-Cortlandville), who was the most vocally opposed to the measure.
Internal Auditor Dennis Whitt, who recommended hiring McNeilly, said he did not believe it was a conflict of interest because McNeilly would be working with the Treasurer’s Office and walking employees through the steps of how to remedy the problems he found in his 2005 independent audit.
Legislator Dan Tagliente (D-7th Ward) agreed.
“He’s going to be a teacher down there, so I really don’t think it’s going to be an issue,” Tagliente said.
County Administrator Scott Schrader said the work to reconcile the accounts would ultimately be done by the Treasurer’s Office, with McNeilly’s oversight, and added McNeilly would be the one with the best grasp on whether or not there was an ethical issue.
“That industry basically dictates and enforces the canon of ethics members have to abide by, and I think if Rick McNeilly saw any problem with this, he would have said so,” Schrader said.
When asked for his opinion, County Attorney Rick Van Donsel said he had not looked closely at the contract, but essentially agreed with Schrader that he trusted McNeilly’s ethical sense.
Legislator Tom Williams (R-Homer), who, with Breed and Legislator Newell Willcox (R-Homer) voted against the contract, moved to wait on hiring McNeilly until Van Donsel could examine the contract, but the motion failed.
“I’m just not comfortable throwing a Band-Aid at the problem,” Breed said.
Those who voted in favor of the contract said they wanted the issue to be resolved so that the county and the Treasurer’s Office could move forward with a clean slate.
“If these problems are not corrected, the blame will fall on us,” said Legislator Sandy Price (D-Harford and Virgil).




Attorney general’s office investigating cat clinic’s nonprofit status

Staff Reporter

The state is investigating the nonprofit status of a cat spay and neuter clinic that the city seized nearly 300 cats from on Sept. 1, a state official said Thursday.
Since the resignation of Susan Mix, of Freeville, in April, Purr Fect World’s board of directors has consisted of Eugenia Cute, 51, of Cortland, and Lisa Alderman, 45, of Liverpool. Assistant Attorney General Winthrop Thurlow said there has to be three board members in order to maintain its nonprofit status, and “a host of other requirements, as well.”
“The organization does not appear to be properly registered in the state of New York, and we have requested that Lisa Alderman, as a corporate officer and director of Purr Fect World Inc., come to our office and provide us with any and all evidence she has that would support a finding that Purr Fect World is in fact properly registered with the state,” Thurlow said Thursday.
Thurlow commented during a brief hearing regarding the criminal case against Purr Fect World. The hearing preceded the announcement of an agreement in a related civil matter that cleared the way for the cats to be adopted. The Cortland County SPCA has been caring for the animals at the former Cortlandville Fire Station on Route 281.
The city has been seeking reimbursement for expenses and the right to have the cats adopted by the public.
During Thursday’s hearing, City Court Judge Thomas Meldrim affirmed that Purr Fect World Inc., and not its officers, was being charged with 49 counts of failure to provide proper food and water to an impounded animal, a misdemeanor.
According to Purr Fect World’s financial filings with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service as a not-for-profit organization, the group listed net assets of $303,343 at year-end 2004, its first year in operation, and $462,220 in total revenue. In 2005, the year-end assets or fund balances amounted to $272,715, with another $133,260 in revenue received during the year.
In its 2005 report, the organization claimed more than 400 stray or feral cats and kittens were treated by veterinarians, that it performed multiple surgical procedures and that more than 500 adoptions took place. The 2004 report noted that veterinarians had treated more than 700 stray or feral cats and kittens and arranged more than 270 adoptions.