City tree alight with holiday cheer


Bob Ellis/staff photographer
Leon Stoll carries 19-month-old Meilynn on his shoulders in front of the city Christmas tree at city hall. Cortland had its annual tree lighting ceremony Saturday night.

Staff Reporter

City residents, good ol’ Saint Nicholas and Mayor Tom Gallagher braved 31-degree weather to welcome the holiday season with a tree lighting ceremony Saturday.
“It was great,” Gallagher said. “A lot of parents come because their children are singing.”
During the ceremony at City Hall, Gallagher introduced the entertainers for evening, the F.E. Smith Elementary School fifth- and sixth-grade chorus. The chorus sang five songs and got a rousing applause from the crowd.
With lights flashing, Santa Claus rode in on a red fire truck as the chorus sang its fifth and final song, “Here Comes Santa Claus.”
Santa stepped off the fire truck and shook Abby Ross’ hand.
“It was cool,” said Abby, 8.
Although Brandy Ross’ main reason for going to the tree lighting ceremony was her daughter Emily’s performance in the choir, shaking Santa’s hand, “made me feel like a kid again.”
Santa made his way to the stage and the reason why the crowd had assembled became clear as he counted down the lighting of the tree. “Three, two, one,” … and hundreds of colorful bulbs lit up the tree on the lawn of City Hall.
Patricia Freeland and Sally Potter have been Cortland residents for more than 50 years, but it took two little boys to bring them to the tree lighting ceremony for the first time. Potter brought her two grandchildren Nicky, 4, and Blott, 7, because one of Blott’s friends was performing.
Both women enjoyed Santa’s entrance.
“I thought that was neat,” Freeland said. “That was cute.”
Potter said it was “unexpected.”
After the tree lighting, holiday revelers were invited to the fire station next to City Hall to have a snack of hot chocolate and cookies.
Alex Casson, 11, a chorus participant, liked performing for Santa and the crowd.
“It was kind of fun,” she said, sipping a cup of hot chocolate. “It was the first time I saw (the mayor).”
For Alex, seeing Santa in a red fire truck other than a sleigh was unusual.
“It was kind of weird,” Alex said. “It is tradition that he come in a sled.”
Travis Olson, 12, also performed in the choir and for him, there was nothing unusual about seeing Santa riding in a fire truck. Travis said he suspects that it wasn’t the real Santa.
“The real Santa would never come in a fireman’s truck,” Travis said.
For those who thought Santa should arrive in his traditional sleigh, Santa had this to say, “Can you imagine a sleigh coming down that hill? There is no snow.”
Santa said one little girl told him what she wanted for Christmas — “a baby doll.”
Others wanted cell phones, iPods and game systems.
The mayor said his wish is that “the city would prosper.”
Santa and the mayor estimated more than 300 people showed up to the tree-lighting ceremony on the corner of Church and Court streets.


DA won’t comment on new Stockton charges after woman’s death

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — District Attorney David Hartnett refuses to comment on whether he plans to bring new charges against a city police officer after one of the two women the off-duty officer struck with his car last month died Saturday.
Hartnett’s secretary said this morning he has “no comment” on whether he will amend the pending charges against Jeffrey “Chip” Stockton in light of the death of Lyn Briggs. The secretary said Hartnett was not available to take a telephone call from the Cortland Standard.
Lt. Paul Sandy of the city police said this morning that he spoke with Hartnett Saturday and at that time, Hartnett was not planning on releasing any new charges until after his office receives an indictment from a grand jury.
Briggs, 55, of 65 Central Ave., Apt 10, Cortland, died early Saturday morning at University Hospital in Syracuse. Briggs spent two weeks in a coma after she and Melody Benn, 55, of 65 Central Ave., Apt. 11, where hit by Stockton on Nov. 17 while crossing the intersection of Church Street and Central Avenue.
Stockton, 38, of 16 Frank St., Cortland, was off duty and reportedly called 911 immediately after the accident.
Benn was released from the same hospital on Nov. 20.
According to court documents, Stockton told a city police officer that he had been drinking before the accident and at the time of the crash was text messaging “a girl” on his cell phone.
Kay Breed, mother-in-law to Lisa Breed, Briggs’s daughter, said this morning that the family is in shock over the death and that it did not wish to make a comment to the news media.
“They’re not ready to talk about anything,” she said. “They are still trying to come to terms with it and at some point they will have something to say.”
Stockton was charged with second-degree vehicular assault, a felony, driving while intoxicated, a misdemeanor, and failure to exercise due care, a violation.
Lt. Jon Gesin, of the city police, said Saturday that he can’t speak for Hartnett, but that he believes the appropriate amended charge is second-degree vehicular manslaughter, a felony.
Second-degree vehicular manslaughter is a class D felony and could carry a fixed sentence of two to seven years in state prison.
Stockton was suspended with pay after the accident, but according to information the city police released Saturday, the department suspended him without pay on Tuesday.
Gesin said Stockton was charged with violating the rules and regulations of the department, and will have a hearing on those internal matters. A date for that hearing has not been released.
Stockton was excused from a City Court date on Nov. 22 because, according to his attorney, Mark Suben, he has enrolled in an alcohol rehabilitation program.
Suben did return phone calls seeking comment Saturday or this morning.
Stockton is scheduled to appear in City Court on Dec. 20.
Calling hours for Briggs are scheduled from 5 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at Perkins Funeral Home in Dryden. A memorial service is scheduled for 11 a.m. Wednesday at the funeral home.


County sees road, bridge work as catalyst in future city, town growth

Staff Reporter

The county has made strides in improving its administration and services, but it is equally committed to helping its communities grow, County Administrator Scott Schrader told the League of Women Voters on Saturday.
“We’re trying to improve not only the county government but the county as a whole, and let’s face it, as their communities go, so goes the county,” Schrader said, referring to Cortland Mayor Tom Gallagher and Cortlandville Supervisor Dick Tupper, who also gave addresses at the event at the Community Restaurant.
“Those communities need to be in good shape for the county to be in good shape.”
One way he hoped to encourage growth and prosperity in the county’s two largest municipalities was through road and bridge rehabilitations that will encourage development, Schrader said.
“When you rehab a road, it doesn’t take long for developers to start building there,” Schrader said. “And increasing the tax base with more development is the only way to keep the tax rate at a reasonable level.”
The county has budgeted about $6 million for road improvements, bridge repairs and equipment replacement in 2007, Schrader said.
“Frankly some of our equipment belongs in the museum being built in Cortlandville,” Schrader said. “That money’s going to go a long way towards revitalizing this community.”
During a question-and-answer period after each community leader spoke Saturday, Schrader said something needed to be done about substandard housing in the county, and suggested that Housing Visions, the not-for-profit doing work in _the south Main Street area, could serve as a model for how to improve housing.
“We need to redesign these neighborhoods from scratch to take care of the substandard housing,” he said.
Schrader said he expected work to begin on renovating the county Courthouse in the next month, and noted that a final report regarding space needs for the County Jail should also be available in the coming months.
The county has lost between $500,000 and $750,000 annually boarding inmates in jails in other counties, Schrader said, making the development of a new jail a priority for 2008.
The county will also soon be looking at potential spaces for a new facility for the departments of Mental Health and Public Health.
“Right now we’re leasing space for Mental Health, but it’s just not serving our long-term purposes,” Schrader said.
The current space on Clayton Avenue is cramped and lacks parking and wheelchair accessibility, he said.
The cost of oil is still a major issue facing the county, especially when it comes to paving projects, but department heads are working to keep costs under control, Schrader said.
His last few years working for the county Legislature have been trying at times, as the last two election cycles have produced massive turnover among the 19 legislators, Schrader said.
“We’ve been in a perpetual mode of orientation,” Schrader said. “But this latest group has been a breath of fresh air … I’m looking forward to some extremely newsworthy projects coming up in 2007.”



C’ville supervisor praises the cooperation between town and city

Staff Reporter

CORTLANDVILLE — Supervisor Dick Tupper said cooperation with the city and the county, especially in regards to the recent sales tax negotiations and flooding issues, has reached an unprecedented level.
“At least when the mayor calls me, I return his calls and vice versa,” Tupper said Saturday at the League of Women Voters luncheon during his state of the town address. “It wasn’t always like that in the past.”
Tupper said flooding will continue to be a major concern in the area. “We live in a valley,” he said. “We live in seven valleys.”
And continuing development of the hills surrounding the already densely populated lowlands will continue to affect drainage patterns, Tupper said.
Following the lead of New York state, Tupper said the town is hard at work building retention ponds, which are meant to catch excess water and give the flooding a chance to percolate back into the ground.
Although the town does its best to assist the village of McGraw with flooding issues, the current political separation between the municipalities makes it difficult to direct town-owned equipment to perform work in the village.
A highlight of the year was the progress made on the roughly $1.5 million Starr Road Community Park, which Tupper called the town’s first “professionally designed” park.
A $400,000 grant to revitalize properties in the hamlet of Blodgett’s Mills is helping to renovate 18 houses, Tupper said.
Grant funding to help fund the Brockway Truck Museum and the Homeville Museum
With one of the state’s largest town courts outside of New York City — generating about $1 million in revenue for the town this past year — Tupper said the expansion of the Raymond G. Thorpe Municipal Building to increase the court’s capacity and safety was essential. Unfortunately, no state or federal money is available for the project, forcing the town to bond for $2 million, which is reflected in the 2007 budget.
Like the city, the town is also dealing with higher employee insurance and benefits, and oil costs, and the town’s accepted budget reflects that through its 4.2-percent tax rate increase.
The amount of sales tax revenue generated in Cortlandville is “tremendous,” Tupper said, which explains his defeated push to receive an extra percentage point relative to the other towns during the county’s sales tax negotiations.
Tupper said although attracting industrial operations to the town would be preferential, that scenario is not likely due to the state’s high taxes, and that smaller, high-tech businesses should be the area of focus.
“But what we’re getting is retail,” Tupper said.
Wal-Mart was expected to close on the 33.7-acre lot off Route 13 for a proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter on Friday, Jim Yaman of Yaman Real Estate said this morning.
During his address, Tupper said he had heard that that the transaction had been completed. A representative of Wal-Mart’s law firm in the matter, the Rochester-based Harter, Secrest, and Emory, did not return a phone call this morning.
The Town Board will issue its finding statement on the Final Environmental Impact Statement during its meeting Wednesday.
Wal-Mart officials were not available for comment this morning.
Another major development in the town over the next few years will be the reconstruction of the Route 281 corridor, and Tupper said that the state has begun the process of acquiring properties and rights of way prior to the anticipated start of the project in 2008. The finished project, which shouldn’t be completed until at least 2011, should improve traffic flow and increase the potential for attracting businesses, he said.



City program to aid about 10 first-time homebuyers

Staff Reporter

Once again, the city has funding available to help low-to-moderate first-time homebuyers help pay closing costs and make down payments, and then make subsequent improvements to single-family houses.
Between $8,000 and $13,500 will be available to each program recipient to apply toward closing and a down payment, via the state HOME Program, which uses federal money to expand affordable housing in New York state.
The nearly $300,000 in funding is available to help homebuyers make improvements to the property, and will come from the HOME program and the city.
Individuals can receive a maximum of $23,000 for closing costs and improvements.
Only low- to moderate-income city residents are eligible, based on the amount of yearly income relative to family size. For a family of four, the maximum income is $40,300.
Those considered first-time homebuyers also include those who have not owned a home within the past three years or have owned a home in the past, but are a single parent with custody of a minor.
The funding for the closing and down payment costs is in the form of a no interest, deferred payment loan, which does not have to be paid back if the buyer lives in the home for a minimum of 15 years.
Each year the buyer occupies the home as a primary residence, the amount that was awarded is reduced by one-fifteenth. After 15 years, the debt expires.
However, if the owner sells or is no longer the primary occupant, he or she owes whatever is left after the reductions due to occupancy are taken into account.
The city has offered this assistance since 1994, and Bernard Thoma, of Thoma Development Consultants, which administers the program for the city, said it seems the city receives the funding about every two years.
In 2004, the city was awarded $134,000.
The total grant is about $297,000, Thoma said, which will allow the city to work with about 10 housing units.
Although Thoma said there is no due date, per se, the money is awarded in an almost “first come, first serve” basis, and interested parties should contact Thoma Development as soon as possible. Its Web site is