December 05 , 2007


CRMC pledges to make potential property acquisitions known


Joe McIntyre/staff photographer
A woman uses the main entrance of Cortland Regional Medical Center this morning. 

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — Mayor Tom Gallagher said Tuesday Cortland Regional Medical Center officials pledged last week to stay in communication about potential property acquisitions and their possible uses.
Gallagher discussed during Tuesday’s Common Council meeting the results of a meeting he and city Director of Administration and Finance Andy Damiano had with hospital officials regarding their 30-year development plan and recent property purchases, such as the Kleen Korner on the corner of Van Hoesen Street and Homer Avenue.
Gallagher, Damiano and other city officials have been involved in talks with CRMC management since the hospital’s expansion became an issue this summer.
The Kleen Korner property would be demolished and replaced with a medical office building, half of which would be taxable, Gallagher said.
“That building would probably be assessed at a lot more than the Kleen Korner was,” Gallagher said this morning, and it would probably result in a net increase in taxes.
The council was supportive of and stressed the need for open discussions with the hospital regarding future plans, as well as possibilities for reimbursement of the loss of taxable properties.
The issue of the hospital’s expansion became a major campaign issue for Common Council candidates in the late summer and fall, with many criticizing CRMC’s continued expansion.
The loss of property tax revenue for parking lots inflamed both the council and the city Planning Commission, which approved one such parking lot expansion last week.
As of August, $365,000 in assessed valuation had been lost due to the expansion of the hospital in recent years. Damiano has said that the city loses out on $4 million worth of property taxes because of the hospital’s tax-exempt status.
City officials have been clamoring for some kind of reimbursement of this lost revenue, but the law protects the hospital’s non-profit status and the city does not have the ability to compel CRMC to pay any monies to the city for essential services, such as police and fire protection. The hospital does pay for its water and sewer services, which Gallagher said are substantial.
Gallagher said this morning that the hospital owns about 41 properties in the city, about 33 of which are tax-exempt.
He said CRMC officials are “very sensitive” to the tax situation.
Hospital officials are hoping to straighten the intersection of North Main Street and West Main Street, which Gallagher said CRMC would foot the bill for.
Staff reporter Aimee Milks contributed to this article.





City cuts tax rate hike to 7.8 percent

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — A new proposal offered Tuesday would reduce the 2008 city tax rate increase to 7.8 percent, down from nearly  10 percent.
Common Council members will vote Dec. 18 on the amended budget offered by city Director of Administration and Finance Andy Damiano.
“This has been a very trying situation for us,” said Mayor Tom Gallagher.
Damiano said the tax rate increase was reduced by 2 percent by taking out money from the city’s reserves.
“All the city employees contribute a percentage of their health insurance, which is placed into the reserves. We appropriated an extra $135,000 into the budget,” Damiano said.
Damiano added that the city always takes $200,000 of the money from the employee’s health insurance out of the reserves and puts it into the budget. However, he said this year he thought they had enough to take out $335,000, which cut the tax rate increase by 2 percent.
With the initial 9.8 percent tax rate increase the city’s 2008 budget was at       $16.8 million, and would be the same with the 7.8 percent increase.
After the amended budget was presented, the council discussed further ways to cut the tax rate increase down from the new 7.8 percent figure.
“The problem is that there are so many people in the city that can’t afford a 10 percent tax increase,” said Alderwoman Val VanGorder (R-1st Ward).
Alderwoman Susan Feiszli (D-6th Ward) suggested the council turn the budget over to the department heads to cut another $60,000 to $70,000 out of each individual budget for a total of $200,000.
“I think the problem of what the council faces is not in appropriation but revenue,” Damiano said. “This council is focusing on one year. We really should have raised the taxes 20 percent and we managed to cut it to 9.8 percent by shorting the people in this room the money they need to run their departments.
“Even if we cut the raise to 2 percent, it does nothing for our financial future” Damiano added. “We can’t keep putting the burden on department heads … I am already asking them to operate with unreasonable numbers. I am basically asking them to do the impossible.”
If the Common Council does not have a majority vote to accept the amended budget with a 7.8 percent increase, then the 9.8 percent increase will automatically go into effect. However, the council can further amend the budget.



Committee picks top site for new DMV

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — A potential city site for the county Department of Motor Vehicles office next to the BOCES plaza at Port Watson and River streets received the overwhelming support of the county ad hoc space needs committee at a Tuesday morning meeting.
That site will be reviewed during a legislative work session Thursday night and will likely be the one taken before the Legislature at its Dec. 20 meeting for a final decision.
The prices for the two final sites, located in the city, were discussed in executive session and not released afterward, but committee member John Daniels (D-Cortlandville) did say the price of the BOCES plaza site was $115,000 more than the less-favored location between Cleveland and River streets across from Hampton Inn.
The committee directed the county administrator to try to negotiate lower prices for the two sites.
Although county officials had given a potential price of $400,000 for the Cleveland Street site, real estate broker Steve Terwilliger, who is handling the transaction, said last week he was unaware of any preliminary price estimate having been settled upon.
The decision whether to lease or buy the properties would be left to the full Legislature, the committee decided.
In an informal poll, the committee members — as well as other members of the Legislature who sat in on the meeting — all voiced their support of the BOCES plaza site, noting the attractiveness of the Cleveland Street site for future commercial development.
A potential location at Route 13 and Lime Hollow Road in South Cortland, which had been discarded by the committee before the sites under consideration had even been released to the public, was again discussed at Tuesday’s meeting. In the end, the committee stuck by the decision it made two weeks ago — that site will not receive further consideration.
However, the discussion of the Lime Hollow Road site did spur consideration of the city’s faltering finances and the fact that a property purchase by the county in the city would further deplete the city’s tax base.
This was apparently taken into consideration during the executive session because the meeting room door reopened on legislators who were all in favor of the commercially less-desirable BOCES plaza location.
“It’s best for the city if we go with BOCES,” Legislator Danny Ross (R-Cortlandville) said.
Ad hoc committee Chair Carol Tytler (D-3rd Ward) said the taxes on the Cleveland Street site amount to about $2,300, and that the BOCES plaza location would be even less, around $2,000.




City and county discuss consolidation merger options

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — The city is hoping that a short-term solution to its depleted finances could be found in the county’s initial willingness to discuss funding the Cortland Free Library for 2008.
The possibility was discussed when city and county officials sat down in the county Legislature’s chambers Tuesday afternoon to talk about ways to help the city’s finances.
The issue will be discussed again at the next joint meeting at 1 p.m. Thursday, as well as at the Legislature’s special session that evening.
The officials from both municipalities discussed long-term and short-term solutions, ranging from a hypothetical countywide library system or a combined countywide assessor’s office, to mergers of individual departments such as the Youth Bureau or parks system.
Despite the county’s recent decision not to reopen sales tax negotiations to give the city a requested boost, the participants in the meeting were congenial and the tone was hopeful.
Legislator John Daniels (D-Cortlandville) voiced a plan of action: start with one or two projects that everybody can get on board with, things that can be implemented quickly, before a much larger next step is taken. This would build the relationships and trust that large-scale intergovernmental projects require.
“It becomes much easier to take the next step,” Daniels said.
The “next step” is important, according to city Director of Administration and Finance Andy Damiano. Any short-term financial help for next year would help stamp down either a 9.8 percent or a 7.8 percent tax increase (the lower figure was announced at a Tuesday night Common Council meeting), but would not rebuild the city’s soon-to-be depleted fund balance.
“We need to think about how we can rebuild it in the long term,” Damiano said.
The city is considering a number of multimillion-dollar capital projects — including larger fire and police stations and much needed repairs to City Hall — and those would require bonding.
“I cannot recommend to the (Common) Council that we go out for a bond issue with our finances in the state they are in now,” Damiano said at Tuesday’s joint meeting.
Hence the county’s concern; as noted by Legislator Sandy Price (D-Harford and Virgil), “a healthy city equals a healthy county and a healthy county equals a healthy city.”
But when discussing any possible mergers, Damiano stressed that the merger has to result in either the same or improved level of services, as well as cost savings, or else consolidation does not work.




Conflict attorney cases heard in Supreme Court

Staff Reporter

Two of the four lawsuits regarding the county’s local law concerning the assigned counsel plan were heard Tuesday morning by state Supreme Court Justice Kevin Dowd.
Of the two lawsuits, Dowd is expected to make a decision on the local law or dismiss the suit entirely by the end of the year, said Frank Williams, one of the three attorneys who together filed a suit claiming the law illegal and invalid.
Williams and local attorney Edward Goehler, argued Tuesday that they need a decision as to which of three assigned counsel plans being used in the county’s courts is the right one to follow.
The three different assigned counsel plans in question within the county are the conflict attorney position created by the county’s local law of 2006, a standing decision from the County Court judges opposing the conflict attorney position and a Cortland County Bar Association plan that was used until the conflict attorney position was filled in August.
They added that they believe that the county’s Local Law No. 1 of 2006 — which is similar to plans in effect without opposition in at least 12 other counties — violates the state Constitution and state statutes.
Goehler said that before the law was passed the county had a functioning plan, which was the bar association plan approved by the state Office of Court Administration both in 1984 and again in revised form this year.
“We had a functioning plan; everything was working,” Goehler said. “To say everything is working now is not true. The law is an encroachment on state power. Cortland has no more right to pass this law than it has to lower the BAC (blood-alcohol content) levels or lower the age of consent.”
The Bar Association plan was implemented in the county in 1984 and used until attorney Tom Miller filled the conflict attorney position created by the county Legislature under Local Law No. 1 in 2006 in an attempt to cut the countys expenses on assigned counsel for indigent defendants.
The position is called conflict attorney because it is the intent of the Legislature to have Miller represent clients the public defender cannot represent due to a conflict of interest. For example, when a husband and wife opposing each other in a custody case qualify for representation by the Public Defenders Office, it would be a conflict of interest for the public defender to represent both of them. Under Local Law No. 1, the conflict attorney would be assigned to represent the husband or the wife.
The county, represented by Robert Bergan and Stacy Tamburrino from the Auburn law firm of Boyle & Anderson, argued Tuesday that the three local lawyers did not have standing for their case and asked for a dismissal.
Bergan said that for the lawyers to have standing to sue, they must show economic injury and show they are parties affected by the local law.
Williams responded by stating they are parties of interest because if they accept an assignment, they are violating the constitution and state statutes. Whereas, by not accepting an assignment, they are allowing other attorney’s to be in violation. This also affects indigent clients, he said.