December 30, 2006

Little snow a blessing for municipal budgets


Joe McIntyre/staff photographer
Cortland County highway workers find time to work on other projects in place of plowing and salting roads. Above, Robert Burns finishes backfilling a new guardrail installed Friday on Kinney Gulf Road.  

Staff Reporter

A balmy winter season has been a boon for local highway departments, which are saving money on road salt, fuel and overtime costs.
“We’ve actually been cleaning ditches, cutting brush, catching up on maintenance — the sort of things we wouldn’t usually have time for because we’d be plowing snow,” said Virgil Highway Superintendent John Morse.
During a typical winter month, Virgil spends approximately $5,000 on fuel for its trucks, Morse said. This month it has spent about $1,500.
The town has seen a similar savings of approximately $3,500 on the salt and sand mix it uses on its roads, Morse said, as at this time last year it had used approximately 1,000 tons of salt, as opposed to just 200 tons so far this year.
Meanwhile, the town has barely tapped into overtime pay for late-night plowing, he said, while in previous years it has spent more than $2,500 on overtime.
City Director of Public Works Chris Bistocchi told a similar story.
The city has used just a fraction of the 3,000 tons of salt it usually uses over the course of a winter, Bistocchi said. He estimated the city was avoiding approximately 200 man-hours of overtime monthly because of the lack of snow, and was also saving a significant amount on fuel.
“Since I started in 2003, we had pretty good winters in ’03, ’04 and ’05. So I’d say based on my experience, this is pretty unusual,” Bistocchi said.
The city DPW is keeping busy, he said, cleaning up brush and leaves, doing some sewer work, cleaning out catch basins and helping with various city projects, including fixing the lights in the trees on Main Street.
“We’re picking up Christmas trees now, helping with the First Night celebration, just doing general housekeeping, trying to help out as much as we can,” Bistocchi said. “It’s going to snow at some point though, and when it does we’ll be ready.”
County Highway Superintendent Don Chambers agreed the area could still see large amounts of snow.
“It’s still early to tell, but we could definitely get plenty in January and February that could make up for December,” Chambers said.
The county is on pace to save close to $100,000 on salt and approximately $20,000 to $30,000 on fuel this year, he said. A change in how it schedules its employees has more or less eliminated overtime costs in the last few years.
“Unfortunately it’s a bit of a double-edged sword because we also contract with the DOT (state Department of Transportation) to maintain their roads, and with no snow were losing revenue there,” he said.
The county has a contract to maintain 106 miles of state road during winter months, he said.
“That usually brings in about $550,000 for a calendar year, but at this point I don’t have a figure for how it’ll be impacted this year,” Chambers said.
Thursday the County Highway Department was working on guardrails on Kinney Gulf Road, Chambers said.
“We have plenty to do, we just have to shift our operation to cover maintenance or construction work,” he said.



Elections officials sue county over decision to match salaries

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — The Cortland County elections commissioners are suing the county over the Legislature’s recent decision to equalize their salaries for 2007.
Election Commissioners Robert Howe, a Republican, and William Wood, a Democrat, filed the lawsuit on Dec. 22 over the inequality of their current salaries and the county’s decision to set both salaries at $26,384.38 for 2007.
For 2006, Wood was paid $25,616 while Howe was paid $29,967— a difference of $4,351— with Howe making more based on his 10 years in the position. Wood is in his first year as an election commissioner.
In an attempt to remedy the problem, the Legislature voted unanimously Dec. 21 to set both salaries at $26,384.48, with no increase for longevity.
The lawsuit not only contends it is illegal to lower Howe’s salary in the middle of his two-year term, but requests that Wood be retroactively paid the difference between his salary and Howe’s salary for 2006.
“This special proceeding seeks relief in restraining, enjoining and prohibiting respondents from reducing the salary of petitioners, commissioners of elections, during their duly appointed term of office (and) directing the respondents to retroactively compensate petitioner, William J. Wood, in the amount by which he has been deprived of the legally required salary since assuming the public office of commissioner of election” the suit states.
The suit argues that based on county law an official with a fixed term cannot have his salary lowered and that based on state law each election commissioner in the same county must make the same amount of money.
In their lawsuit, Howe and Wood named as respondents the county, the County Legislature, County Administrator Scott Schrader, county Personnel Officer Annette Barber.
In response to the lawsuit, Legislature Chairman Marilyn Brown (D-8th Ward) has called a special session for 6 p.m. Thursday to, “appoint special legal counsel for the parties and deal with such other appropriate matters.”
Brown told the Cortland Standard on Dec. 15 that the Legislature is following the law.
“A commissioner probably cannot recover the difference between the maximum salary and the actual salary paid to him,” she said, “But is only entitled to have the salaries set in equal amounts. The law says the commissioner’s not entitled to get anything extra, we’re following the law and equalizing the salaries,”
On Friday she said she stood by her earlier comments, but would not discuss the issue further before next week’s meeting.
A hearing on the lawsuit has been set for 9:30 a.m. Jan. 19 in State Supreme Court in the Chenango County Courthouse.

In 2006 —

County bears flooding, proposes health center

Staff Reporter

This past year was a challenging one for the county, with a crisis in the Department of Social Services early in the year, flooding issues throughout the summer and decisions on a number of large-scale building projects brought to the forefront at year’s end.
Perhaps the biggest story of the year from the Legislature came just last week, as it opted to purchase, for a total of $894,000, nine separate parcels of land on south Main Street to be used for the construction of a public health facility.
The proposed 15,300-square-foot facility would house both the departments of Mental Health and Public Health and carries an estimated price tag of $5.5 million, about $3 million of which would come from tobacco settlement money the county had been waiting to use on just such a project.
“I think one of the most important things is that we’re using the tobacco money for something that will benefit the public’s health — it’s certainly an appropriate use,” said Legislature Chairman Marilyn Brown (D-8th Ward). “And the other thing is, that facility will go a long way in improving the south Main Street area.”
The county also heard a report from an advisory committee for the Sheriff’s Department regarding the need for a new county jail.
The current jail is overcrowded and poorly laid out, the committee told legislators in July. In addition, it costs the county roughly $750,000 per year to board inmates out to other counties.
“This is something that needs to be addressed as soon as possible,” Jim Cunningham, a retired county probation director who served on the advisory committee, said at the time.
The committee recommended a new jail be built outside the city, to give room for expansion, and suggested the county consider at least a 100-bed facility, up from the current capacity of about 60 beds.
The county is still waiting on a final report regarding the space the county would need in a new jail from engineers Carter, Globe and Lee, said County Administrator Scott Schrader, and expects to receive that report in the next few weeks.
Schrader said he was still in the process of looking at potential properties for a new jail, along with properties for a potential relocation of the Department of Motor Vehicles, currently located in the basement of the Cortland County Courthouse.
Meanwhile, planning for renovating the county courthouse also began this year.
The Legislature recently accepted bids for the first phase of work, which should begin in January, and which will cost about $660,000.
The first phase involves relocating the main entry and security checkpoint from the back basement entrance to the historic front entrance, installing a wheelchair-accessible ramp at the front entrance and relocating the law library.
Other top stories in the county this year included:
*l The disturbing case of three neglected children discovered in March at a home on Union Street in Cortland, including a 5-year-old with Down syndrome who weighed just 15 pounds at the time, brought to legislators’ attention staffing issues and a number of mistakes made by the Department of Social Services.
A county requested review of that particular case by the state Office of Child and Family Services found numerous gaps in service by DSS caseworkers, including instances when caseworkers could have potentially entered the home before March, and a lack of supervision and direction from DSS supervisors.
DSS Commissioner Kristen Monroe said her department was taking numerous steps to prevent similar situations in the future, including better communication with county attorneys to help DSS gain access to homes, and increased training to emphasize how caseworkers can gain access to homes and potentially neglected children.
In August, the Legislature approved two additional caseworker positions for DSS, which Monroe said would help the department deal with a rapidly increasing caseload.
* In November, the county voted in favor of a new sales tax contract with the city that essentially saw the county reduce its share of sales tax revenues from 56 percent annually, to 52 percent by 2009.
Legislator Ron Van Dee (D-5th Ward) said the county was essentially returning revenue to its municipalities that it had taken during the last negotiations in 2003, when the county was struggling financially and needed additional revenue.
* After the Federal Emergency Management Agency initially deemed Cortland County ineligible for aid for flood damages during June and July, the county was ultimately deemed a federal disaster area and eligible.
FEMA representatives, along with representatives of the State Emergency Management Office, spent three months in Cortland County and awarded more than $800,000 in municipal and individual aid to the county.
* New York state’s slowness in adapting to requirements of the federal Help America Vote Act caused the county numerous headaches in 2006.
County election commissioners reported in May that despite $551,000 in promised federal funding, the county could still be faced with a bill of at least $60,000 for new electronic voting machines it would have to purchase to reach compliance.
Meanwhile in November, as the state continued to drag its feet on certifying new machines for county’s to purchase, the Legislature decided to back a lawsuit filed by Suffolk County requesting the state allow counties to maintain their pull-lever voting machines, which the complainants felt were more reliable and less expensive than electronic machines.
* After discussing it for a number of months, the Legislature finally passed a law creating a position of conflict attorney in November.
The new attorney position would take cases that pose a conflict for the Public Defenders’ Office, and would help cut into an estimated $350,000 in assigned council costs incurred during 2006.
The assigned council program, which uses local private attorneys to handle cases for indigent defendants that pose a conflict for the public defender, would remain in place, supplementing the conflict attorney.