COOPERSTOWN – If Onondaga County got a special dispensation from Governor Cuomo to open its car dealerships, why shouldn’t Otsego County?
That’s the question the Otsego County board wants answered by the time it next meets at 2 p.m. Wednesday, May 20.
Acting on a suggestion by Republican Oneonta City Council member Len Carson, his county rep, Democrat Danny Lapin, today championed his constituent: “If Onondaga got a special dispensation, let’s see what they did. Maybe it could apply to us.”
This is a question I’ve heard and asked nearly every day since I moved to the City of the Hills in mid-2015. Answers vary but they usually fall within three categories: more people, fewer storefront vacancies, and more stuff to do.
In 2017, the City of Oneonta received a $10 million award through Governor Cuomo’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative.
The intent of the DRI was to spur development downtown by revitalizing the Market Street Corridor, improving the connectivity of downtown walkways, restoring upper-floor housing, improving building facades, and improving downtown’s marketability.
Since the announcement of the DRI, downtown Oneonta has seen nearly $2 million awarded to local businesses and property owners, one mixed-use housing project approved with another being proposed, the launch of a new marketing campaign, and the purchase of the abandoned car dealership on Market Street.
With all the positive momentum flowing through the city, I would argue that it is time to think about how to sustain it moving forward. After all, it is not every day that the city can get a $10 million boost.
Sustaining the positive momentum will require three things:
1) The ability to identify and make small bets that yield a high return;
2) The ability to coordinate marketing and branding efforts; and
3) A steady revenue stream which can be readily reinvested Downtown.
Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) represent one possible way to make this happen. BIDs are city-designated districts where property owners and businesses direct funding to improve the vibrancy of a commercial corridor.
BIDs are complicated quasi-governmental organizations typically led by an executive director. The executive director is overseen by a Board of Directors comprised of downtown stakeholders. Funding for BIDs come from a special assessment billed to property owners, which is decided by the BID’s Board of Directors.
BIDs can undertake a wide range of activities, ranging from streetscape beautification, to trash cleanup and snow removal, to security, to marketing and branding. Ultimately, the decision of what to do is left up to the BID’s Board of Directors.
It can be argued that Downtown Oneonta has all the pieces in place for a BID.
Otsego County’s one-stop shop for economic development is located at 189 Main St. There’s an energized city government and staff. Destination Oneonta coordinates marketing for its members and hosts events. And the buzz of redevelopment has reached the ears of many downtown property owners.
BIDs can empower downtown entities to coordinate with one another, decide how monies should be invested, and have the skin in the game necessary to encourage strong decision making.
BIDs have been implemented successfully in communities of varying sizes nationwide ranging from smaller municipalities like Hyannis, Mass., to a large metropolis like New York City. However, BIDs, on their own, are not a surefire key to downtown success. The public must be given the opportunity to weigh in on the services the BID could provide. Administration of the BID must not hinder the delivery of services. Outcomes achieved by the BID must be tracked, verified and reported on.
The completion of the DRI will lead to a more vibrant, resilient downtown. As we look longterm, past Common Council terms and economic upswings and downturns, Oneonta will need the services of a BID or equivalent organization to make targeted investments that make our community a great place to live, work and play.
COOPERSTOWN – Three decades of striving ended today as the Otsego County Board of Representatives, 11-2-1, created the position of county executive.
In a half-hour of give and take, it was clear that, despite and lopsided vote, starkly contrasting outlooks remain.
“You talk about planning,” said county Rep. Keith McCarty, R-East Springfield, and longest-serving board member. “You can’t plan when you’re going to get a flood. You can’t plan when a bridge is going to go out. You can’t plan when a road washes out – we’ve had two of them on the east side of Otsego Lake. You deal with it.”
Danny Lapin, D-Oneonta, who is finishing his first term, took on the rebuttal: “Our talents are hamstrung by a lack of coordination, a lack of planning, a lack of overall coordination.
ONEONTA – The county’s Energy Task Force aims to impact state and regional energy policy in the coming months, according to discussions in its meeting last night.
“We’re planning to have a representative from DEC speak about the New York Climate Consumer Protection Act,” said Danny Lapin, an Energy Task Force member and county rep. “How DEC will implement its components of the legislation, how that will affect Otsego County, and other questions.
ONEONTA – While the big tasks are still ahead for the Otsego County Energy Task Force, Barbara Ann Heegan, Otsego County Chamber president and chair of the Economic Development sub-group of the county’s Energy Task Force, is making sure that small businesses and the public can learn what they can do on the local level.
“We will be hosting a talk on ‘Understanding Energy Usage In Your Small Business: How to Increase Efficiency and Reduce Costs With An Energy Study’ from the Green Jobs, Green New York energy study,” she told the task force and public gathered for their second meeting this evening in Oneonta’s Town Hall. “We want to keep networking and keep these connections strong.”
The talk, which is free and open to the public, will be given by Michelle Wooddell, program coordinator for Green Jobs, Green New York at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, May 8 at the Northern Eagle Beverage Center.
ONEONTA – In response to the formation of “Sixth Ward Neighbors United,” LEAF Executive Director Julie Dostal said there are “misconceptions” about the proposed Rehabilitation & Support Services housing development and the 14 units set aside for people in addiction recovery.
“Those people get to move into those units because they have engaged in a treatment or recovery provider to qualify for housing,” she said. “They have already made a life decision toward getting better.”
ONEONTA – Christened “Sixth Ward Neighbors United,” River Street residents and businesspeople met for more than two hours with city, county and state elected officials at the Sixth Ward Athletic Club Thursday evening to discuss strategies to oppose RSS’s housing development in their neighborhood.
“There are multiple bad reasons for RSS’s project,” said Fran Colone, a vocal critic of the housing development proposal since last October. “So, we’re turning up the heat and upping our activities.”
“It is bad for Oneonta’s economy, it’s bad in terms of energy services – Oneonta is already energy-strapped; it’s going to increase demand for services here. Oneonta’s fire department is already understaffed,” Colone said.
The proposed housing project by Rehabilitation Support Services (RSS) of Altamont in Oneonta’s Sixth Ward is a flawed development. RSS wants taxpayers to pay for it; they trying to circumvent public input and they’re using strong-arm tactics to get approval to start construction.
Therefore, I oppose it.
RSS wants to build a 64-unit project for low- and moderate-income people that will include 14 apartments reserved for individuals recovering from drug and alcohol abuse. Subsidized rents will range from $520 to $1,067, well below market rates for Oneonta.
ONEONTA – Saying the language “was softened,” County board Vice Chair Gary Koutnik, D-Oneonta, today voted against sending a “Climate Smart Community Pledge” resolution, as revised, to the full board for action March 6.
However, his colleagues on the Solid Waste & Environmental Concerns Committee nonetheless agreed to forward the adjusted resolution, 4-1, for the full board’s consideration.
“The language did reduce the sense of Climate Change being a crisis,” Koutnik said. “My vote was largely a symbolic one, so it would be in the public record for future generations to see.”
For years now, Otsego County’s annual auction of foreclosed-on tax-delinquent properties has eaten up a lot of oxygen at the county Board of Representatives’ monthly meetings.
It’s the Whack-A-Mole of county government, which suggests: There are unresolved issues.
So a take-charge presentation by the new county treasurer, Allen Ruffles, at the November meeting was welcome, if partial.
First, he declared, having studied the issue, giving delinquent taxpayers four years to pay back bills is counterproductive. In the fourth year, the fees and interest that accrue just make it all that more likely property owners won’t be able to catch up.
Three years is the standard among New York State counties, and Ruffles – as he can within his treasurer’s duties – has implemented it, effective 2022.
Second, he encouraged the county board, as a companion measure, to pass a law enabling property owners to “buy back” their own homes.
Himself a former banker, Ruffles said most delinquent properties aren’t mortgaged and contain more-than-sufficient equity to qualify for bank loans to cover what’s owed.
The county board should promptly pass the enabling legislation.
While Ruffles didn’t need the county reps’ blessing, Rep. Danny Lapin, D-Oneonta, made a motion of support and it was approved, although three county reps – Kathy Clark, Michele Farwell and Andrew Stammel – abstained, uncertain about some of the particulars.
Ruffles’ presentation spurred a debate – of course, the Whack-A-Mole – on a related issue: Should county employees be allowed to bid at the annual delinquent-property auction.
There was general agreement that employees in the Treasurer’s and the County Attorney’s offices, who are elbows deep in preparing the annual tax sale, should be prohibited from bidding – elected officials, too – but beyond that there were divergences.
County Rep. Ed Frazier, R-Unadilla, objected to any restrictions, even on himself and the other reps, saying anyone who thinks a property is worth more could bid against him. The board vice chair, Gary Koutnik, D-Oneonta, called a ban “100-percent optics.” Iffy. .
Farwell, the freshman Democrat from Morris, had a more textured view: “We’re the government, and government has lost the people’s trust. I think if you take an extra step to ensure the public’s trust in government, there’s a payoff there worth more than the opportunity for any employee in the county to bid.”
She summed up: “If you are an employee of McDonald’s, you cannot participate in those sweepstakes.”
Readers, ask yourself and fellow employees: In 10, 20 or 30 years on the job, has buying property at public auction ever come up in office conversation? Most of you would say, not at all; not once. It’s just beyond most people’s consideration.
The problem here is county employees swim in a sea where delinquent property-tax sales are dissolved oxygen. Everybody breathes that air. It’s conversation
in coffee breaks, where the treasurer’s and county attorney’s employees are sipping and sharing in the conversation.
There’s simply too much of an opportunity for inside knowledge to be acquired; for county employees, if you will, to prey on the rest of us.
Of course, it’s hard to listen to any discussion about tax sales without putting it in the context of the August 2014 auction, where Maria Ajello lost her Town of Richfield home to a neighbor who happened to be a county employee.
Another wrinkle: under a then-new policy, Ajello and a Town of Butternuts property owner, Bob Force, were denied the right to buy back their properties on the day of the sale.
They still feel that injustice, and anyone who hears Maria’s monthly plea for mercy feels it too. Injustice left alone festers, with unintended consequences: Fearful, the county board feels it must have a deputy sheriff on duty at all its monthly meetings.
To sum up, Treasurer Ruffles has taken a business-like step in shortening foreclosure from four years to three. Any business owner knows: If you let a bill go unpaid for even a year, the chances of getting paid are miniscule. But he and the county board, hand in hand, should continue to pursue not a best practice or two, but all THE best practices:
• One, pass the buy-back legislation, so captured value can be freed and people can stay in their homes.
• Two, ban every county employee from bidding on delinquent properties. Steady work, plus good health benefits and a secure retirement are recompense enough.
• Three, begin negotiations to make Maria Ajello and Bob Force whole – the properties they lost were worth many multiples of the taxes they owed.
COOPERSTOWN – Picking up on Oneonta Common Council’s decision to sell the Westcott parking lot at 226 Main St., the county Board of Representatives today formed a task force to explore selling Old City Hall, located right next door.
Freshman Oneonta rep Danny Lapin, D-13, raised the task force idea at the meeting, and was named to chair it.
County Rep. Peter Oberacker, R-Schenevus, who chairs the Public Works Committee, told his colleagues he has had preliminary conversations with Oneonta Mayor Gary Herzig about a prospective sale. But he emphasized, “nothing has been done as of this point. We have not made any decisions, and this is simply exploratory.”
Over 400 people marched from Oneonta High School to Muller Plaza this morning as they took part in the national March For Our Lives protest for tougher gun legislation. Above, Caroline Bagby, a OHS senior and recent recipient of the Women’s Trailblazer Award, delivers an impassioned speech to those gathered in the plaza. Numerous people spoke including Mayor Gary Herzig, Assembly candidate Daniel Buttermann, Abbey Koutnik and others. At right, county Representative Danny Lapin, D-City of Oneonta, holds his sign high as the crowd marches down East Street during the first leg of the march. (Ian Austin/AllOTSEGO.com)