PHOTO OF THE WEEK
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.
This week’s Tom Morgan column on the facing page, and former DEC Commissioner Mike Zagata’s column last week capture the Upstate dilemma: Upstate is rebounding more slowly than any other area of the country.
First, let’s look at local bright spots.
• Custom Electronics in Oneonta is planning a futuristic 250-job production line making self-recharging batteries.
Andela Products, the Richfield Springs glass recycler, is likewise looking to expand. And Corning’s Oneonta plant is investing $11 million to ensure 150 jobs for the next 15 years.
• As or more important, as Spectrum dithers, Hartwick-based Otsego Electric Cooperative keeps expanding its broad-band ambitions, as the county Board of Representatives was told last month. The PT boat may outmaneuver the aircraft carrier.
• Even today, as the Otsego Chamber of Commerce and Senator Seward’s Workforce Summit was told last week, the challenge isn’t so much new jobs as finding people to fill existing jobs. RNs, code writers and CDL drivers can start tomorrow.
• What’s more, Hartwick College and SUNY Oneonta, Bassett and Fox Hospital, plus thriving Springbrook provide a solid economic base.
• To top it off, county Treasurer Allen Ruffles reports the county’s tax rate, thanks to vibrant tourism, is the lowest among the state’s 67 counties. It’s been low – but THE lowest!
All this is good. What’s lacking is a future: new and better kinds of jobs and salaries to keep our young people here and bring in new ones, and
a vision to get us there.
At that Workforce Summit – 80 people packed The Otesaga’s Fenimore Room Wednesday, Oct. 31 – the indefatigable Alan Cleinman, the Oneonta-based consultant to the national optometry sector, provided that vision:
“The future is knowledge-based industry” Cleinman declared. “The future is not industry.”
Knowledge workers: “software engineers, physicians, pharmacists, architects, engineers, scientists, design thinkers, public accountants, lawyers, and academics, and any other white-collar workers whose line of work requires the one to ‘think for a living,’” is how Wikepedia defines it.
In constant national travels, Cleinman has visited such boomtowns as Boise, Idaho, and Bozeman, Mont. – places truly in the middle of nowhere that embraced “knowledge-based industry” and are thriving.
He estimated Hartwick and SUNY Oneonta have 75,000 living graduates and create 1,500 new ones a year, many of whom would no doubt love to relive positive college experiences here and, while at it, make a living.
Cleinman’s idea is to collaborate with the colleges on a marketing campaign to bring some of these people back – a one-percent return is 750 professionals. And to raise
a $1 million venture-capital fund to help them do so.
Senator Seward immediately pledged to form a task force to pursue the “Come Home to Otsego County” campaign, plus a “Stay Home” campaign. Contacted later, Hartwick President Margaret Drugovich also expressed support.
In recent weeks, we’ve seen the deepening of a county rift that could stop any forward movement short: economic developers versus no-gas, no-way, no-how adherents.
Otsego 2000, the formidable and well-funded Cooperstown-based environmental group, has laid the groundwork to sue Otsego Now’s economic developers and the City of Oneonta if plans for a gas-compression station goes forward.
A “knowledge economy” requires some energy – a million-square-foot office building would require 5,800 gallons of propane a day to heat, Otsego Now’s Jody Zakrevsky estimated – but considerably less than manufacturing.
No-gas, no-how may not be feasible. But a “knowledge economy” may allow a balanced energy strategy that is palatable all around.
Otsego 2000 President Nicole Dillingham herself expressed considerable interest in Cleinman’s idea.
If it and other environmental groups could move from always “no” to occasionally “yes,” that would be good all around.
In short, Cleinman’s right on.
Bozeman, Boise and other knowledge economies got where they are by embracing four qualities: ingenuity, educational resources, money and
quality of life, he said.
“We have them all in Otsego County,” the proud native son from Gilbertsville declared. “What better place to live than in this amazing county?”
What better place indeed? Fingers crossed. Let’s see where it goes.
‘I’m not creative,” Otsego Now CEO Jody Zakrevsky told the Otsego County Board of Representatives at its October meeting on the 3rd, as he began to deliver an “economic update” on the economic-development organization’s 2018 accomplishments.
While lacking creativity, Zakrevsky continued, he said he has the capacity to embrace someone else’s ideas and carry them to fruition.
Credit Zakrevsky with self-awareness and frankness, both virtues. Thinking about it further: The ability to carry great ideas forward may be just what’s needed right now in the local economic-development realm.
Zakrevsky’s predecessor, Sandy Mathes, was eminently creative; many of his initiatives are moving. Slow and steady implementation now might indeed win this race.
Among other things, Zakrevsky shared this very good news with the county board: Otsego Now has issued $11 million in bonds to Corning to expand its Life Sciences Plant in Oneonta; in return, the nation’s foremost glassmaker has committed to keeping 175 quality jobs in the city for at least 15 years.
Several other initiatives Zakrevsky shared with the county reps are important to pursue, such as a $750,000 grant sought toward Custom Electronics’ $2.2 million production line of futuristic self-recharging batteries. That’s 50 prospective jobs.
The batteries are used at disaster scenes, but also at movie shoots, to allow crew
to easily move sets when on location.
Of course, better batteries – in effect,
power storage – are essential as we shift
Another big challenge, of course, is moving forward redevelopment of Oneonta’s former D&H railyards; six site plans have been developed over the past few months. Also new, Otsego Now has gotten the state to designate a big chunk of the railyards as a new type of “opportunity zone,” providing tax breaks to prospective employers.
Also, Zakrevsky said, he is working with an unnamed “existing manufacturing company” on a 40,000-square-foot plant in the Oneonta Business Park (formerly Pony Farm) that promises to create 300 new jobs, with construction due to begin next year. He pointed out that 10 buildings in the park (only one owned by Otsego Now) are occupied, and only three available lots remain.
The Route 205 corridor through the Town of Oneonta is underway, necessary before the state DOT can upgrade that sometimes-congested stretch. And an airport study – Zakrevsky said consultants have promised its completion by Dec. 23 – may pave the way for county participation, as is proper, in what’s been a City of Oneonta facility.
There’s a lot more, including comprehensive master plan updates in Cooperstown, Richfield Springs and lately Schenevus.
Zakrevsky also heralded the creation, finally, of a one-stop shop for economic development in Otsego Now headquarters on the fifth floor of 189 Main, Oneonta.
Michelle Catan of the state Small Business Development Center has been joined in recent months by the Otsego County chamber; Southern Tier 8, the regional planning agency, and CADE, the Center for Agriculture, Development & Entrepreneurism.
If you remember, the keynoter at the second “Seward Summit” in November 2013, Dick Sheehy, manager/site selection, for CMH2Mhill, an international industrial recruiter, said a one-stop shop is an essential prerequisite to economic development.
Of course, putting loosely related entities on the same floor doesn’t, in itself, mean a one-stop shop exists. But at least proximity makes a tight, broad, comprehensive economic-development recruitment effort possible. Be still, beating hearts.
As we’re now all aware, if we’ve been paying attention, our county, from Greater Oneonta to Cooperstown, lacks sufficient natural gas and electricity even to meet current needs, much less recruit new employers, and Zakrevsky has become the lightning rod for that undertaking.
Otsego Now is seeking $3.5 million toward a natural gas decompression plant in Pony Farm, and its president has taken the brunt of criticism – and legal threats – from anti-gas adherents. He has to be unapologetically tough to keep that moving forward, and his board members need to get behind him publicly in a united front.
Regrettably, Sandy Mathes left too soon. But we have to move forward regardless.
From the railyards to Oneonta’s $14 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative (the state’s DRI) to the potential 300-job distribution center at Schenevus, another Mathes initiative, Mathes left Zakrevsky plenty to do.
To the degree that slow and steady wins the race, Zakrevsky, who is reaching retirement age within a few months, can do a lot. His report to the county Board of Representatives was, simply, promising. Amid fears economic-development had been set back a generation, there’s reason to believe our economic-development challenges can, to some degree, be met.
Let’s go for it!
When one least expects it, a breakthrough.
The Town of Oneonta’s Board of Fire Commissioners has voted, 3-2, to set a hearing to consider dissolving. The vote could come at the end of the hearing, scheduled at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 18, at Elm Park
Good idea. About time.
If the fire district is dissolved, a “fire zone” continues to exist within the town, so coverage will continue. The Town of Oneonta would assume responsibility for negotiating with the city. That’s good too.
There’s probably no one better than Town Supervisor
Bob Wood, previously a longtime fire commissioner himself, to bring talks with the city to a sensible conclusion.
For more than two years, negotiations have gone nowhere on extending the contract with City Hall for professional fire protection for the town’s Southside, and neighborhoods beyond the city’s East and West ends.
Only state Supreme Court Judge Michael V. Coccoma
imposing a two-year settlement in January 2016 assured businesspeople and homeowners coverage as negotiations continued.
The two commissioners objecting to dissolution are the newcomers, Al Rubin and Michelle Catan, who since their election last December have been foiled in efforts to get the talks moving again.
The three in the majority bloc, chair Johna Peachin, veteran commissioner Fred Volpe and Ron Peters, who is associated with Peachin’s accounting firm, have not responded to city Mayor Gary Herzig’s requests for negotiations, the mayor says.
As noted here before, Coccoma imposed a regimen that allocates one-third of the costs of the city’s Oneonta Fire Department (OFD) to property owners in the town fire district; the remaining two-thirds would be covered by city taxpayers.
An independent consultant agreed to by both sides came up with roughly the same formula.
Still, no movement.
The majority bloc has been tangled up in the issue of revenues created by the OFD’s ambulance squad, which generates about $1 million of the fire department’s $4 million budget.
In effect, those revenues – insurance payments generated whenever a city ambulance carries a patient from either the city or town to Fox or Bassett – pay down the total, meaning there’s less for city taxpayers and fire-district property owners to split.
The bloc believes the way it’s being done is illegal, but so far hasn’t found anyone with authority to agree.
Again, if an “i” or two needs to be crossed to bring everything up to Hoyle, Bob Wood has the understanding to figure it out amicably with Herzig.
There are implications for the future.
For one, a town can’t operate its own fire department under New York State law, an option the fire commissioners have been threatening to pursue in negotiations with City Hall.
However, if it came to that, the town could create a town-wide fire district that could do so, a lengthy process – but slower is probably better. Plus, that may never happen and shouldn’t – the town and city’s fates are linked.
Arguably, given the $1 million contribution from townsfolks, it makes sense for a liaison to be brought into discussions with Common Council on policies regarding the OFD. Perhaps Al Rubin, who has tried to be an honest broker since joining the fire board, would be a good prospect for this role.
Regardless, it’s time to move forward. If the majority-bloc fire commissioners have concluded they can do no more, it makes sense to leave the scene.
The Oneonta Town Board is more sensitive to what the public wants – only a handful or two of voters turn up at Fire District elections – and the public has said it wants the standoff resolved.
With Wood at the helm, along with town board members of good will, an end to a worrisome situation may finally be within reach.
It’s amazing that the natural gas opponents all talk about wanting to protect the environment by moving from natural gas to “renewables.” Is it that they are misinformed or have an agenda?
It’s difficult to tell, but here’s what the science tells us. Natural gas, or methane, is naturally occurring. It is emitted from volcanoes, manure piles and humans. It is the cleanest burning fuel yielding carbon dioxide and water.
If we remember our high school biology, it is carbon dioxide and water that green plants use in the process of photosynthesis to produce oxygen and sugar – two very important products for humankind and all animals that breathe oxygen and consume green plants containing sugar for food.
To date, we don’t know if those green plants, found on land and in fresh and marine waters, aren’t able to process the carbon dioxide that is being produced. If there was more of it, could green plants produce more oxygen and sugar, or if there was more than they could process would it affect the climate?
Answering those questions will take some good minds and pretty heavy-duty computers.
Because the proposed Constitution Pipeline has not been built and there is an increasing demand for clean-burning natural gas, companies are looking for ways to serve customers.
One of those ways involves compressing the natural gas to reduce its volume and then transporting it in specially developed canisters. That approach is being used in our area and some people are concerned about it.
Here’s what we know. There have been accidents with trucks carrying this gas and there haven’t been any releases – the safety mechanisms built into the trucks and containers have worked as expected. That is a good thing.
Is the same true for the fuel oil, propane and gasoline trucks that have traveled our highways for decades? There have been accidents and spills, but not the outcry facing the current use of trucks to transport natural gas. Why is that?
Institutions and businesses in Oneonta are facing curtailment during periods of unusual cold and heat.
What that means is that there isn’t enough gas being delivered by NYSEG to meet current needs – no less to support any new demand that might arise if a business that could provide jobs wanted to locate here. As it stands right now, they won’t locate here because there isn’t enough natural gas or three-phase power.
Some say Otsego Now should be condemned for trying to remedy that situation. Instead, they would like to form a committee to study it and dilute the momentum – the oldest trick in the book. If you want to delay something, form a committee of folks with widely different opinions and interests.
The anti-fossil fuel crowd will tell us renewables are the environmental panacea – they are without issues. Really, now?
It takes about 20 acres of solar panels to produce enough electricity for about 1,000 households – and we still need fossil fuels to produce the electricity needed to heat or cool our homes at night and to recharge our electric vehicles as off-peak power is cheaper.
New York’s population is about 20 million. If we multiply 20 acres by 20 million and then divide by 1,000 we get 400,000 – the number of acres that would be covered by the solar panels needed to produce enough daytime only electricity for New Yorkers.
That’s 400,000 acres that used to be forests, farmland and wildlife habitat. And what about having to dispose of the hazardous wastes in the solar panels that once produced electricity?
We could use hydro-power, but that means building dams that impede the progress of fish trying to move upstream to spawn.
We could use wind power, but that means using windmills that kill migrating birds.
We could use woody biomass, but that, along with the other “renewable” energy projects that have been brought forward for this area, was shot down by those who oppose anything that might lead to prosperity for our area.
All of a sudden, it isn’t so simple – in fact it’s downright complicated and might take some time to get it right. In the meantime, we have an abundant supply of gas – natural gas or methane – to serve as a bridge to get us where we all want to be – warm or cool depending on the time of year and pollution free.
Mike Zagata, a DEC commissioner in the Pataki Administration and environmental executive for Fortune 500 companies, lives in West Davenport.
To Learn How You Can Help Area Families This Holiday Season CLICK HERE.
CONCERT – 9 p.m. Rudy Currance. Hunt Union Waterfront, 108 Ravine Pkwy., Oneonta. Info, email@example.com, (607)436-3730, or CLICK HERE.
3D DESIGN – 6 p.m. Create your own holiday themed cookie cutter. Optional 3D printing. Huntington Memorial Library, 62 Chestnut St, Oneonta. Info, hmloneonta.org/3d-printing
PUBLIC HEARING – 7 p.m. Public hearing on Cooperstown Comprehensive Plan. Village Hall, 22 Main St., Cooperstown. Copies of the plan can be reviewed at the Village office, cooperstownny.org/residents/