Among the most important sections of our New York State Constitution is Article IX, one that has been on the local books since the organization of our local governments—our counties, cities, towns and villages: home rule. This, in a broad sense, describes those governmental functions and activities traditionally reserved to or performed by local governments without undue infringement by the state. More technically, home rule refers to the constitutional and statutory powers given local governments to enact local legislation in order to carry out and discharge their duties and responsibilities—budgets, property taxes, schools, highways, fire departments, libraries, and the like. Home rule is accompanied by a restriction on the authority of the state legislature to enact special laws affecting a local government’s property, affairs and government. The legislature is specifically prohibited from acting with respect to the property affairs or governance of any local government except by general law, or by special law enacted on a home rule request by the legislative body of the affected local government, or by a two-thirds vote of each house upon receiving a certificate of necessity from the Governor. Article IX, in fact, serves both as a source of authority for local governments and as a shield against intrusion by the state upon their home rule prerogatives.
To avoid another summer of HABsteria, I’d suggest the following:
Coordinated Plan—Since Otsego is the largest New York lake in the Chesapeake Bay watershed (which starts in front of our house on the Susquehanna), funding for watershed mitigation can be obtained from the Chesapeake Bay watershed authority—to supplement, not replace—a state-approved plan. Although the DEC 9-E Plan is imperfect, it’s better than a repeat of last summer’s Dueling-Banjos of HABsteria. Since the 9-E Plan is a political document, I’d suggest that the politicians (county, township, village, state reps and senators) and non-government organizations get involved and get busy. Since it’s a professional document, I’d suggest that professionals coordinate the effort and lay out what’s entailed in a public meeting.
Coordinated Effort—Funding requests should be prioritized by where they fit into the plan. Although there may be conflicting agendas academically and organizationally, those conflicts can be addressed and resolved in private, not in the press, and without histrionics adding to HABsteria.
No sacred polluters—The 9-E Plan study can identify the sources of nutrient loading. Once identified, we need to be prepared to do something about them. Even if they are us—our “compliant” septic system, our essential livestock, our own NPK fertilizer—be prepared to be surprised by what we find out.
Co-chairs of the Cherry Valley Democratic Committee, Dennis Laughlin and Kathleen Taylor, have announced that, at its February 14 meeting, the committee unanimously endorsed MacGuire Benton as the Democratic candidate for the position of Otsego County clerk in the November 2023 election.
MacGuire enters the race having the experience of the Cooperstown Village Board, Deputy Elections Commissioner and work in the private business sector. He brings the energy and vigor of a new generation. Petitioning for the clerk position begins at the end of February and the CVDC will be aiding MacGuire to gather the needed signatures.
Phil Durkin Secretary, Cherry Valley Democratic Committee
Schenevus/Maryland/Westford friends: As a community, we have gone back and forth about whether or how students would benefit from an annexation merger with Worcester. We have sincere disagreements, despite all wanting what we believe to be best for our community’s children. Many want an answer to whether the district can or can’t be “saved.” This is an honest question, but not the one I believe we should be asking. Sure, with enough money, the district may remain independent. We can agree to disagree about the quality of the educational program. Many are quite satisfied with the status quo, but how much will it cost to retain that? How much can our community afford and can we know what the impact of voting a particular way would be?
By CASPAR EWIG FLY CREEK The newly-constituted Board of Fire Commissioners of the Fly Creek Fire District held its annual organizational meeting and first monthly meeting on Thursday, January 12. The agenda moved forward in an organized manner and was free from the discord that had marked the recent election.
“We’re going to start with a clean slate,” said Sam Hoskins, who was elected chairman of the board on December 13. At the outset, Hoskins emphasized that he is committed to instilling transparency into the actions of the Board of Fire Commissioners. He bemoaned the fact there were gaps in the board’s records, and that areas of the website were outdated.
By TED MEBUST ONEONTA SUNY Oneonta political science major and Maryland, New York native Andrew Hamill announced his candidacy for Oneonta Common Council in December, running as a member of his own party, “Unity for Oneonta.” Hamill hopes to bring accountability and pragmatism to the council, vowing to lead with a spirit of compromise.
“We need Common Council members who are willing, and dedicated to reason and building a consensus with their constituents,” said Hamill. “As a candidate for the Council, I intend to work with my constituents by listening to their concerns about whatever they have to say and try to work on a consensus that can bring the people together.”
Hamill, who previously ran for town council in his hometown, detailed a vast array of issues on which he plans to campaign.
A petition calling for a revote on the Schenevus/Worcester school district merger was submitted on December 2 by Schenevus resident Nicole Miskell. The hard-copy petition was given by Miskell to Dr. Catherine Huber, district superintendent at the Otsego Northern Catskills BOCES office in Milford.
By DARLA M. YOUNGS SCHENEVUS – Schenevus Central School District Superintendent Theresa Carlin resigned during a special Board of Education meeting on Tuesday, December 27, effective December 31. Carlin stepped down just over a year after Schenevus taxpayers voted against a proposed merger with Worcester Central School. The merger had been approved in a straw vote held by both districts in September 2021, but Schenevus residents ultimately opposed the merger on December 1, 2021 amid much contention.
“I was not fired, I wasn’t going to be fired. This was my decision,” Carlin said during a telephone interview last Friday. Nor did the failed merger have any bearing on Carlin’s resignation.
“I would have resigned anyway,” Carlin explained. “Part of my decision to leave is because I want to be in a different place, doing different things.”
Regarding your recent coverage of the Fly Creek Fire District election, the current board endeavored to bring the district into compliance with the state’s regulations. However, there are those apparently who feel that rules do not apply to them, and that they are entitled to do things as they wish, regardless of state guidelines, protocols of the office of the state comptroller, and legal counsel. I take exception to the quote, “that this existing board had created an unnecessarily rigid and formalistic structure, requiring needless expenditure of thousands of dollars.” Is this due to the request for a forensic audit as suggested by several accounting firms as a first step, as no audit has been done in 16 years, and because the comptroller’s audit cited “more treasurer” oversight?
All politics is local, Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill famously said in the 1980s.
So it’s a mystery that we call it an “off-year” election when local races fill our ballot, and an even greater mystery that biennial apathy replaces voter interest. We are voting to fill the offices that affect the fundamentals of our county, towns, and villages, choosing the people to whom we’ll entrust our local tax dollars as they weigh the merits of differing projects and priorities.
Granted, these local issues might not be as headline-grabbing as global warming or foreign policy. But they’re often the things we complain about when we’re talking with our friends and neighbors about the state of affairs on our streets. These races are all about local direction, development, public safety, road repair. We’re voting for people who build local relationships with state and federal officials who, in turn, exert certain measures of control over available resources.
• The village has received $89,000 from the federal government as part of the corona-virus relief package. Tillapaugh said it is much less than she anticipated or the village lost in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic and shutdown. The assignments were based on population, a formula that did not favor Cooperstown, she said. The village will receive a similar amount in 2022 as part of the package.
• The trustees unanimously approved a special-use permit for a multi-unit dwelling at 20 Glen Ave. No one spoke about the matter in the public hearing.
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.
Uncreative? With Full Plate,
That Might Be Just The Thing
‘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!