SO FAR, NO CASES HEARD
By JIM KEVLIN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
ONEONTA – A year and a month since it was revived and with no cases heard yet, the Otsego County Board of Ethics has suffered another setback.
Its chairman, Kim Muller, the former Oneonta mayor who recently stepped down at Otsego County Democratic chair, has advised county board Chair David Bliss, R-Cooperstown/Town of Middlefield, that she will depart when her term expired at the end of this month.
“My professional obligations are likely to become an impediment for scheduling Committee meetings moving forward,” she said in an e-mail to Bliss.
Editorial for November 30, 2018.
Ruffles Takes First Step Against Whack-A-Mole
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.
Due to the snow, perhaps, no member of the public appeared at the public hearing on Otsego County’s 2019 budget, which began at 6 p.m. this evening in Courtroom #1 in Cooperstown. Above, county board Chair David Bliss, left, gave the floor to Clerk of the Board Carol McGovern to officially convene proceedings. The budget keeps the tax increase under the state tax cap, and includes $500,000 in raises for 104 “M&C” (management and confidential employees) following a two-year, 16-county study to determine “average” wages. This county’s wages, it turned out, are 20 percent below the average. The study also recommended the county reps receive a $3,000 raise to their $10,500 salaries, the first increase since 2008. Inset at left are county Personnel Director Penny Gentile, whose office conducted the salary survey; County Attorney Ellen Coccoma, County Treasurer Allen Ruffles, and Deputy Treasurer Andrew Crisman. Seated in the jury dock, in top photo, are, from left, County Reps. Andrew Marietta, Gary Koutnik, Danny Lapin, Peter Oberacker, Michele Farwell, Keith McCarty, Andrew Stammel and Ed Frazier. Seated next to McGovern is her deputy, Jenna Utter. (Jim Kevlin/AllOTSEGO.com)
Editorial for October 12, 2018
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!
COOPERSTOWN – County Rep. Meg Kennedy is making history.
It surfaced at today’s county Board of Representative meeting that the second-term legislator has been invited and agreed to join the board of directors of NYSAC, the influential New York State Association of Counties.
What’s more, she is the first representative from Otsego County ever to be so honored.
Editorial, June 29, 2018
Put All Nursing-Home
Operators On Notice
Now we know, lives indeed may be at stake.
Two top executives of Focus Ventures have been arrested on eight counts involving two residents of the county’s former nursing home, Otsego Manor. (The county sold the Manor to Focus in January 2014, for $18.5 million, and Centers Health Care bought it from Focus in January for an undisclosed sum.)
Five of the counts are “endangering the welfare of an incompetent or physically disabled person.” The other three are “willful violation of health laws.”
Two patients were involved. The first, identified as M.B., was a celebrated case. She was left untended in a wheelchair throughout Memorial Day Weekend 2016. Several nurses and aides faced criminal charges as a result. The second, now known to be Robert Banta, longtime chair of the Otsego County Soil & Water Conservation board; the conservation center on Route 33, Town of Middlefield, is named in his honor. He fell on June 17, 2015, the night he moved into Focus, hit his head, and died a week later.
Arrested and arraigned May 31 in Otsego Town Court in Fly Creek were
Focus CEO Joseph Zupnik and Daniel Herman, a
partner in the company.
The company that operated Focus Otsego, CCRN
Operator, was also charged.
On the one hand, there’s hope in this piece of bad news, hope that nursing-home operators can’t recklessly cut staff and not be held responsible for deadly consequences.
Two weeks before, another piece of bad news, that Centers, Focus’ successor, had unilaterally raised “private pay” rates from $320 to $510 a day, the highest in New York State – Long Island and New York City included – caused a sense of despair. (Since, Centers has rolled it back to $410.)
With federal reimbursement policies forcing public nursing homes into private hands, can nothing be done to ensure the new private owners provide satisfactory care to our most vulnerable fellow citizens?
Recently, Gary Koutnik, D-Oneonta, vice chairman of the Otsego County Board of Representatives and chairman of its Human Services Committee, wrote a letter in response to an editorial urging the county board take more responsibility for the former Otsego Manor.
Having sold the Manor, he said, the county board no longer has responsibility for what happens there. This is not to beat up on Koutnik: His opinion is widely shared among county representatives.
The Zupnik-Herman arrests prompt us to repeat our point, and expand on it.
At the very least, the county board should have a representative at every meeting of the Centers (formerly Focus) Family Council. Medicaid regulations require nursing homes that accept federal reimbursement to have such councils. It is the only opportunity for the public to be briefed and ask questions of administrators.
Our state senator and assemblymen should do the same. And certainly, Congressman John Faso, R-Kinderhook, or any Democrat who might defeat him this fall should follow suit – after all, federal reimbursement policies forced the county to sell excellent Otsego Manor to profit-powered entities.
Since, who hasn’t heard stories with dismay about the degradation of service locally?
Regardless, the Zupnik-Herman indictments are excellent news, whatever the resolution of the court case.
The indictments, by the state Attorney General’s Office, send the message loud and clear: Top executives of nursing-home corporations may be exempt from the common decency in the search for profits, but they aren’t exempt from the criminal code.
What’s needed is whistle-blowers, not just private citizens, but the officials we elected to take care of us, who have greater clout in forcing action than the rest of us.
(In this case, that might indeed have already happened; if so, bravo.)
By PARKER FISH • Special To www.AllOTSEGO.com
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.”