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Two Cayuga County Democrats to run for Legislature chair

Two Democrats are running for the Cayuga County Legislature's chair position, with one reaching out to the Republican minority for support.

Legislators Benjamin Vitale and Patrick Mahunik, who represent Districts 3 and 12 respectively, are seeking the chairman seat with current Chairman Keith Batman announcing that he will not consider a third year.

Vitale has received the majority of Democrats' support, gathering five of eight votes so far. Mahunik said he has two other Democrats' support, as well as the support of Republican legislators.

Minority Leader Paul Pinckney confirmed to The Citizen Friday that most if not all Republicans plan to back Mahunik, though he said that's always subject to change when the final vote comes through.

"We had a couple of people that said they'd be interested (in chair) if we had enough votes," Pinckney said. "All of our votes, we would still need some Democratic support. I don't think anybody is going to cross over to support a Republican when we're in the minority, so we looked at all angles, and at this point in time, we would move ahead with Pat and work in bipartisanship and get some things accomplished."

The 15-member Legislature will be comprised of seven Republicans and eight Democrats in 2018.

Batman said he's backing Vitale. Following the previous county Administrator Suzanne Sinclair's resignation in early 2017, Batman, Vitale, Majority Leader Aileen McNabb-Coleman and Cayuga County Treasurer Jim Orman became the interim administrators as a management team. 

Batman said that experience Vitale has will be invaluable for new county administrator J. Justin Woods, who starts full-time with the county on Dec. 18. 

Mahunik said he's running because he's not agreed with some of the ethics behind how the body has operated in his approximate decade of service. For example, he said, every year whoever is running for chair offers committee chair positions in return for support. That's something he said he will not do.

"I just think it's unethical, and I put my name out there," he said. "If I get beat on the floor, that's fine with me, but at least it's not by five people in a room," he added of the Democratic caucus.

According to local law, the chair position is a full-time job and earns a $30,000 salary. Batman said he's concerned that Mahunik will not have the time to devote to the post, considering Mahunik is the principal of Dryden High School. 

Mahunik said he would not run if he didn't think he could do the job. 

"I have a great crew around me, and if I need to step away, I can," he said. "I think we have a great administrator that doesn't need to be micromanaged at this point."

Mahunik pointed out that Vitale, too, has a full-time job. Vitale is the executive director of the Central New York Regional Market Authority. Vitale said his day job has very flexible hours, adding that he'd just worked at 3 a.m. on Friday. He added that his staff always helps him out, and he's considering retiring or semi-retiring. 

"I've been part of the operations for almost a year or so, and it might be handy for the new administrator to be able to take a few steps and ask a couple of questions," he said. "I'm not looking to get my fingers in the day-to-day operations. I know the difference between policy and day-to-day stuff, but I do think it requires the time, and I understand how much that is, and I have that ability. I'm going to at least give the legislators that option."

In an interview with The Citizen on Wednesday, Batman cautioned that whoever takes on the role will have a lot to tackle. He highlighted the body's consideration of redistricting, increasing legislators' salaries, upgrades to Emerson Park, and resuming communication with the Cayuga Nation, among many other things. 

"It's very important that the chair have a physical presence in the county office building," he said. "'Out of sight, out of mind' is cliche, but unfortunately it's very true. ... I guess if I had one piece of advice, don't come in every day. That communicates that you're too involved, too operational. Two or three days a week, absolutely, so people see you and talk to you, and particularly, the administrator can pop in."

The Legislature's reorganization meeting will take place 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 4. A chair is picked by a weighted majority vote, and if one is not chosen by Feb. 1, Cayuga County Clerk Sue Dwyer, a Republican, will be tasked with appointing one for the remainder of the year. 

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Six years later, Cayuga County awards Owasco Flats project bid

After what has seemed like never-ending delays to a project that would help reduce sediment loading into Owasco Lake, Cayuga County has some good news.

The Cayuga County Legislature awarded a bid Thursday night to begin work on part of the Owasco Flats Wetland Restoration and Riparian Buffers Initiative. Divvied into two phases because there was not enough funding for the project's entirety, the state announced it will fund the second phase, too, through the annual regional economic development awards.

"It's been an incredibly positive week," said Bruce Natale, environmental engineer for Cayuga County and one of the spearheads of the initiative. 

The flats is a wetland at the southern end of Owasco Lake and location of the inlet. The project will create three grassy ponds that act as sediment collecting basins to filter out about 5 percent of the water flowing into the lake. There will also be three structures controlling the flow of water.

The hope is the basins will keep nutrient-rich sediment from entering the lake, which could help reduce the proliferation of harmful algal blooms and vegetation.

In 2011, the state Environmental Facilities Corp. awarded the county $712,500 to complete the work, but regulations and permitting continued to push it back. That funding, too, decreased over the years and the county found it did not have enough to complete the full project. In August, the county finally had all the required permits in hand, but it hit another bump in the road in September.

After it went out to bid, it only received one back that was well over the cost anticipated. After going out to bid a second time, Natale said again only one answer came back, but it was $800,000 less than the first.

According to the resolution passed Thursday night, WoodStone Earth Construction out of Palmyra was awarded the contract, and the cost is not to exceed $376,699.

"This has been a long time coming," said Legislature Chairman Keith Batman at the meeting.

Natale said now that the state has awarded $600,000 for phase two, he expects aspects of both could be blended once construction begins. Depending on weather, Natale said he hopes the construction firm can build an access road to the site this winter. 

"I've been telling people we'll have one or two of the basins fully operation this time next year," Natale said. "Then we can start monitoring them and quantifying the benefits."

Gallery: Owasco Flats pre-construction

GwenCraig2 / The Citizen file 

A view of where one of the sediment control basins will be for the Owasco Flats restoration project.

Cuomo wants downtowns contest

Gov. Andrew Cuomo aims to continue a competition that has awarded $200 million to 20 communities for downtown improvement projects.

In his 2018 State of the State agenda, Cuomo is asking for another $100 million to support the Downtown Revitalization Initiative. The governor, with the state Legislature's backing, established the program in 2015 to boost downtown areas.

The competition awards $10 million to one winner in each of the state's 10 economic development regions. Cortland and Oswego are past winners of the contest in central New York.

"This new round of funding will provide these New York downtowns the opportunity to establish walkable, bikeable streets, meet the needs of the 21st century workforce and support the growth that will be felt across the entire region," Cuomo said in a statement.

The winners of the competition are selected by the regional councils. The panels weigh several criteria, including whether the communities are capable of supporting a year-round downtown and demonstrated job growth in or near the downtown area.

If a community wins the Downtown Revitalization Initiative, local officials will be required to develop a strategic plan outlining how to invest the state funding. The will work with consultants and state officials to draft the plan.

There were 107 applicants for the second round of the initiative. Cortland beat out four other central New York municipalities, including Auburn, for the region's $10 million prize.

Auburn has competed in the first two rounds of the contest, but hasn't won.

Other winners in the second round include the city of Batavia in the Finger Lakes region, the city of Rome in the Mohawk Valley, Watertown in the North Country and Watkins Glen in the Southern Tier.

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, who chairs the regional economic development councils, said the program "has given new life" to downtowns across the state.

"From Elmira to Plattsburgh, and from Jamaica, Queens to Watertown, I have walked the streets of many of these cities and talked with local officials," she said. "By empowering our local communities to capitalize on their downtown spaces, we are giving our cities the seeds they need to flourish."

Cuomo will deliver the 2018 State of State address Jan. 3 in Albany. He has been unveiling some of his proposals in advance of the annual presentation.

Earlier this week, he proposed a state law prohibiting individuals convicted of domestic violence offenses from possessing guns. He also pledged to file a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to ensure Hudson River dredging is completed.