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Cayuga County 2018 budget proposal includes tax increase, more funding for roads, staffing

AUBURN — Cayuga County residents might see an increase in their property taxes next year, but the total will be under the state tax cap.

Cayuga County Legislature Chairman Keith Batman presented a draft of the 2018 budget to legislators at a special Ways and Means Committee meeting Monday night, proposing a 2 percent increase in the tax levy. It was not yet clear what the state tax cap would be, but Batman and county budget director Lynn Marinelli said the tax levy increase was below that.

The total budget for next year is expected to be about $146 million, up 2 percent from 2017. About $545,752 will be used from the county's fund balance toward the budget. 

No programs or services have been cut so far, but four county highway positions are proposed for the chopping block. Those positions, however, have been vacant for the past two or more years, Batman said, and contingency plans are in place in case they are needed again. 

Overall, the budget includes new positions, programs and reserves, mostly to address the county's deteriorating roads and buildings, and to address a shortage in staff among some departments.

Batman proposed restoring funds to the highway department and adding $200,000 to the budget's bottom line. He also suggested creating a highway reserve of $1.5 million. As a reserve, anything proposed with that funding would require a super majority vote by the full Legislature. Pointing to the massive amount of damage the towns of Niles, Moravia, Sempronius and New Hope suffered following July storms, Batman said there's a lot of work to be done. 

"Our roads need attention, and we need to focus there," he said.

The probation department has not been in staffing compliance with the state Division of Criminal Justice Services, so the county plans to add a new officer. The office of aging may also get a part-time position to help recruit and retain volunteers for the Meals on Wheels program, which has seen a shortage. Also, the information technologies department is significantly understaffed based on staffing ratios of surrounding counties. To help remedy that, Batman proposed either one new position or hiring via contract. 

The future of the Cayuga County Office Building, too, was part of the budget discussion. Batman proposed a building reserve of $2.5 million. While he said that would in no way touch the amount required for a new building or renovations, it would provide something similar to a home buyer's down payment. 

To address a few other initiatives, Batman proposed some smaller amounts of money for Cayuga Lake, the newly recombined county fair and an arts and culture grant program. Concerned with the apparent lack of water quality testing on Cayuga Lake versus Owasco, Batman said he'd like to devote $18,000 for lab testing. He'd also like to invest $5,000 in an arts and culture seed fund, giving out grants to help new or already established programs in the community.

Addressing the Cayuga County Agricultural Society and the Remember the Big 6 Picnic and 4-H Youth Country Fair's request for restoring funds to the organizations, Batman suggested giving the county park's department $15,000 to go toward the fair, which is set to merge in 2018. He did not want to designate dollars to either organization separately. 

Without a county administrator, Batman marked that this year's budget process worked differently. He took the lead with Marinelli and the county management team, which also includes Ways and Means Chair Aileen McNabb-Coleman and Deputy Chairman Ben Vitale. In past years, he said, the process working with department heads had been more of a negotiation. He felt that this year it was more of a discussion.

The first stab at the budget, Batman said, had the draw on the fund balance much higher at about $1.6 million. However, department heads made a "remarkable contribution," finding revenues or making cuts on their own.

"I was incredibly pleased and impressed with the way departments put together their budgets," Batman said.

While the fund balance fluctuates often, it's expected to be about $21.9 million at the end of 2017. Batman cautioned while that looks like a good number, he believes it's the minimum the county should have. Considering the county needs between $11 and 12 million for cash flow, $2 million for unexpected disasters, about $3 million as a cushion based on the unpredictability of sales tax revenue and state mandates, $2.5 million for the building reserve and $1.5 million for the highway reserve, the fund balance will just be covering those things. 

The committee will meet again on Nov. 7 to make adjustments to the budget.

Auburn, Jordan-Elbridge marching bands show improvement at state championship

SYRACUSE — "1 ... 2 ... 3 ... Family!" was the chant members of the Auburn Vanguard marching band recited before they took to the Carrier Dome field Sunday morning for the New York State Field Band Championship.

The Vanguard, in their 39th year performing at the championship event, placed sixth out of seven teams in the Large School 3 division with a score of 73.35. Fellow Finger Lakes-region school, the Jordan-Elbridge Marching Eagles, also took part in the competition. The Eagles' murder mystery-themed performance scored 77.5 points, good enough for fourth place out of 11 bands in the Small School 3 division.

Auburn band director Mike Miller said Sunday following the Vanguard's "Arabian Nights" performance that he has been involved with high school marching bands for over 20 years and this year's group of young Auburn musicians is different than any other he has worked with before.

"They really developed a family atmosphere," Miller said, gesturing to the group of students sitting a few rows ahead of him in the Dome's bleachers. "They said it themselves, that it really has become a family. It means a lot to them."

The band's three student conductors, drum majors Abby Babbitt, Rachel Howard and Olivia Avery, agreed.

"The Vanguard is the definition of family," said Babbitt.

The Marching Eagles' director Zachary Moser echoed the Vanguard members' sentiments. 

"I tell them to perform for each other," Moser said following his band's performance. "Don't worry about what the judges have to say, you go out there and give your best for each other. We're one big family when we're performing."

Both Miller and Moser said Sunday's performances at the Carrier Dome were the best they had seen from their respective bands this season. 

Miller said the Vanguard's score of 73.35 was about 12 points higher than their first competition of the season.

"Our biggest thing is continuous improvement and they've done that," Miller said.

"I think they gave the best performance of the season," Moser said of his band. "They were really clean out there, really projecting a lot of confidence and showing off what they worked on. They made a ton of progress as the season went on and we're all just really proud of how far they've come."

The band directors also credit the stellar performances to not only the hard work their student musicians put in through the months, but also because both bands played at large stadium venues earlier in the season. 

The Jordan-Elbridge band performed earlier this season at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. 

"They has a lot of nerves going into (playing at MetLife stadium) but today they seemed a lot more calm and ready to have fun and have a good performance," Moser said. 

As for the Vanguard, this is their second time playing at the Carrier Dome this year. The band performed during halftime at the Auburn-Ithaca football game in September. 

"You always hope this is going to be the best performance of the year but that doesn't always happen — you get in the Dome and it's a big, intimidating room and things go goofy, you hear that echo in the background," Miller said. "Our instructors were all in agreement, there really was nothing more we could have asked them to do today. They had a great final rehearsal yesterday, did some fine tuning then and they responded well to everything we asked them to do and it showed today."

Gallery: Auburn, Jordan-Elbridge marching bands perform at New York State Field Band Championship

Jury finds Cato man guilty of sexually assaulting three children

AUBURN — After three hours of deliberating Monday afternoon, a Cayuga County jury found a 30-year-old Cato man guilty of sexually assaulting three children.

William Lewis, of 2560 E. Mechanic St., was charged with three felonies — first-degree sexual abuse and two counts of predatory sexual assault against a child — and three counts of endangering the welfare of a child, a misdemeanor

The jury returned guilty verdicts on all of the charges. Lewis could face 20 years to life in prison. 

On Monday morning, after two days of testimony, the defense and prosecution gave closing arguments in Lewis' trial. Lewis — a former mechanic's helper and substitute cleaner for the Cato-Meridian Central School District — appeared in plain clothes before the jury; he has been held without bail at the Cayuga County Jail since his arrest in March. 

Cayuga County Assistant District Attorney Heather DeStefano said that from November 2014 to March 2017, Lewis sexually assaulted three preteen girls in the towns of Cato, Victory and Sterling. DeStefano said the girls were between the ages of 6 and 10 when the abuse began; they were not connected to his employment with the school district. 

In his closing argument, defense attorney Donald Kelly — who was retained in this case — questioned the girls' credibility, claiming one of the girls provided testimony that was "substantially different" from the others. He focused on one incident in which Lewis allegedly assaulted all three girls at once; one of the girls stated it was light out and they were lying face up while the other two girls stated it was dark out and they were lying face down. Kelly also said one of the girls testified that Lewis narrated what he was doing while the others did not recall. 

"This is not a matter of failed memory or a passage of time," Kelly said. "These questions and answers are very vanilla." 

In addition, Kelly addressed a videotaped confession in which Lewis admitted to the assault, claiming Lewis was "bullied" by Cayuga County Sheriff's Sgt. Frederick Cornelius. The defense said Lewis lacked experience and education compared with Cornelius and ultimately confessed to the crimes out of confusion and compassion. 

"(Lewis) eventually said, 'Why not (confess)? If it saves my kids, I'll do what I have to,'" Kelly said.

Lastly, Kelly questioned the lack of forensic evidence in the case, alleging that the sheriff's office did not search for any physical evidence because they suspected that none existed. 

"The deeper you dig, you start pulling more threads ... and it all falls apart," he said. 

In response, DeStefano said it was "perfectly normal to have different perspectives on the same incident," comparing it to a book report in school; everyone reads the same book, but takes something different from it. It was expected that the girls would have slightly different recollections of what happened, she said. 

The ADA also refuted Kelly's claim that Lewis was pressured to confess, stating that the defendant admitted to sexually abusing each girl at least twice. She said the videotaped confession showed Lewis saying he should be "shot in the head" for what he did; Lewis was also recorded saying he tried to black out what he did to the girls by punching himself in the head and hitting a wall. 

"There is no motive for these girls to lie," DeStefano said.

After the verdict, Kelly said the jury's decision was "unfortunate." He added that there was some evidence that Judge Thomas Leone ruled inadmissible at trial, evidence which dealt with the girls being exposed to a level 2 sex offender on at least one occasion. 

"There was ample evidence to show that the accounts of the abuse were remarkably different and I am a little bit stunned that the jury was able to reconcile it," he said. "I think it's unfortunate that (some evidence) wasn't permitted in this case and that the district attorney was allowed to argue and put jurors in the shoes of the victims. I think there is a lot of injustice here." 

“I commend these children for their bravery in confronting their abuser," Cayuga County District Attorney Jon Budelmann said in a press release. "These young children testified so well and the jury obviously found them to be absolutely credible. I commend ADA Heather DeStefano for her hard work in securing this defendant’s conviction at trial. We are obviously pleased by the jury’s verdict, which was completely in line with the facts and evidence they heard. This defendant demonstrated no concern for these children and displayed absolutely no empathy during the trial, even remarking on the jail phone during the trial that he was bored. His conviction should send a loud and clear message that those who sexually abuse children will be held accountable for their actions.”

Budelman added that his office will ask for the maximum sentence of 57 years to life in prison.

William H. Lewis