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Cayuga County lakes among those in Cuomo's proposed $65M to combat harmful algae

SYRACUSE — Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a $65 million proposal on Thursday for combating harmful algal blooms in 12 lakes, including Owasco, Cayuga and Skaneateles. 

Cuomo unveiled the proposal at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry as part of his 2018 State of the State rollout this month ahead of his speech in January. He said there is bipartisan support for the initiative, and he's hopeful that it will be included in the statewide budget.

The state identified 12 "priority lakes that are vulnerable to HABs and are critical sources of drinking water," according to a press release issued Thursday. Owasco Lake was the first water body in the state to have harmful algal bloom toxins threaten the drinking water. This summer, all 11 Finger Lakes had toxic blooms, including Skaneateles, which supplies water to the city of Syracuse and to residents in other parts of Onondaga County, including Skaneateles and Elbridge.

In 2015, the state Department of Health identified 35 algae-associated illness cases in 16 New York counties, according to a press release. In 2017, more than 100 beaches closed for part of the summer because of blooms. Cuomo said while this issue is a threat to the state's tourism, it's also a threat to the public's health.

Provided this initiative is passed and funded, Cuomo said $500,000 will be devoted for each water body to make a plan for combating the blooms.

The Owasco Lake Watershed Management Council, a nonprofit organization created by the city of Auburn, town of Owasco and Cayuga County, has already started work on a kind of pollution diet called a Nine Element Watershed Plan, often called a 9E Plan. Similarly, Cayuga Lake has a plan called a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), which the state is developing.

The DEC said these newly proposed algae plans would be separate from 9E Plans and TMDLs, but it would draw on information from them. The new plans, the DEC added, are more action-oriented so projects can be quickly advanced to reduce pollutant inputs.

The governor said he hopes the harmful algal bloom plans will be completed between February and May next year. The remaining $59 million will be used to implement them, with work hopefully starting next summer. The DEC said grant opportunities will be available in late spring, early summer for local governments, nonprofits and soil and water conservation districts to begin work.

"What's important is we understand the urgency of this issue, and we move with speed and haste," Cuomo said to the crowd. "This cannot be normal government time. We do want to get ahead of it, and we can if we move."

Besides the plans, the state's Water Quality Rapid Response Team, which is co-chaired by DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos and DOH Commissioner Howard Zucker, will convene summits with algae bloom experts from across the nation and local officials and stakeholders. The summits will be divided into four groups — Western, Central, North Country and Greater Hudson Valley — with the Central Group including Owasco, Skaneateles and Cayuga lakes.

Town of Owasco Supervisor Ed Wagner said he is looking forward to learning more about those summits and who will attend. He also applauded the governor for his continued investments in clean water.

"I think this is an excellent opportunity for our region to be spotlighted," he added about the proposal. "I just hope there's enough time to be able to do that."

In his speech, Cuomo highlighted the city of Auburn and town of Owasco. Both municipalities supply water from Owasco Lake to approximately 45,000 Cayuga County residents. Microcystin, a kind of liver toxin, was detected in the finished drinking water in the summer of 2016. The state gave about $2 million so both treatment plants could install carbon treatment systems prior to the 2017 summer's bloom season. Those systems have successfully kept toxins from the treated drinking water this year.

"The Governor's recognition of harmful algal blooms as a significant threat to our public drinking water supplies across the State illustrates that he is keenly in tune with our needs," said Auburn Mayor Mike Quill in a statement to The Citizen. "The Governor understands that the algal bloom issue is big and demands serious attention from our State, once again he has stepped forward with a plan of action."

John Halfman, who has been studying Owasco Lake and its harmful algae since 2005, said this would be the most money the state has dedicated to the Finger Lakes in his memory. A professor of geolimnology and hydrogeochemistry at the Finger Lakes Institute at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, he said he hopes someone will be monitoring the entire distribution of funds so that not one lake gets the bulk.

"I'd suggest that we use some for science and some for remediation efforts, because there still are things we need to learn to combat the BGA (blue-green algae) issue and we already know these lakes need to combat the nutrient loading issues, and have very good places to start to get these lakes turned around quickly," he wrote in an email. 

Other water bodies that will receive funding include Conesus, Honeoye, Chautauqua, Lake Champlain at Port Henry, the New York portion of Lake Champlain at Isle La Motte, Lake George, Lake Carmel, Palmer Lake, Putnam Lake and the Monhagen Brook watershed including five reservoirs serving the Middletown area.

Katko, NY reps urge House leaders to renew children's health insurance program

Eight New York members of Congress, including U.S. Rep. John Katko, want an important health insurance program for children renewed in a year-end spending bill. 

The representatives sent a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi requesting a five-year extension of the Children's Health Insurance Program, which provides coverage to 9 million children. 

Congress hasn't acted to renew the program that expired Sept. 30. While New York officials say there is enough funding to keep the state's program funded into early 2018, other states have warned residents that benefits will end soon if CHIP isn't reauthorized. 

In New York, more than 300,000 children receive coverage through the Children's Health Insurance Program. 

"Congress must take immediate action in order to ensure continuous coverage for the roughly 9 million children benefiting from this program nationwide," Katko, R-Camillus, said. 

The House and Senate must approve a continuing resolution to fund the government before the end of the week. If an agreement isn't reached, a government shutdown is likely. 

The letter to Ryan, R-Wisconsin, and Pelosi, D-California, was signed by five Republicans, including Katko, and three Democrats. The other GOP members who signed the letter are U.S. Reps. Dan Donovan, Peter King, Elise Stefanik and Lee Zeldin. 

U.S. Reps. Sean Patrick Maloney, Kathleen Rice and Tom Suozzi were the Democratic members who signed the letter. 

The New Yorkers also urged action on two other health care-related provisions — funding community health centers and Medicaid Disproportionate Share Hospital payment reductions. Like the Children's Health Insurance Program, funding for community health centers expired this year. 

The Medicaid Disproportionate Share Hospital payment cuts could result in New York hospitals losing $800 million in federal funding. The members of Congress asked for a two-year delay in the payment cuts to ensure hospitals are able to provide services to patients. 

"While there are several important matters pending before Congress at present, these three issues are of particular importance to the state of New York," the members wrote. "We urge you to address these matters as promptly as possible to ensure essential healthcare services are delivered."

CHIP letter

Public hearing for Auburn traffic, parking law update set for Jan. 11

AUBURN — The Auburn City Council voted Thursday to set a date for a public hearing so residents can give their input on proposed changes to the city's vehicle and traffic law.

The hearing will take place at 6 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 11 at Memorial City Hall. Proposed changes include:

• prohibiting overnight parking on Genesee Street from 3 a.m. to 6 a.m. from James Street to Owasco and John streets. 

• adding a prohibited left turn onto Genesee Street from Garrow Street for the purposes of enhancing traffic flow for Genesee Elementary School during school pick-up and drop-off hours.

• removing the traffic signal at the intersection of State and Cottage streets, replacing it with a two-way stop sign.

• establishing a 20 mph school speed limit on Court Street between Genesee Street and Westlake Avenue for the benefit of children attending Westminster Nursery School and the YMCA Summit School.

• removing parking meters on Dill Street where the Centro Bus station will be relocating.

In other news

• Council members unanimously voted to adopt a new public art ordinance after amending a portion of the document. 

Councilor Jimmy Giannettino said he was concerned that the ordinance established a seven-member public art commission. He said he felt that a seven-member commission was too large because it has been difficult in the past to find people who are interested in serving on city boards and commissions. Giannettino said he would like to change the ordinance to require a commission with "a minimum of five members."  

City of Auburn Public Art Ordinance

The council also changed the quorum required for voting from four members to a majority of the members present. 

The public art ordinance was developed over the past year as part of the Auburn Brownfield Opportunities Area Program — also called Auburn SPARKS — and encourages and lays out guidelines for installing art on public property within the city. 

Mayor Michael Quill was excused from the meeting and did not vote. 

• The Auburn boy who donated his money to purchase a new star for the city's Christmas tree was recognized for his generosity by the Auburn City Council Thursday night. 

When city hall won the the Downtown Business Improvement District's holiday decorating contest, Quill requested that Finn Bell choose an organization to donate the prize — a $150 Wegmans gift card — to. The fourth-grader chose the Cayuga Seneca Community Action Agency's domestic violence services program because he wanted the money to help children suffering from domestic violence. 

Executive Director Laurie Piccolo accepted the donation and thanked Finn on behalf of the agency. 

"Finn is a very special young gentleman, and I can't wait to see where he goes later in life," Piccolo said. "You have a lot of potential, and it's just great what you do for our community, and I thank you very much and the residents of our shelter who you are helping this Christmas are also grateful."

BID Director Stephanie DeVito presented Finn with plaque as a thank you for his generosity.  

"Your kind spirit and generosity has really touched our community, and we're so proud of you and so proud that you're such a big part of our community," DeVito said. 

2018 State of the State: Cuomo eyes crackdown on revenge porn, 'sextortion'

Gov. Andrew Cuomo will pursue tougher laws to crack down on sexual extortion and "revenge porn" in 2018. 

The latest plank of the governor's State of the State agenda would create four new crimes, including first-, second- and third-degree sexual extortion. 

A third-degree sexual extortion charge, a class E felony, would apply if a person forces another to engage in sex acts or expose intimate body parts with the intent of damaging the victim's health or reputation if they fail to comply. If convicted on this charge, the defendant would face up to four years in prison. 

The second-degree sexual extortion charge would apply in cases involving victims between the ages of 15 and 17. A conviction could result in a seven-year prison sentence. 

The most severe penalty would be for a first-degree sexual extortion charge. This charge would be used in cases involving victims under the age of 15. If convicted, defendants would receive up to 15 years in prison. 

The fourth new crime Cuomo wants to establish is unlawful publication of sexual images. This class A misdemeanor offense would be applied if an individual intends to cause harm by publishing images of "intimate sexual nature" or compelling another person to "engage in conduct by threatening to disseminate images of an intimate sexual nature." 

The unlawful publication of sexual images charge would aim to crack down on "revenge porn," which has targeted mostly young girls and women. A conviction on this charge could result in a one-year jail sentence or three years of probation. 

Anyone convicted of sexual extortion or unlawful publication of sexual images would be required to register as a sex offender. 

"The dangerous proliferation of sextortion and revenge crimes disproportionately targets young women and girls and causes harm and embarrassment that can follow victims their entire lives," Cuomo said. "This new legislation outlaws this horrific, exploitive practice once and for all in New York and will help provide New Yorkers with peace of mind both on and offline." 

With the rise of social media and technology, sexual extortion cases have exploded. A Brookings Institute report released in 2016 found 71 percent of sexual extortion victims were under the age of 18. Most of the victims were young women. 

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has been tracking sexual extortion since 2013. The number of "sextortion" cases reported between 2014 and 2015 rose by 90 percent, according to the center. 

Cuomo's proposals are part of his 2018 State of the State agenda. He will deliver the annual address Jan. 3 in Albany.