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Auburn City Council approves revised budget for North Division Street bridge project

AUBURN — The city's contribution to the North Division Street bridge replacement project has been significantly reduced after a revision to the project's budget. 

While the project's overall budget increased by about $2 million since the Auburn City Council originally authorized funding for the project in February 2017, the city will pay less after the state found additional funding for the project, Director of Capital Projects Christina Selvek said following Thursday's city council meeting.

Originally, the city's local match was $210,900. Now, it will pay just under $31,000. The city will, however, need to fund upgrades for water and sewer fixtures in the area. According to Selvek, water improvements could range from $128,000 to $205,000, while the estimate for sewer repairs is not known at this time. 

Based on an expanded scope of work, the project is now expected to cost approximately $6.5 million. Construction costs increased by about $1.5 million and $510,000 was proposed for railroad repairs, which will be paid for by the Finger Lakes Railway, Selvek said. 

Selvek said the city learned Wednesday that a state Department of Transportation administrative law judge ordered the project to move forward. A hearing was held in September and was necessary because the bridge work could have an impact on the railroad. She said she does not have additional details on the judge's ruling at this time. 

The bridge, which has seen heavy deterioration, will be replaced and the intersection between North Division and Columbus streets will be realigned. Additionally, a left-hand turning lane will be added from Columbus Street onto the Arterial West, the skew of the railroad tracks that pass over Columbus Street will be reduced and the radius of the curb along the right-hand turning lane from Arterial West to Columbus Street will be increased to accommodate large tractor trailers.

North Division Street Bridge Replacement Project

The council also unanimously voted to award the contract for inspection services to Popli Design Group for $725,000. The design firm also provided the engineering services for the project. 

Selvek said the city will advertise for construction bids for the bridge project in March and construction should start in the summer or fall of this year.

In other news

• The Auburn City Council unanimously approved an agreement that will facilitate the transfer of the Owasco Lake Watershed Inspection Program to the Owasco Lake Watershed Management Council after postponing the vote in November amid concerns with the contract. 

Councilors Dia Carabajal and Terry Cuddy raised concerns about Auburn's representation on the organization's voting board, the Watershed Inspection Committee. The Watershed Management Council agreed in January to grant the city an additional representative, who will be a "high-level city employee." The employee has not been chosen yet, but Director of Municipal Utilities Seth Jenen's name has been mentioned for the role. 

City councilors thanked the management council for working with the city and being open their recommendations. 

Management council Chair Ed Wagner thanked the city for their interest in the process.

"Thank you for asking the tough questions," Wagner said. "I think this is how government should really work. We thought we came to you with a good proposal. You spoke, you did your due diligence, you put the breaks on it and for that I thank you." 

In order to give Auburn the additional representation, the management council will need to change the bylaws. That will be done at this month's Owasco Lake Watershed Management Council meeting, on Tuesday, Feb. 27. Now that all four parties — the city, the town of Owasco, Cayuga County and the Owasco Lake Management Council — have approved the agreement, the inspection program will now be able to move out of the control of the Cayuga County Soil and Water Conservation District and into the control of the management council.  

• Councilors unanimously voted to adopt the overhauled city zoning code. The final draft of the code was updated several times throughout the process as concerns were brought up from city residents, such as issues with the zoning of the South Street historic district and property owner owner notification.   

Cayuga County student hits perfect ACT score

Nathan Lesch's eight months of prepping paid off when he achieved his goal of receiving the highest possible composite score on the ACT test.

Lesch, 17, who lives in Auburn and is a senior at the private Manlius Pebble Hill School in DeWitt, earned a 36 on the national exam, which is used for college admissions and includes tests in English, science, reading and mathematics. Out of the 63,322 students in New York state's 2017 graduating class, only 203 achieved that composite score of 36, said Tarah DeSousa, media communications specialist with ACT.

Lesch took every ACT test from each year since 2000 to get ready. He spent several months working toward his goal, but the bulk of the work went into the last month-and-a-half prior to the test. Upon facing down the test at Onondaga Community College on a Saturday morning in late October, he cleared his mind and zeroed in on the task at hand.

"When you're not needlessly pressuring yourself, it makes it easier," Lesch said.

Though Lesch was happy he earned the score he wanted, he didn't advertise his achievement to everyone around him. Will Cardamone, Pebble Hill's director of college counseling, said that after he saw the students' scores he congratulated Lesch one day in the hallway at school. Instead of drawing attention to himself or his achievement, Lesch merely smiled, Cardamone said.

Cardamone wasn't surprised Lesch was able to "take the test apart and nail it,"  crediting the student's ability to push anxiety aside. While Cardamone said another student in Lesch's class — from Onondaga County — achieved that perfect score, it is rare. About five to 10 students have scored a 36 during his 12 years with the school, Cardamone said. Cardamone, who has been counseling Lesch for four years and knows his family, had a raft of compliments for the student, complimenting his maturity and competitive spirit. Cardamone marveled at the student's care for others, citing the time Lesch helped organize a vacation to Europe with his grandmother and went with her so she could see that part of the world.

Even considering the hyper-selective colleges Lesch applied for, which "reject nine out of 10" students, Cardamone isn't worried about the student's prospects.

"What college wouldn't want more bright, empathetic kids who take their grandmothers on a vacation to Europe?" Cardamone said.

Lesch put his hat in the ring for around 20 institutions, each with requirements such as essays specific to that particular school. Balancing those demands with school work and duties such as being the president for Pebble Hill's environmental group, The MPH Green Avengers, just required him to structure his time.

"I'm pretty goal-orientated and I enjoy seeing progression in skill or ability in a particular hobby or thing, I guess. That certainly makes things like studying easier for me," Lesch said.

Though Lesch hasn't nailed down what career path he will ultimately take, his time in Auburn instilled a passion for the environment in him. Antics at the woods at his family's property, such as catching frogs in a pond or hitting a trail in the woods with his younger brother, Aaron, took up a chunk of his childhood.

"I just look at those times and they are valuable to me. I see a beauty in having that opportunity and the forest itself, I gained so much enjoyment (from,)" Lesch said.

Teacher Sarah Chhablani, who taught Lesch in her model United Nations class her first year at the school and currently has him in her advanced placement European history course, praised Lesch for his knowledge and care for other people. Chhablani said the United Nations class, which Lesch has taken every year, involves seniors working with underclassmen, and the younger students are drawn to Lesch due to his calm, organized manner of explaining information. Lesch's measured tone of voice and demeanor signals to students they won't be greeted with condescension or judgement if they ask him a question, Chhablani said. She said Lesch is "fundamental" in the class, as he has been a model for other students.

"Right away, he just stood out to me as a budding leader," Chhablani said. "(He is) someone willing to engage with ideas and challenge himself."

Lesch said he tries to help underclassmen expand upon what they're learning and "develop the depths of their research." 

Chhablani isn't sure what she will do once Lesch moves on to higher education.

"I feel like my life is easier and my job is easier when I have a student like Nathan," Chhablani said.

Pulaski schools head confirmed as Cayuga-Onondaga BOCES district superintendent

AURELIUS — After almost a year without a full-time district superintendent, a new leader for the Cayuga-Onondaga Board of Cooperative Educational Services has been selected.

The BOCES board of education voted unanimously to appoint Dr. Brian K. Hartwell, the superintendent of the Pulaski Academy & Central School District, as the Cayuga-Onondaga district BOCES leader at a board meeting Thursday night. Hartwell was not present for the meeting. His employment will become effective May 21.

“I am honored and excited to begin my role as District Superintendent,” Hartwell said in a press release from BOCES. “The opportunity to serve as a strong voice for all children is very humbling. The foundation that exists at Cayuga-Onondaga BOCES, coupled with the remarkable work being done by our Commissioner and Board of Regents, offers hope that we can meet our responsibility of affording each child world-class learning opportunities and experiences."

Hartwell has had the top position at Pulaski since 2014, and had previously worked within the Oswego City School District, including serving as the principal of Oswego High School at one point. He received a doctorate in executive leadership from St. John Fisher College in Rochester and a certificate of advanced study from the State University of New York at Oswego, in addition to holding bachelor's and master's degrees.

Melinda Quanbeck, president of the Cayuga-Onondaga BOCES board, praised Hartwell after the meeting.

"I think that we think he is a dynamic leader and his experience seemed to be a perfect fit for this BOCES, and we've very excited to have him join us," Quanbeck said.

The previous full-time leader for the Cayuga-Onondaga program was Denise Dzikowski, who abruptly resigned from the role in March 2017 after less than a year. Later that month, Chris Todd, the district superintendent for the BOCES in Oswego County, stepped in as the Cayuga-Onondaga district's leader. Todd will depart the district in May.

The state education department gave the Cayuga-Onondaga BOCES the green light to start looking for a new full-time district chief over the summer after performing a standard assessment of the program's operations. The state conducts a review of a BOCES after that program's superintendent leaves in order to decide if that BOCES should be restructured. That step has to be completed before a district can start looking for a new superintendent. Todd was a non-paid search consultant for the superintendent hunt.

Cuomo eyes changes to disciplinary process for NY prison employees

The union representing New York's correctional officers criticized a proposal released this week by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to alter the disciplinary process for state prison employees.

Cuomo unveiled a 30-day amendment to his 2018-19 state budget plan that he believes would strengthen the disciplinary process. Under his proposal, the commissioner of the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision would have the final say on what disciplinary action should be taken in serious cases, such as the excessive use of force or engaging in an inappropriate sexual relationship with an inmate.

The current process involves the department, the employee and an independent arbiter. The arbiter determines the employee's punishment.

Cuomo's proposal would still include an independent arbiter, but they would make a recommendation. The commissioner would have the final say in cases involving serious offenses.

Cuomo cited past cases in which he doesn't believe employees were held accountable for their actions. One example was an inmate who suffered a fractured eye socket and broken ribs by a correctional officer who used excessive force.

The Department of Corrections and Community Supervision aimed to terminate the employee, but the arbitrator found the officer not guilty, and the officer was allowed to return to work.

"New York's correction officers work day in and day out to ensure the security of our communities," Cuomo said. "The current system, however, makes it difficult to hold bad actors fully accountable. The bottom line is that those who break the law and abuse their positions of power must be held responsible for their misconduct, and this proposal will help to ensure accountability and promote safety in the correctional system."

But the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association believes the current disciplinary process is "effective and well-functioning."

Michael Powers, president of NYSCOPBA, agreed that there is no place for bad actors in state prisons. But he said Cuomo's proposal would "unfairly punish the dedicated hardworking men and women of NYSCOPBA."

"A fair and unbiased system is already in place which determines the level of discipline for members that are accused of wrongdoing," he said. "The system, which was part of a contractual agreement, has terminated officers who have committed egregious acts."

Instead of pushing for changes to the disciplinary process, Powers believes Cuomo should give correctional officers more resources to combat growing violence in state prisons.

NYSCOPBA cited data collected in 2017 that found inmate-on-staff and inmate-on-inmate assaults increased. There was also more contraband reported in correctional facilities, according to the union.

"Our current disciplinary system works," Powers said. "What doesn't work is the lack of suitable policies that may lead to a decrease in violence and contraband that we are currently seeing. It's time that New York state rewards the vast majority of our members who serve with integrity by providing them the resources they need to effectively guard against potentially life-threatening violence."