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NY ag commissioner offers help to update Owasco Lake watershed regulations

AUBURN — State Agriculture Commissioner Richard Ball met privately with local officials in Auburn Wednesday to discuss revisions to the Owasco Lake Watershed's rules and regulations. 

The Owasco Lake Watershed Management Council appointed a steering committee this year — made up of elected and government officials, farmers and lake advocates — to work on updating the 1984 document that stipulates what can and cannot be done in the watershed. Any changes to the rules and regulations must be approved by the state Department of Health, but other state agencies and local governments are part of the review process.

Following the meeting, Ball, the steering committee and others invited, spoke with The Citizen. 

"It's been an awesome conversation," Ball said. "I got the opportunity to be updated on where the process is and what it looks like. I think it's a very thoughtful process, well laid out. We've offered the help, resources of the department of agriculture, and I also offered (that) the state's interest in this is at a very high level, both DEC (the state Department of Environmental Conversation) and Ag and Markets, a keen interest along with the governor (Andrew Cuomo)."

Auburn City Councilor and steering committee member Debby McCormick said she was glad to hear the commissioner was supportive of the effort. In past meetings the council was concerned with whether the state health and agriculture departments would be, considering that other watersheds have been unsuccessful in update attempts.

"He offered for someone with Ag and Markets to work with us," McCormick said after the meeting. "It would be great. I think, if they're the big roadblock, having one of them on our team would be really good."

Kathleen Cuddy, director of the Cayuga County Health Department, said she understood Wednesday's meeting was organized due to comments made by Ball to The Citizen in October. Asked then during an Auburn appearance about the local effort to update the watershed's rules and regulations, the commissioner had suggested that county soil and water conservation districts should be leading the revision and not elected officials.

Cayuga County Legislature Chairman Keith Batman announced the commissioner's upcoming visit Tuesday night at the Legislature's meeting. When The Citizen showed up to report on the meeting, the reporter was escorted out, and the meeting was made private.

"There had been some questions that arose based on what was in The Citizen. Not knowing the direction the conversation would go, we thought it would lend to more open conversation," Cuddy said of the reasoning for keeping the meeting closed.

Robert Freeman, the executive director for the state committee on open government, said Wednesday that advisory bodies are not subject to the state Open Meetings Law unless they are creations of law. The meeting was intended, Cuddy said, to be a steering committee meeting with the commissioner, but others continued to be invited. 

Not on the steering committee but in attendance Wednesday was Cayuga County Soil and Water Conservation District Executive Director Doug Kierst. The Citizen asked Ball about the district's involvement, considering the conversation with Ball in October.

"I think the general agreement around the table is that things work better if we all work together," Ball said. "I think that's what we want to achieve here. Obviously we want to get it right. The governor has a very high level of interest in watersheds, in particular what's happening over here, so we're going to work together."

When asked whether he was working with other watersheds on updating their rules, Ball said, "I think this is just the beginning at looking at watersheds in a bigger way with a greater focus."

Following the mass interview, Kierst said he was hopeful that the district and other agencies will be more involved in the revisions process. 

"It sounds like our roles are coming up," he said. "It seems like we're going to be more involved a little more, which I think is a good thing."

Cuddy said the district also participated in the last steering committee meeting, as did the Owasco Lake Watershed Inspection Program. The committee has held multiple meetings with stakeholders in the watershed, and is drafting rules and regulations based on those conversations and feedback collected from the public. Cuddy said the hope is to have something for the public's review in the spring. 

Auburn woman sentenced for embezzling more than $82K from Skaneateles business

An Auburn woman will spend the next 16 weekends in jail for using her employer's checks to pay more than $82,000 in personal bills. 

Julie A. McGinn, 44, of 16 Meadowbrook Dr., was sentenced Wednesday in Onondaga County Court after she admitted to stealing from her former employer, Empire Technical Associates, in Skaneateles. 

In September, McGinn pleaded guilty to one count of second-degree grand larceny, a class C felony, and paid $89,000 in restitution. At the time, the former office manager said she had written thousands of dollars worth of unauthorized company checks to pay her personal cell phone and credit card bills from 2010 to 2016. 

In exchange for her plea of guilty, Supreme Court Justice John Brunetti had agreed to sentence McGinn to about a month in jail — either 32 consecutive days or 16 weekends at the Onondaga County Correctional Facility in Jamesville. On Wednesday, McGinn asked for weekends in jail, and the court granted her request. McGinn's defense attorney, Dennis Sedor, said she was also sentenced to five years probation. 


Julie McGinn

Weedsport school district secures funding for prekindergarten program

The Weedsport Central School District is set to get state funding for its prekindergarten services, Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office announced Wednesday.

Weedsport, which will receive $126,432, is one of 16 school districts approved for funding, according to a press release. The total fund amount, $5 million, is meant for school districts classified as high-needs districts but Weedsport was an exception.

Doug Tomandl, Weedsport's assistant superintendent for business, said the district, while not classified as high-needs, decided to apply because some local high needs districts who have already secured extra pre-K funding from the state have been able to expand services, including the establishment of programs for 3-year-olds.

This frustration led to the district working on establishing a universal pre-K program through its 2017-2018 budget. The program, along with the rest of the budget, was passed by taxpayers in May. The services for 4-year-olds began in September.

'We thought, 'Even if we have to support it locally, our community deserves this, our children need it,'" Tomandl said.

Tomandl said he, district Superintendent Shaun O'Connor and district board of education member Ron Springer met with state Sen. John DeFrancisco in the spring to lobby for pre-K funding from the state. While Tomandl said he isn't sure if that helped their cause, he said the district believed in the importance of a pre-K program.

Districts were given the funding based on the quality of a district's application, student and district needs, and other factors, according to the governor's office.

O'Connor said the district believed a pre-K program would help prepare younger students for the state's education requirements. The district applied for the funding at the end of July.

"Every indication shows how important early child education is for success later in (a student's) school years," O'Connor said.

Tomandl said the district has been "pre-approved" by the state for the money, but the state comptroller's office still has to make sure the district will fulfill all of the requirements for the funding.

He isn't sure when the district will receive the funds. O'Connor said he doesn't know what will happen to the money already established for the pre-K program in light of the grant, as the 2018-2019 budget is still being developed.