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Finger Lakes level management concerns downstream property owners

Carl Wiezalis is already thinking spring, but not for pleasant reasons. 

A representative of the Central New York Waterways Inc., Wiezalis owns property on Cross Lake. With flooding an issue this summer and again in late fall (Wiezalis said he had to hire divers to pull his lift out of the lake), he's dreading what spring freshets could bring.

"We're filled to the brim now, and all we need is snow pack and the result of that melting and anticipating more flooding next summer or spring," he said at a Cayuga County Water Quality Management Agency meeting earlier this month. 

Wiezalis asked if there was any project afoot around the draw-down of the bigger lakes that could help those downstream in the spring and summer.

The Citizen posed the question to the state Canal Corp. Though there are many different entities that control water levels in the Oswego River Basin — about 5,100 square miles that includes the Clyde and Seneca rivers, and lakes from Canandaigua to Oneida — the Canal Corp. manages Cayuga and Oneida lakes and 33 miles of the Seneca River including Cross Lake.

"While flood control is not part of the Canal Corporation's statutory mission, it continually works to minimize impacts of high water along the Canal, including Oneida Lake, Cayuga Lake, the Seneca River and Cross Lake," said Steven Gosset, manager of media relations for the New York Power Authority, in an email. "The Canal Corporation closely coordinates with its stakeholder water management partners in the Oswego River Basin to accomplish this goal. This will continue to be a priority."

The corporation, Gosset added, communicates weekly with other water managers on lake levels and projected water releases and trends. During extreme weather events, communication can be increased to daily, but the corporation "lacks the authority to direct other agencies how to operate."

According to a U.S. Geological Survey fact sheet, "management strategies of this system have been controversial for nearly a century because the users desire differing water-level-management results."

To bring about a kind of compromise among the different water bodies, managers are supposed to follow a rule curve, targeting water levels for different seasons. 

"They're supposed to be followed, but it's really complicated because there's not one agency that controls (the levels)," said Cayuga County Environmental Health Director Eileen O'Connor at the WQMA Dec. 7 meeting. "So many different people are involved."

Wiezalis said many on Cross Lake have this picture of a huge system that "lacks coordination."

The Canal Corp. did have recommendations for those downstream. They include keeping track of the weather and water level conditions, keeping property secured and out of reach during high water periods, boating safely and trying to minimize wake damage, and signing up for notices to mariners on condition updates and events. The corporation also has a daily voicemail with updates on water levels, gate positions and releases. That number is (315) 423-2094.

Roundtable highlights impact of tourism on Cayuga County lodging

AUBURN — Tourism is giving Cayuga County's lodging industry a boost, but there are outside factors that present challenges for local hotels and inns. 

The state of lodging in the county was the topic at the monthly Wednesday Morning Roundtable. Four panelists participated in the discussion moderated by Laura Coburn. 

Tourism provides $397 in tax relief per household in Cayuga County, Coburn said in her opening remarks. The county receives additional benefits when visitors stay here. Visitors who make day trips to the county spend an average of $260. That total increases to $1,244 when visitors opt for overnight stays. 

"I think this is why we should care about getting people to stay overnight in Cayuga County because that's going to bring more tax relief and more economic health to our region," Coburn said. 

Cayuga County has lodging options big and small. The Holiday Inn has been a mainstay in Auburn. The Hilton Garden Inn, the host of Wednesday's panel discussion, opened in 2012. The Inns of Aurora and Springside Inn in Fleming are locally operated facilities that offer accommodations. 

As tourism has spiked in Cayuga County, local lodging officials have noticed certain trends. Michael Cotanch, sales director at the Holiday Inn in Auburn, said international tour groups are common. The groups come from Canada or other countries. Visitors from Germany are part of a new trend, he said. 

"We're excited to be able to showcase Auburn to people from all over the world," Cotanch said. 

Sue Edinger, general manager of the Inns of Aurora, said another trend they have noticed is people who "want to disconnect." That trend, according to Edinger, has grown over the last five to seven years. 

"It's indicative of what's happening in people's lives," she said. 

While increased tourism is helping the lodging industry, there are still plenty of challenges facing local hotels and inns. 

Amanda Hennessey, sales administrator of the Hilton Garden Inn in Auburn, said one hurdle is encouraging people to come to Auburn from Syracuse. Sean Lattimore, owner of the Springside Inn, echoed that position. 

Lattimore said they often find that once people come and visit, they are surprised by how much there is to do in Cayuga County. 

"We need to create some more packages that will keep people here a couple more days," he said. 

One way to address the challenge of getting visitors from Syracuse, Ithaca and other neighboring cities to Cayuga County is providing more transportation options. The lodging representatives agreed that New York allowing ride-sharing companies, such as Uber and Lyft, to operate in the state has been good for their businesses. It has provided an additional mode of transportation for people, especially at hotels that don't offer shuttle service. 

There is taxi service in Auburn. And Centro provides bus service throughout the city. But the consensus is that ride-sharing helps, especially with guests who may have used Uber or Lyft in other cities. 

"It's nice to have another option," Hennessey said. 

There are other factors impacting Cayuga County's lodging industry. The opening of del Lago Resort & Casino in neighboring Seneca County — it's about 20 minutes away from downtown Auburn — isn't hurting occupancy rates. But the new casino, which has a 205-room hotel on its property, has lured employees away from some of Cayuga County's hotels. 

With people leaving for jobs at the new casino, Edinger said it's challenging to find enough qualified candidates to fill vacant positions. 

The competition posed by Airbnb, an online marketplace for local rentals, also presents challenges for the lodging industry. 

Edinger said there are at least 30 properties in Aurora that advertise on Airbnb. She acknowledged that there is a need for places to stay, but there are differences between how Airbnb properties and the Inns of Aurora operate. Most notably, the inns collects a room occupancy tax. When individuals stay at an Airbnb property, they don't pay the tax. 

"It's definitely not a level playing field," she said. She hopes Cayuga County will take action to require Airbnb properties to collect the tax. 

There are new developments on the lodging scene. The Holiday Inn is in the midst of a complete renovation of its 165-room North Street facility. Cotanch said the guest rooms have been remodeled and work is currently focused on the main lobby. The hotel's event space is next. 

At the Hilton Garden Inn, the newest of the four hotels represented at the roundtable, there isn't a need for any large-scale renovations. But the hotel is planning to upgrade its wireless internet service for guests and will implement electronic locks that will allow visitors to use their phone to open their room door. 

Lattimore said they are reinvesting in Springside Inn and creating more outside spaces on the property. They also want to provide guests with a method of communicating with the kitchen if they are eating dinner on the grove. He is also planning to build a new hotel near Emerson Park that he hopes will drive more business to that area of the county. 

The Inns of Aurora has a handful of projects in development. Edinger said they are moving forward with plans to establish a fifth inn with 10 guest rooms at the former Shakleton Funeral Home site in Aurora. They also want to construct a spa with indoor and outdoor pools and hot tubs, transform the Taylor House into a conference facility and identify a site to host weddings year-round. 

Auburn's hydroelectric facilities, technology security critiqued by state comptroller

A state audit released Wednesday concluded the Auburn City Council did not provide adequate oversight of its hydroelectric facilities.

The audit by the Office of the New York State Comptroller, which assessed the city’s hydroelectric power operations and software management practices from July 1, 2015 through March 9, 2017, found that council did not adopt adequate policies and procedures regarding procurement practices for hydroelectric projects, nor did it adopt formal, long-term financial plans or develop adequate capital plans related to the facilities.

The audit found that when awarding a $3.9 million energy performance contract to Siemens Industry Inc. for the reconstruction and operation of the Mill Street Dam hydroelectric facility in 2012the council based the decision on "inaccurate financial projections." Those projections showed the project would generate profit for the city by the end of its second operating year. That, however, has not happened.

The comptroller's office projects the Mill Street Dam won't be profitable until 2047. The city does not agree with the comptroller's estimate, asserting the comptroller did not take into consideration revenue inflation. City Comptroller Laura Wills suggested during an October city council meeting that the project will be profitable as soon as 2034. 

"Management is making every effort, regardless of this audit, to ensure the hydroelectric operations are self-sufficient," City Manager Jeff Dygert wrote as part of the city's corrective action plan.  

As a response to issues incurred during the Mill Street project, the city decided to pursue a more traditional, design-bid-build approach for the remodel of the North Division Street Hydroelectric facility in 2015. Auditors found that city officials "better documented the rationale for their procurement decisions" and based their decisions on "better financial information." 

In regard to software management, the audit concluded that city IT staff did not enforce compliance with council-adopted acceptable use policies. The audit found that staff computers were not regularly monitored or reviewed. Five of the 25 computers reviewed had non-business software installed, including games. This could expose city computers to viruses or hacking, according to the audit. 

Dygert wrote that the city "is in general agreement" with the comptroller's findings. A corrective action plan was developed in response to the recommendations from the comptroller. The action plan was unanimously approved by council on Nov. 16.

Auburn City Council delays zoning code adoption

The Auburn City Council will delay adopting the updated city zoning code following concerns raised at last week's public hearing over zoning changes in the South Street historic district and Technology Park Boulevard areas of the city.  

The code was scheduled to be voted on during Thursday's council meeting. However, after hearing residents' concerns last week, council members instructed city staff to make changes to the proposed code before adoption. 

City Manager Jeff Dygert said those changes will not be completed by the scheduled adoption date. 

"Those changes take a significant amount of time to implement," Dygert said Wednesday. "The way the code is set up, if you change a definition or a paragraph, it has other implications. It could impact a half dozen other spots in the code. Staff has to go through the whole code to make sure the changes don't impact other sections." 

"It's a very laborious process," he added.

Dygert said the code will come before the council for adoption sometime in January, but a specific date has not been scheduled.