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Biggest stories of 2018

It was a year that included an official visit from the vice president of the United States, the arrival of federal park rangers at the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park and the start of a major renovation project at Auburn's Falcon Park. But three of the biggest stories of 2018 revolved around major developments affecting downtown Auburn. Based on surveys of The Citizen staff and online readers, here are the 10 biggest local stories of the past 12 months.

Kevin Rivoli, The Citizen 

Ribbon cutting officially opens the NYS Equal Rights Heritage Center in Auburn.

1. Equal Rights Heritage Center opens in downtown Auburn

A much-anticipated downtown Auburn building project officially came to fruition on Nov. 13 when the New York State Equal Rights Heritage Center opened with much fanfare and ceremony.

The $10 million state-funded project on South Street had its roots with a surprise announcement from Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office in October 2016, when he outlined plans to build welcome centers throughout the state that would promote tourism, and Auburn was listed as a host city for one of the centers. As details about the project emerged, some area residents expressed reservations. One of the biggest objections was with the site selected for the 7,500-square-foot structure — a downtown parking lot frequented by patrons of the nearby Auburn YMCA and other downtown establishments. But city officials said the site made the most sense because it was owned by the city and shovel-ready for construction.

The official theme of the welcome center and its name were unveiled in 2017, but the bulk of construction came in 2018. Downtown traffic patterns had to change, and the city opened up the adjacent municipal garage for free parking, as a result of the work that was taking place. Week after week, the modern, red-brick structure progressed and excitement began to build for the public opening.

Since operations launched in mid-November, the Equal Rights Heritage Center has been integrated into a number of annual city events, including the Christmas season parade and the Holiday Traditions open house program. Although the state paid for the design and construction of the center, Auburn is responsible for its staffing, and the city has outsourced the management of the operation to the downtown Auburn Business Improvement District.

Kevin Rivoli, The Citizen 

Construction began on the Equal Rights Heritage Center in downtown Auburn in February 2018. 

Cuomo vetoes bereavement leave bill

Citing concerns about the impact on low-wage workers and other flaws with the legislation, Gov. Andrew Cuomo vetoed a bill that would include bereavement in the state's paid family leave program.

The legislation sponsored by ex-state Assemblyman Joe Morelle and state Sen. Rich Funke would've allowed workers to take up to 12 weeks of paid leave for the death of a family member.

Under the existing family leave program, which launched earlier this year, workers can receive paid leave for the adoption or birth of a child, to care for a sick family member or if a spouse is an active-duty military service member.

Morelle and Funke's bill would expand the program and add the death of a family member to the list of qualifying events. They argued that it may take some workers longer to grieve, especially after the loss of a spouse or child.

Morelle, a Rochester-area lawmaker who was elected to Congress in November, lost his daughter to cancer in 2017.

"The inability to take time to process grief not only has an impact on a person's health and their family, it has a profound impact on their ability to carry out their normal day-to-day tasks," the bill's justification reads.

The measure, citing the Society for Human Resource Management, notes that employers provide an average of four days of bereavement leave for the death of a spouse or child.

Morelle and Funke's bill received bipartisan support in the state Legislature. It passed by a 111-32 vote in the Assembly, and by a 61-1 margin in the state Senate.

Business groups, though, opposed the legislation. The Business Council of New York State was among the interest groups that called on Cuomo to veto the bill.

In his veto message, Cuomo wrote that he understood "the spirit of the bill" to allow New York workers to mourn the death of a loved one. But he raised several concerns with the legislation, which he said would lead to an "extreme expansion" of the paid family leave program.

This expansion, he noted, would have a dramatic effect on low-wage workers because, with bereavement as part of the program, it would lead to a significant increase in the employee contribution.

The current contribution level is 0.126 percent of an employee's gross wages. Cuomo called for more studies of the impacts on low-wage and middle-class workers.

Another problem with the bill is that there would be no limit on when bereavement leave can be taken. The existing law allows workers to take paid leave for qualifying events within a 12-month period. But there would be no constraints on when someone could use paid leave for the death of a loved one.

The bill also wouldn't apply to all paid family leave policies, Cuomo explained. The bereavement bill, if signed, would take effect on or after Jan. 1, 2020. But it wouldn't require policies issued in 2019 to be modified to include bereavement. This would create confusion as to when benefits are applied, he added.

"While it pains me to do so, for the foregoing reasons, I am constrained to veto this bill," Cuomo said. "However, I am committed to working with the Legislature in the coming legislative session to resolve these issues for the benefits of hardworking New Yorkers."

The paid leave law was signed by Cuomo in 2016. For the first year of the program, workers could take up to eight weeks of paid leave and receive 50 percent of their average weekly wage up to 50 percent of the state's average weekly wage.

The program will expand to 10 weeks in 2019 and 2020. Once it's fully phased in, workers will receive up to 12 weeks of paid family leave and 67 percent of their average weekly wages up to 67 percent of the state's average weekly wage.