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Blowing and drifting snows bring Auburn, Cayuga County to virtual standstill

Schools and government offices closed and traffic slowed to a crawl in the Cayuga County area as an extended period of wind and snow hit the region Wednesday and Thursday.

Cayuga County Sheriff Brian Schenck issued a travel advisory Thursday morning, asking motorists to be cautious to take extra time to reach their destination. The advisory was lifted later in the afternoon.

County 911 dispatchers said they received calls about a smattering of minor accidents Thursday morning. Auburn Police Department Sgt. Donald Gosline said there had been several minor car accidents in the city, with vehicles colliding into each other or sliding off the road, but with no injuries reported. He said he believed multiple school cancellations and the overall conditions kept drivers off the road.

All area schools closed for the day, and the Cayuga County Legislature and Auburn City Council canceled their scheduled evening meetings.

The National Weather Service had issued winter storm warnings through 7 p.m. Thursday for areas that included northern and southern Cayuga, Onondaga and Madison counties. The agency warned of heavy lake effect and blowing snow, with additional accumulation through the afternoon. Up to one inch of snow per hour was anticipated "at times into early afternoon then decreasing through the afternoon," the NWS said. Winds as strong as 35 mph caused drifting and blowing snow in some areas.

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Southern Cayuga school district fields community questions at solar panel project hearing

POPLAR RIDGE — Residents offered questions and praise at a public hearing for the Southern Cayuga Central School District's proposal for a solar panel system.

The project is for a $1.5 million, 750 kilowatt solar panel array that would span 3 acres on the district's property. The district is set to partner with Renovus Solar in Ithaca. The proposed undertaking qualifies for the highest grant available from the New York State Energy Research & Development Authority, at 45 cents per watt for solar projects 750 kilowatts or below. If voters approve the project, the district aims to get the project approved by April, begin construction by July and start producing power by October. While a public vote is not required for the project, the state would gain another 10 percent in state aid through a successful vote as a incentive, according to a project summary on the district's website.

Over 80 percent of the project's cost would be handled by $877,083 in state building aid and $337,669 from the development authority. Credits from New York State Electric & Gas for energy produced on district property by the panel system would pay the remaining amount, with the project not expected to increase local taxes.

A public vote on the project is set for Tuesday, Jan. 15.

The district estimates it would save around $62,000 on its energy bill in its first full year of the array operating, district superintendent Patrick Jensen said, with around half of that covering maintenance and debt service and resulting in a net positive gain of around $32,000 for the district. The panels have a 25-year guarantee from the manufacturer, Jensen said, with a cumulative net positive gain of $1.36 million estimated over that time. 

Jensen said that though $1.5 million is the figure on the legal paperwork for the project, it is anticipated to cost around $1.4 million, with the rest potentially covering any incidental costs that may pop up. Jensen said that any leftover funds would likely be directed toward debt service for the project. The energy generated by the solar panels would be directed to customers on the New York State Electric and Gas Corporation's grid.

After Jensen explained the idea and financials behind the project Tuesday, district residents asked various questions, such as whether the panels would be American made. Kate Millar, vice president of project development for Renovus, said the panels would likely be coming from Taiwan, as American panels at the volume needed for the project are not available. The question of what would happen to the parts after 25 years came up, to which Millar responded that the parts are meant to be recyclable.

The idea of an educational entity generating electricity was also questioned, to which Jensen said the savings the project would provide make it too advantageous for the district to pass up.

Mark Vorreuter thanked the district and Renovus for their efforts and said after the meeting that he believes "it's great that the school has been able to create an investment that pays for itself."

Jensen said Thursday that he was glad so many people showed up at the hearing. He said that a couple people called the day after the hearing to go over the project's numbers and were supportive of the project after that. He said he felt good about the Jan. 15 vote.

"I got a lot of positive feedback," he said.

Casino outlook remains negative

Citing lower-than-expected gross gaming revenue, Moody's Investors Service once again downgraded financial ratings for the nearly two-year-old del Lago Resort & Casino in Seneca County.

The casino's financial outlook has been bleak since reporting $147 million in revenue in its first year of operation — more than $100 million shy of the $250 million the casino's operators projected it would raise during the inaugural year.

Del Lago's revenues improved slightly in 2018, but not enough to help its ratings. The casino is operated by Wilmot Gaming, which was founded by Rochester-area developer Tom Wilmot, and Peninsula Pacific. The casino is managed by JNB Gaming.

Moody's downgraded del Lago's corporate family rating and the probability of default rating. The service said the casino's financial outlook remains negative amid concerns that it won't be able to support its annual charges of $50 million in future years.

"Lago's ramp up in terms of gross gaming revenue continues to be at a level well below expectations, and at a rate that Moody's believes will not generate enough (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) to cover the company's interest and scheduled principal repayments during the next 12 to 18 months," said Keith Foley, a senior vice president at Moody's.

Foley also noted that del Lago "will require a restructuring that involves some level of impairment" if there isn't additional equity invested.

A del Lago spokesman didn't respond to a request for comment Thursday afternoon.

Moody's acknowledged del Lago's ability to offer table games which aren't available at racinos in New York, especially facilities close to the casino. According to its latest weekly financial report submitted to the state Gaming Commission, del Lago has 77 table games and 14 poker tables.

Despite the advantage over racinos, del Lago faces other challenges. The Oneida Indian Nation operates three casinos within close proximity to the Seneca County facility. The Oneidas' top site is Turning Stone Resort Casino in Verona.

The Oneida Nation isn't the only competitor. Moody's named the Seneca Nation casinos in western New York as a "direct competitor" to del Lago because of the tribe's marketing in the Rochester area. The Oneidas and Senecas also have more favorable tax regimes than del Lago, Moody's explained.

While the casino's outlook remains negative, it reported its best weekly gross gaming revenue total since opening in February 2017. For the week from Dec. 31 through Jan. 6, del Lago's gross gaming revenue totaled $3,747,192. ​

Former Auburn inmate maintains innocence of manslaughter charges, refuses plea offer

AUBURN — A former Auburn inmate maintains his innocence of causing the death of a fellow inmate following an altercation in 2017.

Ashton Bellamy, 32, is facing one count each of first-degree manslaughter and second-degree assault for his connection in the death of former Auburn prison inmate Daniel Wingate. On July 9, 2017, Wingate was found in his cell unresponsive and covered in blood. He was evaluated, then transported to Auburn Community Hospital where he died on July 14 due to blunt force injuries to the head.

Bellamy appeared in Cayuga County Criminal Court Thursday with his defense attorney, Rome Canzano. Currently incarcerated at Sing Sing Correctional Facility on a previous first-degree attempted assault conviction, according to the state's Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, Bellamy appeared due to the court executing a force order to have him show up. Canzano apologized to the court and said Bellamy is, and has been, cooperative but was ill, not trying to refuse to appear.

Rupert Alberga, 37, who is serving a 24-year-to-life sentence for a previous second-degree murder conviction, was a codefendant in the incident and was charged with two counts of first-degree murder. Alberga has asserted for more than a month that there is no decedent in the case, refusing to acknowledge there is a dead body.

In court Thursday, Chief Assistant District Attorney Chris Valdina said Bellamy was in the cell next to Wingate — a sex offender soon to be released — and Wingate used "the N word." When all cells were opened later that same day, Bellamy and Alberga entered the victim's cell simultaneously. Bellamy punched Wingate in the face twice, Valdina said, but then Alberga continued to beat him. While it is unknown who's blows caused Wingate's death, Valdina said Bellamy "intentionally aided Alberga." 

"We don't believe his intention was to kill the victim," Valdina said of Bellamy, but The People do believe he intended to seriously injure the victim and intended to aid Alberga — who earlier said he was going to "f-up the victim." 

Valdina said that because it is a homicide case there were plea bargaining restrictions, and the lowest available offer would be for Bellamy to plea to second-degree assault, with a sentence of 12 years to life in prison. If convicted of assault at trial, Valdina said Bellamy would likely be looking at 25 years to life.

"I remain confident and optimistic we'll be able to resolve this in an equitable way to all parties," Canzano said. He said Bellamy maintains innocence in causing the death of Wingate and "remains committed to participating and cooperating."

Canzano said there are "numerous legal issues and factual problems" with the case and he doesn't feel The People have sufficient evidence to establish Bellamy's intent to cause serious physical injury "in punching a victim who was picking on him." While Bellamy doesn't discount his involvement, Canzano said, "we're looking for a way to resolve this correctly."

Valdina said he "respectfully disagreed" with Canzano's account of the manslaughter, and feels the intent to cause injury was clear. He said The People would leave the offer of 12 years to life in prison open until Jan. 24.

Both Alberga and Bellamy have trial dates set to begin April 1.

New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision 

Ashton Bellamy