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Auburn City Council looks at tweaked budget plan, welcomes new fire chief

Auburn officials were presented with a slightly revised budget plan and officially welcomed a new chief for the fire department Thursday night.

The Auburn City Council held a  public hearing on the city's 2020-21 budget Thursday that was livestreamed on the city's website, but no members of the public took advantage of the opportunity to speak.

City Comptroller Rachel Jacobs said before the meeting that the city's proposed general budget is now $35,618,116, a 5.8% reduction from a year ago. When the budget was presented at a meeting April 30, the general fund was $35,620,616.

The city's gap would be $774,169, but that would be resolved via fund balance. Property taxes would go up 1.76%. It was previously going to be 1.9%, but was lowered due to a change in the taxable value of the city's properties, Jacobs said. No positions would be added or reduced, with salary and wage increases varying based on contracts.

Jacobs said $2.15 million has been cut compared to the budget draft crafted by Jacobs and city department heads in March, including $443,039 for planning and code enforcement, $171,000 for parks and $138,000 for street maintenance, snow removal, etc.

A total of $793,489 has been cut from the police and fire departments, Jacobs said, compared to the $502,953 in cuts that had been under the April 30 budget. Jacobs said the difference between those two figures mostly came down to police department retirement payouts.

"The police department had anticipated for their police officers that were able to retire, what their payouts would be, and so that amount by itself was roughly $293,000," Jacobs said. "And so basically what we did was we removed that from the budget because again, we don't really know for sure that these people will retire, they're just technically eligible."

The council is scheduled to vote on the budget June 4.

In other news:

• The Auburn Fire Department has a new chief.

City Manager Jeff Dygert appointed Mark Fritz to the role on May 18. Fritz had served as the interim fire chief since the former department leader, Joe Morabito, retired in mid-February.

During Thursday's council meeting Mayor Mike Quill congratulated Fritz, who was at city hall for the meeting.

For Fritz, who has been with the department for more than 25 years, becoming chief was an achievement he wanted before he even officially joined their ranks. He said Thursday night that when he interviewed for a firefighter spot decades ago in the same office he currently occupies, he told himself that his name would be on that office door someday.

"Of course, you do your career, you spend over 25 years and there are days you're like, 'Nope, don't want that job' and then later you're like, 'You know what, I think I want that job,'" he said. "Ultimately, I'm here, I am very proud to be here. I look forward to continuing to serve the citizens of Auburn and make this department the best it can be. (I have) a great group of fire officers and firefighters underneath me."

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Cuomo: No in-class summer school in New York due to COVID-19 pandemic

New York school buildings will remain closed to classes through the summer and districts will need to develop plans for reopening in the fall. 

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Thursday that there will be no in-class summer school due to the coronavirus pandemic. Distance learning classes can be held online and districts must continue to provide meals and child care programs. 

Earlier this month, Cuomo announced that school buildings will not open for the remainder of the academic year. Schools have been closed statewide since mid-March. Distance learning has been used to ensure students can complete their coursework. 

The decision to keep schools closed through the summer is due to the risks posed by having students and teachers seated in close proximity. 

"They're places of gathering," Cuomo said. "They're on buses, they're in classrooms. How do you reduce density in a classroom? How do you reduce density in a cafeteria, on a school bus, et cetera?" 

A major factor in the decision was the recent development that some children who contracted COVID-19 have developed symptoms similar to Kawasaki disease, which causes inflammation in the blood vessels, and toxic shock syndrome. 

There have been 157 reported cases of the illness in children. Three children have died. Similar cases have been found in 25 states and 13 countries. 

Cuomo noted that the early assessment from health experts was that COVID-19 wouldn't affect children in the same it can cause serious illness in older people and those with underlying health conditions. But he's concerned about the recent findings that children who had COVID-19 are contracting another serious illness. 

The presence of the new illness could affect the decision to reopen schools in the fall. But Cuomo said Thursday that no decision has been made about whether schools will be allowed to hold in-person classes beginning in September. 

The state will issue guidance in early June on what schools will need to do to plan for reopening in the fall. The districts must develop plans and submit them to the state in July. The state must approve the plans before the schools can proceed with the reopening process. 

"Again, we don't want to make that decision until we have more facts," Cuomo said. "As the facts keep changing, prudence dictates that you don't make a decision until it's timely so you have the most recent facts to make a decision." 

In other news

• New York will extend sales tax interest and penalty relief through June 22, Cuomo announced. It could help up to 89,000 vendors who had returns due in March, according to the governor's office. 

• Cuomo reminded New Yorkers that there's a hotline to report employers that aren't complying with reopening guidelines. 

If workers believe their employer isn't following cleaning, personal protective equipment or social distancing guidelines, they can call 1-888-364-3065. 

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'Such an elegant house': Meet the new owners of Auburn's Seymour mansion

They were up against more money. More fame. More business potential.

But in the end, it was James and Katie Joynt, of Doylesburg, Pennsylvania, who beat out more than 200 other applicants to become the new owners of the historic Seymour mansion in Auburn.

City council voted to sell the 113 North St. property to the Joynts for $50,000 at its meeting Thursday.

The city, which acquired the property through tax foreclosure in June 2019, worked with local real estate broker Michael DeRosa to market it. The mansion was listed for $50,000, but all prospective buyers also had to complete an application detailing their plans for restoring and using the mansion. Due in part to the mansion going viral on social media and CNN, DeRosa fielded 204 offers from around the world, he said. The city received 41 applications before the Dec. 18 deadline that it narrowed down to five finalists, who were then interviewed by city council.

Speaking to The Citizen on Thursday, the Joynts said they didn't have much hope of being chosen to buy the property. They assumed other applicants had more money to invest in the mansion's restoration, or more to offer the city in the form of businesses proposed to open there. Personalities like Netflix star and artist Christine McConnell were in the mix as well.

"We are enthusiastic and multi-talented, but we are not very flashy," Katie said. "We are thankful to Auburn, the Auburn planning office, and the city council."

The Joynts, who manage Amish produce co-op Path Valley Farms, plan on moving to Auburn and living in the mansion with the seven youngest of their eight children: Tzeitel, 8; Joseph, 10; Greta, 12; Rosa, 13; John, 15; Charlie, 17; Zofia, 20; and Tetiana, 25. For Katie, it'll be a homecoming: She grew up in Auburn as Katie Klink, and she and James have been regularly bringing their children to the area to see their grandparents. In hopes of moving there permanently, the Joynts have been perusing Auburn real estate listings for years, they said.

They noticed the Seymour mansion in December. Built in 1861, the three-story brick Victorian home is 6,000 square feet, with 10 bedrooms and five bathrooms. The .9-acre property also includes a two-story carriage house. The mansion takes its unofficial name from its first occupant, banker and philanthropist James S. Seymour, founder of Auburn Community Hospital and Seymour Library.

James brought some of the children to visit the mansion two days after seeing the listing. They were drawn to the size of the lot, he said, as well as the potential lying within the dilapidated walls.

"It's such an elegant house," he said. "It functions beautifully as a family house."

On a later visit, Katie was looking out a second-floor window onto North Street when she said to her husband, "I think I can imagine living here." 

The Joynts visited the mansion a total of three times before submitting their application to buy it. Though they figured they'd have competition, they were surprised by just how many others applied, they said. But that made the family all the more thrilled when they were selected as finalists and, later, the new owners of the coveted property.

"The Joynt family ultimately made the most sense to me," Auburn City Councilor Jimmy Giannettino said. "Their proposal was thorough, creative and thoughtful. We always talk about attracting young families to Auburn and the need to address our aging housing stock — this is a perfect fit."

The family plans a faithful restoration of the mansion, they said. They'll remove the excess plumbing and walls that were installed to convert it to apartments, which were occupied as recently as last year. A modern kitchen and bathroom will be added, and the yard will be transformed into a garden space. But otherwise, the Joynts want the property to look as much as possible like it did in 1861.

"Our emphasis is to do no harm to the house's historical nature," James said. 

More specific details of the restoration, as well as its timeline and budget, are still being determined, James said. He and Katie are also in the middle of produce season in Pennsylvania, so they can't immediately commit their full time and attention to the project. But when they obtain their certificate of occupancy and work begins, it will be the family themselves doing most of it. They'll also harness their connection to the Amish community, and its builders and craftspeople, to help. That's not to say the family won't look for craftspeople in Auburn as well, James noted.

The family will likewise fund the restoration itself as much as possible, borrowing only if necessary. They're not interested in pursuing tax credits or other resources available to historic preservation projects like the mansion, James said, as they'd like to avoid any "bureaucratic layering." According to the city's resolution authorizing the sale, the family plans to invest at least $155,000 into the property. The resolution also notes that the property can revert to the city's possession if the restoration is not completed as scheduled.

The Joynts plan on creating an online presence where they'll update the Auburn community on their progress at the Seymour mansion. They also plan on staying in the produce business in the Cayuga County area — "It's hard to get us without getting at least some produce," James joked. But as the family moves into its headline-grabbing new home, and moves forward with its restoration, they ask that the community give them the same privacy that any family, in any home, would reasonably expect.

"We are looking forward to getting into the house as a family and being in Auburn," Katie said.

Gallery: Inside Auburn's Seymour mansion

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Auburn overtakes Scipio as municipality with most COVID-19 cases in Cayuga County

The municipality with the most confirmed COVID-19 cases in Cayuga County is its largest. 

The city of Auburn, with 16 confirmed cases, has more than any of the towns in the county. The Cayuga County Health Department on Thursday released an updated map and chart with town-level data as of May 20. 

Scipio (14) has the most cases among the towns. Genoa has 12 confirmed COVID-19 cases, followed by Brutus (7), Locke (5), Owasco (4), Fleming (3), Niles, Sterling, Throop and Victory each with two and Conquest, Ira, Sennett, Springport and Venice with one apiece. 

Since mid-March, there have been 298 Cayuga County residents who have quarantined after having direct contact with a positive case. 

A new confirmed case — a woman in her 50s living outside of Auburn — was announced Thursday. It's the 75th confirmed case in the county. 

Contact tracing is complete. The woman is one of 12 people in mandatory isolation after testing positive for the virus. So far, 62 people have been discharged from mandatory isolation after recovering from COVID-19. 

The county reported that 35 people are in mandatory quarantine after being exposed to a person with COVID-19. 

Three people, all of whom have COVID-19, remain hospitalized Thursday. There were no updates on their conditions.

The number of COVID-19 test results received increased to 2,310. The county is awaiting the results of 23 tests. 

The health department will hold another testing clinic from 1 to 4 p.m. Friday. The clinic is by appointment only. The schedule an appointment, go to cayugacounty.us/health and click on "COVID-19 Clinics." 

With Memorial Day weekend approaching, the health department reminded people that non-essential gatherings are prohibited. The department urged residents to continue social distancing. Based on its recent contact tracing investigations, "a number of" positive cases were people who violated the directive.