With the Cortland City School District ballots arriving recently, I wanted to give my thoughts on why I believe it is important to support the ballot initiative to allow the School District to sell Parker School to the City of Cortland. We need to keep this process going. The vote is just the next step. A yes vote is needed to move forward and not miss the opportunity to expand childcare in Cortland and bring kids back to the halls of Parker. Vote YES for Parker!
As a member of the Parker School Task Force, I am so happy we have been able to move this forward. Getting kids back into Parker and increasing availability of childcare for our community we’re both critical issues. To be clear on a few points: this won’t cost taxpayers money because 1) the school district holds the bonds and will continue to pay them off. In fact if a commercial entity bought the building then the bonds would immediately be due increasing the burden on taxpayers on school taxes. Also the sale price of the building is being decreased by the same amount in state aid. So next year the school district will lose $91 from what the city would pay. If they sold it to a commercial entity paying market price then the state aid would be deceased by the same amount which would be $500,000 again hitting taxpayers. 2) the groups going into Parker have the funding available to pay for the upkeep and improvements to the building. So it will be cost neutral for the city. Part of the benefit to these groups by having the City own the building is access to even more funding options.
I’m helping secure grants from the Appalachian Regional Commission and Southern Tier 8 Regional Planning Board in grants for the YWCA Childcare Center in Parker. Assemblywoman Lifton is also working hard to secure further grant funding. These are in addition to the funding already secured that will cover the initial start up. 3) YWCA and CAPCO are looking at possibly bringing on board another tenet, in the same vein, to further utilize the space but even without these they will be covering the costs on the building.
In the end, there is a business-solid, cost-neutral, and community-impactful plan in place that is making great progress. I am very hopeful that Cortland residents will overwhelmingly endorse the referendum to sell the building, allowing children to once again wander the halls of our beloved Parker School for years to come.
I think there are some misconceptions that you have about the costs going forward and who would be responsible for them.
After the district made the decision to close Parker (and Virgil), I appointed a task force to look for ways to re-purpose the structure and grounds. A vacant property is a blight in any neighborhood, and one the size of Parker would certainly be a detriment to the entire community (especially since we’ve invested so heavily in Suggett Park, looking to make the city core more attractive to homeowners).
The Parker School Task Force is composed of 3 city council members, 3 county legislators, 2 school board members, and 3 at large community members who all reside near Parker (a nurse, a teacher’s aide, and a retiree). The group had several listening sessions to hear what the community wanted to see the property become, and the overwhelming response was for it to continue to be used for children. Different community entities were approached to see about a potential interest in the property. After soliciting about a dozen entities and looking through over 20 ideas, childcare/early education was found to be a good fit- for Community Action Program of Cortland County (CAPCO) which provides head start/early head start classrooms, and the YWCA of Cortland County which is the largest provider of childcare in the county. (point of information- my wife is the executive director of the YW. I was not involved in the process, and it was the committee that identified and approached all potential partners.)
Dialogue ensued, and there are monies available to municipalities, but not to not-for-profits. The concept is for the city to own, and pass the property to CAPCO and the YWCA at some point in the near future.
If the city takes ownership of the Parker School, CAPCO and the YWCA will be responsible for the costs of renovation and upgrades. The only way the city will incur costs is if we occupy or utilize space in the building. If we do occupy/utilize space, then any costs incurred will be by a square footage ratio (the more square footage an entity occupies, the more it pays). CAPCO and the YWCA will be the largest occupants, so they will have the largest costs.
I can give you a quick rundown on costs. I will use the terms “city” for city of Cortland, and “tenants” for CAPCO and the YWCA.
Purchase: city (cost will most likely be $91, and we have donors ready to cover this cost)
Annual operating costs: tenants
Buildout to meet childcare requirements (converting spaces to meet state standards): tenants
Capital projects: tenants
If the district were to retain the building, its costs would be much higher than what childcare/other tenants would need due to state education department requirements.
If the city takes possession, there are a number of funding opportunities that are available (they are available to government entities, not to non-profits or private businesses). Based upon past discussions, there is potentially $1 million available. The city applied for and received a grant for an additional $500,000 for construction (we could apply, the non-profits could not). $1.5 million will cover the major expenditures expected within the next 5 years, additional costs would be covered as they arise.
The vote in June is for the district to have permission to sell the property. It is NOT the end all for the purchase. There are still additional steps before the city brings it to council for a vote, including the inspection of the building and a “phase 1” evaluation of the property (looking to identify if there are contamination issues).
The main reasons why the city is considering this:
1) A vacant school in the heart of the city is a drain on property values.
2) The city has invested in our parks heavily to attract/keep families in our neighborhoods, this project complements Suggett Park.
3) Childcare is in need of stabilization, this will improve the childcare landscape in the City of Cortland.
4) The school is less than a mile from the hospital, SUNY, and Main street- centrally located and walkable for parents who work in any of these three high employment zones.
5) This will help stabilize a neighborhood that has been changing from owner occupied to rental over the past 20 years.
If you have any further questions, feel free to reach out to me. I know this project is unusual and has raised a number of questions, and we are working on solutions as we move forward. However, being proactive about property vacancies is a smart way to keep the city looking great, and to stabilize property values. Leaving it vacant will be an undue burden not only on the neighborhood, but on taxpayers as well (the district is tasked with maintaining the structure, and the estimated annual cost is $50,000- paid by district taxpayers like you and I). I assure you that the Common Council is asking a LOT of tough questions, and we are all conscious of the fact that we do not want to put an undue burden on the taxpayers.
We’re going to continue to deal with the financial fallout from Covid-19, and we will work on eliminating vacant/blighted properties in the city at the same time. We will persevere through this.
Mayor Brian Tobin
(photo credit: Joe McIntyre/file photo, Cortland Standard)