December 2, 2021

Cortland getting healthier by some measures

Bob Ellis/staff photographer

Cortland County Sheriff Mark Helms speaks about drugs during a forum Wednesday at the Ramada Cortland Hotel and Conference Center.

CORTLAND — Measure the health of a community. It can’t open its mouth and say, “ahh.” It has no blood pressure, no respiration. It’s not simply a collection of people and their health conditions.

So when the Cortland Community Assessment Team takes a measure of Cortland County’s health, it’s an occasionally figurative metric. Tourism is part of the body. So is sustainability and jobs.

And yes, drug addiction and housing and youth.

Actual health is critical, too.

About 100 nonprofit, government, education and other officials met at the Ramada Cortland Hotel and Conference Center Wednesday afternoon to review Cortland Counts, an annual assessment of the county’s well-being.

They saw how methamphetamine affects the environment — each pound of meth results in six pounds of toxic materials. They saw how it undercuts quality housing. They heard of declining tobacco use and noted the age drug use begins to accelerate pre-dates high school.

“We’ve got great strengths and great resources,” said Jackie Leaf, executive director of Seven Valleys Health Coalition. “We need to pull it all together.”

Meth accelerates

Take meth use, said Sheriff Mark Helms. Cortland County found three meth labs in the decade between 2000 and 2009. In just the next five years, police found another 57, then 33 just in 2015 and 31 last year.

“We’re forced to change how we do business,” Helms said. A two-liter jug in a trash can could be trash, or could be a one-pot meth cooker that just might explode.

Heroin? Another trend, and very different from the cocaine and crack a young Deputy Helms dealt with 30 years ago. “I went a lot of years before I found a single needle,” he said. Now his staff must cope with

suspects and inmates who need detoxification, treatment and health care.

“We have people whose veins are crystallizing,” he said. “Eventually, we’ll drive it out, but I don’t know if it will ever completely be gone.”

It’s a fact of American life, said Mark Thayer, the county’s director of community services, responsible for overseeing mental-health programs. More Americans use prescription painkillers than tobacco products. As many as 50 percent more Americans deal with substance abuse than cancer.

“We do get in front of it and lessen the deaths from opioids,” Thayer said, adding that every $1 spent on drug treatment saves $4 in health costs and $7 in criminal justice.

“One of the cool new things is a partnership with Cortland Regional Medical Center,” he said, a peer-engagement program that matches addicts with someone who will push them toward the help they need.

Drug education working

Surveys show drug education is working, said Matt Whitman of Cortland Area Communities that Care. “The 2016 survey data is some of the best we’ve ever had,” Whitman said. “We made significant reductions over 15 years.”

Alcohol, tobacco and marijuana use among teens is all down, he said. The concern is the year between eighth and ninth grades, when use of all those substances nearly doubles. “The longer we can delay kids, the less likely they’ll start to use,” he said.

Note tobacco, added Jennifer Hamilton of the Cortland County Health Department. About 96 percent of all smokers start before they’re 21. The county’s 2016 law banning sales of tobacco products to the under-21 crowd will eventually save lives.

“Tobacco use remains the No. 1 cause of premature death in Cortland County,” Hamilton said, but today, only 5.3 percent of kids in grades seven to 12 have used tobacco in the past 30 days, below even the national average.

But watch the stores, said Katie Couture, a Cortland High School senior working with Hamilton. Stores near schools have three times the number of tobacco advertisements as others.

“Kids can get out of school and go right across the street,” she said. Store signage, unlike other forms of advertisement, doesn’t pick its audience.

Food and housing help

Other elements play into community wellness. “Food is part of having a healthy community,” said Allen Gandelman, principal of Main Street Farms.

Healthy because food is nutrition, but more than that. “It’s a quality of life thing; it’s a healthy living thing,” he said of sustainable agriculture. “It creates jobs. It protects the environment. And every dollar spent in the community stays in the community.”

That’s why he’s working with a coalition to establish a year-round farmers market in Cortland, similar to one that opened last year in Broome County. Cortland, he said, has several farmers markets, “but they’re small and spread out and outdoors.”

A central market, preferably in the city, would give access to local food to a larger portion of underserved residents, he said.

“Housing is health care,” said Shari Weiss of Catholic Charities of Cortland County as she described a 14-bed, four-building halfway house that opened last fall on Charles Street.

“When they come to us, they get intensive case management,” she said. Mental health and drug treatment referrals, health care referrals, help with disability and retirement benefits, “all with the hope they won’t return to homelessness,” Weiss said.

A new complex, Riverview Apartments, to open next spring will offer 39 units of mixed housing, half of them supported by the state Office of Mental Health. Watch for another housing project later this year.

Tourism frosts the economic cake

Tourism is a $71 million salve to a community’s hurts, said Jim Dempsey, director of the Cortland County Convention and Visitors Bureau. Tourism supports 1,450 jobs with a $20.4 million payroll. Tourists in 2015 spent:

— $15.4 million on lodging.

— $5.5 million on recreation.

— $29.7 million on food.

— $13.7 million on retail and services.

— $5.1 million on second homes.

“They love that on Main Street they have a bunch of restaurants to choose from, and they’re not chains,” Dempsey said.

The taxes those tourists pay, $8.4 million, equals $472 per household, he said. “Be sure to thank them for what they’re doing.”

Too many elements play into a community for any one organization to be responsible, said Mark Webster, chief executive of Cortland Regional Medical Center. “The challenges are big and complex. At the end of the day it’s bigger than any one of us. In many ways, the Crown City is under siege.”

But as he showed a picture of his grandchildren, he said there’s hope, too. “We need to make sure we’re a community they want to stay in.”