October 22, 2021

Virgil plans referendum on school

Should town buy Virgil School?

Bob Ellis/staff photographer

Virgil elementary school is shown in this file photo.

John Kaminski and Virgil residents have a challenge: They must find how much the town of Virgil can buy the soon-to-be-closed Virgil Elementary School for; a reasonable use for the building; a way to pay for that; and a way to sell town residents on the idea.

And the clock is ticking. To get the plan on the ballot for a referendum in November, the town board must vote on it by Aug. 8, Supervisor Kaminski said Wednesday night at a meeting to consider uses for the closing school. That’s 11 weeks.

“The town board wants you guys to vote and see if we can come up with the plan,” Kaminski told about 35 people at Virgil Town Hall following a presentation by resident Sylvia Cook on some of the potential uses, and details from Kaminski on some of the financial facts.

The 34,600-square-foot building, built in four stages between 1932 and 1986, has a number of modern features that suggest potential uses: elevators; a commercial kitchen; closed-circuit TV system for security; an emergency generator.

The building’s structure is sound, she said, and if the current owner — the Cortland Enlarged City School District — estimated $1.2 million in repairs in renovations to keep its use as a school, that’s because the estimate included items like new lockers and library furniture that a new owner might not want or need.

Among the ideas Cook threw out:
• Town hall: The town could move its operations to the school, sell the current town hall, now assessed at $475,000, and quintuple its space for other purposes.

• Low-income housing: 9% of the town’s population lives below the poverty level and 25% of the town’s renters pay more than 30% of their weekly income on rent. The need is there, she said.

• Senior activities: 181 of the town’s 474 residents are older than 60. “What we are losing by not having a school is a sense of community” Cook said; this could alleviate that.

• Business and commercial space: Dance studios are popular, she said; and space could be outfitted with high-speed internet access and cubicles for start-up businesses, similar to a facility in downtown Cortland, but without the commute.

• Hospitality spaces: Weddings, receptions, business gatherings — the town could offer space at a lower price than similar facilities.

• Satellite offices: The U.S. Department of Agriculture, Farm Bureau, Soil and Water Conservation District and Cornell Cooperative Extension could all occupy space there, perhaps just part-time.

• Health facilities: “We’re in an underserved area; it makes sense,” Cook said, noting Guthrie Cortland Medical Center and Family Health Network have been contacted. However, added Cortland County Legislator Sandy Price (D-Virgil, Harford), that the town doesn’t own the building limits interest.

• Youth activities: After-school programs, summer programs and the like. Nearly a quarter of the town’s 198 workers have a commute between 40 and 60 minutes to work. That’s a long time for kids to be home alone, Cook said.

• The Cortland Senior Orchestra: It and other groups need places to rehearse and perform. Some uses come with inherent revenue, Kaminski said: leases, rental fees. Others might need grant support. So he encouraged more ideas — particularly ideas that can pay for themselves.

The building would be assessed at $590,000, and Kaminski hopes the school district would sell it for $1, if just to shed the cost of maintenance.

Town officials estimate maintenance, utilities and insurance would cost $57,000 a year. Without revenue, the maintenance would add 33 cents per $1,000 assessed property value to the town’s tax rate, Kaminski said.

It’s worth it, said Trisha Jesset of Tower Road. “I pay that for a box of diapers,” said the mother of a 2-year-old and 4-year-old (and another on the way). “I’d pay that for one day of sitting on a bench at the playground.”

The town board can be reasonably vague with its purpose as it drafts the referendum, Kaminski said, perhaps saying the purpose is a “community center.” But it must have that purpose, and he wants an idea how to pay for it, too.

By Aug. 8, when the board must vote.

“We need to move along with a reason and a purpose,” he said.