October 23, 2021

City votes to buy former school

Joe McIntyre/file photo

Parker Elementary School in Cortland. File photo.

The Cortland Common Council voted Tuesday, 8-0, to buy the former Parker Elementary School from the Cortland Enlarged City School District.

In order for the purchase to become final, the school district would also have to vote to sell the building. A vote is scheduled for its Jan. 14 meeting.

If the board votes yes, then the matter would be put to a district-wide referendum no sooner than 45 days after public notice being posted.

The city plans to use the building to house child care programs run by two nonprofits, the YWCA and CAPCO, as well as administrative office space for the city.

The state recently awarded the city $500,000 through the Regional Economic Development Council to help renovate the building. This grant, however, is an Empire State Development grant, awarded as reimbursement following the successful completion of the project, which the city estimated would cost about $4 million, according to Garry VanGorder, executive director of the Cortland County Business Development Corp.

Mayor Brian Tobin said the city and nonprofits would continue to work to find state and private sources of funding.

City officials have previously estimated that the building would require $2 million in capital expenses over 10 years, $460,000 in start-up expenses and $166,000 in annual operating costs.

State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) and Assembly Member Barbara Lifton (D- Ithaca) suggested in September they would find state money to help the city with the school.

One of several contingencies of the resolution passed Tuesday requires that an environmental review and a certified building inspection be conducted on the property before the city signs the lease. Aldermen said the city would not bear the cost of these inspections, but it was unclear who, other than the school district, would pick up the bill.

Alderwoman Kathryn Silliman (D-2nd Ward), a member of the Parker school task force, spoke in favor of the council buying the building.

“We can’t not put this building to good use,” she said. “We can’t just let it rot in the middle of the city, in the middle of these neighborhoods.” Putting child care programs in the building, she said, “will fill a void for working families in Cortland.”

The purchase was also backed by Robert Haight, president of the Cortland County Chamber of Commerce, who spoke during the public comment period. Haight said the community badly needed child care and early childhood education, and explained how child care was ultimately “a business decision” that contributed to a less tardy, more effective work force.

But city resident William Fiske, who also spoke during the comment period, opposed the move.

“I strongly urge you not to do this,” said Fiske, noting that the 91-year-old building was constructed over an ashpit in a floodplain near Otter Creek. Taking ownership of the building entailed major risks and possible “worse outcomes I don’t even want to describe,” he said.

Some of the alderman who voted in favor also voiced concerns about buying the school.

While voting in favor of the resolution, John Bennett (D-4th Ward) said he had “grave concerns” about the purchase, mentioning the possibility that a diesel tank might be buried on the property, something that had not previously been discussed publicly.

Mention of a diesel tank was made in a memo Mack Cook, the city’s director of administration and finance, prepared for the council, which was not included in the supplement to the meeting’s agenda. The memo also identifies several other areas of concern, including vinyl asbestos tile in the building that would need to be abated, and $290,621 in annual debt service cost to “the building owner” — or the city. Cook said this number is his “top-end guess.”

Use of the building would still be curtailed because of New York State Dormitory Authority bonds. Those restrictions would:

  • Allow the city to buy the Parker school for a nominal price, $91, or a dollar for every year the Parker school was in operation.
  • Allow the city to rent the building to private tenants, provided the city does not profit from the arrangement, and charges tenants only operational costs for the building.
  • Prohibit the building from being used for religious purposes.
  • Require the city “to take actions deemed necessary or advisable” by the Dormitory Authority regarding tenants, fees and the number of days tenants can use
    the building.
  • Compel the city to pay “legal fees and settlement costs” if the authority determines the city violates any provision of the agreement.

The bond restrictions would also require that the city occupy the building through Oct. 1, 2032, but district Superintendent Michael J. Hoose has said the bonds would be paid off in five years, which would release the city from these conditions.