October 24, 2021

Parker school sale heads to district voters

Cortland Standard file photo

Parker Elementary School in Cortland. File photo.

The absentee ballots are in the mail. If you are a registered voter in the Cortland Enlarged City School District, you may have received one already.

The school district’s budget is the main issue on that ballot. But it also contains a referendum item that would, if passed, allow the district to sell the former Parker Elementary School, which closed last year.

The city of Cortland has been working for more than a year now on a multimillion-dollar plan to buy the former school and turn it into a daycare facility run jointly by CAPCO and YWCA Cortland.

The Cortland Common Council and the school board have already voted for preliminary approval of the sale. If voters vote yes on the referendum item, the matter will return to the Common Council, which would have to vote to purchase the building for $91 — one dollar for every year the school was in operation.

But the project will require more — a state grant application from the city put the total cost at $4 million. Mayor Brian Tobin has said that estimate includes every possible cost connected with the project. City officials previously said the project would require $2 million in capital expenses over 10 years, as well as $460,000 in start-up expenses and $166,000 in annual operating costs.

The start-up money necessary to renovate the building must be provided by the nonprofits, Tobin said. However, the initial money could be fronted by a municipal bond.

City officials have not yet publicly discussed this, he said, and the council has not voted on it, but this is one way the initial seed money might be generated.

The city, if it buys the building, could sell it if the project does not work out as planned, he said, although the sale would be restricted by a number of bond conditions, which also restrict how the city and the nonprofits could use the building.

Tobin said the June 9 vote is not about these funding issues, but strictly about whether the school district can sell the school building. The council can still choose not to buy it.

The council is slated to discuss several issues related to the Parker project Tuesday, including an update on a phase 1 environmental survey and a building inspection that must be completed before the nonprofits could move into the building.

The building would also require as much as $290,621 in annual debt service to “the building owner” — that is, the city — according to a memo prepared for the Common Council by Mack Cook, the city’s director of administration and finance. The memo outlines other potential expenses, such as a diesel tank that may still be buried on the property, as well as abatement of vinyl asbestos tile.

Tobin said the project would require $1 million to make the building ready for the YWCA and CAPCO.

Some district voters are wondering, however, how the project will get its initial funding in a time of great financial uncertainty due to the coronavirus pandemic. A discussion thread on Nextdoor.com, a neighborhood social media site, has been filled with questions and comments over the past several days about the project.

The following funding has been allocated or promised:

  • $500,000 from Empire State Development, paid after the project is completed. Tobin has said he was working with state officials to break up the $500,000, so the city would receive a portion — $200,000 — after completing $1 million of the project.
  • $600,000 pledged by Assembly Member Barbara Lifton (D-Ithaca) and $500,000 by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) from the State and Municipal Facilities Program, or SAM program, administered through the state Dormitory Authority.
  • $629,889 in state funds to YWCA and CAPCO to train employees for programs that would be housed in the

Parker School, Kelly Tobin, executive director of YWCA Cortland, has said. She and Brian Tobin are married.

But is the money going to come through?

“We have every reason to believe that there is not just verbal but strong financial support from Lifton and Heastie on this,” Brian Tobin said.

Lifton said she was confident the money, while not formally approved, would be available because it is previously allocated money and not a part of this year’s state budget, from which SAM funding has been cut.

“Once we make these promises … we do everything we can to honor those promises,” she said. “It’s my understanding that that funding is not in jeopardy.”

Tobin said he is confident that the city will not incur any cost for the Parker building.

“Our budget will not be impacted by the Parker project, and the Parker project will not be impacted by our budget,” he said.