2011: The Year in Review

Join us as we take a look back at the events which shaped our lives in Chenango County in 2011. Here, in no particular order, are The Evening Sun stories which garnered the most attention in the past year. Staff writers Melissa deCordova, Brian Golden, Jeff Genung, Julian Kappel and Shawn Magrath contributed to this report.

Elections change the face of Board of Supervisors

The year 2012 will be remembered as a year of transition in Chenango County government. The ‘7 in ‘11’ newly-elected supervisors take their seats tomorrow around the table in the newly-appointed boardroom in the former social services wing of the County Office Building in Norwich.

Two of the longest-serving supervisors in the county board’s history retired in 2011: Chairman Richard B. Decker of North Norwich and Supervisor Robert Briggs of Afton, who also served as board chairman during his tenure. Three time-honored public servants, Linda E. Natoli of the City of Norwich Wards 4-6; David Messineo of Otselic and John Phelan of Coventry all lost their seats in the November elections. Smithville’s Alan Johnson also retired after serving six years.

The new board roster is filled with political newcomers, including journalist turned politician Tom P. Grace of Columbus and businessmen Evan T. Williams of Otselic, George L. Westcott of Coventry and Fred J. Heisler, Jr. of Smithville.

The closest race was fought in the city’s Wards 4-6 as City of Norwich Alderman and Norwich businessman Robert Jeffrey eked out Natoli, who had served 18 years as supervisor and was opposed only once before during her tenure.

As for political affiliations, the Democratic Party lost two representatives on the board of supervisors, Messineo of Otselic and Pamela Weidman of Columbus. The Republican Party gained one, Williams of Otselic, and the board’s sole politically unaffiliated representative, Ross P. Iannello, gained an ally in Grace, who is an Independent.

Additional 2012 changes at the top levels of county government include a new public works director, county attorney and probation department director.

Downtown shuffle

Incoming businesses, the expansion of existing businesses and an increase in sales tax have all supported a healthier local economy in the last year, but with these bounds of economic improvement, the area saw a shuffle of businesses through downtown Norwich.

When Byrne Dairy announced plans of building a gas station and convenience store on East Main in 2010, it left questions of what to do with a vacant building. This year, after the completion of the new Byrne Dairy facility, it was announced that GHS Federal Credit Union would be moving into the former Byrne Dairy building on East Main, the Dollar Tree on South Broad will be moving into the former location of GHS in the Tops Plaza, NBT would purchase the former Dollar Tree location to meet the needs of expansion and Fashion Bug in the Tops Plaza announced it will depart from the area, leaving behind another vacant spot in the plaza for potential businesses.

This movement of growing businesses led to a jump in sales tax revenue for the city in recent months and Byrne Dairy has been the greatest contributor, according to city officials. For the first time in years, the city is gaining sales tax from gasoline – something they have been deprived of in recent years as every other gas station in the area falls outside city limits, they said.

In addition to the relocation of several businesses in the area, the Chenango County Chamber of Commerce has intentions of moving to a vacant storefront on South Broad Street in the coming months, Karolyn’s Krossroads Cafe moved to a bigger location on South Broad in September and Made in Chenango was forced to relocate from it’ previous space on 20 S. Broad St. to 24-25 N. Broad after heavy rains and melting snow caused the roof to collapse in March.

Gas drilling debate continues

Shale gas drilling made headlines again in 2011 as environmental regulators continued their quest to fine tune New York’s permitting regulations.

The Chenango County Natural Gas Advisory Committee forged ahead, tackling many of the same subjects gripping residents and governments within the Marcellus and Utica shale plays, such as: municipal regulatory rights; gathering line, pipeline and compulsory integration oversight; proper taxation and funding for the Department of Environmental Conservation; and, most importantly, drilling safety.

Hydraulic fracturing opponents and those advocating for safe drilling frequented county committees and town board meetings, ultimately bringing forth many new candidates for government office.

The DEC’s now three-year review period took its toll on Norse Energy, Inc. In August, the energy company ceased plans to drill an additional 30 sandstone wells. Norse’s shutdown eliminated 100 or more industry-related jobs. For example, David Anderson of Anderson Laboratories, Inc. in Norwich said his business was severely impacted. Anderson Laboratories conducted more than 500 tests for GeoPhysical World and Right-of-Way Land Services in 2010. Both of the county’s newly added businesses let their employees go and pulled out of the county this year.

April thunderstorms bring flooding, tornado

A series of severe thunderstorms on the night of April 27 and early morning of April 28 resulted in widespread flash flooding, downed trees and power lines, multiple road closures and a rare, F2 tornado that touched down in the Town of Pharsalia, leaving a path of destruction more than 100 yards wide.

A state of emergency was declared as a result of the powerful storms, with flooding reported in the towns of McDonough, Plymouth, Sherburne, Pharsalia, Smyrna and Norwich. The home of North Pharsalia residents Greg and Denise Ashton, who were forced to take shelter in their basement shortly after 4 a.m. the morning of the storm, said their property was unrecognizable after the tornado swept past.

Days later, the National Weather Service confirmed that an F2 tornado had touched down, with winds of at least 115 miles per hour. In those areas impacted by the tornado, hundreds of trees were found snapped and uprooted, leveling a large swath of forest along North and Center Roads in Pharsalia.

Said Denise, “People say it sounds like a freight train coming at you and that’s what we heard. Just a roaring noise over everything.”

Damage costs following the series of powerful storms was estimated at more than $3 million across the county, with emergency officials estimating the damage statewide at approximately $20 million.

Said NYS Commissioner for the Department of Transportation Joan McDonald after surveying the damage, “We saw some very eye-opening situations when we were out.”

Convicted drug dealer gets 39 years

The culmination of a police investigation that began in January of 2009, convicted cocaine dealer Michael A. Victor was sentenced to 39 years in state prison on Dec. 16 on felony charges of narcotics and weapons possession and conspiracy.

In September, Victor was found guilty on all ten of the drugs, weapons and conspiracy counts included in his 2009 felony indictment. The Syracuse native could have received up to 41 years for the criminal possession, criminal possession with the intent to sell, conspiracy and multiple weapons charges brought against him, according to Chenango County District Attorney Joseph McBride.

Following Victor’s sentencing, the district attorney called the convicted narcotics dealer a “big problem in our area” who not only lived off the distribution of narcotics, but was responsible for other people purchasing his products committing “numerous crimes to pay for his cocaine.”

Judge W. Howard Sullivan called Victor a narcotics “kingpin” in the Chenango County area.

“You’re the one that’s the faucet that turned it on here in Chenango County,” stated Sullivan prior to Victor’s sentencing. “You’re the one who made it happen here in Chenango County ... you have all that responsibility on you, sir.”

Victor was taken into custody in March of 2009 after law enforcement officials raided a pair of apartments located in the City of Norwich. It’s believed Victor lived in one of the apartments while using the other as a front for his narcotics operation. A police search of the two residences – as well as a separate storage unit – turned up large quantities of marijuana, crack cocaine, several thousand dollars in cash, a loaded 12-gauge shotgun, a loaded assault rifle, as well as other firearms, all with their serial numbers filed off.

School employee pleads guilty in surveillance case

In October, former Norwich City School District employee Jonathan L. Aikins – accused of unlawfully videotaping an unknown number of female students in a high school locker room – accepted a plea deal that could send him to state prison for the next one to three years.

Aikins was taken into custody in early June following a police investigation into an audio/visual recording device – in this case a cellular phone – that was found in a NHS girls locker room. The former swim coach could have faced up to 16 years in state prison if he’d been convicted on all four counts of second degree unlawful surveillance – a class E felony – originally brought against him.

A search warrant, issued by the county district attorney’s office, allowed authorities to investigate Aikins’ 47 Silver St. residence, where a second digital recording device was discovered.

According to assistant district attorney Stephen Dunshee, Aikins had been videotaping an undisclosed number of female students between the months of February and June of 2011. He was immediately suspended following his arrest.

Disparity in NYS school aid widespread

School districts across Chenango County, continuing to face a number of tough economic decisions, are facing an uphill battle thanks to drastic inequities in New York State’s educational aid formula.

In November, financial expert and East Syracuse Statewide School Finance Consortium Executive Director Dr. Rick Timbs met with members of the Chenango County School Boards Association to discuss school aid disparity in New York State. According to the former educator and administrator, low and average wealth districts – such as those in Chenango County – have been forced to drastically reduce staff and rely on their fund balance in recent years. Because of this, the quality of education has suffered and students within these districts are at a severe disadvantage.

“The truth is, all kids should be treated fairly, no matter where they live,” said Timbs. “In his budget presentation for the 2011-2012 school year, Governor Cuomo said we must ‘ensure adequate funding to high-need districts which historically have not been adequately funded.’ This is what we call rhetoric.”

According to Timbs, lower wealth districts are impacted more severely than wealthier ones following cuts to state aid. For example, when state aid is frozen, a wealthy district with an annual budget of $20 million – receiving 10 percent in state funding and 90 percent in local funding, with a proposed budget increase of 2 percent – would see a local tax increase of 2.22 percent. A poor district with the same budget – receiving 75 percent in state funding and 25 percent in local funding, with the same proposed budget increase – would see a local tax increase of 8 percent.

And while a poor district may receive more in state aid than a wealthier one, said Timbs, the wealthier district is able to absorb any cuts in educational aid with far greater ease.

Added Timbs, “Is [state aid] distributed correctly? No. Is there more aid for a kid in a wealthy district? Yes. Can [smaller districts] survive? No.”

Summer without a pool

When it was first made public in April that Kurt Beyer would be closed for repairs for the 2011 swimming season, it was expected that the pool would reopen for summer, 2012. It was also made known that the repair of the 1950’s era filtration system, along with other maintenance issues on the pool would come at a price to the city, with or without state grant money for repairs.

The cost of the pool project are an estimated $215,000 to cover the repair of the filtration system, electrical system and sealant and paint on the inside of the pool. Since work has yet to begin at Kurt Beyer, there is a lingering possibility that it will not be open in time for the 2012 season either, according to some city officials.

Presently, the goal is to have it done by June, said Public Works Superintendent Carl Ivarson and Mayor Joseph Maiurano.

Swimmers were allowed access to the Norwich High School pool over the summer but the number of swimmers drastically decreased by more than 8,000 people, according to recreational records held by the city youth bureau. The number of recreational swimmers who take advantage of the pool may never be as high as they once were due to a possible user or membership fee that may be imposed to help offset the costs of repairs.

“Some municipalities do have charge fees but nothing is in place right now. If it is decided that there is a fee, the fee would be determined by the council,” said Robert Mason, city youth bureau director. For now, the fate of Kurt Beyer and the necessary means of funding the project remain up in the air as the city continues to seek options allowing swimmers to use the facility free of charge.

Children’s Center closes

In June, the Chenango County Catholic Charities Board of Directors announced the closure of The Children’s Center, 1 Virginia Lane, effective July 30, citing the organization’s inability to fund the program and decreasing enrollment.

According to members of the board, as well as incoming board chair Gray Stevens, the decision to close the child care facility, while difficult, was a necessary one.

“Historically, operation of The Children’s Center has been a challenge for operators. The expense of center-based childcare has grown beyond the reach of many families in our community and, as a result, we have seen declining enrollment,” Stevens said. “Childcare costs, especially in rural areas, have become prohibitive because of increased state regulations, the lack of funding, and local economic conditions.”

The Children’s Center employed 13 daycare workers. At full capacity, the center provided employment for 22, offering reading, writing, science and art projects to children from the age of six weeks right up to kindergarten. The center was downsizing ever since enrollment began to drop, with about 30 children enrolled at the time of its closing.

Carpenter leaves Chamber; Craig takes over

In a surprise move, Commerce Chenango President and CEO Maureen Carpenter announced her impending departure on the night of the Chamber’s annual dinner. Carpenter, who helmed Commerce Chenango for four years after having served as its economic development coordinator, accepted the position of economic development coordinator for South Central Kentucky through the Bowling Green Area Chamber of Commerce.

In planning for a transition of leadership at Commerce Chenango, Kevin Walsh, chairman of the Board of Directors commented, “Maureen has made great contributions to Commerce Chenango, not only as CEO, but in her role as economic development coordinator previous to that. I feel great about the strength of our staff and have confidence that their knowledge and experience will ensure a seamless transition period.”

After an extensive search, Norwich resident and longtime Binghamton-area television news anchor Steve Craig was tapped for the Chamber’s top spot in July. “Steve’s breadth of knowledge of the area, vision for Chenango County’s future, and passion for improving the economy and quality of life in the county were just a few of the reasons that he has been chosen for this position,” said Walsh.

Car Museum founder mourned

In April, The Northeast Classic Car Museum’s most generous benefactor, George E. Staley, passed away at his home in Lincklaen. He was 92.

Norwich Police Chief Joseph Angelino, who had the opportunity to know Staley through the museum, described him as a man of intelligence, wit and generosity and “the greatest of the greatest generation.”

“Through his generosity, so many things happened,” said Angelino, pointing out both Staley’s involvement with the NECCM and his efforts to restore his former school house, which is now the DeRuyter Town Hall. “He had such vision and such compassion to do good.”

Through the NECCM, which he helped found in 1995, Staley shared his passion – and his impressive collection – with the world.

According to Phil Giltner, a member of the NECCM board of directors, the museum owes its existence, and success, to Staley.

“He is the heart and the foundation of the museum,” he said. “His initial contribution and continued support has made the museum what it is today.”

Remembering Sheriff Benenati

He was one of the good guys in the world – fair, easy to talk to and known as the guy who got the job done.

Such were the tributes paid by Chenango County leaders, friends and colleagues about the life and legacy of the late Sheriff Joseph Benenati Jr. in July as they learned of his death at age 97.

Most acknowledged that Joe Benenati was one of the greatest public servants they had ever known, having spent 24 years with the New York State Police and 22 as Chenango County Sheriff on top of a distinguished five-year career in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Second World War.

“His whole life was dedicated to helping people. There’s no greater tribute to him than the service that he did in this county and for the country,” said Chenango County Sheriff Ernest Cutting.

Cutting’s predecessor, former Sheriff Thomas J. Loughren, said Benenati was the most influential person in his life outside of his own father. He was a mentor, teaching Loughren the ins and outs of public service beginning from when he was a cadet, and later, encouraging Loughren to run for sheriff. Benenati remained a sounding board and friend to Loughren up until his death.

“Let me tell you something, he was tough. But most of all, he taught me how to treat people,” said Loughren. “He put the people and the community first, always. I didn’t realize it at the time, but there’s not a lot of leaders who actually talk the talk and walk the walk like he did.”

Ambulance wars

In New Berlin and Columbus, a feud has continued over a proposed ambulance service which would serve to either replace the existing service and create a not-for-profit in its place.

The village board voted unanimously to reject a proposed plan to form an ambulance district with the Towns of New Berlin and Columbus last fall.

According to Supervisor Ross Ianello, Not Affiliated - New Berlin, the idea has been in the works for two years. Currently, the village ambulance service provides for the three districts and taxes are collected in conjunction with the fire service tax.

The towns of Columbus and New Berlin will follow through with creating a separate ambulance district and service after the village of New Berlin board voted to reject the proposal.

The Unadilla Valley Ambulance Corps. will provide patient care and transportation to both towns and will be controlled by a not-for-profit company controlled by a board of directors which will operate as a private entity.

According to board President George Coates, the purpose of instituting a new service is to “take the politics” out of patient care and to provide a better understanding of the tax base and more oversight on actual costs to the taxpayer.

“The project is in the infancy stage right now,” said board Treasurer Brian Burton. “There are still many steps before we have it up and running.”

Parks project completed

The improvement projects on East and West Parks, which were first discussed nearly a decade ago, finally came to fruition in 2011 with the unveiling of a new stage in East Park, a new place for the old gazebo, new lighting and a freshly landscaped perspective for downtown Norwich.

The project, which was originally proposed in 2002 and finally approved July 2009, became a long-term and highly anticipated venture in the city.

The Norwich Business Improvement District – under the leadership of Pegi LoPresti, along with a group of community members known as Friends of the Parks – began fundraising for the projects in early 2007, with the intent of raising the estimated $400,000 needed.

Renovations had initially been scheduled to begin in May, 2010 but were suspended because of issues that involved state agency oversight of the project which caused unexpected delays, said Eric Larsen, member of Friends of the Park. After jumping several hurdles to get the park project moving again, ground breaking for the renovations project occurred in April 2011, after more than eight years of planning and fundraising between the city, the BID and Friends of the Park.

Donations for the million dollar project exceeded $450,000, and nearly half of the work was done by volunteers – a crucial factor in carrying out the project, according to Friends of the Park.

Construction workers poured the concrete floor of the park’s new stage in early June and the gazebo that once stood near the place of the new East Park stage was successfully moved later that month. Finishing touches on the park greens were made in August and the official opening of the parks were celebrated just in time for Colorscape Chenango – the first big city event held in the newly renovated parks.

Chobani grows by leaps and bounds

Agro-Farma has continued to expand its main plant located in Columbus as it grows its Chobani yogurt business across the world, adding a plant in Ohio and introducing distribution to Australia.

The Chenango County Industrial Development Agency approved a sales tax exemption incentive totaling $3,837,297 for Agro-Farma’s latest expansion.

Agro Farma requested the sales tax exemption and Payment in Lieu of Tax (PILOT) for Phase III of its $134 million expansion project which includes a projected 106 new full-time positions created at the plant.

The PILOT on the assessed property tax of the expansion dictates a 50 percent abatement over a ten year period.

In the past, the CCIDA has provided Agro Farma with incentives and assistance for projects totaling $100 million. The latest phase would add more than 100,000 square feet to the existing building as well as create a 17,400 square foot Employee Wellness Building and a 300 vehicle parking lot.

“This project is a good thing not only for our company, but for our employees and the community as well,” said the company’s founder and CEO Hamdi Ulukaya.

He explained that the new positions added to the company would add a projected $4.2 million to the company’s roughly $30 million payroll.

In July, Ulukaya cut the ribbon on the new Chobani Champions Field in New Berlin, giving a new home to the community’s youth baseball and softball teams in a $300,000 investment in diamonds, dugouts, concession stand and announcer’s booth.

In November, Agro Farma announced plans to open a second domestic manufacturing plant as part of the company’s continued strategic growth initiative. Chobani will invest over $100 million to build a state-of-the-art, high capacity production facility housed on 200 acres of agricultural and industrial land in Twin Falls, Idaho.

Since being introduced to the market in 2007, Chobani has taken supermarkets by storm. It quickly became the number one selling Greek-style yogurt in the country and claimed the number one slot in the overall yogurt category in the Northeast. In 2011, they did the seemingly impossible – eclipsing products made by Dannon and Yoplait to become the country’s top selling brand, based on a report by SymphonyIRI.

The Flood of 2011

Chenango County has seen its fair share of ups and downs this year, however, by far the event with the most lasting effects is the extensive flooding caused by Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee to the areas in Broome, Chenango and Tioga counties in early September.

The floods were reminiscent of those that occurred in June of 2006 with rivers cresting at similar heights. Over the course of 24 hours, areas in Chenango County saw as much as 10 inches of rain. A State of Emergency was declared on Sept. 7, banning all travel as numerous roadways were rendered impassible. The southern and eastern portions of the county were the hardest hit, with significant flash flooding reported in Afton, Bainbridge, Coventry, Greene, Guilford and Oxford. Many local residents were evacuated from their homes, and emergency shelters were established in several locations.

After the rains subsided, state and federal aid was made available to those whose homes were damaged by the floods, and a temporary FEMA disaster recovery center was established at the county jail.

Chenango County reported more than $5 million dollars worth of damage to county roads and repairs have extended into the new year.

Due to the extensive damage to counties surrounding Chenango, the board of supervisors elected to open the gates of the county landfill for the purpose of accepting debris at not extra charge to Broome county.

Greene Mayor Marcia E. Miller described the devastating effects of the floods: “It put so many out of their homes; we’re in a much better position now ... but we’re still dealing with the aftermath.”

The Chenango Area Recovery Team spent countless hours taking stock of damage and ensuring funds being channeled to the appropriate areas of relief.

“We learned a lot from 2006,” said United Way Director Elizabeth Monaco. “This time were knew the questions that were going to have to ask and how to mobilize quickly and make sure everyone was safe.”

Although the effects of the aftermath of the storm are still felt, due to the quick response of individuals and groups across the county, everything was quickly fixed.

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