Cortland town officials had a discussion on Tuesday, September 7 about a potential plan for the YWCA and the Cortland County Community Action Program (CAPCO) to provide an early childhood education center for children in the region.
Officials approved the proposal, but were generally cautious about the financial aspects of the project.
The center would be located on the site of Alton B. Parker Elementary School, which closed to students in 2017, when the Cortland Enlarged City School District (CESCD) consolidated school facilities.
At the city’s city council meeting last week, Mayor Brian Tobin indicated that the early childhood education center will offer child care services, as well as Head Start and Early Head Start programs through organizations like the local YWCA and CAPCO. These programs would serve children up to the age of five, Tobin said.
Currently, the YWCA has its own child care program, while CAPCO provides Head Start and Early Head Start services in Cortland, the Town and Village of Homer, and Cortlandville.
Proposals for the project were set in motion in 2019, when a group of stakeholders from the CECSD Board of Education, County Legislature, City Council and other volunteers formed a working group to decide of the future of the closed Parker building. Last year, voters approved the city’s purchase of the building for $ 91 via a referendum.
The daycare would not expand services beyond the city’s offerings before the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic and all the health and safety regulations that came with it. Child care services, according to Tobin, were cut during the pandemic, and the early childhood education center would bring the number of services back to pre-pandemic times.
Tobin said the building had already done some lighting and roofing work, but the city had at least $ 1.3 million in its coffers to continue helping with renovations.
Former Democrat MP Barbara Lifton got $ 1.1 million from these funds, while the city also received $ 200,000 from a grant from the Central New York Regional Economic Development Council.
“We are talking about a large vacant structure in the heart of a residential area,” Tobin said, noting that the city has invested in its youth, alluding to other investments in the neighboring area like the $ 2 million of renovations and improvements injected into Suggett Park. “We are doing wonderful things to make our parks attractive and to make it really nice to live in the town of Cortland. With a great structure like this, it’s an opportunity to do something for the kids and to continue to build on the momentum that we have. “
The long-term vision for the city’s involvement in the project, said Tobin, is to be a facilitator. The city can help the YWCA and CAPCO apply for grants, he added, noting that the organizations themselves would not be able to directly seek funding through grants, as much of the l financial assistance is given to government organizations.
“The long-term vision would be for the city not to own the property, but to help with the direction and management of the property,” said Tobin. “The city would ensure that the property is properly converted and that organizations are able to use the funds in the best possible way to maintain the strength of the city center.”
While Tobin mentioned the CESD trustees and CAPCO and YWCA leaders are ready to go ahead with a request for proposals for technical and architectural improvements to the site, board members expressed some reservations.
“I don’t even want to entertain that thought this year,” said Deputy Mayor John Bennett, who represents the city’s fourth ward.
Bennett raised concerns about the expiration of the mayor’s term, as well as the possibility of having a brand new governing body by the end of the year. He said that each project has unforeseen costs and that the grants – while useful – require a corresponding amount from the city.
” There’s always something going on. There are always additional charges. I don’t think it’s the responsibility of this council to put a (potentially new council and mayor) in possibly unforeseen debt, ”Bennett said. “I don’t think we should continue this discussion at all this year. I have no energy for this.
Bennett also said he was concerned about a potential conflict of interest given that YWCA Executive Director Kelly Tobin is married to Mayor Tobin.
The mayor was legally cleared of a potential conflict of interest regarding the project, according to Bennett. The deputy mayor, however, said the discussion of conflicts of interest would not influence his decision to table the project until a new municipal administration is installed in the next electoral cycle.
“My other concern is that even though the mayor has been legally advised that there is no conflict of interest… I disagree,” Bennett said. “I think this is a conflict of interest.”
City Councilor Bruce Tytler has said he would like to move the project forward, but would like to see more details on the financial side of things.
“The people I spoke to, before it was all stopped by the pandemic, they were concerned that the city would be forced to pay a million dollars down the line,” said Tytler, who represents the third district. of the city. “If they could be assured (that the city would not have financial problems), people would be supportive of the future.”
City Councilor Jacki Chapman, who represents the city’s fifth ward, has expressed support for the project, adding that new childcare options would be attractive to young families.
“These last two years of council sessions were all about improving Cortland to be able to attract young families,” Chapman said. “This installation would attract young professionals. “
The board will review action on the proposal at its September 21 meeting.