MAYVILLE - The Chautauqua County Legislature's new Public Facilities Committee had its hands full at the first meeting of the year Monday night in Mayville.
Tension filled the room as representatives from Cornell Cooperative Extension confronted the committee about a proposed rent increase. The proposal would raise Cornell's rent by $2,660.25 per month in a new lease agreement with the county.
Cornell Cooperative Extension has operated within the county-owned Frank W. Bratt Agriculture Center at 3542 Turner Road since 2004, and has since seen minor increases yearly. However, it has not seen an increase such as this.
Since 2012, Cornell has paid $1,390 per month in rent, or $16,680 per year.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture formerly rented the building as well but moved out in December, leaving Cornell with the remainder of the space.
The new lease proposes a rate of $8.50 per square foot for a total of 5,718 square feet, which equals $48,603 per year.
The current lease expired in April 2013.
Laurie Livingston, executive director for Cornell Cooperative Extension, addressed the committee and asked for an extension of the current rate for another year in order to give Cornell's board of directors time to explore other options regarding the Agricultural Center and submit a proposal to the county by the end of the year.
"It caught us off guard," she said of the proposed lease. "We cannot go up to $48,603 a year."
Livingston further stressed the importance of Cornell Cooperative Extension within Chautauqua County and said if the resolution is approved, staff from either the agricultural program, 4-H Youth Development and/or the Master Gardner Program will be laid off.
Legislators responded with comments and questions.
Paula DeJoy, D-Jamestown, asked George Spanos, director of Public Facilities, how the increased rate was determined.
"When the USDA moved out, we put together a fair market value based on a comparison of rates at other properties," Spanos said.
Livingston then commented that the USDA was subsidized by the federal government, while Cornell Cooperative Extension is not.
"I think we have to find some happy medium here, somewhere," said Chuck Nazzaro, D-Jamestown. "I understand the expense side, but the increase is huge."
Dave Himelein, R-Findley Lake, asked Livingston if Cornell would move out if the resolution is passed.
"No," Livingston said. "But, I would have to lay off staff."
Chairman of the committee John Hemmer, R-Westfield, pointed out that if the building is not paid for by a tenant, it will have to be paid for by the taxpayers of Chautauqua County.
County Executive Vince Horrigan then proposed tabling the resolution in order to gather more financial data.
"We have a responsibility to our farmers and those in agriculture to maintain a facility for their use," Himelein said.
After the meeting, Horrigan commented further.
"We're going to go back and look again to see what Cornell Cooperative Extension can do to minimize the impact on the budget, while at the same time not creating a major impact on their operation," he said after the meeting. "The facility has long been a one-stop for agriculture, 4-H and also the Soil and Water Conservation District. It's been historically a very good location for agricultural training and operations and we're going to have to actively find additional tenants to fill the building and fairly adjust the rent across the board."
Originally, Cornell Cooperative Extension programs consisted of agricultural, 4-H youth development and home economics. Since it was established, programs have expanded, partnering with agencies on several grants including Creating Healthy Places with the Chautauqua County Health Network; WIC; Eat Smart New York (which encompasses the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program); Expanded Food and Nutritional Education Program through USDA; and the Municipal Waste Reduction and Recycling grant through the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.