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DOT office in Watertown won’t close

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The state Department of Transportation will keep its 150 regional employees in a Watertown office building for at least another year, which bodes well for downtown businesses, according to lawmakers briefed on Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s budget plans.

“There are a tremendous number of jobs that will stay in our community,” said Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa. “It provides for a lot of commerce for the downtown area.”

Mr. Cuomo’s proposed budget suggested whittling down the number of DOT regional offices to save money. Though specific offices for closure were never revealed, Watertown’s office, in the Dulles State Office Building on Washington Street, could have been moved elsewhere. Had that happened, lawmakers from the area worried, it would have hurt the city’s economy and DOT’s ability to shepherd complicated construction projects, like the Interstate 81-Fort Drum connector.

In a letter to lawmakers, Mr. Cuomo’s administration said it was backing off the plan, which could be revisited in a year, the lawmakers said.

“I support consolidation, but there were not enough details in the plan that was presented,” said state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton. “I believe the hub that Watertown is in can stand on its own with the counties that are there.”

With Mr. Cuomo’s budget headed toward approval on Thursday — the second on-time budget in two years — the local details of the spending plan began trickling out Monday, in the form of bills being printed so they’d be ready for voting on Thursday. The finer details of education funding and health care reform will have to wait until another day; Monday was about small, local victories and, in some instances, pledges to keep fighting in the face of defeat.

“Some of the things have not been negotiated in the final copy,” Mrs. Ritchie said. “There’s still some outstanding issues.”

Mrs. Ritchie, chairwoman of the state Agriculture Committee, said many of the programs Mr. Cuomo originally proposed cutting would receive funding under a negotiated compromise with Assembly Democrats and Mr. Cuomo.

“We did very well with regards to the ag budget,” she said.

The Northern New York Agriculture Development Corp. will receive $500,000, an increase from a $300,000 appropriation last year, Mrs. Ritchie’s staff said. Mr. Cuomo originally proposed cutting funding to zero for the program.

The Farm Viability Institute will receive $1.2 million, the same level as last year. Mr. Cuomo proposed cutting funding by two-thirds.

A program that supports pest control received $400,000; Mr. Cuomo had proposed zeroing out that program. With a mild winter, that program could be pivotal to a farm’s bottom line, Mrs. Russell said.

“We could be looking at issues with pests with diseases that haven’t been killed by extreme cold,” she said.

In an interview, Mrs. Ritchie sounded pessimistic about the prospects of the STAR rebate program’s return.

The School Tax Relief rebate checks, which provide property tax relief to homeowners, were eliminated in 2009 when Democrats controlled the Senate; Mrs. Ritchie pilloried her 2010 opponent, then-Sen. Darrel J. Aubertine, D-Cape Vincent, for voting to eliminate them.

With the second budget season almost behind her, a Republican promise to reinstate the checks still has not been fulfilled. And Amy M. Tresidder, a potential Democratic opponent to Mrs. Ritchie from Oswego County, is taking note.

In an interview about the budget in general, Mrs. Ritchie, unprompted, noted her dissatisfaction about the inability to agree on reinstating the STAR rebate checks. She said Assembly Democrats would not budge on STAR during budget negotiations.

“It’s something the Assembly has been opposed to carrying through,” she said. “The other side of the aisle is not interested in restoring the STAR rebates.”

She is sponsoring legislation outside of the budget process that would reinstate the STAR rebate checks.

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