Editors Note: The Democrat will publish a full story about Pomeroys speech Thursday night and listeners reactions in Tuesdays issue.
[February 23, 2001 ] Fellow Legislators, Honorable Judges, Elected Officials, and distinguished guests:
I want to thank you all for coming out this evening so that we can spend some time talking about the future of our county, and what this new year may hold in store for us.
The past 12 months have proven to be as eventful as any Ive witnessed, and I firmly believe that the decisions to be made in the coming months will set the tone and direction for this county for many, many years to come. These decisions and the issues that surround them are not easily dealt with. Many of them have been hanging out there for decades, literally transcending generations. Resolution will require leadership and vision, and I am prepared to do all that I can. But I am not so foolish as to think that I alone can guide us, or so arrogant as to believe that my vision alone is the grandest. The leadership and the vision needed for Sullivan County in the year 2001 must come from all of you.
I would like to take a few moments to recognize some of the people in my life without whose influence, support, knowledge, and love I most assuredly would not be before you today.
Let me begin with my grandparents, Ruth and Raymond N. Pomeroy I, who just last month celebrated their 61st wedding anniversary. In 1953, my grandfather was appointed to Sullivan Countys first planning board, where he served as a member for eight years, then as chairman for two more.
This initial planning board developed the countys first master plan, and in it was the blueprint for our future. The document was built around three major projects; the college, the airport, and a convention center. Two of these projects have been built the third has not. We will talk a little bit about that in a few minutes, but it is interesting to see that the idea of a county convention center has been around for nearly 50 years.
Next, let me introduce my mother, the Hon. Patricia S. Pomeroy, Supervisor from the Town of Rockland. She also served on the county planning board for four years, chairing it from 1994 to 1996. Since I was a kid, she has been involved in so many community projects, always willing to help when she could, and perhaps more importantly when she couldnt. I am glad she was able to come tonight.
Finally, I would like to recognize and thank my wife Dawn for everything shes done for me. Dawn hasnt served on the county planning board . . . yet, but she does just about everything else. It would take far too long for me to attempt to do justice to what she does every day, so I will simply thank her, tell her that I love her, and hope that thats enough.
When I look behind me at my colleagues on the Legislature, many of whom Ive been honored to work with for the last five years and some for only the last year, I see not only good friends, but I see leadership. I see leaders of communities, leaders of organizations and of business. I see dedicated men and women who care deeply about this county and who want to see it prosper. One of my priorities for this year will be to tap into the leadership ability of each and every member of this board, drawing from them their very best work, for nothing short of that will do.
We will also need to count on the leadership of our new county manager, Dan Briggs. And while I know I dont need to introduce him to you, I would like to recognize him, as this is his first State of the County address as the County Manager.
Last March, when Jonathan Drapkin announced that he was stepping down as County Manager to become Executive Director of the Gerry Foundation, the Legislature needed to develop a means by which we could hire a replacement. In addition to the legislators and staff who put in a lot of time during the search, there were two community representatives who volunteered their time and whose expertise and advice were tremendously helpful to the board. You see them on just about every board together, and if you happen to run into one of them, the other is likely to be just around the corner. Id like to recognize Joyce Salimeno of the Gersten-Hillman Agency and Marty Handler, Superintendent for Sullivan BOCES.
Joyce, Marty, I thank you for your service to this board during the county manager search process, and I thank you for all of the other volunteer work you do that benefits everyone of us. When we speak of leaders in this community, you are two of the standard bearers, and I hope that you will continue to serve in this very important time.
Each State of the County address that Ive given to date has contained a whole host of numbers used to illustrate the performance of the county in the prior year. The numbers are important, as they allow us to track performance on a year-to-year basis, and Im very pleased to be able to report that the numbers are once again very favorable.
The county tax levy remained stable last year, meaning that, in the past eight years, the county property tax levy has had a net reduction of one percent. Coming off of near record lows in our unemployment rate and near record highs in sales tax collection in 1999, we bettered both in 2000, and our fund balance has reached $23 million, the highest its ever been. Our bond rating received another upgrade, and we were credited, in the financial circles, as leading the way for rural upstate New York counties in job creation and growth.
While these numbers are encouraging and are good cause to celebrate, we cannot let the fact that our economy is doing well lull us into a state of lethargy where we content ourselves to coast along and enjoy the ride. It is during these times when things are going well that we must look forward, not only addressing the important and difficult issues that face us today, but also those that will face us tomorrow.
We must seize upon this as an opportunity to make peoples lives better, to improve government, make it more accessible, more user-friendly. We have made tremendous strides in our Internet technology and use of electronic media, allowing people to gain access to the government 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We must build on this progress as we steadily move toward an e-government.
There are some things, though, that still require a phone call, and for many people in our countys outer areas, that involves a long-distance call. In an effort to make our government more accessible to all residents, the county will be installing a new 800 number this spring.
We should also put aside the politics of the issue and take a good, hard look at an installment plan for county property taxes. Our Real Property Committee will be taking up this issue later this spring.
One of the interesting aspects to last years Presidential election was the discussion over whether the Clinton White House had squandered an opportunity to enact important changes in a time while the economy was good. There was ample discussion on both sides of that issue last fall, and Im not suggesting we try to settle the matter tonight, but let us resolve to not let it be said of Sullivan County, not of this Legislature, that we squandered our opportunity. That when things were going pretty well, we contented ourselves with the prosperity of the moment, and that we didnt reach to solve problems and to ensure that this county was prepared for the future, even for a future where the national economy wasnt so strong.
We have much work to do here, so let us begin.
First, look around the room, at the people sitting on your left and right. How many people do you see that are under 30, college-educated, starting a family, buying a home, working in the county? Not many, maybe not any. How many of them do you see at the grocery store or at church?
It has long been believed that, next to agricultural products, Sullivan Countys biggest export was shoppers to Orange County. I believe that our biggest and most expensive export, second to none, is our youth. We export them to institutions of higher learning, and they never return. This is a trend that we cannot afford to continue. We need to create employment opportunities for our young people, and were working to do that. We also need to create incentive programs to help attract them back.
Last year, in my State of the County address, I spoke of my desire to create a student loan forgiveness program. Under the program, qualified college graduates who returned to the county to work for a specified period of time could have all or part of their college loans repaid via a county grant. My biggest disappointment from last year is not getting this program off the ground, and I am committed to trying it again.
Legislator Chris Cunningham is a bright, young, professional person who has made a commitment to this county. I know that he feels as strongly about this issue as I do, and I am grateful that he has agreed to try to put this program into effect. There are many different paths that this project can take. I hope its one that will draw significant private-sector investment and participation, for if it is successful, the rewards will benefit us all.
I dont believe it to be an overstatement when I say that this county has never seen economic development projects of the magnitude that we are looking at today. The county is continuing to move forward with the Emerald Corporate Park and with the I-86 Visitors Center. Construction in the corporate park will begin this spring, and we are in the final stages of site selection for the visitors center.
Add to these projects private sector initiatives like Walmart, the Kohls distribution center which broke ground late last fall, the Gerry Foundations performing arts center in Bethel which is scheduled for an opening sometime in 2002, Cappelli Associates Concord Hotel project which could involve the construction of a county convention center, and let us not forget Park Place Entertainment and the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe who remain very interested in bringing casino gaming to Kutshers.
If realized, these projects will exceed $800 million in new investment into the county. They involve very complex decision-making, and they will all have lasting impacts on our county.
One of the ways that we try to manage growth and encourage economic development is through various quasi-governmental and non-governmental entities like the IDA and the Partnership for Economic Development. We also have a very active Chamber of Commerce, a Visitors Association, a REAP Zone designation, and if my conversations in Albany last week were any indication, we will very shortly be granted an Economic Development Zone designation by the state.
While each of these entities has a different role to fill, it is sometimes difficult to know who is doing what. If we are going to succeed in bringing projects to fruition, we are going to have to do a better job of communicating amongst ourselves and defining what role each of the organizations is going to play.
This is an area where I think the county has to be more assertive. Ive spoken about this issue with Legislator Bob Kunis, who chairs the Committee on Planning and Community Development and also serves as chairman of the IDA. Bob will be taking the lead here. He and I will work together to devise a forum where all of the parties involved in economic development for Sullivan County can come together to discuss all of the issues facing us and to define our respective roles so that we can receive the maximum benefit from everyone.
Simply put, when the economy is strong, development is going to happen. It happens all over. When the economy is not so strong, only those counties that have their act together will be in a position to succeed. We need to put ourselves in that position. We need to become a well-oiled economic development machine. We must know what type of development we want, have the means to be able to go out and get it, and maintain the infrastructure and resources to keep it once its here.
I recognize and support the need to develop and diversify our economy. However, I also recognize and give equal weight to the problems that can be associated with growth. Principle among them for me is environmental integrity and the preservation of our countys natural beauty. I know that many of you, like me, have been following the series of articles in the Times Herald Record regarding the problem of sprawl in the lower Hudson Valley and the corresponding effects on usable farmland and open spaces.
Ive talked to a number of people who just kind of shrug and say that wont ever happen here. Ive also talked to enough people from Orange and Rockland counties, who didnt think it would happen there, to know that we had better be prepared for growth to occur. If were prepared and the growth doesnt occur, I can live with that. But if we remain unprepared and growth does occur, the landscape of the county will be forever changed, and Im not prepared to live with that, because it can be avoided.
Virtually all of the planning and zoning power is vested with the towns and villages of Sullivan County. There must, however, be a way for these individual towns and villages to look at development issues in a global manner, recognizing that the development that occurs in the town next door will have an impact on their town and vice-versa.
There must be a way for the towns and villages to talk about uniform codes and better code enforcement. We have to begin the dialogue about preserving farmland and other open spaces. We need to talk about preservation of our environmental assets: our fish and wildlife, the Beaverkill, Delaware, and Neversink rivers, the Bashakill, our lakes and reservoirs, our mountains, parks and trails. We need to talk about the impacts that cell towers and other modern convenience items are going to have here.
This is another area where the county really needs to take a leadership role. I believe the best forum for these discussions is a new County Planning Board, and I will ask for the support of the legislature to reconstitute this body. I will look to have it done a little differently, though, than its been done in the past. I will be asking the supervisor from each town and the mayor from each village to appoint one member from their own planning board to serve as a liason to the County Planning Board. I am hopeful that, by getting the local decision-makers involved in the process from the start, there may be a better likelihood that policies adopted by the county board will be enacted at the local level.
I mentioned earlier that our county continues to do well financially. Our bond rating has consistently improved over the past five years as our budget surplus and fund balance has grown and our tax levy has remained stable. For the third year in a row, we will be meeting our obligation to make the towns and school districts whole without resort to tax anticipation notes.
There are some areas of concern, though, that we need to address now while they are still manageable.
Our budget spending is driven largely by program mandates from the state and federal government. The vast majority of these programs are good ones. The fact remains, however, that it was in large part due to these programs that our budget grew by 11 percent last year. This is nearly four times the states rate of inflation. The good news is that most of the new program spending is supported by state and federal dollars, and as a result we didnt need to increase taxes. The bad news is that eventually that state and federal money tends to go away, leaving us with the program to administer without the funding.
Over the past 30 or 40 years, we have seen tremendous growth in county governments all across New York State as a consequence of all of the various program initiatives. The result is a bureaucracy that may not be functioning as efficiently as it could be. Sullivan County government has nine divisions and over 1,000 employees. It is time that we looked at each one of our divisions, from top to bottom, with an eye toward improving efficiency and program performance.
Finance Committee Chair Kathy LaBuda and I have discussed this issue, and next month she will be asking her committee to support the issuance of a request for proposals for a complete management/performance audit of county government. We need to look at our use of technology, our management practices, and the performance of our program initiatives. This process may take some time to complete, but now is the time to do it, when the budget is strong.
Another area that needs to be addressed is the countys use of the funds received from the tobacco settlement. Our initial decision to use the lions share of the money as a direct rebate to the taxpayers in the form of a three percent property tax reduction and to use the remainder to fund health-related programs and anti-smoking campaigns was a good one.
But, as sometimes happens in government, the legislative intent got lost on the way to the budget. The problem is that the amount of money received by the county each year is based on national sales of tobacco products, a steadily declining figure. It is impossible for us to know in any given year how much we will receive, and it is therefore difficult to budget specific amounts for specific programs. I believe that we can resolve this problem by adopting a resolution requiring that no less than ten percent of the funds received in the prior year will be budgeted forward to fund health and anti-smoking programs. Chairperson LaBuda will be introducing this resolution at her next Finance Committee meeting, and Im hopeful that our colleagues will support this important legislation.
Finance doesnt always mean dollars and cents. Sometimes it means bags of garbage. Certainly one of the biggest issues that the first legislature had to deal with was the financial, environmental, and operational concerns of running a state-of-the-art, double-lined landfill. We adopted a closure plan for the existing facility that provides funds for all closure and post-closure monitoring costs, and that will close the landfill in seven years. The problem now becomes what to do when the landfill is closed.
The county has several available options that run the full gamut from getting out of the garbage business altogether to the construction of a new landfill at the existing site. When you realize that the process of permitting and constructing a new landfill in New York takes approximately five years to complete, you can see that we need to take a hard look at the options now and be prepared to make a decision in the near future. Public Works Committee Chairman Rodney Gaebel began that discussion earlier this month.
There is a tremendous amount of work to be done here, and some very difficult questions will need to be asked and answered. It is reassuring to know that Rodney has given this issue his full attention. His experience in the field, combined with that of our staff, will be a valuable asset as we try to choose the best course of action.
There are also some areas where we have very few options. Principal among them is human services. The Division of Human Services is by far and away our largest county division, representing 56 percent of our 2001 budget. It is also home to most of our state and federal-mandated programs. New York State has a long and dubious history of adopting new programs for counties to run without providing any funding for those programs. Counties are typically placed in a very difficult position, as the programs, which generally provide aid to a needy segment of the population, are hard to argue against, but they are even harder to pay for.
Leni Binder, the chair of our Human Services Committee, has been extremely active at the state level advocating for a state takeover of Medicare costs and for an end to unfunded mandates. We have had some success in this area of late, but late last year we saw the passage of a massive, new, unfunded mandate in the reform of the PINS laws. The reforms will extend the age limit for entry into the PINS program from 16 to 18 years old at the end of this year. We project that this change will result in a 25 percent increase in the case loads, with no funding from the state and with no program availability. We are likely looking at a minimum of $300,000 in next years budget to pay for this expanded program.
Almost four years ago, we began the reorganization of our human services agencies. Due to the nature of the field, it is a process that is highly fluid and requires constant attention. We will need for Leni to display her leadership as she continues her work in this area and as she and the administration struggle to implement another costly state program with no funding.
One of the highlights of last year was the completion of the Enhanced 911 system. We relied heavily on Public Safety Committee Chair Gordon MacKinnons experience in the emergency services to help guide that project along, and we will need to rely on him again this year. A 911 system is only good if the emergency workers are able to quickly locate the caller in distress. This can only happen when homes are properly numbered. Unfortunately, many homeowners have not yet posted their house numbers. Worse yet, many still go by the old numbering systems, causing confusion for emergency workers looking for other addresses.
As summer approaches and we prepare for our annual population explosion, we must design a program to impress on all our residents, full and part-time, the importance of properly posted house numbers. We will, once again, be relying on Gordon to work with the emergency service providers in coming up with the right solution.
A very interesting thing happened last summer, maybe by accident, when a town supervisor wrote a letter to Town of Thompson officials complaining about the maintenance of a bungalow colony near his place of business. Initially we heard anger, and people thought the letter may have been motivated by religious intolerance. Then we heard acknowledgement, an admission that there was a problem that needed to be addressed. Finally, we heard reason. Meetings were held, ideas exchanged, and a dialogue was begun.
This process got me to thinking about how diverse our county has become over the years. We are very fortunate to have significant influences from many different cultures and lifestyles. Too often, this diversity is looked at as an obstacle when it is really a strength to be nurtured, developed, and to be proud of.
It is sad, but each community has those who are filled with hate. People who see things they dont understand or dont agree with and have no desire to learn or to accept. If we are to be the county that we all aspire to be, we must not stand for hatred or intolerance. We must strike it down whenever it rears its ugly head. And we must learn more about each other, for it is our differences that make us strong.
One of those whose leadership led to the calling of meetings last fall was Legislator Jodi Goodman. I have talked to Jodi about this issue, and we are going to propose the creation of a Cultural Diversity Task Force, which I will ask Jodi to chair. The task force will be asked to take a hard look at our county. They will be asked to look at the problems linked to religion, race, sexual orientation, and other forms of discrimination and to advise the legislature on how we can best move forward together in the spirit of common understanding. To complete this mission, the task force will need to have a diverse membership, and we will work to make it as representative as possible.
I recognize that there are some differences we can never fully understand or appreciate. I will never know what it was like to have had my grandfather born into slavery. I will never know what it was like to be in a Nazi prison camp. There are many things I can never know. But I do know about family. I know about children and enjoying the country. I know about acts of kindness and community pride.
If we take the time to discover the things that we can understand about each other, then maybe those things that we cannot understand will not seem so great anymore. Our differences are our strength. Let us endeavor to understand and appreciate those differences. Let us forge new friendships and create new bonds. Let us agree to replace fear and suspicion with understanding and respect. I am very hopeful for this new task force, and I have great confidence in Jodis ability to pull this together.
So where does all this leave us tomorrow? In addition to those items Ive discussed here tonight, we also have what Leni Binder calls the "glamour" issues: the Concord, casino gaming, and the performing arts center. All of these projects are going to require a lot more work before anything is finalized, but each has been steadily moving forward.
We have been actively reviewing the proposal made by Cappelli Associates for a county convention center to be located at the new Concord Resort. The county has hired the National Development Council to review the revenue and expense projections presented by Mr. Cappelli, and to advise the county from a public financing perspective. We are also discussing the possibility of bringing Price Waterhouse Cooper back to review this project in greater detail from an operational perspective.
A Sullivan County convention facility is an idea that dates back 50 years to a long-forgotten master plan created by the countys first planning board. We have seen a lot over the past 50 years, but perhaps nothing more dramatic than the near-total collapse of our hotel industry and the loss of our once-booming convention trade. The legislature must look very carefully at the proposal in front of us. To be sure, there are many questions that still need to be answered before a commitment of county funds can be made, but there is also tremendous potential.
We are also working closely with Park Place Entertainment and the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe to bring casino gaming to the county. We have established a non-partisan Casino Negotiating Committee to represent the county and the town in negotiations with the tribe. This committee has been meeting regularly with Park Place, the tribe, the legislature, the town board and a host of interested community groups that may be impacted by the proposed casino project. I would like to take a moment and thank Bob Kunis and Tony Cellini for their efforts, but I would primarily like to thank Greg Goldstein and Gerry Skoda for their volunteer work. Greg and Gerry have put in a tremendous amount of time and energy, and their work has been extremely valuable in the process to date.
There isnt a single person in this county who can tell you if a casino will open here or not. I wouldnt even try. What I do know is that, if a casino opens, it will be critically important for us to have solid contractual agreements in place so that the county, town and all of the affected municipalities recognize a real benefit from the facility. This is where our energy is focused, and I am confident that we will be able to reach such an agreement.
We have not been asked for much from the Gerry Foundation in the way of support for their performing arts center, but obviously we are ready to assist with this project if we can. One of the things that we must do to help insure the ultimate success of this facility is take a critical look at the Route 17B corridor. In an effort to get this process on track, I will be asking Legislators Chris Cunningham and Rodney Gaebel to work with Bethel Supervisor Allan Scott to create a new Route 17B Task Force.
In closing, let me reiterate that the state of Sullivan County is strong, and it continues to get stronger each year. It is precisely this strength that will allow us to tackle some of the difficult issues that face us. By addressing our problems together handing over to future generations a county with a vibrant economy, a clean environment, and a proud cultural diversity we will help to ensure a strong state of the county for many years to come.
I would like to extend my thanks and gratitude to the employees of Sullivan County government. Too often, government jobs are viewed as being cushy. This is far from the truth. Our employees deal with tremendously difficult situations every day, sometimes under less-than-ideal circumstances, but they give their all, and I wouldnt trade them for anything. They are truly a great group of people, and it is my continuing honor to work with each of them.
Without diminishing the accomplishments of any of them, I need to recognize the very special contributions made by Harvey Smith and Richard LaCondre. Harvey and Richard acted as our two-headed County Manager for six months last year. They provided invaluable aid to this county during a most important transition period, and their efforts need to be commended.
I heard a public service message on the radio recently where the announcer tells of a great tidal wave that washed thousands of starfish onto the beach. A young boy was walking down the beach, picking up one starfish after another and throwing them back into the ocean. When a man asked, "What are you doing? You cant possibly think you can make a difference," the boy responded by picking up another starfish, and as he threw it back into the sea, he said, "I made a difference to that one."
I dont know that we can solve all of the problems that face Sullivan County, but surely we can attack them one at a time. Persevering and working together, we can make a difference. We can make this county a better place for our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. I am pledged to do all that I can. The legislature is poised to do its part, and I know that all of you are ready, too. You wouldnt be here tonight if you werent.
Thank you for your help. Thank you for your dedication. God bless all of you, and God bless Sullivan County. Good night.