By Matt Youngfrau
MONTICELLO February 22, 2002 "The state of Sullivan County is strong. It is, quite possibly, stronger than at any other time in our history."
Thats how Sullivan County Legislature Chair Rusty Pomeroy ended his annual State of the County Address in the county government centers Legislative Chambers on Tuesday.
But enthusiasm was tempered by caution during the long speech, evidenced when Pomeroy stated, Opportunity has knocked on the door of Sullivan County. It now threatens to knock the door in.
Pomeroy began by looking back at the September 11 tragedy, highlighting what several locals did in the recovery efforts.
Due to the events of that day, Pomeroy said that Sheriff Dan Hogue had expressed safety concerns at the Government Center. Hogue will compile a report on these issues and will deliver it at the next Public Safety Committee meeting of the county legislature on Thursday, March 7.
Pomeroy asked the Legislature to support a new fire training facility at the airport. While there appears to be legislative support, the plan must also be approved by the county's partner at the airport, the FAA.
Another idea involves cellular 911 calls. Currently, cell calls to 911 go to Monroe. Pomeroy wants to see them patched directly to the 911 Center at the airport. He will present a local law mandating such at the next Executive Committee meeting on Thursday, March 14.
"While we must live with the past, we cannot afford to allow ourselves to live in the past, and we should not lose sight of the many positive things that happened in Sullivan County last year," Pomeroy told the crowded room.
He then reviewed such projects as the Kohl's Distribution Center in Wurtsboro, the Bethel performing arts center, the Emerald Corporate Park in Rock Hill, and the casino deals made with the St. Regis Mohawks and the Stockbridge-Munsee Tribe around Monticello.
Casinos, of course, were what many listeners were waiting to hear about.
"We will not allow ourselves to fall into disrepair like Atlantic City, New Jersey; to ignore the issues of families faced with addiction to gambling and other social ills, or to once again become so dominated by one industry that our economy cannot withstand market fluctuations," Pomeroy stated. "When I talk of preparing for growth, it is not, as some would suggest, the old 'if you build it, they will come' approach. I assure you that they are coming anyway. Our choice is either to be prepared for their arrival or spend a lifetime reacting."
Pomeroy highlighted each legislators activities in the last year and spoke of what they will be doing in the coming year.
For example, last year, Bob Kunis created the Joint Economic Team (JET) for economic growth in the county. This year, said Pomeroy, Kunis will head up a new legislative committee called the Casino Gaming Revenue Disbursement Committee, which will be responsible for distributing the casino agreement monies to all affected municipalities.
Chris Cunningham, working with fellow legislator Jodi Goodman, started the re-districting process, said Pomeroy. Before the next election, due to population shifts, each of the nine legislative districts need to be re-drawn. The process should be completed in six months, and this year, Cunningham will look at a full-scale Route 17B Corridor Study, said Pomeroy. The study, in part undertaken to the coming performing arts center in Bethel, will be done with the support of the New York State Department of Transportation and the towns of Bethel, Cochecton, and Thompson.
This year, said Pomeroy, Leni Binder will be spearheading two major projects: a countywide youth summit and public transportation.
Pomeroy cited high statistics for youth alcoholism and substance abuse as reasons for the summit. The county also ranks high in teens that are emotionally disturbed, foster care, child protective services, school absenteeism and suspensions, teen pregnancy, abortion and suicide, violent crime, DWI, and drug arrests. Binder and Health and Family Services Commissioner Judith Maier will lead discussions on these topics.
Pomeroy stated public transportation is an important issue that will allow the economy to grow. He called for a commitment to make it work.
Pomeroy also paid tribute to late Legislator Gordon MacKinnon but stated that he looks forward to working with new legislators Jim Carnell Jr. and Jonathan Rouis. Carnell and his Real Property Committee will look into the possibility of creating an incentive program, possibly in conjunction with the Industrial Development Agency, to help encourage development of affordable middle-income housing facilities. Pomeroy will ask for a local law to allow first time homebuyers of newly constructed homes a 50 percent property tax abatement phased out over five years. Pomeroy gave the schools, villages, and towns the option to join in this endeavor.
"The positive events of 2001 have placed Sullivan County in a position of unparalleled opportunity," Pomeroy said. "This new era of opportunity, however, carries with it the obligation to prepare for the growth that will occur here over the next decade."
Under the leadership of the Sullivan County Visitors Association, Pomeroy anticipates the county will become the number one tourism and conference destination in the Northeast. But with increased growth comes more people; hence, he said, there will be a need for more cell towers in the county.
Pomeroy is having the County Attorney's office look into the possibility of enacting countywide cell tower regulations. Pomeroy would like to see them based on regulations recently adopted by the Adirondack Park Agency, where the towers are placed in trees or camouflaged to look like one.
Pomeroy also called for Assemblyman Jake Gunther to look into eliminating the Harriman toll plaza, where Route 17 and the NYS Thruway (I-87) meet. According to Pomeroy, it would ease the weekly traffic congestion that inconveniences summer travelers.
Pomeroy closed his speech by highlighting some of the major strides taken by the county in 2001. By accepting the tobacco settlement, he said the county will save $1.79 million in debt obligations. Uncollected taxes were reduced by three percent, the number of parcels foreclosed on declined by over nine percent, and mortgage tax collection was up nearly 20 percent. The unemployment rate dropped from 5.2 percent to 5 percent. And the county's bond rating rose in 2001. The Standards and Poors rating went from A- to A, and the Moody's rating increased from A2 to A1.
My commitment tonight is that this Legislature, this county government and all its employees stand ready for the task ahead, Pomeroy concluded. To paraphrase from one of my favorite movies, these are serious times, and serious times demand serious people. The members of this Legislature and the employees of this government are serious about addressing the difficult issues that face us."
Pomeroy received a prolonged standing ovation from the crowd as he finished the speech. Some called it Pomeroy's best address ever.
"He gave a good speech," Minority Leader Rodney Gaebel remarked. "It is well intentioned. We are moving forward in the right direction."
"It was excellent and very comprehensive," commented County Manager Dan Briggs. "He acknowledged a lot of people. He outlined a plan for the future of the county."