By Nathan Mayberg
MONTICELLO February 27, 2004 Sullivan County Legislative Chairman Chris Cunningham painted a picture of a county growing and prospering during his State of the County speech on Tuesday night at the Government Center.
He also noted some of the major challenges the county faced.
In his first State of the County address, Cunningham said unemployment declined over the last five years, while sales tax collection reached record highs. Real estate market values increased over 20 percent in the last three years, and the population shot up 6.8 percent in the last ten years.
The chairman named Crystal Run Health Care, Chapin Estates, Mighty M Gaming at the Monticello Raceway, and Home Depot as major projects which will continue to improve the county.
The challenges include a poverty rate of 16.3 percent, which is higher than New York City. Medicaid costs have shot up over 100 percent in the last ten years, he remarked.
And theres that landfill issue. Cunningham announced that a firm that "specializes in solving landfill odor problems" will look at resolving continuing odor complaints. The management and operation of the landfill will also be reviewed.
Cunningham said he would make the process open to the public and would address "all options." However, he warned that the landfills impact on the county budget and real property tax rates for everyone needs to be clearly understood.
He expressed worries about Governor George Patakis planned cuts to the Empire Zone Program, which awards tax credits to businesses throughout the state.
But the chairman will support a new Consumer Affairs initiative that will advocate for residents and provide them with information.
The original Consumer Affairs Dept. was disbanded last year, and Legislator Greg Goldstein indicated he still thought it would be a waste of money.
I dont think it was needed, said Goldstein after the speech. We had one before, and there werent enough complaints. Contractor complaints are handled by the DAs office.
In the meantime, Cunningham also called for a "comprehensive public transportation system." He said that a quality system would boost employment and access to health care and other "basic needs."
The Democratic legislator pledged to lobby Albany about the increase in tax-exempt properties coming to the county. Those properties are eroding the tax base, he said, and required the county to raise sales and mortgage taxes last year.
Cunninghams voice went up a notch when describing the states financing of only one-fourth of Medicaid costs.
"Cap the local share of Medicaid now," he urged the state.
While admitting he has not been a supporter of casinos, Cunningham said his job is to represent the consensus of the board. That consensus is to support casino development. The chairman said he would demand a fair mitigation of impacts, however, and has hired a consultant to report on what those impacts might be.
Most of the 150 people who attended the speech were there in support of the chairman and his words, giving him a standing ovation at the conclusion.