Editors Note: The following is the complete text of the State of the County Address given last night at the Sullivan County Government Center in Monticello.
By Chris Cunningham, Chair
Sullivan County Legislature
February 18, 2005 Good evening and welcome members of the County Legislature, county manager, special guests and citizens of Sullivan County. I thank everyone for coming here tonight to support the direction that this legislature is taking.
One year ago, I stood in this same room and told the people of the county that we were at a crossroads. I spoke of the tremendous growth we were seeing in our population and some wonderful new projects in the offing. As I stood here last year, I felt that a spirit of optimism and hope was growing in Sullivan County. I pledged to work with my fellow legislators with a new spirit of confidence and cooperation to tackle issues facing our county head-on and develop a plan that this legislature could follow into the future.
I am here tonight to confirm that this process has begun and will continue to grow. This legislature is facing the challenges together, and the residents of Sullivan County can move forward to the future and a quality of life we have all sought to achieve.
I stand before you tonight, with certainty, to say that the state of Sullivan County is growing stronger and the programs that this legislature is following will continue to make Sullivan County strong into the future.
Sullivan County was at a crossroads a year ago, and we did face many daunting challenges. I can say with confidence that we have faced those challenges with conviction and fortitude and embarked on a course to move our county forward. I tell you tonight, clearly and most assuredly, that the state of Sullivan County is strong and getting better every day.
One year is not a very long time in the life of a county, and looking back over these past 12 months, what strikes me most is how ambitious was the agenda I presented last January, and how much progress we have made.
This has been a year of new ideas, new energy and new participation in county government. As I look back, this legislature, the county manager, the county attorney, the commissioners of every department in this government, and the residents of Sullivan County have worked with unending energy to bring forth fresh ideas that have enabled us to meet those challenges. For this, I thank each and every one of you.
Growth was, and is, a major test and a major opportunity for Sullivan County. How do we encourage and foster growth while sustaining the integrity of our environment? How do we secure the future of our communities and the quality of life for future generations to enjoy? These are questions that this legislature needs to address in original and resourceful ways.
We started an ambitious county-wide comprehensive planning initiative to help answer those questions. We retained a consulting firm to assist our county planning staff working on this project. What we needed to bring the project together was leadership.
We found that leadership in Planning Commissioner Bill Pammer, who hit the ground running with vigor and enthusiasm. He has crisscrossed this county bringing his dynamic energy wherever he has gone. We have no doubt that Sullivan County can continue to grow and develop without sacrificing our quality of life.
Sullivan 20/20, as our county comprehensive plan is called, is a dynamic process that will create a living document to guide our growth in the future. It will create a roadmap for balanced growth in the future, allowing appropriate economic development while maintaining and preserving the special quality of life we all enjoy.
We must make the preservation of open space one of the key initiatives we will focus on as we go forward with our planning process. Now is the time to deal with this issue. We only need look to counties to the south to see the consequences of neglect in this area.
Sullivan 20/20 will provide the means for an ongoing dialogue between citizens and government at all levels such that the consensus we build can adapt as Sullivan grows and changes.
We cannot fear change, but rather, we must embrace it and draw energy from it. Sullivan 20/20 will enable us to do just that.
Sullivan Countys economic health is important to everyone. Im here to report our economy continues to show growth. Unemployment rates have continued their more than five-year decline and are headed toward five percent. For 2004, we were a full percent below the state average.
Sales tax revenues are at historic highs. Two thousand and four marked the fourth consecutive year that these revenues increased. Sales tax revenues were $29 million for 2004, up from $25 million in 2003.
And its fair to say that the second home market is booming. Mortgage tax collections were $3.2 million, up more than a million from 2003. I expect that sales of new and existing homes will continue at a rapid pace as word continues to spread about the hospitality and quality of life that are unique to Sullivan County.
Our economic development programs are succeeding and continue to demonstrate great progress. The Emerald Corporate Park, with Crystal Run Healthcare established as the anchor, is now attracting new interest from other businesses wishing to relocate there.
The Empire Zone program, that only a year ago was under siege, has solidified and continued to produce strong benefits. Its business-friendly incentives continue to entice new and existing businesses to invest in Sullivan County. Over the past year, 37 new applicants have been accepted into the program, bringing to a total of over 100 businesses in the program and creating a thousand new jobs.
We now have an active agricultural economic program which saw the agriculture sector revenues grow 9.5 percent this past year from $55 million to $60 million. Furthermore, both an agricultural industrial park and an agricultural local development corporation were created, which together will offer more value-added farming to the Sullivan County community.
We have a vigorous Main Street program which is encouraging businesses to locate themselves on the main streets of our villages and hamlets.
The Division of Planning and the Partnership for Economic Development have formed a close working relationship in marketing and promoting the main street program, and with the assistance of the towns, we are also targeting key areas of the future I-86 for shovel-ready sites to accommodate commercial development to further diversify our economic base.
As we move forward with new development, it is still important for us to not forget the businesses that have maintained a presence in Sullivan County through the hard times. I pledge to you tonight that this legislature will work to guarantee these businesses have every opportunity to succeed and contribute to the future economic health of Sullivan County.
We will work with the Sullivan County Visitors Association, the Sullivan County Partnership, and the Sullivan County Chamber of Commerce to make this a reality.
I pledged last year that this legislature would create a new Consumer Affairs Initiative to safeguard the residents of Sullivan County. I am pleased to announce that this initiative is under way.
Working together with Cornell Cooperative Extension, we were able to get back to basics on this important issue and craft a program that will focus on consumer education and create a consumer hotline with a qualified professional on the line helping citizens with their complaints and collecting data on the nature of consumer problems.
The Consumer Affairs Initiative is the result of thoughtful discussion and prudent decision-making by all involved, which yielded a program that everyone can support and help to be successful. This is a necessary first step as we plan to expand our efforts and commitment to protect the citizens of this county from consumer fraud. I thank all those who helped to make this a reality.
A year ago I spoke of the need to rededicate ourselves to education. This legislature answered the call and lived up to this responsibility by increasing our commitment to our community college to levels unequaled in our history. Our partnership with SCCC is solid and growing.
We are devoted to doing everything in our power to enhance educational choices for our citizens. SCCC has demonstrated their commitment to education by joining with SUNY New Paltz to increase educational opportunities offered at Sullivan County Community College. We applaud their efforts to expand the educational opportunities for our young people.
Last year, I spoke of the need for a countywide Human Rights Commission. Working together and soliciting the assistance of people who shared a passion for this issue, we were able to bring old and new ideas to the table. We discussed how to support and protect the basic human rights of all of our people as Sullivan County grows and becomes ever more diversified. The result of this effort and consensus-building was the recent passage of a local law forming that human rights commission. I thank all who labored so diligently on this issue.
The year 2004 will be remembered as the year of the floods. I was awestruck as I toured flooded areas all over Sullivan County. But as I took in the devastation, I was also uplifted by the tireless efforts and the heroism of those who work in the county, town and village governments, as well as private citizens who pitched in to help their neighbors.
All levels of government came together as police, fire and EMS personnel responded immediately and worked around the clock to assist our citizens to make it through these disasters.
The floods have also led to a new countywide effort to provide better protection from such events in the future. Our Sullivan County Soil and Water Conservation District, our Sullivan County Planning and Economic Development Department, our Department of Public Works, our new Public Safety Commissioner Dick Martinkovic, as well as local officials from all corners of the county saw the need and are beginning to address long-standing deficiencies in the identification, evaluation and mitigation of potential flooding problems before they occur.
I am proud to say that their efforts will soon result in the creation of a countywide Flood Mitigation Program that will begin to address this chronic problem that has plagued homeowners and businesses across the county.
We will commit our resources to such an effort as has never before been put forth on this issue. With the capable people we have drawn together, Im confident we will succeed.
Public safety is paramount in the legislatures concerns. Last year I noted that we needed to complete a live-burn fire and emergency training center for our volunteers, and I am proud to report that this is being accomplished. We could do nothing less.
Even now, the property is being cleared at the site near the Sullivan County International Airport a site, Im pleased to say, made available by my home Town of Bethel. I must thank the Bethel supervisor and town board members, both past and present, for their cooperation and vision on this project.
Ground will be broken in a matter of weeks and, weather permitting, the facility could be operational by the end of the year.
This bodys commitment to public safety will never rest. This commitment is evidenced by our investment in the GIS system and the new Computer Aided Dispatch System at the E911 Center. In times of crisis, when minutes count, our emergency personnel will render assistance that much faster because of these cutting-edge innovations.
A year ago, I promised that this legislature would make the landfill a high priority and that we would tackle the challenges we faced in our solid waste system. We did. Tonight, I am delighted to announce that, through hard work and dedication by all involved, odor complaints have practically ceased at our landfill and that we are no longer importing trash to the landfill.
Due to steadfast efforts by our county attorney and his staff, we will soon have the permit to construct Cell 6. We should all be proud of the collaborative effort that led to our achievements in this area.
Although weve made great progress in this area, the stakes are even higher now than they were last year, or ever before. Within the past few days we have received a favorable decision from the DEC that will allow us to gain our permit to begin construction on the final cell of the original footprint of the landfill.
The county has faithfully participated in a process that, through careful negotiation and wise counsel, should allow us to proceed and satisfy all those with concerns.
We will continue our planning process of evaluating solid waste alternatives in the event that we need make a sea change in our solid waste program. I want to, as I have in the past, recognize the citizens who fought so hard to bring to our attention their concerns about the landfill. We listened and we acted. We hope you will continue to work with us as we look for solutions to our solid waste disposal needs.
Together we have accomplished much, and if we keep the lines of communication open and try to understand each others needs, we can continue to do so.
The issues here are too great, however, to be governed by any one group, and it is the job of the county legislature to act in the best interests of all the people of Sullivan County. That is what we have done on this issue, and that is what we will continue to do.
We had a challenging year as far as the county budget is concerned. As everyone who has been involved in government knows, the budget is the single largest undertaking of all and encapsulates the goals as well as the limitations of government.
Despite dire predictions and all the hurdles we faced and continue to face, the legislature and the county staff worked together to bring in a budget that minimized the cost to the taxpayer and still managed to maintain and even enhance the services we provide to the citizens of the county. It is a tribute to everyone who works for Sullivan County that this was accomplished in a spirit of compromise and openness. It is a process we will continue in the challenging days ahead.
I could not discuss our budget without mentioning Medicaid. The Medicaid system in New York State remains a major challenge to the budget of every county. In Sullivan, over 50 percent of our real property tax levy is used to pay the costs of Medicaid. The governor has made proposals to cap Medicaid, and it appears that finally a spirit of reform is afoot in Albany.
This legislature, as well as every legislature across the state, has continued to lobby for reform of the Medicaid system, and we must continue to do so. Our leaders in Albany must fix Medicaid now. It can wait no longer. There are no excuses for a lack of action. Let the message go out loud and clear to Albany fix Medicaid now!
We have worked in other ways to improve the quality of life for our citizens. The cost of prescription drugs, particularly for seniors, has become a heavy burden. We have spearheaded the effort to create a prescription drug discount program for Sullivan County. This program specifically targets those in our society who can least afford the skyrocketing cost of pharmaceuticals. It is exactly those people who will benefit most from the discount on prescription drugs this program offers.
It pains me to acknowledge that in the greatest country on earth, in the best county in our state, the aged and the poor need this kind of relief. But we saw the need and did our homework.
Working with county staff and members of the community, such as the Seniors Legislative Action Committee, we crafted a program based on others that are being initiated around the state and country. This program is being implemented as we speak.
Last year I spoke of the over 2,036 miles of road in Sullivan County and how difficult it was for many of our citizens to get to work or to necessary services if they did not have an automobile. I said we needed enhanced public transportation in Sullivan County. We are doing it.
Under the oversight of our County Planning Department, we have a consultant on board who is mapping out a new county transportation program. Our Visitors Association is working on the marketing and public relations for the program. Our Department of Public Works is overseeing the construction of our new bus facility on property near the Sullivan County International Airport.
Enhancing the ability of people to get from home to work or to have access to necessary services is a top priority for this board, and we are moving forward.
A Housing Task Force has been established that is working on fresh, inventive ways for Sullivan County to foster the development and maintenance of affordable housing for all the citizens of our county. We are investing in our GIS system and E-911 systems in ways that are unprecedented.
We are moving ahead with plans to establish a Citizens Advisory Board so as to institutionalize public input and advice on a host of issues and to utilize the collective brainpower of this county to offer solutions to specific challenges that we face. I think the recent experience we had with public meetings on the casino issue have shown us how valuable such input is and how much respect we earn from citizens when we solicit their ideas and thoughts . . . and really listen to what they have to say. Our citizens are the ultimate stakeholders in government, and they want to participate.
One of the biggest concerns that I have heard from people all across the county is the lack of affordable child care. This is an issue that we cannot afford to ignore.
The time has come for Sullivan County to take a leadership role in seeking a solution to this serious problem. Therefore I am proposing that Sullivan County take the initiative to explore child care programs that are established and working well in other communities. This will require assembling a task force made up of child care professionals, members of the public and county officials.
Once we explore all available options, we can adapt the best methods to Sullivan County, and I will move to implement our own program to relieve the burden this issue can cause.
Finally, no discussion of the state of the county would be complete without touching on the subject of casino gambling. As you all know, we have spent quite a bit of time discussing this issue over the last few months. The governors proposal to allow up to five Indian casinos here in Sullivan County was the catalyst for a public debate that has yet to subside.
It is clear that the majority of this legislature remains committed to bringing casino gambling to Sullivan County as a means to enhance our economy. As chairman, I will continue to represent the will of the majority as I have done over the past year on this issue.
Regardless of our personal feelings, it is imperative that we all work together to make sure that if the casinos come they will bring the benefits that have been promised and that the negative impacts will be dealt with appropriately.
This legislature will continue to negotiate and strategize with state and federal representatives to ensure that all impacts are mitigated and the people of this county are protected and receive the full benefits from any casino operation in the county.
Tonight I have spoken of the many accomplishments that we have seen over the last year. I have also spoken of the unforeseen challenges that we faced and overcame. Finally, I have laid out goals that I seek to achieve in the coming year.
I am proud of this legislature and of every single person that works on your behalf as members of the county workforce.
There are over 1,200 county employees. Some I know, some I recognize in the halls or at meetings, and others I have yet to meet. Ive been here just about every day this past year. And I learned early on that each of the 1,200 comes to work and gives their all for this county.
These are the people who give life to the programs, provide the services and give meaning to the rhetoric from the county manager to the men and women working on the roads and bridges, from the truck driver in DPW to the nurse in Public Health Services, from the deputy on patrol to Family Services caseworkers, from Real Property to the Adult Care Facility, those who work in the offices, and those who drive the vans.
Without them, the wheels of this government would grind to a halt. They perform each day in the name of public service. On behalf of a grateful county, I thank each of them for their tireless dedication, hard work and service to our community. I applaud you all.
Tonight I have spoken of the things that we did over the last year and of the things that I want to do in the next. Many of you may remember that when I spoke last year I issued a challenge to everyone in this room. I asked for a recommitment to democracy and to the institutions of government. I asked you to trust your elected officials and your government once again.
I called for us all to reject cynicism and the attitude that things would never get better and that government could never be part of the solution to our problems but instead was the problem.
I think we have made a beginning. We have given the citizens unprecedented access to the governmental process and, despite the naysayers, the walls did not fall down and government did not cease to operate.
Instead, we have governed more effectively and more openly in the last year that at any time since I have been here. That is a tribute to the people sitting behind me, but also to you here in front of me who seized the opportunity to participate. We have all done well, and we have only just begun.
We cannot predict the future or the challenges we will face. We can only prepare ourselves to deal with whatever lies ahead. We must keep our eyes on the horizon, ever mindful that the decisions made today will be felt far into the future.
This legislatures obligation is to the present, but we take very seriously our responsibility to the future of Sullivan County.
Teddy Roosevelt once said, In facing the future and in striving, each according to the measure of their individual capacity, to work out the salvation of our land, we should be neither timid pessimists nor foolish optimists. We should recognize the dangers that exist and that threaten us: we should neither overestimate nor shrink from them, but steadily fronting them should set to work to overcome and beat them down.
There is every reason why we should recognize them. But there is no reason why we should fear them, or doubt our capacity to overcome them, if only each will according to the measure of their ability, do full duty, and endeavor so to live as to deserve the high praise of being called a good American citizen.
Tonight I am full of well-earned hope and justifiable optimism. I know that Sullivan County is strong and that it will get stronger. It will get stronger because our commitment to our most precious resource our people has been renewed.
I still believe it is our mission to make Sullivan County a great place to live, work, and raise a family. We know what it is to work hard, and we know the rewards that come with a job well done. We opened the doors of this government a year ago, and they are still wide open. I continue to challenge everyone in this room to put forth their best effort to work together and become true stakeholders in the future of Sullivan County. If you work with us, I guarantee that we will work with you.
We cannot cure all the worlds problems or ills, but as I said last January, we can make our little corner of the world a better place.
We continue to have every right to be hopeful about the future. It is bright and full of promise. We are meeting every challenge and achieving the goals we set for ourselves. Let us not fear to dream of a better future for ourselves and our children.
Todays dreams are tomorrows realities for those who do not shrink from the challenge of making them real.
I pledge to you all the undying effort and unyielding fortitude of this legislature to continue on the course it has charted. It is a course leading to a better life for all of us and those who come after. Let us continue the journey together.