By Nathan Mayberg
MONTICELLO February 22, 2005 Sullivan County Legislature Chairman Chris Cunninghams State of the County speech covered a wide range of issues Thursday night, making new proposals while stressing the positive developments in the county over the last year, including declining unemployment, rising sales tax and mortgage tax revenues, a booming housing market and other economic development.
At the same time, he acknowledged some of the challenges of the past 12 months and others that may lie ahead. He termed 2004 the year of the floods, referring to the two disasters in the eastern and western ends of the county which wiped out a number of properties. He praised the efforts of the volunteers who responded to the floods and noted the countys hiring of full-time Public Safety Commissioner Richard Martinkovic to coordinate the countys response to future emergencies.
One challenge left out of the speech was addressing the countys debt load of over $60 million, which is largely due to the county landfill and an annual operating budget of approximately $180 million.
As for the landfill, Cunningham stated that he believed the county could be close to receiving a permit for its 3.4-acre expansion into Cell 6. The county currently has plans for a much larger expansion into Phase 2. In addition, the legislature approved millions of dollars in funding last year for a methane energy generation plant at the landfill.
The county recently received an interim ruling from the New York State Department of Conservation, which would allow for the issuing of a permit for Cell 6, if the county agrees to conditions for a litter control plan. It was not clear at press time as to how the county has reacted to those conditions.
Cunningham said that odor complaints have practically ceased and referred to the ending of importation contracts. The landfill was cited for odor violations nine times between September and the beginning of December by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
Cunningham said he recognized the issues of those who lived near the landfill and said the legislature would evaluate solid waste alternatives, choosing the best option for the entire county.
The chairman placed significant emphasis on Sullivan 2020, a county initiative coordinated by the county planning department with residents throughout the county. He said the program will have a substantial role in how the open spaces and wooded areas of the county are protected during this period of growth.
Indeed, time and time again, Cunningham referred to the growth in the county.
He said the legislature would need to take up the question of how to encourage and foster growth while sustaining the integrity of our environment.
Said Cunningham, The preservation of open space is 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.
On the tense casino debate, the chairman stated he will continue to represent the will of the majority of the legislature, who recently expressed their support for New York State Governor George Patakis plans for five casinos in the Catskills.
Although he voted against the resolution, he said, The legislature will continue to negotiate and strategize with state and federal representatives to ensure that all impacts are mitigated.
The county, however, will not be receiving any tax revenue off the gaming operations, or any percentage, like other counties to the north will.
Among the economic positives he noted was the Emerald Corporate Park, with its anchor, Crystal Run Healthcare. He also hailed the Empire Zone program, which offers a number of tax breaks to local businesses from the state. He said 37 local businesses were added to the program last year. That brings the total amount of businesses in the county receiving state tax breaks to more than 100.
Cunningham pledged to continue to work with local corporations and organizations such as the Sullivan County Visitors Association, the Sullivan County Partnership for Economic Development, the Sullivan County Chamber of Commerce and Cornell Cooperative Extension.
He praised Woodstone Developments Chapin Estates and the Bethel Performing Arts Center, which are both inside his district. He called Woodstone developer Steve Dubrovsky and Gerry Foundation Executive Director Jonathan Drapkin good friends.
He named the new consumer affairs initiative as a triumph of his agenda from last year. The new program will be run by Cornell Cooperative Extension at a cost of $50,000 a year to handle consumer complaints.
He also lauded the legislatures decision to increase funding to Sullivan County Community College. He noted the colleges new program offering various four-year degrees through SUNY New Paltz.
He also boasted of the creation of the Human Rights Commission, a Democratic initiative from the campaign of 2003 initiated by Legislator Ron Hiatt with community volunteers such as local Pastor Steve Knutsen and Eileen Weil.
The Sullivan County fire and emergency training center, near the Sullivan County Airport, was another proud accomplishment of the last year, said Cunningham. The property is currently being cleared for an emergency services training facility that will cost the county $2,000,000 in the 2005 fiscal year.
The Department of Public Works is constructing a new bus facility near the airport, added Cunningham.
The new prescription drug program, which was passed this year through the efforts of SLAC, a local community activist group of senior citizens, was another accomplishment noted by the chairman.
Like last year, he used his speech to repeat his call to the state legislature to cap the county cost for Medicaid, which he said comprises 50 percent of the real property tax levy.
Looking to the future, the chairman said the legislature is looking to implement a citizens advisory board which would institutionalize public input and advice on a host of issues.
The chairman said one of the most pressing concerns he had heard from county residents is the need for affordable child care. He suggested forming a task force to study child care options and that he would move to implement our own program to relieve the burden this issue can cause.