By Dan Hust
BETHEL Legislator Scott Samuelson didn’t stray too far from the “county will rise again” tone of his predecessors’ speeches when he gave his first State of the County address on Friday, but he insisted the unusual change of venue was more than cosmetic.
“I am honored to have this opportunity to stand before you in this glorious space,” he said inside a sun-dappled Bethel Woods, “as I believe this represents the beginning of the possibility and the future of Sullivan County!”
Emphasizing “bold action,” Samuelson promised his words would be followed by concrete, measurable results.
“Last month, I created the Strategic Plan Review Subcommittee,” he offered by way of example. “Although this will be the third bi-annual plan presented, this is the first time that a subcommittee has been established to meet weekly, reviewing the departmental priorities and the county manager’s recommendations that have been submitted.”
Notably, Samuelson said he plans to replace the Economic Development Corporation (EDC) created by his forebear, fellow Legislator Jonathan Rouis, with a “coalition of advisors that will work directly with the chairman of the Legislature, and to make it more accessible and user-friendly for the business community.”
Acknowledging his newness to leading the county, Samuelson didn’t so much take credit as he doled it out to county employees, to his fellow legislators, and to successful local businessmen like Alan Gerry, Hal Teitelbaum and Patrick Dollard.
Samuelson also thanked the county and emergency personnel who responded to the gargantuan fire at the Grandview Palace, noting their efforts likely saved lives.
And he looked forward to projects intended to rebrand the county as a premier destination, projects like the resurrected Concord Hotel and the Lodge at Rock Hill.
That said, he insisted the county’s main streets and agricultural initiatives will continue to be priorities.
While Samuelson was forthright about the county’s struggling financial condition both in government and in business he only dwelled on one particular concern: the growing list of unfunded state mandates, which he hinted would be at the root of any future property tax hike.
“Early projections indicate that the increase in costs to run the state-mandated programs in 2013 will total over $1,400,000,” he related. “The increased cost of state programs is therefore anticipated to outpace the total additional revenue that the county may realize under the state’s own two percent tax cap.”
Samuelson thus urged state officials as much as locals to work together for the betterment of the county.
“Property taxes will be stabilized and reduced only after there is meaningful mandate relief and reform of property tax exemption criteria,” he stated.
The Full 2012 State of the County Speech
Good evening, and welcome to our 2012 State of the County Address. I would like to begin tonight by recognizing my fellow Legislators: Vice Chairman Gene Benson, Majority Leader Kathleen LaBuda, Minority Leader Alan Sorensen, District Three Legislator Kitty Vetter, District Four Legislator Jonathan Rouis, District Five Legislator Cindy Kurpil Gieger, District Six Legislator Cora Edwards and District Eight Legislator Ira Steingart. I would also like to recognize County Manager David Fanslau, our supervisors and mayors present, as well as Senator John Bonacic, State Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther and representatives from the offices of New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo and Congressman Maurice Hinchey.
I would like to offer a special thank you to American Legion Post 1266 and VFW Post 4947 for providing the color guard this evening, to my dear friend Jeanne MacDonald of Bloomingburg, for her beautiful rendition of the National Anthem and to the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Department for their ceremonial guard this evening.
First, I want to thank Alan Gerry as well as Darlene Fedun, Chief Operating Officer for Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, for allowing me to bring my message to you in this very special place. I chose this venue for my first State of the County Address for a few reasons. First of all because it is located in District 1, the district I was elected to represent. Secondly, with this being the first, it is my hope to take our message around the county over the next couple of years to hi-light other special places in our community as there are so many and finally because in 1997 this property began as a dream and now reflects all that is possible. This facility symbolizes the very best of Sullivan County, and has set a standard by which future sustainable economic growth can and should be measured. I am so very grateful to Alan Gerry and all the good people at Granite Associates and the Gerry Foundation for creating this magnificent venue right here in our backyard. I am honored to have this opportunity to stand before you in this glorious space as I believe this represents the beginning of the possibility and the future of Sullivan County!
Last November, you, our citizens chose to elect a Legislature that would be comprised of six new Legislators to join three reelected Legislators to move Sullivan County forward toward economic growth, that will realize the creation of private sector job opportunities, and value-added businesses that will revitalize our Main Streets and provide opportunities for our residents and visitors alike to invest their hard earned dollars in Sullivan County, shopping locally, patronizing small businesses, and growing our greater economy.
Please allow me to spend just a few minutes to introduce Sullivan County’s ninth Legislature.
• Vice Chairman Gene Benson. Gene is a recognized labor leader, working in the Town of Fallsburg for decades. Because of Gene’s unique insight and rapport with labor we have been able to reach mutual agreements on several outstanding arbitration matters and grievances, with a perfect performance record thus far in 2012. Gene will be fully engaged with upcoming collective bargaining negotiations, as many of our contracts expire this year.
• Majority Leader Kathy LaBuda. Kathy has loyally served our county for twelve years, and has been a tireless champion of her constituents, especially our seniors and veterans. May I also mention that Kathy is a fierce advocate for the Division of Public Works and the great work they do.
• Minority Leader Alan Sorensen. Alan formerly served as the county Commissioner of Planning, and provides the Legislature with a professional planning perspective through his credentials from the AICP. We have already begun benefitting from his exceptional knowledge and expertise in his field, particularly in the area of Community Development.
• Legislator Kitty Vetter. Kitty brings her professional experience as a Registered Nurse employed at our Catskill Regional Medical Center, to her role on the Health and Family Services committee. Her obvious passion and compassion shines through as she advocates for the technologically underserved areas of our county.
• Legislator Jonathan Rouis. First, please join me in thanking Jonathan for his leadership as Chairman of the Legislature for the past four years, and as Vice Chairman before that. Jonathan’s knowledge in accounting is invaluable and we will be taking great advantage of that expertise during the upcoming budgeting process.
• Legislator Cindy Kurpil Gieger. Cindy is also a Nurse, as well as the owner of an active Dairy Farm in Jeffersonville. Cindy’s direct knowledge and work in Agriculture and Sustainability have already realized results in focusing a standing committee on agriculture, and the creation of the Agriculture Advisory Board and the Climate Action Plan Advisory Board.
• Legislator Cora Edwards. Cora has a dedicated focus on our Public Safety infrastructure, and she has driven a renewed focus on the County’s grant writing capacity. As a teacher of grant writing at NYU, we will rely heavily upon Cora’s experience and expertise in this field in the days and years ahead.
• Legislator Ira Steingart. Ira leads our Community and Economic Development efforts as Chairman of the Industrial Development Agency (IDA) and the Sullivan County Funding Corporation. Ira’s years of small business ownership, growth, and actual survival in Sullivan County, makes me confident he will be tremendously helpful as we move forward in our mission to achieve our vision of economic development.
As I stated earlier, six out of the nine in this group are new to government service. As you can well imagine, there is a tremendous amount to understand and learn and I assure you all of the newly elected have taken this challenge very seriously. We have all spent extraordinary amounts of time doing so. None of us could accomplish this with out the support and encouragement of our spouses, families, friends and co-workers. I would like to express my heartfelt thanks and gratitude to all of those who have made this sacrifice.
It is impossible to start any dialogue about the state of Sullivan County without first addressing the continuing impacts of the global economic crisis and the trickle-down effect it is having on all of us: as Americans, as New Yorkers and as residents of Sullivan County. No one cares more about the future of Sullivan County than the people in this room, and each of us knows that we must continue to adapt as best we can to weather the impacts from this “Great Recession”, while working towards economic recovery and sustainable economic growth.
Bold action that results in achieving some measure of success in economic development is our top priority. Yesterday, the Legislature voted to engage a team of experts in economic development to write an actionable economic development plan that is funded through a grant from the federal government. “Actionable” is the key, as you have been far too patient waiting for results from promised projects in some cases waiting for decades. By now we have all learned that there are no “silver bullets” that will magically transform Sullivan County overnight. Moreover, we have learned that we must have a clear and concise stategy that will put plans into action that are achievable, with measurable results. We must diversify our portfolio of businesses and jobs; balance our quality-of-life and standard-of-living, while protecting the many cherished assets throughout our County.
Sullivan County has hope in the prospect of several public and private development projects as our county government is operating more efficiently and effectively than ever before. This recession has prompted us to reexamine the way we do business and to focus our attention on strengthening our core mission, all in preparation for when economic conditions improve. County staff has and continues to identify and implement efficiencies across multiple departments. With initiatives ranging from improved use of technology in our County offices to instituting alternative methods of snow and ice removal on our roadways have been explored. These efforts and their associated cost savings have enabled the County to continue to provide essential services in spite of the cutbacks resulting from the ongoing effects of this recession.
In order to stay focused on the core mission of County Government to serve and protect our constituents as effectively as possible our actions and policy decisions must continue to be led by well-thought out plans. Last month, I created the Strategic Plan Review Subcommittee. Although this will be the third bi-annual plan presented, this is the first time that a subcommittee has been established to meet weekly, reviewing the departmental priorities and the County Manager’s recommendations that have been submitted. This plan is the foundation of the budget process where the Legislature establishes programs and sets the fiscal priorities of the County.
This Strategic Plan is also an important planning tool because it gives the County Manager the foundation for developing our annual operating budget. When coupled with the six-year capital plan it gives the most accurate depiction of what direction the Legislature plans to move in the immediate future.
As the Legislature develops a vision for moving Sullivan County forward, it is critical that the necessary infrastructure is in place to support these future initiatives. Our Public Safety Radio Infrastructure is in need of significant improvements. We will move forward a capital project that will bring our Public Safety communications from the mid-20th century to present day state-of-the-art, but also a system that will have the capacity to see us through for the next few decades. Governments throughout our nation have sought to improve and ensure reliable interoperable communications as a result of the lessons learned from the tragedy of the 2001 terror attacks, particularly in New York City.
At this time, I want to thank our volunteer fire fighters and emergency personnel that responded to the largest fire of occupied residences in County history last month at the Grandview Palace Condominiums the Former Brown’s Hotel. Although there was substantial property loss as a result of the fire, there were no lives lost. This could have been a much more tragic event. Our Emergency Management and Public Safety teams from across the County along with the County Government worked like a professional well-trained and experienced machine.
In order to move our County forward on the smart, fiscally-responsible path that our economy demands, we must also continue to focus on streamlining our economic development model, as we market our resources to visitors and companies looking to locate their operations in Sullivan County. While the Sullivan County Economic Development Corporation was formed to do just this, it is the intent of the Legislature to reinvigorate this model by replacing a corporation with a coalition of advisors that will work directly with the Chairman of the Legislature, and to make it more accessible and user friendly for the business community. It is also imperative that we continue to support our existing businesses as they grow and expand.
The retention of existing businesses and employers is a foundation that must be supported in a successful economic development plan. There must also be an environment where our current businesses are encouraged to expand and add value to the County’s economy.
We often talk about economic development and job creation. I would like to highlight the value that has been added to Sullivan County’s economy through the efforts of Alan Gerry through Cable Vision Industries and Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, Dr. Hal Teiltelbaum through Crystal Run Healthcare, and Patrick Dollard through the Center for Discovery, and their investment in improving Sullivan County by adding venues that place Sullivan County on the map by providing cutting-edge healthcare services that have contributed remarkably in the treatment of the autism spectrum and other diseases.
Alan Gerry turned a once famous field into a world-class performing arts facility that has attracted the likes of Elton John, Tim McGraw, and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Bethel Woods is one of the the Crown-Jewels of Sullivan County.
Hal Teitelbaum chose to invest in Rock Hill to provide Sullivan County with comprehensive quality healthcare. Crystal Run Healthcare has been recognized by many organizations for their leadership and innovation in the delivery of healthcare services.
Patrick Dollard had a vision that would provide treatment and services to a population affected by autism and other challenges, at a location in Sullivan County. Patrick Dollard believes that environment plays a key role in many health related issues, and providing services in an environment of clean and unharmed natural resources is a hallmark of the Center for Discovery. I am pleased to acknowledge that the Center for Discovery is Sullivan County’s top employer. They provide quality jobs with health benefits, and they have plans to continue to their expansion that will grow more job opportunities in the years ahead.
In the months to come, Sullivan County will see exciting new ventures launched that show great promise toward positive impacts on our local economy. The Resnick Group, who gave us a fantastically refurbished Bernie’s Holiday Restaurant, has recently purchased and already begun the same kind of renovation on The Lodge at Rock Hill and is poised to continue Sullivan County’s long history of world class lodging and catering.
Entertainment Properties Trust, or EPT is in the midst of an ambitious redevelopment of the property surrounding what was once the site of the world famous Concord Hotel. These are two spectacular endeavors that are well on their way and we applaud these folks for their foresight and determination in bringing these great projects to our community.
In addition, the County is refocusing efforts toward the redevelopment at the site of the old Apollo Plaza. The Legislature and staff are working diligently on this project, the end result of which will emphatically declare that Sullivan County is open for business!
Sullivan County’s Main Streets must be one of our top priorities, from Livingston Manor to Wurtsboro, and from Barryville to Jeffersonville, and from Kauneonga Lake to Woodbourne. The county government will refocus our efforts to support the revitalization of our Main Streets as a top priority. We have all seen the impacts of the deterioration of Main Street Business Districts over these last thirty or forty years. Well, there is now a renewed emerging desire for people to shop locally at small businesses, and this is our opportunity to encourage and support entrepreneurs and small shop owners as a larger part of our overall strategy. Sullivan County has many successful small businesses, but many are struggling. I am convinced that a reinvestment in the Main Streets and downtown areas throughout Sullivan County will be a key building block to our future economic success.
Tourism continues to be a leading industry, generating more than $290 million dollars in consumer spending annually in Sullivan County, while employing more than 4,000 local residents and generating over $18 million in sales tax revenue. Good, but we can do better. The County must build on the success of our existing tourism industry, and bring forth new ideas and initiatives to create a more enticing environment for our visitors. I envision our tourism and promotion agency working cooperatively within our economic development strategic plan to help attract visitors throughout the entire year to help revitalize our main streets, downtowns and many visitor attractions. I see them as part of the economic development team. I believe it is a new world out there and we need to focus our energies on fresh new ways to reinvigorate our tourism and promotion model making it the most user-friendly. One that is pro-active, creative and accessible. We have begun these conversations with our Sullivan County Visitors Association who have expressed their eagerness to participate in this process and I would anticipate that the soon-to-be issued Request-for-Proposals will help solidify our focus on specific goals and intensions as we move forward.
No conversation about economic development in Sullivan County could be complete without addressing our most time honored institution: agriculture. As the industry struggles, yet continues to develop and grow, we are seeing a difference in the type of farming conducted in Sullivan County. While still an extremely viable focus for many families, Sullivan County is seeing fewer beef and milk-production farms, and instead developing a growing niche market for specialty and organic fruits and vegetables, exotic livestock and specialty items such as heirloom plants and rare orchids.
Agriculture in Sullivan County is vital to continuing the quality-of-life we are accustomed to. While new homes in the second home and vacation property sectors will stimulate our economy and grow our tax base, we also need successful agribusinesses to help preserve the open space and farmlands our communities are known for and our residents and visitors expect.
Sullivan County is also poised to be the food supply for the New York Metropolitan Area. Governor Cuomo earlier this year called for regional food distribution centers to be developed in areas in upstate New York. I believe that we should focus more resources in gaining a designation for a food distribution center that would marry Sullivan County’s agricultural products with the food supply needs of the greater metropolitan region.
The Legislature continues its commitment to the Red Meat Processing Facility in Liberty, as a means of providing a more localized solution for our livestock farmers. I remain optimistic that by cutting down on the amount of time and resources it takes to ship livestock to processing facilities upstate, farmers and agribusiness owners can utilize those savings to reinvest in their businesses and communities.
We must also continue to explore other options for economic development within our agricultural community, such as agriculture-based renewable energy opportunities, agricultural biotechnology as well as eco or agri-tourism.
Most recently, the County, the IDA, and the Sullivan County Funding Corporation developed an agreement that will provide for the ability of our Agriculture Planner, Jennifer Mall, to perform more outreach to our farmers and work with a renewed focus on agriculture economic development initiatives. Jennifer has done a fabulous job for the County and for the Agricultural community, and I applaud her efforts.
As we continue to position ourselves for future success, we must also focus on the importance of delivering to our constituents the quality services they need, deserve and have come to expect. And we could not provide any of these services without the dedicated men and women who make up the County workforce. My colleagues and I share a sense of pride at their dedication to serve, educate and protect Sullivan County residents. Our ties to the County workforce and unions who represent them have never been stronger, and I look forward to continuing to strengthen these ties in the months and years ahead. The impact our employees have on our community reaches all walks life.
Our Division of Public Works does an outstanding job maintaining critical infrastructure, including 387 miles of County highway, 400 bridges and culverts, the Sullivan County International Airport, and a system of parks which provide County residents with an affordable opportunity to enjoy our local heritage and natural resources. Single Stream Recycling began in Sullivan County in late October, 2011. This initiative has vastly streamlined the recycling process, increasing the ease in which residents may participate in reducing the County’s waste stream.
The Sullivan County Division of Public Safety provides services with unparalleled professionalism during some of our greatest times of need. The Sullivan County 911 Center handled nearly 105,000 phone calls in 2011 and more than 14,000 hours of training were provided to 862 firefighters.
In 2011 the Division of Planning and Environmental Management created a Countywide Business Signage program, and the Department worked on improving the county image through branding and signage. 2011 also saw the completion of the first bus wrap project on a Coach USA bus that promotes the Sullivan County Catskills from Monticello to New York City. Last November Planning organized and held an Agricultural Summit that brought together farmers and agri-businesses in the County to discuss their needs and to foster development in this sector. Implementation has begun on the River Corridor Main Street Grant for $500,000 for redevelopment of hamlets along Rte 97. Planning is also working with the Monticello Business Association & Village on Broadway revitalization initiatives, as well as working with Dr. Peter Tarlow through Sullivan Renaissance on the Local Waterfront Revitalization Plan for the Upper Delaware Scenic Byway Corridor.
The Division of Health and Family Services continues to serve our most vulnerable community members. In 2011 our Certified Home Health Agency welcomed more than 1,400 new patients needing short term acute care and made over 21,000 home visits. Additionally, over 1,800 immunizations preventing contagious diseases were provided to county residents. As the County works toward improving its Public Health ranking, initiatives such as Public Health education will require added focus and a renewed sense of responsibility to our community. Our Public Health Director, Carol Ryan, will work with the County Manager to organize and facilitate a Public Health Summit that will focus on ways to improve Sullivan County’s public health.
The Division of Management and Budget continued to provide administrative support to County departments as well as Towns, Villages and School Districts through the Departments of Human Resources and Purchasing. The Department of Grants Administration reports that the County had been notified of, and applied for, received by allocation or legislative member item, a total of seventy-seven sources of funding, amounting to over $14,000,000.00.
During the County’s 2011 Annual Litter pluck 177 bags of garbage were removed from our communities by dedicated volunteers, while the Sullivan County Clean Team also maintained 176 miles of County roadways throughout the summer. County residents recycled nearly 5,000 tons of material, which in turn brought over $500,000 in revenue. Clearly, our residents have a strong sense of responsibility in maintaining our natural environment, and take pride in keeping their communities clean. The County must continue to provide support for initiatives which promote a healthy environment that can be enjoyed by future generations.
I would at this time also like to recognize the incredible work of Sullivan Renaissance over the last 11 years. Thanks to the Gerry Foundation, and Sandra Gerry for their hard work and support in maintaining this organization that strives to keep our county beautiful and instill the community pride that is so necessary for us to move our economic development strategies forward.
The Sullivan County Office of Sustainable Energy, working with the Sullivan Alliance for Sustainable Development, began the administration of grants received from NYSERDA. The County was awarded $110,000 for Energy Management Personnel. SASD has conducted an extraordinary amount of outreach to the public, providing information on energy audits and home energy retrofits through the Green Jobs-Green NY Program made available through NYSERDA.
The County was also awarded $279,100 for the installation of a 44.85 kilowatt ground mount solar system at the Robert Travis Building in Liberty. This project will demonstrate the potential for a promising technology, which has quickly progressed and is emerging as a viable alternative to traditional fuel sources.
I am also pleased to announce that a new website, Sustainable Sullivan County, Is up and running and provides homeowners and business owner vast amounts of information regarding incentives to lower energy usage and costs and to implement environmentally sound practices. It is available through Sullivan County’s main website. If we all want to protect the clean air, fresh water and pristine landscapes that draw so many to the area, we must all do our part.
While the State Government managed to pass a property tax cap, they failed to implement meaningful mandate relief for the County’s property taxpayers. Legislation in both the Senate and the Assembly would have the State gradually take over the local share of Medicaid costs, which is approximately $21 million for Sullivan County in 2012. However, this legislation has failed to move out of committee in either house and has yet to come to the floor for a full vote. The current bills that consume more than 93% of Sullivan County’s property tax levy directly correlate to numerous New York State mandated programs. Early projections indicate that the increase in costs to run the State mandated programs in 2013 will total over$1,400,000.00. The increased cost of state programs is therefore anticipated to outpace the total additional revenue that the County may realize under the State’s own 2% tax cap.
In closing, we must all work together to achieve the best results possible for Sullivan County, but most importantly, to provide the best results that our residents deserve and have come to expect. The impacts from the “Great Recession” have provided us with significant challenges, but we must come together to build a bridge to overcome those challenges, and set a course toward sustainable economic growth for our County. The County will do its part in reducing expenses and increasing efficiency in the delivery of services, but to be most successful, the State of New York must also take bold action on substantive mandate relief, reform of mandated services, and major reform - no, a total rewrite of the property tax exemption criteria in State statutes. Property taxes will be stabilized and reduced only after there is meaningful mandate relief and reform of property tax exemption criteria. There is no reasonable justification that the federal and state Medicaid program is funded by County property taxpayers it is regressive and unjust! Likewise, there is no reasonable justification that would continue to require eighty percent of all real property owners to pay one hundred percent of the property tax bill!
Sullivan County’s best days must be ahead of, rather than behind us. With the input and involvement of our citizens, the development of a sound economic development plan, and the continuing realignment and improvement in the efficient delivery of services, I believe that Sullivan County’s sun will indeed be rising on “Mountains of Opportunities” in the years ahead.
God Bless America, God Bless Sullivan County Sullivan County and God Bless and thank you.