Legislature urges casino support, starts redistricting
Story by Dan Hust
MONTICELLO August 23, 2013 Legislators decided upon a variety of important topics at their monthly full-board meeting on August 15, from casinos to planning positions.
In an 8-1 vote, legislators agreed to urge voters to support legalizing gaming in the state, which includes a plan to site up to two casinos in the Catskills. The proposal will be on the general election ballot this November.
Legislator Cindy Gieger was the only “no” vote, citing her dissatisfaction with the final paragraph of the resolution, which says, “It is vital that the people of Sullivan County and the entire State of New York vote yes on Proposal #1 and that the referendum appearing on the November 2013 ballot authorizing Class III Gaming be approved.”
“It’s ahead of people’s vote on the matter,” she said, preferring to simply urge residents to vote without advocating a position.
Gieger pushed for impact agreements to be explored, but Legislator Jonathan Rouis pointed out that until voters approve gaming, that’s a moot point.
Legislature Chairman Scott Samuelson added that the proposed legislation allows the county to split 10 percent of the gambling proceeds with the involved township, which could help mitigate some of the impacts on police and infrastructure.
Here comes redistricting
Legislators that day got their first taste of the complexities involved in the legally mandated redistricting process now starting.
Real Property Tax Services Director Lynda Levine explained that since the 2010 Census showed shifts in the county’s population of 76,628, the existing nine legislative districts will see their borders change.
Each district has to have roughly the same amount of residents. While the average would be 8,474, the law allows a range of 8,050 to 8,898.
That means the current districts of Jonathan Rouis and Ira Steingart have too many people in them (9,194 and 9,886, respectively), while the districts represented by Kitty Vetter (7,536), Cindy Gieger (7,908) and Gene Benson (7,867) have too few. (Benson’s district includes the two state prisons, but their populations are not counted toward redistricting.)
The districts of Scott Samuelson (8,151), Kathy LaBuda (8,708), Cora Edwards (8,222) and Alan Sorensen (8,635) are within the acceptable range.
But it’s likely all nine districts will see their borders shift, especially since some election districts also have to change.
The challenge is political as well as logistical.
“You don’t want to redistrict where you’re gerrymandering districts,” said Levine.
Since political parties and minorities have to be taken into account, she recommended hiring an outside consultant to analyze the demographics of the county.
Though that cost $25,000 when the Legislature redistricted a decade ago, Levine thought the price might be lower this time because the county has more data already in hand.
She recommended the redistricting plan be in place by next June, in case voters gain enough signatures on a petition to force it to a November 2014 vote. That would give the county enough time to ensure the boundaries are firmly known during the 2015 campaigns for open Legislature seats.
Levine is part of a Redistricting Oversight Committee appointed by Legislature Chairman Scott Samuelson and composed of Elections Commissioners Rodney Gaebel and Ann Prusinski, County Attorney Sam Yasgur, Acting Planning Commissioner Jill Weyer, legislators Kathy LaBuda and Alan Sorensen, plus Samuelson and Levine.
Sharing a planner
In a return to how it was once done, legislators and Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) have agreed to jointly hire an ag planner who would work for both CCE and the county.
Both CCE and the county’s Planning Division recently lost their ag planners and are seeking to rehire.
“We can’t afford it full-time, but it’s really a critical position for CCE,” CCE Executive Director Greg Sandor told legislators.
The salary and hours would be split roughly 50/50, though Sandor said there would be “flexibility” in the planner’s hours in Monticello vs. Liberty (and the health and retirement benefits would be paid solely by CCE).
The county’s first ag planner, Rick Bishop, was employed this way, recalled Legislator Alan Sorensen, then the Planning commissioner.
“It worked really well,” he noted.
But legislators want to ensure the second time’s the charm, only agreeing to a six-month “trial period.”
“I do have reservations about this,” said Legislator Cindy Gieger, noting the different missions of CCE and the county’s Planning Division.
Still, Sandor and legislators like Jonathan Rouis felt the synergy could be advantageous.
“I think we have to send a message that we’re putting the link back together,” said Rouis, who predicted the pairing “will pay big dividends.”
All nine legislators agreed to the position’s creation, paving the way for officials to hammer out a formal contract and job description, then hire someone.
Legislator Cora Edwards, however, wanted specific “deliverables” spelled out, detailing the expectations of the job-holder.
Planning adding ‘half-position’
As a result of sharing the ag planner with Cornell Cooperative Extension, the county’s Planning Division is hiring an additional full-time planner.
Since the county only has to pay for half the ag planner’s salary (and nothing for the benefits), legislators agreed last Thursday to create a new planner position.
Utilizing the money saved from the shared ag planner position, the county will only have to find funds for half the planner position’s $75,000 cost (salary and benefits).
The money is already in the budget, since the Planning Division remains without a permanent commissioner.
“What are we doing about filling that position?” wondered Legislator Kitty Vetter of the vacant leadership post.
Personnel Officer Carolyn Hill replied that she, Acting County Manager Josh Potosek and Legislator Alan Sorensen are working on a job description.
College gets $4M
Also that Thursday, legislators unanimously approved the county’s usual $4 million contribution to SUNY Sullivan’s budget, which this year totals just under $17 million.
A public hearing on that contribution an hour before the vote produced no comments.