Full text of Legislator Ray Cianfrini's State of the County speech, delivered yesterday evening in the Old Courthouse in Batavia:
I would like to begin my program as I have in the past by recognizing individuals who are serving in new leadership positions in our county government.
We first want to welcome Bill Sheron as our new county sheriff. Bill is not a new face but a veteran who has served as undersheriff for many years and has over 38 years in the department and he brings experience, dedication, and stability to the office. We wish you and your new undersheriff, Greg Walker, nothing but success and we’ll continue to pray for the safety of all your deputies. A new face in an important position in our county government is Kevin Earl, our new county attorney. Kevin comes prepared with many years of experience in municipal law and he has hit the ground running knowing that he comes into office at a crucial time with the new sales tax and water agreements to be resolved. Welcome on board Kevin.
The last new county positions to be filled are those of county court and surrogate’s court judge and we were proud to see our former colleague and former county attorney, Chuck Zambito, elected to that office in November. It is reassuring to have someone so eminently qualified as Chuck to serve as our county court judge and know that the county is in good hands with him on the bench.
Last year in my state of the county address I indicated that 2016 would be a year of challenges and I was right. In looking back on 2016, I reflect on the disappointments and successes we faced. It was truly a year of highs and lows.
I originally intended to bemoan our failure to complete the sale of our nursing home by the end of the year as a major disappointment and in some respects, it was. However, as we are now all aware, at 7:56 am on Thursday, February 2, the sale was completed; the balance of the purchase price was deposited into our account and the county is no longer in the nursing home business. Let us all rejoice!
The long wait is over and all our hard work has paid off. However, with that door closed, another now opens and we must now go forward to ensure that we allocate these net proceeds in an effective and cost-efficient manner.
As you know, Genesee County suffered through a severe drought last summer that tested the resiliency of our local farmers. Many took a major financial hit in combating the drought, but with determination and hard work, and a little help from the weather, it looks like the worst is over.
Also, because of state mandates and an ever shrinking tax cap from the state, it was disappointing that we, as a county legislature, found it necessary to override the tax cap and pass a budget that included a tax rate increase for 2017. No one likes to raise taxes, especially me.
Our county manager presented us with a budget that kept us under the tax cap and included a tax rate decrease, but a majority of my colleagues felt strongly that we were continuing a policy of deficit spending and a need to raise rates to meet our future demands. We can only hope that in 2017 we return to a healthy fund balance from the use of our nursing home proceeds, that we find increased sales tax revenues and that we have decreased spending by having eliminated the nursing home as a fiscal “dark hole” and hopefully we can avoid having to raise taxes again.
It was a major disappointment last year when we saw no relief from the dreaded state mandates that eat up over 75 percent of our county tax levy.
How disappointing was it when both houses of the state Legislature approved a state takeover of indigent legal defense only to have the governor veto the legislation when it came to him for his approval? How disappointing and frustrating wait when the state approved pay raises for district attorneys in our state only to discover that we, the counties, must pay the raises? And how disappointing was it that our state-imposed tax cap originally set at 2 percent was reduced to only .68 percent this year?
Quite frankly, upstate counties, including our own, are getting sick and tired of being the governor’s “piggy bank” that he can tap into whenever he wants to fund or promote a part of his downstate New York City-centric agenda.
Governor, enough is enough! But for all these disappointments, we had great progress and successes on the county level last year.
Our unemployment rate continues to remain the lowest in the GLOW region; the City of Batavia, in collaboration with the GCEDC and the county, has begun its “pathway to prosperity” with hopes for a revitalized downtown and new economic growth; we opened our new $5 million airport terminal that enhances the airport’s ability to be a major revenue source; construction has begun on the River Street bridge much to the delight of Legislator Dejaneiro; construction started last year on our new state of the art Chamber of Commerce headquarters that had its grand opening just last month: construction also began on the new success center and the wellness and event center at Genesee Community College, both scheduled for completion this summer; and in a move to attack the devastating opioid and heroin addiction crisis affecting not only families in Genesee County but across the state, our own Genesee Council on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse, better known as GCASA, has received an $820,000 state grant for an opioid treatment program that can handle 150 treatment slots.
And finally, in the public safety sector, a new cell tower in Le Roy has been approved and funding became available to enhance the performance our public safety radio communication system. With 2016 behind us, what do we have to look forward to in 2017?
1. Because the nursing home sale is now complete, we face a new challenge as to how to best allocate the proceeds to best meet our current and future county needs.
2. Genesee County is responsible for the repair and maintenance of over 250 miles of roads and we own and maintain 379 bridges with over a five-foot span. It is no secret that this infrastructure is failing. We desperately need to fix our country's roads and bridges and the nursing home proceeds and hopefully sales tax revenues will go a long way in accomplishing that goal. I note that our current president and our governor are both advocating for major infrastructure improvements and we can only hope that federal and state funds will find their way to Genesee County to help us rebuild our roads and bridges.
3. I’ve referred to it as the “elephant in the room," but I think it's time to begin discussions with Orleans County, as informal as they may be, about the feasibility of a new regional jail. The governor talks about sharing county assets and services and I think we should take him seriously on this matter and “go outside the box” about looking to share the cost of such a large undertaking with our adjoining county. I have had a brief conversation with my counterpart in Orleans County and I can say with certainty that they share our concerns regarding a new jail and they too are interested in beginning the conversation.
4. Let’s get serious about shedding some county owned real estate that continues to be a drain on our finances. Specifically, I’m referring to the former engine house property and the Holland Land Office building. The engine house property is little used and its loss would be insignificant to the county. This is low-hanging fruit. Let’s sell it! I understand that the Holland Land Office is more controversial and there has been a recent campaign of misinformation coming from their board making the public think the county wants to close the Holland Land Office Museum. Let me be clear about one thing: Neither I nor any other member of the Legislature has advocated closing the museum. But I find it difficult to accept paying over $60,000 a year to own and maintain the building when it could be better served by being owned by the Holland Land Purchase Society or some other nonprofit entity. As a historical building, I recognize that it has a place in our local culture and continues to be a major tourist attraction. However, other towns and village share their own historical buildings and museums that we don’t subsidize or support and it is increasingly more difficult to justify having the county own, insure and maintain the building. We should transfer ownership to the Holland Land Purchase Society for a nominal fee and leave it to them to make it successful. The society has to learn to stand on its own or we need to pass ownership to someone who has both the means and desire to house the museum.
5. It now appears rifle hunting for big game will become permanent in Genesee County this year. Our legislature has passed the necessary resolution seeking permanent status and the next move is for the state legislature to give final approval. Our state senator and state assemblyman will be working diligently to make this happen. Now if only we could repeal the SAFE Act!
6. STAMP is moving forward. We haven’t seen ground breaking for 1366 Technologies yet, but GCEDC has approved the engineering work necessary to have the infrastructure work begin on the water lines to Alabama and the STAMP site and bids will be solicited soon with groundbreaking expected in early spring. Let’s continue to be optimistic that STAMP will become reality.
7. It’s hard to believe that in today’s fast-moving technological world there are still areas of Genesee County that are without high-speed Internet services. In the words of Governor Cuomo, “…Internet connectivity is no longer a luxury – it is a necessity as vital a resource as running water and electricity.” The state is currently investing $500 million into a new broadband program that provides funding for high-speed Internet access to unserved and underserved areas across the state. Also, it was recently announced that more than $170 million in federal funds for rural broadband services will be coming to upstate rural communities in New York. Because it is both essential and critical to the furure of our local economy, our children’s education and the safety of our citizens, it is imperative that we in Genesee County, together with private enterprise, take all necessary steps to go after these broadband funds to ensure high-speed Internet access to every household, business and farm currently unserved or underserved so that they may be able to participate in the global community.
8. A huge issue confronting the county this year is the current sales tax agreement with the City of Batavia, which expires a year from now in February 2018. Under the current agreement, sales tax revenues are shared 50 percent to the county, 16 percent to the City and the remaining 34 percent is divided among the towns and villages proportionate to their assessed valuations. Let’s keep in mind that Genesee County is one of the most generous counties when it comes to sharing its sales tax revenue. For example, in the GLOW region, Orleans County retains 77 percent of 3 percent with a cap of $1.367 million and the other 1 percent is retained by the county; Livingston County keeps 93 percent of 3 percent and retains their 1 percent for Medicaid expenses and Wyoming County keeps 100 percent of their 4 percent local sales tax. Negotiations for a new agreement began eight months ago, in July of last year, and the pace has been excruciatingly slow. I can certainly understand the City’s desire not to have changes made to the agreement, but the needs of the county today and for the future are much different than they were when the last agreement was signed 10 years ago. While not directly tied into the sales tax agreement, our current and future water demands and our ability to pay for water and complete Phase 2 of our countywide water project are major components of our future sales tax needs. Throw in the need for a new county jail projected to cost between $34 and $42 million and infrastructure repairs to our roads and bridges projected to cost over $17 million and it becomes evident that an increased source of revenue is needed, without raising property taxes, and it is imperative that the county make the best deal possible with the new sales tax agreement. In other words, changes must be made to benefit the county. The county has submitted a plan to the city and towns that keeps their sales tax revenues capped at the current level together with a phased-in reduction or elimination of water plant rent and payments for lost water currently paid to the city. The county has put the city on notice that if a new agreement is not in place by February of next year, the county will consider the current sales tax sharing agreement to be terminated. We await the results of the negotiations, but again, I want to be clear, time is of the essence and changes need to be made!
And in closing, I feel it necessary to respond to the governor’s recent proposal (which is really nothing more than another state mandate) that requires counties to prepare a plan for shared or consolidated services among the units of local government contained within the counties, excluding school districts, resulting in a countywide referendum for approval.
This proposal is not only an affront to all the counties, like Genesee County, that have worked diligently over the years to find shared efficiencies and limit spending. But it is also a blatant attack on our sacred principle of home rule! As NYCOM recently stated regarding this misdirected and unworkable proposal “the last thing New York needs is another mandate from Albany; particularly one that would circumvent local democracy via a county-determined, all-or-nothing referendum. New York’s strength is our representative form of democracy, not government by plebiscite.” Somehow the governor has this warped view that local governments do not or will not work together to share or consolidate services. Maybe he should get out of Albany and come to Genesee County to see what we’ve done with our health department, youth bureau, highway department and police communication systems.
If it is his goal to shrink the size of government, why not start with his own bloated state bureaucracy? And don’t tell us you’ve “done all you can to reduce property taxes in the state” and then throw the counties under the bus. You saddle us with an unrealistic and ever shrinking tax cap; you handcuff us with unfunded mandates; you limit our ability to choose how to administer them; you force us to either make drastic cuts in services or raise our local property taxes; and you hinder our ability to achieve maximum economic growth and then you have the audacity to proclaim you’ve “done all you can to lower property taxes.” How many times do we have to tell you we need mandate relief and why do our pleas continue to fall on deaf ears?
Genesee County has survived, is surviving and will continue to survive while we wrestle with these burdensome unfunded state mandates, but just think, if only for a minute, what we could accomplish without them. Thank you.