This is a transcript of the State of the County address delivered yesterday evening by Ray Cianfrini, chairman of the Genesee County Legislature:
One year ago, at my first State of the County Address, I indicated how the outlook for Genesee County for the Year 2014 was bright and how I believed 2014 was to be the “Year of Change.” So let’s take a look back and see what transpired:
I stated we were going to begin the process of selling the county-owned Nursing Home. We did that! We have gone through a tedious quality selection process where we submitted an RFP and received eight proposals. We are currently in the process of vetting the final two respondents to ensure a continuity of workforce and quality of care for nursing home residents. The transition of the County Nursing Home to the private sector will ensure a continued “Genesee Centric” service to our frail elderly and a quality of care at or better than the county has been providing -- with good paying jobs in coordinated care with United Memorial Medical Center. We are confident that a choice will be made soon with an expectation that the sale could be completed before the end of this year. When the sale is complete, the County’s “fiscal dark hole” will be closed -- putting an end to spending in excess of $3 million a year of taxpayer dollars to cover the annual deficits incurred in the operation of the home.
I stated that in 2014 the County was going live with our new $10.5 million 800 MHz public radio communications system. The system is now up and running with the addition of three new towers in Alabama, Bergen and Darien to increase reception. We also saw the transition to a new VHF high bank paging solution for our Fire and EMS responders.
Tourism in Genesee County continued to be strong. Bed tax revenues last year or $443,000 generated an impressive 27% return of $93,000 on our County investment to the Chamber of Commerce of $350,000.
I noted that 2014 was the year the County Legislature was going paperless. Done! We now work off iPads without the endless flow of paper. The process is time-saving, cost-efficient, and utilizes the latest technology available for streamlining both our Committee and Legislator meetings.
Last year we hired or had elected a number of new, young, talented and energetic management employees and Legislators that I referred to as our young guns. Each is now settled into his or her role and they are on their way to becoming our next generation of County leaders. Since my address last year, as a result of retirements, the County has hired three new department heads that I can best describe as middle-aged guns, because they are not only energetic and talented, but each comes with years of experience in his or her field.
Ruth Spink, our new Director for the Office for the Aging served for years under her predecessor, Pam Whitmore. Michael Eula, our new County Historian, has a PhD in history, has published numerous historical articles in several books, and is a former long-term college professor. Jerry Ader, our new Public Defender served for many years as an assistant in the office under his predecessor, Gary Horton. Each has replaced a dedicated and long-serving department head. It is often times difficult to replace the years of experience and skill sets lost upon retirement, but we as a County are fortunate to be able to replace experience with experience and our County leadership remains strong.
On the economic front, 2014 saw some of our lowest unemployment rate in years; the unemployment rate for Genesee County in December 2014 was 5.6%, which was the lowest unemployment rate in our County for December since 2006. The rate was an historic low of 4.8% in August and September and per capita income grew in our County 6.16% in 2014. Our Job Development Bureau placed over 1,900 workers with area businesses in 2014 and we continue to have the lowest unemployment rate in the GLOW region.
Agriculture continues to be a driving force of our economy and Genesee County was in the forefront to support our local farmers with soil health workshops put on by our Soil and Water Conservation Board; the legislature also sponsored resolutions in support of Congressman Chris Collins' successful effort to kill the federal EPA Waterway Rule, which if implemented, would greatly increase the cost of doing business for farmers, if not put some of them out of business; and Genesee to college was instrumental in partnering with Genesee Valley Education Partnership to institute a new program called the Agribusiness Academy for high school seniors interested in pursuing careers in the agribusiness field.
2014 saw a concentrated focus on our County Airport for the replacement of the existing terminal and main hangar. The County advertised for bids and over 31 were received with the project bids coming in at $5.9 million (well below engineers' estimates). With $1.2 million in federal and state grants, the County issued bonds in December of last year in the amount of $4.75 million to cover the cost of the project with construction scheduled to begin in March of this year. Our airport continues to be a hub of activity with increased jet traffic from economic development and with numerous entertainment acts for Darien Lake Theme Park using the airport. With all this activity the County generated a surplus in excess of $100,000 from fuel sale receipts and T-hangar rentals.
Genesee Community College continues to give us the best bang for our buck. Last year GCC launched a new food processing technology degree program and with our County support and with significant fiscal support from the GCC Foundation, GCC is expanding with a new Student Success Center and a new Student Wellness Event Center, both scheduled for construction this year.
Economic development thrived in Genesee County in 2014 thanks to the efforts of Genesee County Economic Development Center creating a positive business climate by securing $58 million of new private capital investment including Yancey’s Fancy $20 million expansion project; A $9.8 million expansion of Liberty Pumps and Bergen and a $23 million investment in US Gypsum Company in Oakfield. It was truly noteworthy that $33 million was committed in the 2014 New York state budget for the development of our Western New York STAMP Project in the Town of Alabama. It is been said before but bears repeating that STAMP has the potential to create thousands of good-paying jobs, including thousands of long-term construction jobs, and will have a transformational impact on our economy both locally and statewide.
In last year’s address I stated that the County was heading in the right direction with many positive forces at work. I acknowledge our dedicated and hard-working staff of County employees, department heads and elected officials. With 2014 now behind us, I can look back and say with pride the hard work and dedication paid off. My expectations for success and change were accomplished. I want to take this opportunity to say thank you to my colleagues on the Legislature and to our County Manager and all our department heads for accepting change and working toward common goals that enable us to end 2014 and to begin 2015 with a balanced budget, a solid AA bond rating, (and) strong reserves in a 2015 budget that included a rare $.18 per thousand tax decrease.
If 2014 was the year of change, I see 2015 as a year of progress. With a multitude of factors at play, we, as a Legislature are again challenged to be innovative and to make more hard decisions that can have a positive effect on moving the County forward. For example, we as a Legislature have recognized that there is an imbalance in our current management salaries. Our non-management employees have the benefit of collective bargaining to address salary issues. There is no such benefit to our management personnel who are literally at the mercy of the Legislature for salary relief. Over the years, because of budget restraints, management has received little or no pay increases, which according to a study we conducted, now puts many of them at or near the bottom of a scale when compared to like employees and like positions in counties similar in size to Genesee County. The Legislature is currently engaged in an in-depth management salary review and hope to bring compensation fairness and equity to our management staff in the very near future.
As indicated earlier, work will begin this year for construction of our new airport terminal and main hangar and for expansion for Student Success Center and Wellness and Event Center at Genesee Community College. Tourism should continue to be strong in our County this year. Two new rides at Darien Lake should spur new visitors and the Chamber’s new collaborative fishing packages with Orleans County looks very promising. This year the county is looking to institute an innovative archery hunt for deer overpopulation and force management at the Genesee County Park in Bethany for four weeks from October 19 through December 15. The Park has become a safe haven for the deer during hunting season and they are feeding on shoots and seedlings threatening the viability of natural reforestation. A loss of new forest growth means a loss of future County income from the sale of timber from the Park as well as degradation of the recreation amenity and forest canopy.
The STAMP project has been recognized by the state and the Finger Lakes Region Economic Development Council is a top priority project for Western New York. Ongoing infrastructure, planning and permitting work continues and GCEDC is aggressively marketing the site in anticipation of attracting its first tenant this year. When that first tenant is on board, the $33 million in the state budget will be released for site improvements to include water, sewer and power. It’s no wonder Steve Hyde, CEO of GCEDC recently stated the “STAMP is a full-time job for many of us at GCEDC.” I firmly believe that 2015 is the year STAMP comes to life.
With the completion of the sale of our Nursing Home anticipated this year, I believe there is an urgency and a consensus among us as Legislators to leverage the proceeds from the sale to address the much-neglected condition of our 258 centerline miles of County roads and the deteriorating condition of many of our 379 county-owned bridges and culverts. Aside from the tremendous impact the sale of the Home will have on improving County finances, the sale proceeds and subsequent relief from the fiscal “dark hole” it created will allow us the opportunity to achieve both short-term and long-term improvements to our County’s infrastructure. I foresee increased annual funding and the creation of a 5-year capital reserve account dedicated solely for road and bridge repairs. We have procrastinated in this area for too long and if not addressed immediately, it is only a matter of time before public safety is compromised and our roads and bridges crumble before our eyes.
It is difficult to predict in advance how a year will unfold. Factors beyond our control can have a positive or negative impact on our best-laid plans.
For example, this brutal winter what we are experiencing is increasing our costs for fuel, salt, overtime, (and) wear and tear on our equipment. An up or down economy affects our sales tax revenues, job placements and our economic development. Heavy rain, drought or winds can adversely affect our crop production. A rising or falling female jail population affects our County Jail operating expenses.
Just as unpredictable is this State of New York. We have all too often seen how a stroke of the pen in Albany results in increased costs for Genesee County. A prime example is last year when the State unexpectedly mandated that we have to hire an additional 6 full-time correction officers and a jail supervisor at a cost to County taxpayers of over $700,000. In reviewing the Governor’s 2015 budget proposal I continue to see little or no relief for counties from the dreaded State mandates that consume 82% of our tax levy. While touting a $5.4 billion windfall, the Governor does nothing to provide property tax relief. Rather than saddle the counties with unfunded or underfunded mandates, I endorse State efforts to achieve the following: Increase access to broadband to unserved or underserved communities; facilitate NYS’s takeover of indigent defense spending over 3-5 years and relieve the counties' burden; increase the share of revenue counties retain for providing State DMV services.
Did you know under current law New York State takes 87.3% of all fees collected from work performed by county-operated DMV’s and the remaining 12.7% County share has not been increased in 14 years. This is a major inequity when the County DMV provides all the services and the State takes 87.3% of all of the revenue.
I asked the State to increase funding for probation and other alternatives to incarceration. In 2014, our Probation Department utilized its confinement option program that resulted in 848 jail days being saved, which substantially decreased our jail operating expense.
Also, I strongly implore the State to increase state investments and locally owned roads and bridges (for) reasons I previously cited. The State must cease over-regulating our IDAs and live up to its slogan that New York is open for business.
And finally, as I stated last year, the State must repeal the SAFE Act! It’s a law that makes criminals out of law-abiding citizens and is a law that we didn’t ask for and don’t want.
Time does not permit me to dwell on the scope and value of taxpayer-funded County services. Suffice it to say that we as a County are very fortunate to have a workforce dedicated to providing quality and qualified services on a daily basis. Our diverse services include public safety with our Sheriff’s office, our legal and criminal justice staffs, highway crews, (and) emergency providers: they include human services with family assistance Medicaid; child protective services, mental health and veteran services; and also in support services like information technology, our County Clerk, and our County Treasurer, Job Development, Purchasing and Planning. We as a County will continue to support education, agriculture and economic development. Our goal is to keep these services and support flowing and to deliver them in a cost-effective and improved manner.
Like last year, I’m optimistic that this year Genesee County is headed in the right direction. Last year’s changes became this year’s progress. We as Legislators must continue to move forward. Last year I challenged you to be innovative, to not be afraid of change and to be willing to make hard decisions. To your credit, you accepted my challenge. This year I offer you another challenge. If you thought 2014 was a productive year for County government, let’s make 2015 even better, let’s continue to be innovative. Let’s not be afraid to make those hard decisions in doing so, let’s be inspired by the words of Ronald Reagan who wisely stated: “There are no barriers to progress except those that we erect.”