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Preventative maintenance on county roads slipping as funding remains tight

By Howard B. Owens

When it comes to roads, there isn't much good news for the county, according to Tim Hens, highway superintendent.

There simply isn't money available for basic maintenance and with the cuts expected to the county budget, the county may not have the manpower this winter to operate snow plows.

The past several years, the towns have assisted the county as part of a shared services agreement, but the patience of town supervisors is wearing a little thin, Hens told the Public Services Committee on Monday.

"At the last meeting I got some blow back that enough is enough," Hens said.

County Manager Jay Gsell is asking all the departments in the county to cut spending by 5 percent.

For the highway department a five percent cut -- after years of trimming -- means layoffs, Hens said. That's all there is left to cut.

"Technically speaking, our staffing will be three people short of what we need to respond to a snow or ice event," Hens said.

Even if the county raises the property tax levy 2 percent, as allowed under a new state law, the increase won't even cover the anticipated rise in the county's retirement and medical expenses for 2012.

Without money to resurface roads as needed, the county has been sealing and patching cracks, Hens said, but many of the roads are well beyond these patchwork repairs.

"It's gotten to the point where even the public knows it's not the right treatment for the road," Hens said. "We get phone calls about it, but it's not like we don't know what we're doing. We have no option. There's no money and we're trying to stretch it as far as we can."

Among the cuts in the upcoming budget will be reduction painting pavement markings on county roads.

“That’s a service that people out on rural roads really depend on on a stormy night," Hens said. "That’s getting cut out."

This summer a bridge on Arnold Road in Elba had to be closed because one of the supports had completely rusted away. Funds from other bridge repairs had to be diverted to pay for the bridge to be replaced.

Several county-owned bridges now have weight limits on them that prevent fully loaded school buses from driving on them.

"Our snowplows really shouldn't be on them," Hens said.

It wasn't all bad news for the county that Hens delivered to the legislators, though.

Revenue is up about $100,000 at the county airport because of record fuel sales, and all the new hangars are leased and there's a waiting list for hangar space.

Also, a new online reservation system for county parks will make it easier for residents to book pavilions for parties and picnics.

The automated system will end the need for people to drive to the highway department facility on Cedar Street to make reservations and save about two hours per day of staff time to deal with reservations.

Lisa Falkowski

Money is tight all over, and persons involved may be doing absolutely everything they can, but - from a tax payer's point of view...
I'd feel better in hearing these words if it didn't take 6 men, a small child, and several government issued vehicles to fix a simple pot hole or flag traffic during any form of work related to roads, etc.
Make your plea believable at least!

Sep 20, 2011, 1:43pm Permalink
John Roach

I thought we were told that the mandatory retirement contributions were exempt from the 2% tax cap. And we were warned that without mandate relief, this would happen.

Sep 20, 2011, 5:12pm Permalink
Scott Birkby

Janice is correct about the Town of Darien road crews. They do a great job. I have even seen them stop the plow and get out to help a stranded motorist. They go above and beyond the call of duty.

Sep 20, 2011, 6:56pm Permalink
Bob Price

The road I live on was resurfaced on July 7th & 8th and is still waiting for striping and building up of shoulders. Town of Darien must have something figured out,as they usually have bid proposals every year in the paper for mowers and front end loaders.

Sep 20, 2011, 8:41pm Permalink
Mark Potwora

Maybe its time for a new highway superintendent...If he can't get the job done ..And hasn't been maintaining the roads the way they should have ,Lets try someone else in that job..In private business if the man in charge can't get the job done then they fire him and get someone else..

Sep 20, 2011, 8:45pm Permalink
Howard B. Owens

If it's a private business, the owner provides the proper resources to get the job done, and if he can't, he doesn't blame employees. Mark, if you think there is enough money available for infrastructure in America's communities, you haven't been following the news.

Again, we continue to blame the wrong enemy here. The enemy isn't local government. It's the state and federal government that steals our money, robs us of our wealth, ships our jobs overseas and saddles local governments with unfunded mandates, that is causing our local roads to go unpaved, reductions to law enforcement and destruction of our history to build ugly malls.

Sep 20, 2011, 11:32pm Permalink
Mark Potwora

Howard..If we as a county already pay a high tax per thousand rate on our property ...And if the county roads are the problem of the county and not the federal government...Are you saying that the federal government should be repairing these roads and maintaining them..Or should the county tax rates be higher....Isn't it the state and federal government that is giving out grant money for all the GCEDC projects.So that would seems as helping out the county with infrastructure.
..Its tax payer dollars that will pay to take care of all these roads..And if they can't manage with the budgets that they have to do so then to me the answer would be to try someone else at that job...

Sep 21, 2011, 10:29am Permalink
Dave Olsen

Mark, not to put words in Howard's mouth,but what I think he's saying is: If the State and Federal governments would stop taking taxpayer dollars from the county and attempting in their clumsy, corrupt way to re-distribute; we'd have enough money to take care of our roads as would most other counties and municipalities. (sorry for the run-on sentence) The town of Darien gets a lot of tax money form Darien Lake, so they can keep their roads up. Which is as it should be. I'm in the town of Alabama, we have a very limited tax base and yes, the town does a great job under the circumstances with roads and snow removal. I have no complaints there. The county needs money for upgrades to the actual structures of bridges and roads, doesn't have much to do with personnel. Tim Hens can't just snap his fingers and have steel beams, concrete slabs and asphalt appear. I'm sure if he could do that, he'd find a way to get the construction part done.

Sep 21, 2011, 11:05am Permalink
Howard B. Owens

Mark, did you miss the part of the story that says, "Even if the county raises the property tax levy 2 percent, as allowed under a new state law, the increase won't even cover the anticipated rise in the county's retirement and medical expenses for 2012."?

If the state and feds keep forcing the county to spend property tax money on medicaid, and unfunded pensions and other unfunded mandates, and taxes haven't been raised in several years, and now if taxes are raised, they can't be raised enough to even begin to cover the increase in unfunded mandates -- where is Mr. Hens or anybody else supposed to get money to repair roads? If there is a shrinking share of local money for local needs, what is a highway superintendent supposed to do, start printing his own money?

Sep 21, 2011, 11:43am Permalink
Mark Potwora

Dave good points made by you..But can you or Howard tell me how much money the county is giving to the Federal government..I guess i never realize that the county sends money to the Federal government..I know some money is mandated by the state for social services whose benefits seem to generous to me...Even taking that out the county tax rate is close to $8 per thousand....What should we be asked to pay more..

Sep 21, 2011, 11:46am Permalink
Howard B. Owens

Mark, when the county pays for social services, it's paying for an unfunded mandated service.

In my perfect world, social services would be entirely a local service and to compensate, or state and federal taxes would be lower so that we as local taxpayers could pay for a local service we control. But it doesn't work that way -- the state and feds mandate these programs with all of the built in extra bureaucracy and burdening local taxpayers with picking up the added expense.

A good portion of your county property tax bill (like 90 percent of it) goes to pay for these unfunded mandates.

Sep 21, 2011, 11:56am Permalink
Dave Olsen

To be truthful, Mark, no I don't know how much our county spends on Federal programs. I don't believe they actually cut any checks and send them to Washington, DC. But i don't actually know that either. I do know that if there weren't so many federal mandates and lust for our income taxes, we could both pay less and have more stay here and benefit our county. Same for every other county in the USA. We do send a portion of the county revenue, I believe, to NY State, who does in turn send money to the Fed's, although I can't say how much.

Sep 21, 2011, 12:09pm Permalink
Dave Olsen

BTW Mark, normally I'd agree with your statement about the guy in charge has to work with what he has, and if he can't get the job done then get someone else. I'm all about reality checks. However, I think in this case Tim Hens is severely hobbled through no fault of his own. I'm not saying someone else couldn't do better, I don't know. I can just see his position.

Sep 21, 2011, 12:14pm Permalink
Dave Olsen

Also, I agree that noone should have to pay any more taxes. I maintain that governments, especially Federal, but NY State as well, have a spending problem, not a revenue problem. It's a matter of priorities.

Sep 21, 2011, 12:18pm Permalink
C. M. Barons

From Marc Chamot,…

As results of years political-corporate and Wall Street cronyisms and mismanagements of our national affairs; Record number of Americans living in poverty “Last year, 46.2 million Americans lived in poverty--the highest total since record keeping began more than half a century ago, the Census Bureau reported Tuesday.

Thanks to an unemployment rate that averaged 9.6 percent, and anemic economic growth, the share of Americans who lived below the official poverty line rose to 15.1 percent, up from 14.3 percent in 2009. That marks the fourth straight year that the rate has climbed.”

The figure for children was even higher -- 22 percent. “The Census Bureau defines as poor any individual person living on an income of less than $11,139, and any family living on an income of less than $22,314.

The percentage of people living below the poverty line is now approaching levels not seen since President Johnson launched the War on Poverty in 1965. And the total would have been higher still--by around 3.2 million people--were it not for the existence of unemployment benefits, according to an estimate by the National Employment Law Project, which advocates for a stronger unemployment insurance system.

In addition, the Census Bureau reported that median household income, adjusted for inflation, fell 2.3 percent last year, to $49,445. That's lower than it was in 1997, according to New York Times economics correspondent David Leonhardt--a finding he calls "chilling."

U.S. Poverty Reaches a 17-Year Record High “The number of impoverished Americans climbed to a 17-year high in 2010 bringing the official poverty rate to 15.1 percent, according to new figures released by the Census Bureau today. With a stubbornly high 9.1 percent unemployment rate, more Americans fell below the poverty line for a total of 46.2 million in poverty up from 14.3 million in 2009. To put it in simpler terms, that means one in every six Americans now falls below the poverty line. CNN Money fleshes out the details:

The government defines the poverty line as income of $22,314 a year for a family of four and $11,139 for an individual. The Office of Management and Budget updates the poverty line each year to account for inflation.

As for middle-class American families, income fell in 2010. The median household income was $49,445, down slightly from $49,777 the year before.

Making matters worse, the Associated Press notes that the number of people in need of health insurance increased to 29.9 million, "a new high after revisions were made to 2009 figures. Losses were due mostly to working-age Americans who lost employer-provided insurance in the weak economy." Important to note, the major provisions in President Obama's signature health care overhaul don't go into place until 2014.”

And there’s more my friends; A job today is less likely to come with good wages and benefits like health insurance and pensions than it was in recent years. At a time when a great deal of attention is focused on how we can create more jobs, Paul Osterman, economist at Sloan School of Business at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says we should be worried about quality as well as quantity.

"The quantity of jobs is important. But it's also important to care about how good those jobs are."

Osterman, the co-author, with Beth Shulman, of Good Jobs America: Making Work Better for Everyone¸ was my guest on the Daily Ticker. His systematic investigation into the ravages of low-paying work yielded several interesting conclusions.

Osterman and Shulman define a good job as one that pays two-thirds of the median wage, or about $11.61 per hour. And so they find, that 27.8 million adults earn less than two-thirds of the median wage (or 24 percent), while 22 million, or 19 percent, have wages that "put them below the poverty line for a family of four." (The poverty line is $20,000 a year for a family of four) What's more, people in low-wage jobs have more difficulty getting insurance, access to child care, and tend not to have pensions.

Americans have tended to dismiss such alarming data because people frequently start at the bottom of the wage scale and work their way up. But the data show that mobility isn't what it used to be. Many of these jobs are traps, Osterman says.

"We have this image of mobility. Most people in these poverty jobs stay there." As he and Shulman write: "Of children born in the bottom 20 percent of the income distribution in the late 1960s, 41 percent remained there as adults in the late 1990s." Worse, long periods of economic growth don't inflate the problems away.

Osterman cites several other myths surrounding popular perception of low-wage jobs. Among them: it's all China's fault. "A lot of them [low-paying jobs] are in service sectors where we aren't competing with China, like health care and restaurants." Thirty-one percent of the low-wage workers are in the retail and food/drink industries.

"Whereas in the past poverty was associated with agricultural work and grinding factory jobs, today many low-wage workers are found in service and white-collar jobs," they write.

And while private-sector companies are more likely than government or non-profits to pay lower wages, it's not true that all government jobs come with high pay and posh benefits. "People who work in the cafeterias in school systems, or do landscaping in them, are paid minimum wage," Osterman said. "Too many public sector jobs are low-wage jobs, and too many companies to whom the public sector outsources work pay low wages."

This is not an ideological mono-causal book. Osterman and Shulman note that immigration of low-skilled workers — legal and illegal — play a role. They note that companies that pay above-market wages for less-skilled work don't always get rewarded with greater productivity and higher profits.

While companies have built business models around paying the lowest possible cost for labor, in ways that violate policies and occasionally the law, "I don't want to attack greedy bosses," Osterman said. "Most companies are under intense pressure and trying to do their best."

They acknowledge that low wages at Wal-Mart ultimately benefit many consumers. But the reality is that a general decline in labor market standards — brought about by competition, the decline of labor unions, out-of-date regulations, and a general societal indifference — is causing a race to the bottom in several large industries.”

Sep 21, 2011, 12:58pm Permalink
C. M. Barons

My point? Discussing changes in how the social safety net could/should be administered requires a glimpse at potential outlay as well as revenue and jurisdiction. To invoke a site-favorite disclaimer: "just sayin'."

...And while I have your attention- since most local taxes are derived through real property assessment Vs income driven; who will get rear-ended by a shift to local funding?

Sep 21, 2011, 1:57pm Permalink
Howard B. Owens

To be honest, I didn't read all of the article, but I got to the following point and wanted to comment: "They acknowledge that low wages at Wal-Mart ultimately benefit many consumers. But the reality is that a general decline in labor market standards — brought about by competition, the decline of labor unions, out-of-date regulations, and a general societal indifference"

Low-wages at Walmart isn't the problem. It's the lack of good paying jobs. While I'm no fan of Walmart, retail by its very nature is going to pay less than manufacturing jobs.

Also, low prices at Walmart is a myth, as we've discussed before. Only certain keynote items cost less, some cost more others have their higher price disguised by the shoddy quality.

General decline in labor market standards ... I'm just not sure what they mean here.

Brought on by competition ... Competition from what? China? That's not competition that's thievery. There's nothing wrong with competition, as is implied here. There's something wrong with disadvantaged competition. Just as Walmart exercises disadvantaged competition with local retailers, but the problem with earning power in the US isn't Walmart, directly, though Walmart is a cog in the problem, it's lack of manufacturing jobs.

Decline of labor unions ... the decline of labor unions isn't the result of come Reaganite conspiracy, as I suspect is the hint here. Labor unions have become increasingly irrelevant as jobs have moved overseas, and to some degree 60s and 70s era labor management and corporate management were to blame with their "put expenses off to tomorrow on pensions" attitude.

Out of date regulations ... I'd need examples. Some regulations are good some are bad. Age isn't a factor.

General societal indifference ... yes, society is not as cohesive as it once was. Mainly, that's do to television, but some of it is due to greater mobility of American families ushered in by WWII and the ongoing military industrial complex, some of it is due to, again, loss off good manufacturing jobs in communities such as Batavia.

Notice a theme here -- the biggest problem this country faces is the loss of manufacturing jobs to China and elsewhere.

Free trade as we now know it is crushing the American Dream. I suspect it was crushed in the 1980s, but we just didn't notice when we were all on plastic card spending sprees, which masked the actual economic decline taking place. Now it's catching up with us.

Sep 21, 2011, 2:49pm Permalink
C. M. Barons

Howard, the 'union' point in the cited article is NOT What You Think. ...Believe me! I averted the prime theme of Chamot's piece for the sake of the poverty statistics.

Sep 21, 2011, 2:57pm Permalink
John Roach

When GCEDC gives out tax breaks, the County usually loses tax money. And the alleged jobs that come from the tax breaks don't come near making up the loss. We need to elect people to the County Legislature that will look into this a bit more than they have.

Sep 21, 2011, 3:01pm Permalink
Howard B. Owens

John, as I understand now how GCEDC works there are three types of tax abatements.

1) Mortgage tax relief. This is a one-time abatement.

2) Sales tax waiver on the cost of construction material. Also a one-time abatement.


Now the first two items can be argued are corporate welfare (not your phrase, but the inference is there, I think, and I would call it that).

PILOT, however, is often misunderstood. A PILOT is relief on tax money that would never be collected anyway if the project isn't built (it's relief on the increased property value -- taxes are still paid on the original property value) and as the PILOT sunsets over a period of years, because the project was built, additional tax revenue is generated for the local jurisdictions. I think PILOTS that have sunsetted in recent years now total $4 million in additional revenue for local taxing jurisdictions (all jurisdictions combined). That's revenue that _maybe_ never would have been if not for the PILOTs.

No project, no tax abatement, no cost to tax payers.

Yes project, original property tax still paid, company gets to temporarily avoids tax punishment for expanding, but will eventually pay taxes on an expansion that arguably would not have taken place if not for the PILOT.

It's hard for me to see how a PILOT is bad for business, bad for taxpayers or bad for the county.

There are all kinds of issues to debate about GCEDC and I'm not here to defend the IDA, but of all the things they do PILOT seems immediately sensible and reasonable. And it's the biggest chunk of tax relief available to an expanding business -- many multiples higher than sales tax or mortgage tax relief.

So, are you complaining about PILOTs?

Sep 21, 2011, 4:27pm Permalink
John Roach

My point was to Mark really. Any money that is not paid as a result of any tax break is less the County will get and that tax has to be made up someplace, or cuts in services.

But, yes, I am against PILOTS.

Sep 21, 2011, 6:07pm Permalink
Janice Stenman

Howard, I'd love the opportunity to meet the people who post on the Batavian.....what about meeting at one of your advertisers? I'd buy YOU a beer!

Sep 21, 2011, 7:50pm Permalink

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