;

2013 State of the County Address

2013 State of the County Address
By Fred Beardsley
I want to begin by thanking you, the members of the Legislature, for again allowing me this opportunity to serve as your Chairman.  It is a privilege that I will always cherish.

This past year though has left us all with an emptiness in our hearts as we remember with gratitude several dedicated public servants, all of whom had worked hard in their own ways to help make Oswego County a better place to work, live or conduct a business. Three of our longest-serving among this group were County Clerk George Williams, District 12 Legislator Arthur Ospelt, and District 17 Legislator Mary Flett.  As a result of their passing we now welcome a new County Clerk, Michael Backus, new legislator, Jack Brandt, and legislator Shane Broadwell to our legislative body. We also welcome a new Public Health Director, Jiancheng Huang, to Oswego County.

From the very first day that I was elected to public office, some 28 years ago, one of my guiding principles has been to always be a careful steward of the taxpayers’ dollars. As such, it gives me great pleasure to remind you that the 2013 County budget represents the ninth consecutive year that we, working together, have adopted a budget with either no increase in the property tax levy or increase in the tax rate.

This was not an easy task, as many of you in this room will recall, last year we experienced a decrease in the countywide assessed value which resulted in a slight increase in the generic tax rate. Maintaining the property tax levy at its 2012 level was only accomplished by the hard work of our department heads and employees and a bi-partisan effort by the Legislature. On behalf of the taxpayers of Oswego County, I thank all of you sincerely.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that again, last year, this legislature decided to override the State imposed 2 percent tax cap. While this happened in municipalities across the state, it was necessary here in Oswego County because the state formula still does not address the uncertain tax status of the nuclear plants. The override was a mechanism that we could use to shield our taxpayers from an uncertain state audit process that could have resulted in an unnecessary penalty, potentially costing Oswego County taxpayers millions of dollars.

Let me turn now to some of the day-to-day issues that our county departments are addressing:

County Clerk:

Recently Oswego County joined with many other counties throughout the state in voicing its opposition to the recently passed NY SAFE Act. The burdensome regulations and mandates that the state passes down to us seem to only continue, and this certainly serves as another great example. Now a grandfather is a criminal if he tries to pass his hunting rifle down to his grandson or granddaughter. That’s a tradition in many communities like ours here in Oswego County, and I am proud that this legislative body came together, unified in opposition to the act. We did so together, unanimously, and without partisan rancor.

Here in the Oswego County Clerk’s Office, our newly elected Clerk Mike Backus is faced with the daily burden of the NY SAFE Act. I have seen with my own eyes the lines of law-abiding gun owners registering new firearms, making amendments and signing FOIL exemption forms. I applaud the Clerk and his office for rising to the challenge of administering this hastily-passed piece of legislation. The Governor stated that this Act will not come with any cost to the counties. I must ask the Governor who he thinks is processing these exemption forms and answering the questions of law-abiding citizens? I thank this Legislature, Clerk Backus and Sheriff Todd for their leadership in voicing these concerns both at home and in Albany. We have two great advocates here locally to help bolster our state representatives’ arguments in Albany. Hopefully we can all work together to keep our communities safe and respect our traditions as law-abiding American citizens collectively united by the Bill of Rights.

Sheriff’s Office:

Our Sheriff’s Department answered 27,325 complaints in 2012 and patrolled nearly 1.5 million miles of roads. Officers investigated 1,814 motor vehicle accidents and recovered nearly $76,000 worth of stolen property. On the corrections side, 582 people were sentenced to jail time, and an average daily population of 158 inmates were housed at the Public Safety Center. Among other services, just under 190,000 meals were served last year at the jail, almost 2,000 people were booked in, over 2,400 fingerprints were taken, and more than 4,300 transports were provided to inmates for services such as court appearances.

Highway:

The County Highway Department is responsible for the maintenance and safety of 501.69 miles of county roads, about 634 intersections, 120 bridges, more than 4,000 culverts, and more than 14,000 traffic signs. Major projects in 2012 included the complete removal and replacement of the County Route 55 bridge over Ox Creek and the repair and maintenance of several other bridges.

In addition, the department applied almost 59,000 tons of bituminous asphalt which was produced at our asphalt plant in Hastings, and sold more than 19,000 tons of asphalt to local towns and villages for their highway maintenance.

Snow removal operations included plowing, salting, snow and ice removal on 295 lane miles of state highways, seven NYS DEC parking lots, 54.3 miles of county roads and 10 county facility parking lots, as well as streets in the villages of Altmar, Cleveland, Central Square, Hannibal, Lacona, Mexico, Parish, Phoenix, Pulaski and Sandy Creek.  The department also maintains the 16 radio tower sites in the county by providing snow removal in the winter and mowing in the summer.

As one might imagine, road and bridge projects can be very expensive. One of the funding streams traditionally available to municipalities is known as the Consolidated Local Street and Highway Improvement Program or CHIPS.  Like many other State and Federal programs, these funds have become harder to come by and in fact have not increased for the last five years.  This is particularly troubling when you consider that while nearly ½ of all the vehicle miles traveled in NY each year are on local roads, only about 12% of the fees collected from those drivers is dedicated to the upkeep of the local road system. This, while funding for the State roads continues to rise.

Airport:

2012 saw 18,500 aircraft that landed and took-off from our County airport, resulting in the sale of jet fuel and aviation gas in excess of $350,000.  Our crews completed an obstruction removal project and enhanced the lighting systems making the airport safer and more accessible to a wider variety of users.

Division of Solid Waste:

For decades Oswego County’s recycling programs have been viewed as the accepted standard that other communities strive to replicate. 2012 was again a strong year for our programs as we recycled nearly 10,000 tons of materials including; ferrous and other scrap metals, residential materials, textiles, electronics and household hazardous wastes. In addition we also recovered and recycled 15,000 gallons of waste oil, ensuring that those substances are disposed of in an appropriate manner. We also reduced 60,000 tons of waste to 22,000 tons of ash while generating over $850,000 in revenue from that process and further extending the life of our landfill.

Fraud Investigations:

The year 2012 saw a renewed effort to prevent the fraudulent use of our taxpayers’ dollars. Through the combined efforts of the DSS Fraud Investigative Unit, the Housing Assistance Office, the District Attorney’s Office, and the Sheriff’s Office, more than 20 cases involving alleged welfare and housing fraud were investigated. The investigations resulted in 34 arrests involving overpayment of public benefits in the amount of $178,250.

So far, almost $57,000 has been recovered in restitution and the courts have issued orders for the recovery of an additional $13,168. Several more cases are still being processed in the court system.

The message for 2013 remains clear – if you are stealing from the system, we will catch you and you will pay!

DSS – Family Assessment Response Team:

The Oswego County Department of Social Services launched the Family Assessment Response (FAR) program in March of 2012 as an alternative method in handling child maltreatment and neglect reports. Family Assessment Response focuses on the child’s safety, but relies on the family members working with the caseworker to identify the family’s strengths and needs. Family members commit to taking an active role and caseworkers work to engage the family in lasting change. This innovative program now includes two teams, each of which is comprised of one senior caseworker and five child protective caseworkers.

In 2012, 788 child protective reports met our criteria for being eligible for the FAR program and our teams successfully processed 534 of those in the 9 months that the program was active. Through an effective team management system, the department has been able to assign more than twice the mandatory minimum number of reports established by the State for this program.

As a result of the FAR program, DSS staff has found that family engagement is improved, families now work in partnership to address the safety of their children, and services to families and their children has increased. Families who have experienced the respectful style of the FAR program prefer this approach to service delivery as it allows them a greater role in helping their family achieve stability.

Review of Contracted Services:

As part of our ongoing efforts to ensure the efficient use of taxpayer dollars, the DSS staff performed a critical review of their contracted services structure during 2012 and in the process verified that these services reflected the mission of DSS while meeting the needs of the community. Several factors were evaluated to ensure that we are getting the services we pay for.

These included: outcomes analysis to make sure that the service intervention works as claimed to benefit families, and timeliness, to make sure that the service is provided at the right time and in the right quantities. This process revealed opportunities to eliminate duplication, to downsize contracts to match capacity, and to bring some services in house and ultimately reduce costs for Oswego County.

These efforts and others resulted in DSS being able to reduce its cost to taxpayers by $1.5 million over the past two years.

The department has, and will continue to, perform a critical review of the staffing structure in each Division to ensure appropriate job titles and skill sets for the current workload. This analysis in each part of the department has not been performed in many years and will result in more efficient operations and workload distribution.  Again the result is additional cost savings for the county.

Asbestos Abatement Project:

As many of you might recall, ceiling tiles in our Mexico facility were found to contain traces of asbestos last year.  While there was no imminent risk to the employees or the public we did opt to remove any and all suspect materials from the building.  The resulting abatement and repair project at the DSS building has been a major undertaking for the Department of Social Services working in cooperation with our staff at the Buildings and Grounds Department. Following several months of logistical planning and analysis, DSS was relocated from Mexico to Fulton in December.

Several priorities were at play in this planning process:

•        Number 1 priority was selecting the appropriate process and contractors to ensure the safety of the public and our staff.
•        Number 2 was capitalizing on the staff relocation to do some much needed repairs to this important county asset.  Given that no work of significance had been completed in the Mexico building in nearly 25 years and the advantage of (up to 75%) reimbursement from the State of NY for this project, this was the perfect time for the County to make an investment for the long term sustainability of this facility.
•        The third consideration was the opportunity to consider the redesign of the buildings floor plan in an effort to maximize the use of available space.  The result will be a better flow of Department processes by creating adjacencies for staff working the same or similar tasks and thereby increasing the efficiency of our daily operations.  This will ultimately serve to improve staff performance, overall job satisfaction, and staff retention.

Electronic Monitoring Program

Cost-saving measures were also implemented at the Probation department as the County Legislature, after thoughtful deliberation on the impact to public safety, gave the Department permission to begin monitoring certain offenders’ criteria with electronic devices such as ankle bracelets, voice verifications, and similar equipment. The program is only extended to offenders who have permission from the court and are suitable for electronic monitoring and will help alleviate over-crowding at the county jail. In many cases, it can be more cost-effective to confine an offender to their home than to transport them and provide their room and board at a correctional facility.

Drug Task Force

The small specialized group of law enforcement professionals who make up our drug task force remains active and last year participated in 16 arrests that will potentially result in nearly $50,000 of seized drugs and cash. On behalf of the Legislature I would like to thank District Attorney Oakes, Sheriff Todd and local law enforcement for making this program successful.

Laws Regulating Synthetic Drugs

Building on the successes of the Sheriffs’ department and our Drug Task Force, the County Legislature passed four new laws in 2012 to address the dangers of synthetic drugs in our communities. The laws prohibit the sale and possession of substances such as psychoactive bath salts, herbal incense and hallucinogens, and salvia divinorum. Another law addresses the issue of drug test tampering by prohibiting the sale, distribution and use of masking products or drug and alcohol screening test adulterants. The fourth local law penalizes the property owner if synthetic drugs or similar substances are being made or distributed at business and residential properties.

These laws not only give our law enforcement officers the tools they need to combat the synthetic drug crisis, but also send a clear message that the use and sale of synthetic drugs will not be tolerated in Oswego County.

Community Development, Tourism and Planning:

Tourism continues to be a very strong component of the county’s small business sector and 2012 was one of the best years yet.  Occupancy tax revenues, which have risen steadily for 6 of the last 7 years, were up 23 % in 2012, the highest increase in more than a dozen years. Some of the factors that affected the increase were the opening of the Lake Ontario Event and Conference Center in Oswego, extraordinary fishing conditions throughout the county, and maintenance outages at Nine Mile Point.

The Salmon River was once again the top tributary fishing destination in New York State. In fact, the NYS DEC estimates that anglers spent more than 1 million hours fishing on the Salmon River between September 2011 and May 2012 and that more than half of those who fish the Salmon River are from outside of New York State.  New visitor information tools such as the release of a free, interactive snowmobile trail app, and a new interactive fishing and hunting guide also helped draw more overnight visitors to Oswego County.

Buildings & Grounds:

The buildings and grounds department, in concert with the planning office and other departments that comprise our “green team,” continued to be active with the implementation of new energy efficiency projects.

These include new heating controls for this building, a solar system at our health complex, which to date has generated nearly 30 megawatts of electricity for use at that facility, and an overhaul of the HVAC system also at the Bunner Street facility. This project, which included merging two outdated systems into one new system, will create better conditions in the building for our staff and their clients while saving an estimated $30,000 a year in heating and cooling costs. It will also help avoid the production of about 250 tons of green house gasses on an annual basis.

Other energy saving measures that have been implemented in the last few years have helped to reduce our energy costs by more than $130,000 to date and should continue to help us save you money by reducing our monthly electric bills by over $6,400 per month on average at today’s rates. They have also helped avoid the production of over 600 tons of greenhouse gasses.

To help visualize the environmental benefit from these activities, the energy that we have saved or generated from renewable sources is the equivalent of planting 14,000 trees or taking over 4,300 cars off the road.

E911 Emergency Communications Department

2012 was another busy year for our emergency responders and dispatchers at the E-9-1-1 Center. Although calls for emergency assistance continue to increase, with just under 100,000 inbound emergency calls last year, 89.7 percent of these emergency calls were answered within 10 seconds. The majority of calls were events requiring response by law enforcement agencies, with over 27,000 incidents routed to the Sheriff’s Department; more than 25,000 sent to the NY State Police; almost 22,000 to the Oswego City Police, and more than 17,000 to the Fulton City Police.

Central Square Police responded to just under 2,300 incidents, Phoenix Police, in excess of 2,400; and Pulaski Police, more than 2,000. Dispatchers answered more than 22,000 fire calls in the county, and more than 18,000 EMS calls. All told, the E-911 center responded to a total 138,694 incidents in 2012.

Indigent Defense

This year we will be taking a close look at the costs of providing legal counsel to indigent persons. Indigent persons have a right to counsel under the Sixth Amendment, and county governments in New York State are mandated to provide these services. Our assigned counsel program handled more than 4,000 cases last year in Family Court and Criminal courts. Taxpayer costs for legal services provided by the assigned counsel program have increased by 71 percent since 2008. However, state aid is being reduced to zero by 2015. In 2008, the net cost of this program was $1,049,916; this year the program is projected to cost just under $1.8 million.

The Legislature will examine the existing program and look at possible reforms and efficiencies. Then we must decide whether to remain with an assigned counsel program, or to create a new public defender office that would handle all indigent defenses.

Trend of Unfunded Mandates

In summary, our employees, guided by an outstanding management team, continue to prove their dedication to the people of Oswego County, experiencing year after year of budget cuts, yet still performing at a very high standard. It is clear that after this year there is little left to cut.

We have extracted all we can from these departments to pay for New York State’s unfunded mandates. Yet, they have managed to perform admirably.  It is now my fear that the ongoing practice by the State of creating mandated programs and services with no funding stream attached is going to drive us to the point where we have to consider cutting services that our constituents have come to enjoy so we can operate mandated programs that may not necessarily be among our most needed or desired.

Mandated services and programs account for 84 percent, or $163 million, of Oswego County’s $195 million budget. Our property tax levy equals $42.7 million.

That is equal to the cost of just five of those mandates – safety net, pre-school special education, assigned counsel, Medicaid, and New York State retirement. Medicaid alone costs the county one-half million dollars a week, or over $25 million annually.

Safety Net costs the county $3.7 million, state retirement is $9.2 million, and the Jail is $6.7 million annually.

In other words, every dollar of your county property tax pays for state and federal mandates — Not local services like law enforcement, snow plowing and economic development.

Dealing with this dilemma will require many difficult decisions and bi-partisan support, and recognition that the State must stop this practice.

We have reached a point that essentially, our local taxes are now actually State taxes as everything we collect is used to pay for State mandated services. This simply can’t continue, and it is my hope that everyone here today will commit to working together to find a fair and equitable resolution to this problem.

We need to look at all possibilities, we need to re-examine how we do business, and most importantly, we need to differentiate between what we like to do and what we have the ability to do.

To our county employees and department heads, I thank you again for a job well done, and for your efforts and cooperation during these difficult economic times.

I assure you, we know how hard you work and we appreciate your dedication to your jobs and the people of this county.

To my colleagues here in the Legislature, I continue to have faith that we can set our political differences aside and that together, we can accomplish our task of providing the people of Oswego County with an efficient, effective, and friendly government. I thank you all and look forward to a positive and productive 2013.