2019 State of the County Address

A banner over the county seal recognizes Oswego County's 200th anniversary.

A banner over the county seal recognizes Oswego County's 200th anniversary.

2019 State of the County Address
Presented by James Weatherup, Chaiman of the Oswego County Legislature
Good evening and welcome! As I celebrate my sixth year as a member of this distinguished body, I would like to begin my remarks by recognizing our six colleagues who have decided to focus on other important aspects of their lives and as a result, will not be seeking re-election as County Legislators.
 
I tip my hat to each of you and ask everyone here today to join me in thanking them for their service to our community.
 
I would like to ask legislators Margaret Kastler, Milferd Potter, Shane Broadwell, Heather DelConte, Daniel Farfaglia and Frank Castiglia to stand and be recognized.
 
Having been here longer than some of you and nowhere close to as long as others, I know the work and commitment that is required to do a good job representing the citizens of Oswego County and, while there is still work for you to do in the remainder of your terms, I thank you personally and on behalf of our citizenry, for your service and wish you all the best of luck in your next endeavors.
 
In the six years that I have been here, I’ve had the pleasure of working with a lot of experienced and knowledgeable people from both the public and private sectors — from the average citizen to the local business owner, corporate executives and a wide variety of local, state and federal officials.
 
I have learned a lot over this short period, but one thing that stands out through all these conversations and experiences is our common goal of trying our best to make Oswego County a better place to live, work and raise a family.
 
A lot has happened while I have been here, not because I have been here, but rather because we have learned to work together on some common fronts instead of staying in our own individual silos. State, local and federal representatives, health care professionals, school districts, businesses and not-for-profit agencies, all at the same table trying to improve the business environment, enhance the educational opportunities and elevate the overall quality of life.
 
In addition to the good work that our staff and management team do from day-to-day, I have witnessed progress through projects like the anti-poverty task force, the shared services panel, our new focus on economic development efforts, school and health care collaborations, and many other progressive and proactive initiatives successfully beginning to “move the needle” as my predecessor, Chairman Broadwell was fond of saying.
 
But now is not the time for us to pause, as much remains to be done.
 
Working together and tapping the resources of our local and regional partners in both the public and private sectors we can and will continue to move forward.
 
I would be remiss if I didn’t say that I have been honored to have had the opportunity over these last six years to serve the residents of Oswego County as the Legislator from the 9th District and even more so now, as the Chairman of the Legislature. I hope you know how pleased, and grateful I am to have your support and confidence.
 
I would like to thank my colleagues in the legislature who support me and you, day-in and day-out as we take on the challenges of efficiently and effectively meeting the expectations of our citizens.
 
I would also like to acknowledge our municipal, business, and education partners from throughout Oswego County who work with us to meet those goals.
 
Without communication between and cooperation among all of these various leaders across our county and region, our chances to progress and grow become significantly diminished.
 
We must also recognize our management staff and their respective teams, all of whom are key to our ability to implement our strategies and deliver the services you have all come to enjoy. 
 
And finally, a heartfelt thanks to those local, state and federal partners who couldn’t be here today, but without whom we could not take on many of the challenges we are confronted with.
 
Let me start by providing a snapshot of where we are in Oswego County relative to our financial obligations, our resources, and what we do with those throughout the year to serve our residents and businesses.
 
While it varies slightly from year-to-year, our annual budget is about $200 million.
 
Of that, roughly 80% or $167.6 million in the 2019 budget of $209.5 million pays for state and federal mandates.
 
To help cover this cost, the State gives us $34.4 million and the Feds give us $26.3 million. That’s just $60.7 million or 36% of the $167.6 million in mandated costs.
 
We pay for the rest, ($148.8 million mandated and non-mandated) through property tax, PILOTs, sales tax, fund balance and “other” miscellaneous revenues.
 
The “other” category is important to understand because the amount of revenue generated there very closely matches the cost of all non-mandated programs combined.
 
It is also worth noting that some of the cost for non-mandated services come from our residents’ expressed desire to have certain amenities available to them.
 
In those cases, we try to offset the cost of those programs with user fees so only those people who use that service are charged for it, not the general public or only those people who own property.
 
We also work to maximize the value of the work we do, and where possible generate revenue from those activities.
 
An example is from the Division of Solid Waste.
 
In 2018 the Department landfilled almost 62,000 tons of ash and waste, collected, sorted and sold over 9,000 tons of recycled materials and helped 699 residents safely dispose of 25 tons of household hazardous waste.
 
In addition, through the sale of various recyclable materials, as well as electricity and steam produced at the Energy Recovery Facility, we generated just over $1 million from our operations.
 
Efficiencies such as these are important as we try to contain the costs of serving more than 120,000 residents spread across almost 1,000 square miles.
 
I think it is important for all of us to understand our county budget, both the revenue and expense sides because the more we all know about what we do, why we do it and how it gets paid for, the more we can participate in plans to make things better.
 
The first step in that process is understanding that as hard as we work to keep your County taxes as low as possible, we actually only have control over about 20% of our annual spending, a number that is coincidentally very similar to that part of our revenue stream that comes from local, County property taxes.
 
Currently, the generic County property tax rate is $7.70/$1,000 of assessed value, about 20% lower than it was 15 years ago even though costs continue to rise.
 
So far, through careful attention to detail, we have managed to keep it steady at that rate for the last four years.
 
When you apply that rate to the median home value in the County, the average homeowner is only paying about $713/year in County taxes.
 
As the Chairman of the Legislature it is imperative that I know how these funds are being spent.
 
As a fellow taxpayer, I think it is helpful to understand what I am getting for my money so that I can act as a more informed and responsible member of the community.
 
So, let’s take a look at what the average taxpayer gets for just over $700/year.
 
Last year, our Highway Department paved 65 miles of County roads and 10 parking lots.
 
They also completed 3 bridges while maintaining miles of roadside trees, signs and culverts.
 
In 2018, the Department of Facilities and Technology installed new roofs on this building and the Court House next door.
 
They also completed a window project here and renovated the District Attorney’s office.
 
At Camp Hollis they installed electric and water at the pavilion, renovated the nurse’s office, the camp office and added an accessible bathroom in the main lodge.
 
In addition, they added new roofs, windows and siding on two of the guest cabins.
 
Their plans for 2019 include renovations to our IT department, a new roof at the Pulaski court house, new HVAC upgrades at the Public Safety Center and the Fulton office building, a new ceiling and LED lighting in the main cabin at Camp Hollis, exterior brick work for this building, and the expansion of the records center and Oswego motor vehicle office.
 
The Office of the Clerk of the Legislature has been working towards improving public access by making legislative and jurisdictional committee meetings available online for public viewing and preparing document archiving for the release of the new county website.
 
They also processed 128 requests for public information in 2018… And, in our role of protecting consumers, the office of Weights and Measures completed 401 inspections, tested 1,903 devices and responded to various complaints from concerned consumers in the County.
 
Meanwhile, the County Clerk’s Office, a significant contributor to the “Other” revenue category I mentioned, issued 808 business certificates, processed 6,815 mortgage-related documents, 5,468 deed-related documents, and completed 10,088 pistol permit transactions and 171,639 motor vehicle transactions.
 
Also located in the Bridge Street office building, our Real Property office, with a relatively small staff, generated 58,196 tax bills, processed 3,951 sales, generated nearly $4,040 from the sale of tax maps and digital files and raised over $2.2 million from the sale of 124 properties in their annual auction, a 60% increase from the previous year.
 
Equally as busy is our Human Resources office.
 
With just a handful of staff members they provide service to our School Districts, Towns, Villages and Special Districts and last year handled nearly 16,200 employee transactions of various forms.
 
Rounding out the departments in the Legislative Office Building, the department of Community Development, Tourism and Planning was busy spreading the news about all that happens here.
 
In 2018, staff and volunteers participated in a dozen trade shows throughout New York, Canada and surrounding states, and hosted nearly 3 dozen press visits and tours for travel writers and other public relations professionals including hosting the spring conference of the NY State Outdoor Writers Association.
 
They wrote and distributed over 300 press releases, ran about 100 print ads in local, state and national publications, many of which were supported with radio and social media campaigns reaching over 700,000 users, and distributed just over 60,000 brochures.
 
Department staff also helped provide safe and affordable housing for almost 500 individuals and families, while also assisting our municipalities and departments within them with land use, development and planning initiatives.
 
The County Board of Elections is the only department not located in a county-owned building, but this in no way diminishes the important role they play in the organization.
 
With a very small staff they are responsible for ensuring fair and legal elections throughout the County, including all nine school board elections.
 
They are charged with maintaining the registration records for almost 70,000 voters in 110 election districts and having available over 400 fully-trained poll workers and machine inspectors.
 
The Nick Sterio (or Bunner Street) Health Complex is home to a few departments including the County Office of the Aging.
 
While one of our smaller departments, the office has been delivering extraordinary service to thousands of our senior residents for more than 40 years.
 
In 2018, the department interacted with over 5,800 people providing services like financial, insurance and legal counseling, Life Saver and Personal Emergency Response devices, home repairs and accessibility improvements.
 
They distributed 840 Farmers’ Market coupon books resulting in seniors purchasing $16,800 worth of fresh fruits and vegetables from local vendors, provided 8,433 one-way transportation trips, served 16,517 meals at congregate sites and delivered 227,630 meals to seniors at their homes.
 
This office serves a special group of people, a group that fought and worked hard to grow our country and preserve the rights we all enjoy as Americans.
 
Let’s take a minute to recognize our senior citizens and the County staff that looks out for them.
 
The core group at the Bunner Street facility is our Health Department, which is made up of several divisions. Together, they help ensure that our residents are protected from a variety of bacterial, biological, ecological and environmental hazards.
 
Over the past few years, the Health Department has been engaging partnerships and promoting collaboration to improve health in the community.
 
Last year marked the start of a three-year, multi-sector joint commitment of expanding a locally tested, healthy improvement program to address obesity in the county.
 
The Healthy Highway© program was adopted and implemented in all 24 elementary schools, public and private, throughout the county.
 
The program was piloted and scientifically evaluated the effectiveness at some schools in the county in previous years.
 
Working with Integrated Community Planning of Oswego County, Inc., and other partners, the county brought “trauma-informed care” training into our area.
 
Becoming “trauma-informed” means recognizing people’s experience of living through various difficulties and caring for those people with the support they need.
 
Thirty professionals from close to 20 agencies in the county came to the training.
After seven months more than two dozen of them were certified as the “Champion of Trauma-Informed Care.”
 
These champions continue their efforts to help make Oswego County a trauma-informed community.
 
Working together, the community has learned that health is determined by many factors.
 
One field that was identified and effectively acted upon last year was the lack of fresh, nutritious food for residents in specific areas of the county.
 
By partnering with the Food Bank of CNY and other agencies, the county coordinated 14 mobile food pantry distributions, providing over 1,100 boxes of food in ten locations in 2018.
 
Last year the office of Environmental Health collected over 3,000 samples of various types.
 
About 20% of those were mosquito- related which resulted in just over 17,000 mosquitoes being submitted for testing.
 
The environmental staff also managed to conduct nearly 1,800 inspections of regulated facilities, investigate about 1,000 rabies and other health nuisance complaints, respond to over 4,000 public inquiries, immunize more than 2,100 animals for rabies, and submit 139 animals for rabies testing.
 
Other offices within the department were equally as busy, including the preventive health staff, who held more than 200 clinics around the county, administered almost 2,000 vaccinations, completed around 1,100 maternal, child health and personal care visits and kept a close watch on our children at Camp Hollis.
 
The Public Health Education and Healthy Families offices were also very active.
 
Through their respective outreach, training and education initiatives, they reached over 7,000 people in the delivery of 132 education programs.
 
The small staff that manages programs for children with special needs provided services to over 1,400 children through three separate programs.
 
Rounding out our health staff are the employees on our Hospice team, a very special group of people to start with.
 
Their job qualifications include having a heart many times the size of most.
 
In 2018 our team experienced a continued increase in total care days pushing that number to nearly 5,800 which included over 2,000 nursing and health aid visits and more than 300 bereavement visits.
 
If you have ever needed their help, you know these people are special.
 
Please join me in thanking them for what they do.
 
Moving over to our Social Services facilities in Mexico and Fulton, we have a staff of employees dedicated to the mission of strengthening families, promoting self-sufficiency and improving the quality of life in our communities.
 
We also believe that anyone who can work should work.
 
Our society has recognized that people who work should be able to earn sufficient income to provide for their families’ basic needs.
 
Those who are unable to work or who work but do not earn enough to provide for their families should be assisted by policies and programs to meet their basic needs.
 
Most households that receive financial assistance are working, although we do assist elderly and disabled residents as well.
 
Here is a snapshot of what we do to help a very diverse group of residents:
 
We:
– Distributed – over $5 million to eligible households for home energy assistance, nearly $26 million in supplemental nutrition assistance to low income households and $1.7 million in child care payments so eligible parents can continue to work, attend school or participate in an approved training program.
– Assisted 590 adults with finding stable housing
– Avoided nearly $600,000 in potential benefit costs by detecting fraud in the application process and before funds had been disbursed. 
– Filed – more than 1,200 court petitions to assure financial support for eligible children.
– Collected – just over $14 million in child support from absent parents affecting almost 7,600 households and returning $1 million to the local, state and federal governments as reimbursement for previous expenditures.
 
Our employment and training division hosted 123 employer recruitment sessions and saw 2,500 job seekers utilize services at the One-Stop Center.
 
They provided 356 Training Services including on-the-job, classroom, vocational and skills development training and 412 individuals receiving public assistance entered paid employment.
 
Staff in the office of Adult Protective Services have seen a 50% increase in open adult protective cases over the past three years.
 
They provided financial services assistance to nearly 400 individuals who are unable to manage their money or who were being financially exploited.
 
The Child Protective Services unit has seen a 10% increase in the number of reports referred for investigation in the past five years.
 
In 2018 our staff received over 3,300 reports to investigate.
 
More than half of the families who are brought to the attention of our CPS investigators are addicted to drugs and/or alcohol, severely impoverished and/or challenged by mental illness or other disabling conditions.
 
This makes addressing this issue an expensive and multi-disciplinary effort but one that continues to demand our foremost attention!
 
The men and women who are on the front line protecting our children are also deserving of our thanks and recognition.
 
Understanding that this list of DSS services and beneficiaries does not cover everything that they do, it is important to also speak briefly about the finances behind it all.
 
While nearly all the various services we provide are mandated by either the state or federal government, more than 40% of these costs fall on us.
 
Under the current social, economic and educational conditions, there is not much we can do except continue to pay those mandated costs.
 
However, after spending the last couple of years trying to identify how and why those various conditions exist, we are determined that proactive, innovative and collaborative efforts can lead us away from many of these various social needs or at the very least, reduce the need to a more manageable and financially viable level.
 
The discussion about what it is that we do for around $700 a year, would not be complete without mentioning our first responders and our employees in the various law enforcement offices.
 
Perhaps the smallest of that group is in the County Fire Coordinator’s office. Smaller, but no less important than the others, their staff and facilities are recognized as one of the premier training sites by organizations throughout Central New York and beyond.
 
Annually, they train around 1,000 career, industrial and volunteer firefighters while also responding to hundreds of incidents throughout the County.
 
The other group of first responders employed by the County includes, of course, the dedicated men and women in our Sheriff’s office.
 
It’s no accident that the largest work group there is known as the “road patrol” and in a large rural county like ours, there are plenty of roads to keep them busy.
 
In a typical year it is not unusual for these officers to cover over a million miles answering all kinds of calls, in all kinds of weather and on all kinds of roads in their efforts to keep us safe.
 
But there is more to a deputy’s job than driving miles of country roads. Our law enforcement system is a network of local, state and federal partners working together to help ensure that the rest of us can experience the quality of life we have come to enjoy, and our deputies are a key part of that coordinated effort.
 
One of those partner organizations, the Oswego County Drug Task Force, is itself a partnership in its truest form. Working under the District Attorney’s office, this band of seven is a combination of highly trained investigators representing the DA, the Sheriff’s office, the Oswego City Police Department and the U.S. Border Patrol, all working day and night to rid our streets of poison and the people who push it.
 
Also, within the Public Safety Center is our District Attorney’s office. Each year they prosecute thousands of criminal cases, and hundreds of others including drug and alcohol-related cases.
 
In the process of dealing with all of those cases, it is often necessary for them to make over 1,000 appearances in Village, Town, City, County or Superior Court.
 
In addition, the DA is also designated as the County Coroner which usually requires several hundred investigations and autopsies every year.
 
And finally, their office includes the STOP DWI program that each year reaches several thousand residents through their various educational programs.
 
Sharing space in our Public Safety Center, in addition to the sheriff’s office, the county jail, the DA, our courts, the judges, the Commissioner of Jurors, the 911 office and our IT folks you will find the Probation Department.
 
You rarely read about this hard-working team, but they are in fact, an integral part of our law enforcement process.
 
Their responsibilities are many, as are the benefits that they provide through their good work.
 
In 2018 the department supervised over 1,200 offenders (adult and juvenile) and completed 961 pre-sentence investigations for the courts.
 
Through their administration of about 750 open restitution cases they collected nearly $363,000 on behalf of victims and other agencies, helping to ensure that offenders are held responsible for the financial hardships they have created.
 
Relating their work to numbers we heard in previous comments about their law enforcement partners, about 60% of offenders have drug and/or alcohol abuse issues and the department works hard to see that these individuals have access to services appropriate to dealing with these matters.
 
Doing their part in our law enforcement teams’ mission to provide community safety, the department regularly executes dozens of arrest warrants for probation violators, carries out a few hundred residential searches, and in 2018 conducted around 1,200 drug and alcohol tests on their clients.
 
The department also administers the Alternatives to Incarceration programs.
 
These include supervised pre-trial release, weekend work programs and electronic monitoring.
 
The programs provide supervised alternatives to costly incarceration and allow defendants opportunities to seek help for their behaviors.
 
In 2018, 440 individuals participated in these various programs in total. As a result, several thousand jail days were avoided saving taxpayers millions of dollars in potential costs for incarceration.
 
There are a lot of pieces to our law enforcement team, some we didn’t even talk about.
 
The important thing we need to know is that they are out there working together each-and-every day, some days putting their lives on the line so that you and I can experience the safe communities we have come to enjoy.
 
Join me in thanking out first responders and the law enforcement team.
 
So yes, we have a lot going on. And when you think about the fact that we are mandated to provide 80% of the services that we do and that only a portion of the costs for those mandated programs are reimbursed to us, the average taxpayer here gets quite a bit for just over $700/year.
 
To put that into perspective, it’s less than most people are paying for just 4 months of bundled cable service.
 
I think it would be appropriate at this point to recognize and thank our management team and our employees for their work in finding a way to make all of that happen.
 
Having previously served as a Town Supervisor, some of the issues that we encounter are easier for me to understand than they may be for some of my colleagues who hadn’t held an elected office before seeking a seat on the County Legislature, but at the end of the day our goals are the same, to do our best to make a difference.
 
It may still be early in our proactive approach of, do what it takes to move the needle, but I think we are starting to see some results.
 
One of the tools to help in that process is a new county government services website. Its primary mission is to better inform, engage and serve our citizens, but its secondary benefits will be to help market Oswego County to the world.
 
We already do a pretty good job of that to our tourism customers, now we will include a focus on potential business and general resident customers as well.
 
In addition, we are fully engaged with growth initiatives at and around our county airport.
 
Public activity and new development opportunities have steadily increased under the direction of our airport manager, Brandon Schwerdt so please join me in recognizing his hard work there.
 
Earlier this year we launched an innovative public/private partnership that will facilitate the construction of a new jet hangar in an effort to address some of our corporate client’s needs.
 
Word spread quickly about this initiative and the demand for additional space for similar needs has been growing as a result.
 
We have also received some grant assistance for the construction of a new T-Hangar which will help generate additional activity and revenue there.
 
In addition, I am pleased to announce that after almost a decade of planning and various efforts to secure outside funding, we are prepared to move forward with the extension of public wastewater services from the City of Fulton to our airport property and the neighboring airport industrial park.
 
While this has taken far longer than anyone had hoped, it is a great example of cooperation.
 
I would like to thank the City of Fulton and the Town of Volney for being our partners on the project and Senator Patti Ritchie, the Oswego County IDA, the NYS Environmental Facilities Corporation and the Northern Border Regional Commission, all of whom committed financial assistance to help make it affordable for us.
 
Work will also begin this year on the construction of a new terminal building enhancing our ability to attract customers to, and properly serve customers at the airport.
 
I am also very pleased to say that we continue to make progress on the goals and initiatives outlined in our Strategic Economic Advancement Plan.
 
With some help from our partners at CenterState CEO, we have narrowed the priorities and established very focused workgroups to begin addressing these.
 
I look forward to keeping you apprised of the progress that develops from these efforts.
 
There is no question that for years we have been plagued by undesirable results in many education, health, employment and other socio-economic categories.
 
The data is there to prove it.
 
But I am here to tell you today that the data is also there to prove that in many of these areas, progress is underway.
 
School superintendents are working together, and they have health care providers, employers, service agencies and elected officials at the table.
 
Together they’re exploring the causes behind some of these issues and strategizing on mutually beneficial solutions.
 
Elected officials are coming together across political and geographical boundaries to work together in their efforts to serve their residents in an era of ever diminishing revenues.
 
We have bi-partisan support for new initiatives to reduce poverty, increase employment, investment and innovation throughout our communities.
 
Internally, we continue to study our programs and how they are delivered. Looking for ways, not just to save money but more importantly, to find the most effective way to deliver the various services we provide, ensuring both physically, and financially, that the recipients and the taxpayers are treated as our utmost priorities.
 
Externally, we have taken a deep dive into the root causes of poverty, an extensive examination of our economic development system, our programs, our infrastructure, our neighborhoods, our workforce and our relationships with partners that can help bring about change.
 
But change in today’s global environment doesn’t come easily, or for that matter even cheaply.
 
It takes more, far more than a hand-out lamenting our high poverty and unemployment rates.
 
It takes more than waiting and hoping that we might happen to be in the right place at the right time.
 
It takes work, lots of hard work and even some investment under appropriate circumstances.
 
We can’t be afraid to take on these physical and financial challenges if we really are committed to making Oswego County grow.
 
We just need to commit to work together.
 
Local, state and federal governments, educators from our pre-schools to our universities, philanthropists, bankers, builders, businesses big and small and most importantly, our citizens.
 
We need to share a common vision, we need to believe in each other, we need to believe that good people, with a good plan and the guts to make hard decisions can in fact, drive change, can in fact, move the needle.
 
My comments to you today would not be complete without the mention of our efforts to bring our region into the national spotlight by having Fort Ontario incorporated into the national park system and, as you likely know from the media reports of events over the last few days, the federal government is well on their way to beginning the final step, an in-depth analysis that is required to designate our four-county area of Lake Ontario as a national marine sanctuary.
 
This designation will help preserve hundreds of years of commercial and military maritime history.
 
Truly a transformative initiative when coupled with other waterfront improvements underway by the City of Oswego and others.
 
I would like you to join me in thanking our County Administrator Phil Church for his many years of effort on this project as well as Congressman Katko, and our other partners for their continued support of these projects.
 
Another initiative that has just recently been announced is Governor Cuomo’s “Lake Ontario Resiliency and Economic Development Initiative” or REDI.
 
$300 million have been allocated to help protect our shorelines from future damages but the charge before us is to do this in a way that can also lead to future economic development opportunities.
 
This is a bottom-up process designed so that every region, ours is Oswego and Cayuga counties, can get their respective teams together and identify their own priorities and projects.
 
This is a very unique opportunity, one that will not likely come by us again, at least in our lifetimes.
 
But there is a catch! We have less than three months to come up with a plan to build resilient waterfront communities that are positioned for new growth.
 
The state has put some resources at our disposal but in his usual fashion, our County Administrator has already started to gather his team and many of you here today will be asked to step up over the next months to make our proposal a success.
 
There is no question that there is much to be done but there is also much to be gained.
 
As your Chairman, I am today, charging you, my colleagues, to work with the County Administrator and his team and to make yourselves available to him over this summer as we work to devise a plan that will protect and enhance our shorelines, our infrastructure, our beaches, marinas, businesses and our residents.
 
Our efforts to create an environment in our lakeside communities that will drive new investment and attract new visitors will only be successful through your commitment to meet the challenge before us.
 
This is perhaps a once in a lifetime opportunity to make our region the focal point of the Lake Ontario shoreline.
 
Each of you, all of you considering my comments, whether you are listening here today or reading them later, you all have the opportunity and I invite you to find a role, accept a role and become a partner in what should be a community commitment to keep moving the needle, to change the status quo and do our own unique and individual parts to make our neighborhoods, our schools, our communities and Oswego County, a better place each and every day going forward.
 
I thank you for your patience, your attendance and your support! God bless you all, God bless Oswego County and God bless America!