By: Kevin Gardner, Chairman Oswego County Legislature
Good afternoon and welcome! And to our first-term legislators, Roy Reehil (Dist. 5), Richard Kline (Dist. 12), Steven Walpole (Dist. 14), Marie Schadt (Dist. 19) and Frank Castiglia Jr. (Dist. 25) a renewed message of welcome that comes with my encouragement to accept and approach your new-found responsibilities in a patient and thoughtful manner.
It has been just over 10 years now that I have served in this body and slightly more than 10 months since I first accepted the responsibility as your chairman.
As I look around the room today only three other legislators were here with me in 2004, legislators Kunzwiler, Malone and Proud. But while the faces have changed dramatically in those 10 years, many of our goals and objectives have not.
Unfortunately neither have the various issues that continue to prevent us from fully reaching those goals.
Like most of you, from the very first day that I decided to run for public office, one of my guiding principles has been to always be a careful steward of the taxpayers’ dollars. With respect to that as an overarching goal, I would say that we, collectively, for however long you have personally been a part of this team, have succeeded.
Not only have we managed to hold the county tax rate down but we have actually reduced the rate from $9.60/1,000 in 2004 to $7.22/1,000 in 2014, a 25% decrease over that period.
This has required a lot of hard work and many tough decisions but through good management and strategic planning we have been able to continue to provide most of the services that our taxpayers demand.
This has been and will continue to be a very difficult task. One that needs careful and thoughtful deliberation as we attempt to strike a balance between keeping the county tax rate down and providing the types and levels of services that our constituents believe are essential to maintaining the quality of life that we all enjoy here in Oswego County.
As we have clearly seen over this last decade, the challenges before us can only be overcome through a bi-partisan and coordinated effort, one that reaches beyond the 25 of us deliberating here today.
To be successful we will need to continue to rely on the expertise of our management team and each and every one of our dedicated and skilled employees who have chosen public service as their calling. On behalf of the taxpayers of Oswego County, I would like to thank all of them for their hard work and continued support.
So, where are we today and where do we want to be tomorrow?
2013, in general, while plagued with challenges, was a productive year for us. We settled several labor agreements and without any new capital expense, we added 6 new solar projects that should save us over $20,000 a year.
Through a very difficult project that required a lot of patience and cooperation from the public and our employees alike, we eliminated some environmental concerns while re-configuring our Social Services facility and certain processes within the building to create a safer and more efficient work environment there. We used less of our reserves to keep county taxes down and, through a very professional and unbiased vacancy review process we have been able to avoid the typical knee-jerk solution of cutting jobs to resolve budget shortfalls.
In fact, our process of carefully examining the need for services as we consider filling vacancies, netted us a savings of over $2.2 million dollars last year. But more remains to be done…..
In 2014, working together as a bi-partisan group that understands the complex and diverse needs associated with running an effective and efficient county government, we have the opportunity to explore several issues that remain unaddressed.
For example, while we have made great strides in our efforts to make our fleet of buildings more energy efficient, which by the way has saved our taxpayers over, we have yet to address the Public Safety Center, our largest energy user and one ripe with opportunities for savings.
We have also identified our internal phone and communications network as desperately in need of modernization.
We know that in many cases, simple changes in the way that we are now required to provide services, our space needs have also changed and we will look carefully at how we can meet those varied needs as we move forward. Our records center is a good example of this. As our mandates to provide services increases so does the volume of records that need to be maintained, some of which we are required to keep forever.
Our small records center, on the site of the old jail property, is at its capacity and with the pending demolition of the jail building we should be considering our ability to meet our records retention needs at the current site or at another location.
We have a nice piece of riverfront property and perhaps there is a higher and better use for the property that would put it back on the tax rolls.
Part of our responsibility, as the highest level of local government in our jurisdiction, is to work with all of our constituent partners, public and private, to help make our area a better place to live, work and raise a family.
Sometimes this can be accomplished through policy initiatives, like setting goals and objectives for how we would like to see our communities grow, or which natural, cultural or historic resources we would like to see protected as that happens
Sometimes our role is to lead by example and demonstrate to others that there are better and more efficient ways to do things.
For example, the consolidation and sharing of services. The county, has demonstrated this time and again over the years as town dumps were closed and replaced by a county wide state-of-the-art solid waste system, local health offices merged into a county health system, weights and measures services were consolidated, the list goes on but in every case, services that used to be provided by local governments are now provided in a more cost effective manner by a centralized county department or office.
Other counties have seen police and fire departments merge and even here in Oswego County we have witnessed the great efforts of the residents of the village of Altmar, who recognized that it was not cost effective to continue to have multiple layers of government providing duplication of services over small areas and now, while the village still has its identity as a place, the cost of local government in that area has been reduced. I believe that there are opportunities for us to all work together to help make it less expensive to live and do business in Oswego County and if we share that as a common goal without as much focus on geographic boundaries and territories, we will be successful.
I also believe that there are times that we, as a county, can take measures that not only make good business sense for us internally but that also result in great potential for growth in our business sector and enhanced quality of life for our residents. With regard to enhancing the potential for business growth, the availability of broadband is essential in today’s global marketplace and much of our county has suffered for years from this deficiency.
You will have the opportunity to consider a game-changing initiative, a project that will not only resolve our internal communications needs but one that will eventually bring affordable high-speed broadband service throughout the county as a result of the base that will be laid to service our government operational needs.
This project, which by-the-way, requires no new expenditures, will position us well ahead of other county governments in NY with respect to the types and levels of communications services that will be available to us.
This project, if approved, will save us tens of thousands of dollars every year during its initial term and nearly half a million each year after that.
As Oswego County becomes more widely known around the world through the multi-media efforts of the tourism and public information office, we need to be able to demonstrate to our visitors, whether they are here for business or pleasure that we have everything they need should they decide to make this place their home.
To that end, we can continue our efforts to be among the best at what we do and continue to work with our local businesses and communities to enhance the quality of life here in Oswego County, but without some relief from the growing list of unfunded State and Federal mandates all of our efforts and sacrifices will be for naught.
If we are going to be successful in our goal of keeping property tax stabilization as one of our top priorities in 2014 and if, we want to do that in a way that minimizes our reliance on reserve funds, we need relief from the requirement of providing state and federal programs without sufficient state and federal dollars to do so.
More than 80% of our 2014 County budget is spent on these unfunded programs. Every single property tax dollar and about half of all of the sales tax dollars that we collect is dedicated to providing services that someone else has decided is beneficial to our citizens.
If we have to pay for these services, then we should get to decide what services we will offer to best benefit our constituents. If that is not an option, then the people who mandated these programs should also have to pay for them.
If the state of New York took over four of its own programs, Medicaid, Preschool Special Education, Indigent Defense and Safety Net, the average taxpayer in Oswego County would see their county tax bill reduced by about $500.
No discussion of state imposed hardships would be complete without mentioning that again, last year, this legislature decided to override the state-imposed two percent tax cap.
Many municipalities across the state were forced to do this as well as they nearly all face expenses that are beyond their ability to control on a local level.
Our reasons are slightly more complicated than that and somewhat unique to our county because the state formula, under the tax cap program, 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.
A risk we cannot and will not take.
In an effort to take a proactive and bi-partisan approach to the various issues that we are faced with, 2014 is my intent to task the Legislature’s standing committees, with working with our department heads to explore opportunities that could lead to more efficient ways to utilize the taxpayers’ dollar both internally and in partnership with our constituent communities.
I am open and will remain open to suggestions from legislators regarding any issue they feel should be addressed. Again, all I ask is that the objective makes good operational sense and has a positive benefit to the taxpayer.
I would like to thank our county employees and department heads for a job well done. We need to I assure you, we know how hard you work and appreciate your dedication to your job and the people of this county. I would like to thank you on behalf of the Legislature for your efforts and cooperation during these difficult economic times.
In closing, I would like to re-emphasize that I am confident in the ability of this legislature, the county’s employees, and department heads.
I am confident that together we can accomplish our task of providing the people of Oswego County with an efficient, friendly and effective government. Our challenges are great and we will control spending. Let’s make the hard decisions this year so we can continue to stabilize taxes for years to come.
We owe it to our constituents.
I thank you all for the opportunity and the honor to serve as your chairman and I look forward to a positive and productive 2014.