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County Chairman Delivers 2015 State of the County Address

Good afternoon and welcome!

I would like to begin today by deviating slightly from the traditional State of the County message and speak for a minute about the State of this body.

You have graciously permitted me, over these last couple of years, to serve as your Chairman, your leader, a position gratefully accepted with humility and with honor.

A position that also comes with its share of heartaches and a seemingly endless stream of headaches,  but even so, with your bi-partisan support, we have made great strides these last few years and I thank you for coming together, and working together, as one body, Republicans and Democrats, united to solve the pressing issues of county government and the day-to-day issues of our constituents.

Like most of you, the things I hear most often while speaking to, or with our constituents are based around three common issues  –  jobs  – taxes  –  and quality of life.

And also like most of you, one of the more difficult challenges that we encounter each day is explaining to the taxpayers that our ability to address those issues is significantly limited by the resources we have available.

That said, we can and have effected change in these areas but it has only come through careful planning and cooperative bi-partisan support.

Let’s talk about some of the successes we have had and some of the challenges that remain.

Without question, the 2015 budget was a challenge.

Unfunded mandates from the State combined with limitations on revenue sources forced us all, legislators, department heads, managers and front-line employees to rethink how we do business and how we can continue to provide the services that our constituents desire in a fiscally prudent manner.

As difficult as that was, working together we delivered a budget for 2015 that required less reliance on our reserves, a priority that we will continue to embrace until we reach a point sometime in the very near future where we don’t use the reserves for this purpose at all.

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.

One of the ways that we were able to meet our fiscal challenges was actually through finding innovative solutions to modernize our facilities and the infrastructure that supports them.

Some examples of that include rebuilding our internal communications network – starting with the installation of a high-speed fiber optic network connecting all of our primary facilities and many of the secondary sites as well.

This will then be complemented by new switches, servers, a phone system that takes full advantage of today’s best technology and wireless capability in most of our primary buildings.

This project is expected to save us about $40,000 a year during its initial term and potentially almost a half million dollars per year at the completion of its term.

Another initiative with equal or greater potential is the addition of nearly 3 Mega Watts of solar electric generating capacity on county property.

A very favorable power purchase agreement with the owners and operators of these systems allows us to fix our electricity prices for the next 20 years and save, on average over that period, about $400,000 per year.

Another project that recently helped us avoid a significant capital expense was the upgrade of our phone system at 911.

The system that we had in place was well past its useful life and a state funded initiative provided us the opportunity to replace aging and obsolete equipment with new cutting edge technology at no cost to county taxpayers.

Among other recent accomplishments that we can be proud of is the demolition of the old jail facility.

While there was some sentimental attachment to the front structure that once served as the sherriff’s home and office, the jail section was well on its way to collapse and rapidly becoming a significant liability to those who needed access to our records center and Department of Motor Vehicle services.

I want to thank all who were involved in that process starting with Legislator (Morris) Sorbello and his committee.

In a similar scenario, at Camp Zerbe, we can take pride in the fact that the analysis of main lodge, which also seemed headed for collapse, resulted in the acquisition of state funding for the preservation and enhancement of that facility.

The first phase of that project is nearing completion and teams are meeting now to plan for the next phase of the Camp Zerbe revitalization.

A quality of life project that is badly needed in that part of the county and one that is sure to be enjoyed by residents and visitors alike.

Another quality of life enhancement but one that perhaps is not enjoyed by the entire community is the recent addition of a second Family Court judge in Oswego County.

This should help expedite the assignment and delivery of services for children and families needing assistance through the family court system.

Those of you who sit in this chamber regularly will recall that in 2014 we took affirmative steps to explore the root problems in our communities that likely lead to many of the social and economic concerns that we all share.

With your cooperation and support, we established the Community Health & Poverty Reduction Taskforce, a broad-based group of community stakeholders who, guided by experts in this field, will explore things like the relationships between health behaviors and poverty, what causes some of those behaviors such as the influence of childhood stresses that come from hunger, abuse and neglect and how do we currently address those issues.

In 2015, 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, we have yet to address the Public Safety Center, our largest energy user and one ripe with opportunities for savings.

We hope to have a proposal for you to consider on that facility very soon.

We know that in many cases, as a result of simple changes in the way that we are now required to provide services, our space needs have also changed.

A good example of that is before us now following the addition of a new Family Court Judge and the accommodations that we were required to make as a result.

Currently, the public safety center space cannot handle the new addition and the county is researching several options.

One that seems to make sense includes relocating the 911 center outside of the 10-mile nuclear zone.

That plan could utilize funds that may become available by re-securitizing our assets in the Tobacco Asset Securitization Corporation.

These funds, which can only be used for capital projects, provides a source for us to resolve some of our pressing needs without creating any new burden to the taxpayers.

Our records center, emergency management office, the Oswego motor vehicle office and the Bristol Hill landfill site are all other examples of either current of near term future space needs that will require attention and consideration.

We need to develop a process that allows us to take a comprehensive look at what we do, how we do it, where we do it and how we can do it better  so that we can then make well informed decisions about how and where we provide these services going forward.

Part of our examination of how we do our work will be focused on our accounting system and the software associated with it.

For many years now we have relied on a system that initially served us well but 3 decades later, technology has changed and in this case, the manufacturer no longer supports the labor intensive system we still use.

The time has come for us to find and implement a system that not only tracks our expenses and disbursements but one that also has the capability to quickly and easily provide reports and forecasts that will aid us in our budget planning process.

As we explore financing options for this project and we consider our desire to protect the taxpayers from new long term financial obligations, this also seems to be a likely candidate for funding that could become available by re-securitizing our assets in the Tobacco Asset Securitization Corporation.

As the highest level of local government, it is appropriate for a county to lead by example and one way for us to do that is to demonstrate to others that there can be better and more efficient ways to do things.

It is time that we engaged all of our cities, towns and villages in real discussion about how we serve our residents.

Taxpayers need relief from the very costly multi-layered structure of local governments here in New York and 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 can and will be successful.

Opportunities also exist for us to benefit by reaching outside our borders and working with our neighbors to develop regional partnerships.

Initiatives, that pursued jointly, will leverage even greater resources for the region.

As an example, I am pleased to announce today that Oswego County, in cooperation with the City of Oswego, is proposing a 4-county regional taskforce that will be focused on exploring the opportunities to realize the full potential of Lake Ontario and all of its natural, cultural and historic resources.

This plan, properly developed, and regional in scope, has the potential to bring in significant federal resources that will, in turn, drive new public and private investment and the jobs that come with it.

For the first time in 20 years, NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, will be accepting nominations for new marine sanctuaries.

The Great Lake Ontario National Marine Sanctuary will include the waters off of Wayne, Cayuga, Oswego and Jefferson counties and extend to the international border that transcends the lake.

Representatives from all 4 counties will participate in the process and coordinate their respective portions of the nomination.

In terms of international recognition, economic development and investment for education and research, the designation as a national marine sanctuary would put our region on par with other previously designated and world renowned sanctuaries such as the Florida Keys, the Olympic Coast, the USS Monitor, American Samoa and Thunder Bay Michigan.

And, with a well-planned and deliberative process, we can prepare a nomination that will not jeopardize any of the commercial or recreational benefits that Lake Ontario currently provides to our region.

A second opportunity that we need to immediately focus on involves a different set of regional partners but ones with whom we already share a common vision.

Our Central New York partners on the Regional Economic Development Council.

This very focused group of men and women, some of the best we have from all walks of life, have worked tirelessly over the last 4 years to develop a plan to help enhance and grow our 5 county region.

Through Governor Cuomo’s Upstate Revitalization proposal, we now have an opportunity to take the best of those ideas and use them as the foundation upon which to build a Central New York revitalization plan rivaled by none.

We, here in Oswego County, need to begin to prepare our thoughts and ideas so that we can ensure that we have done our part as responsible municipal members of council.

There is no question that 2015 will be a busy year for us but somewhere in there we need to make time to address a significant event in our local history.

2016 will mark the 200th anniversary of the formation of Oswego County.

Our bi-centennial should not be taken lightly.

We are a county rich in history and one whose residents and visitors have had considerable impact on the history of our nation.

2016 should be a time when we recognize and share all that is and all that has been great about this county we call our home.

To that end, I will soon be designating a bi-centennial committee which will report to our Economic Development & Planning committee.

I encourage all of you to take an interest in this and help us to prepare to appropriately celebrate our heritage.

If we are going to be successful in our goal of keeping property tax stabilization as one of our top priorities in 2015 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 2015 county budget is spent on 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 Albany has decided is beneficial to our citizens.

As I have promised to each and every one of you, 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.

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, our management team and all of our employees.

I am confident that together we can accomplish our task of providing the people of Oswego County with an efficient, friendly and effective government.

I thank you all for the opportunity and the honor to serve as your chairman and I look forward to a positive and productive 2015.

Kevin Gardner,
Chairman, Oswego County Legislature