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Local Version of State of the State Message Brings Questions

Environmental Facilities Corp. Director Matt Driscoll delivers Governor Cuomo's State of the State message to a tiny crowd that includes, from left, Jonathan Daniels of the Port of Oswego; Operation Oswego County head Mike Treadwell; County Legislator Louella LeClair; and county department head David Turner.
Environmental Facilities Corp. Director Matt Driscoll delivers Governor Cuomo’s State of the State message to a tiny crowd that includes, from left, Jonathan Daniels of the Port of Oswego; Operation Oswego County head Mike Treadwell; County Legislator Louella LeClair; and county department head David Turner.

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State message was long and detailed.  It discussed a lot of issues.  But not all of them.

So when a member of his cabinet came to Fulton on Friday to present the local version of the Governor’s message, local officials pounced with questions about some of the things left out of the speech.

“We need mandate relief more than anything else,” said Oswego County Legislator Louella LeClair to the cabinet member, Environmental Facilities Corp. head Matt Driscoll.  The lack of relief from mandates such as Medicaid and sharply rising retiree pension contributions “is what’s killing our counties and cities.”

Driscoll, the former Mayor of Syracuse, acknowledged that mandate relief was not a topic of the Governor’s speech, but said that the mandate relief group Cuomo appointed last year continues to do its work and that local officials should hold their judgement for a couple of weeks to see what kinds of relief are built into the proposed state budget that will be released then.

“Mandate relief is not a panacea for county problems,” he cautioned.

But LeClair pressed the point about pension contributions, which went up sharply during the recession.  Local governments have to make up the difference between what the pension funds need and what they earned from their investments.  There were years during good economic times when there were no increases, but the recession is causing increases in the mid-double digits.

Combined with the 2% local tax levy cap, LeClair said, creates “almost an impossible equation.”

Fulton Mayor Ron Woodward agreed. “Before the cap, we had 160 people.  Now we have 121.  We don’t even have a Fire Chief.”  He said one mandate that needed to go was binding arbitration for contract disputes with firefighter and police unions, but pension relief was needed now.

“When is it ever gonna stop costing us $100,000 or $200,000 more every year?”

Woodward added that the city could also use relief from asbestos abatement rules, which costs the city thousands of dollars for each home it renovates or tears down.

Driscoll came to Fulton as part of the Governor’s annual outreach effort.  Cabinet members fanned out across the state in the two days after Cuomo’s speech, showing a compressed version of the State of the State.

The meeting in Fulton was very lightly attended.  Only six local officials came: LeClair; Woodward; Woodward’s assistant, Cathy Trowbridge; Operation Oswego County head Mike Treadwell; Port of Oswego Authority director Jonathan Daniels; and David Turner, who heads the county’s Community Development, Tourism and Planning departments.

A member of the Governor’s staff sat in the audience, taking notes on the comments of the local officials.

Driscoll laid out the Governor’s message, which he called “the blueprint for this year and is really is an aggressive plan.”

He stepped through Cuomo’s plans on jobs, education, fiscal discipline and progressive social changes.

Even then, local officials wanted Driscoll to focus on things not in the speech.  During a discussion of a plan to provide tourism marketing grants by region, Turner, the county’s top tourism official, asked Driscoll to get the state to give counties the flexibility to work across several regions.

He said that the county’s fishing efforts often cross the lines between what the state defines as Central New York and the North Country, and may be different from the alliances needed to promote snowmobiling.