2000 State of the County Address
Ralph J. Eannace Jr., County Executive
Ladies and Gentlemen:
Thank you very much to the Mohawk Valley Chamber of Commerce, to your Board, your Members and to everyone here today for your continued support, and for allowing me to share with you today my report on several issues affecting our County.
Oneida County today is emerging from a night of fear into a dawn of hope. Yet we cannot lessen our resolve to persevere until the work we have begun together is completed.
Let us look first at what we have accomplished. Steve DiMeo, Executive Director of EDGE, recently presented its annual report. I would strongly recommend that all people in the business community take a look at it. In the past year, net jobs in the area have continued their growth, up 1600, or 1.2%. Jobs have grown in the area, according to the New York State Department of Labor, by 6800 since 1998. Employment figures are at historic highs, and unemployment rates are at all-time lows. Our rebuilding efforts are showing up elsewhere, as well, with a 3.9%increase in median household incomes this past year, a 5.1% increase in total payroll in Oneida and Herkimer Counties, and an increase in the average annual wages per person to $25,852, a 2.7%increase in the past year. Housing sales are on the rise, with a 17.9%increase in total homes sold between this October and a year ago, and continuing increases in the average selling price. Our sales tax revenues are ahead of schedule. For the first time in years, the total Oneida County property tax base has also increased.
I am proud to report that our Safe Communities Program, NEW Neighborhoods Initiative and our partnerships with local governments across the county are helping people from Camden to Cornhill revive their communities. In Utica, it meant a new mini-park and streetscapes from Cornhill to West Utica. In Remsen, it meant further County support for their community effort for their new train station. A Camden sidewalk project, Rome’s Clean and Green effort; Waterville’s Habitat for Humanity; parks and other projects in Prospect, Bridgewater, Sylvan Beach, and Vernon; were all assisted as part of our effort to help our citizens improve their communities in their own way.
Our success in the anti-arson effort continues, joined by progress in our anti-drug task force, our Child Advocacy Center, our Stop-DWI effort, and overall cooperation among law enforcement agencies and governments at every level. We are aggressively pursuing safer communities, and I believe we are making great progress.
The most fundamental element of our stewardship to all the people of Oneida County is management of their hard-earned tax dollars. We are fulfilling that trust. The tax levy in the 2001 budget continues our freeze on the overall amount county taxpayers contribute to their local government. This will be the third consecutive year of holding the line on taxes.
By freezing the tax levy, we are doing our part to keep down the cost of living here and the cost of doing business. If we had merely kept pace with inflation, the county tax levy next year would be more than $3 million higher. We think that $3 million does the most good where it belongs – in the hands of our residents and businesses.
Through a settlement with the tobacco industry, our county is receiving a substantial reimbursement for Medicaid expenses of the past. Comptroller Joe Timpano and I worked with the County Legislature and the New York State Association of Counties to securitize the projected schedule of payments, and last week brought home $50.6 million, $600,000 more than was projected. We are assigning $40 million of this money to pay our County ‘s current debt, bringing our outstanding debt down to its lowest levels in nearly a decade. The other $10.6 million will be applied to the County’s current capital plan, including the largest effort in our County’s history to rebuild our existing roads and bridges. These are not sexy uses of this money, but they are prudent. Money saved from reduced debt service requirements will also allow us to pay our increased mandated Medicaid costs this year and can support new anti-smoking and preventative healthcare initiatives.
Our strong fiscal picture would be even stronger were it not for spiraling cost increases in mandated programs. Medicaid expenses are projected to rise again next year at the alarming rate of 7.5 percent. New York remains one of only two states where Medicaid remains a major portion of local budgets. When the state Legislature returns to Albany next month, I hope I can count on your support as we again try to stop this burden-shifting that denies county taxpayers long-term property tax relief.
Some actions to curb Medicaid costs are within our control. The rising cost of insuring the employed is becoming a significant expense. I appreciate the fact that your Chamber offers more affordable employer health plans. Finding ways to provide more health coverage at our workplaces can improve our businesses’ competitive position in the labor market, help our neighbors receive better health care, and help the county control costs of Medicaid, which accounts for 10% of our County budget.
Restoring the fiscal integrity of County government is a combined effort of many people. But the guiding force through all of this has been our County Legislature, which has insisted on prudent, careful spending and stable taxes. I want to thank Chairman Jerry Fiorini, our outgoing Majority Leader, Bob Julian, and the members of the Board for their watchful eye and their dedication.
But we share a responsibility that is larger than our fiscal stewardship, a concern more fundamental than rebuilding our region’s economy or neighborhoods. We have shared the mission of rebuilding our County’s spirit, the spirit of a people that through many generations has made the Mohawk Valley a cradle of dreams, for the Iroquois Confederacy, the early French and British traders, and the Yankee fighters who defended Fort Stanwix. A spirit that inspired the missionaries of the "burned-over district", the immigrants who built our Erie Canal and who worked in our textile mills. The commitment that drove the defenders of our freedoms in all of our Nation’s wars. The dreams of our parents and our children. This spirit, commitment, dream, was leaving our area as fast as the people who were leaving for better jobs five years ago, as the rest of us feared for our futures. Our problems and our challenges are far from over. But we have restored our hope; we have rekindled our spirit. We have proven that we can put Oneida County back on the map, and back on track to a bright future. We have done this through unprecedented cooperation, among political leaders, businesspeople, communities and citizens. I am proud that our County Government has acted as the catalyst to assist all of our communities. When the Empire State Games come to the Mohawk Valley on July 25, 2001,thousands of people from around the state will see an upbeat region that is steadily working to revive neglected neighborhoods, grow a new economy and a new workforce, and enjoy a lifestyle other parts of this country can only dream of having.
At the same time we face challenges that would test the bravest of spirits. Home sales are rising, but aging neighborhoods in many of our communities still contain neglected eyesores and, with a lack of new investments, these neighborhoods face uncertain futures. Our economy has picked up steam, but thousands of our residents are struggling to find careers or simply to make ends meet. We are growing jobs. But we need to retain college students who are not finding the careers they went to school for, and to retrain the workforce that is not meeting the demands of our employers.
Let us turn now to the challenges and opportunities in front of us, and to the ways we are trying to make the most of both.
Our stewardship of County Residents’ hopes and dreams means that we must ensure the economic recovery of our region continues. That challenge grows more daunting as the national economy slows, and as some of our larger projects go on hold, such as at Orion, or in reverse, such as at Global Aviation.
We are on the job. When you look at the fast-growing jobs in our county, you’ll see high-tech jobs that pay more than $48,000 per year. So the next time someone tells you the only jobs this economy has are low paying, tell them the truth. They’re wrong.
To continue our economic growth, we are working with a diverse and growing spectrum of employers year after year, helping them solve the problems they face so they can grow – employers such as Fiber Instrument Sales in Oriskany, Ethan Allen in Boonville, Cathedral Corporation and BAE Systems at Griffiss Park, and GN Nettest in the Utica Business Park.
Amid this solid growth, we are embracing bold initiatives. At Griffiss Park, Baker Electromotive is making Postal Service vehicles in conjunction with Ford in a venture that could change the way America drives. The new RFA that’s visible as you drive through the former base is a tangible symbol of these changing times.
Building a new economy requires building a long-term quality workforce to go with it. That’s exactly what’s happening in an exciting project known as InVEST. The Workforce Investment Board, directed by John Holt, has received $2.89 million in grants through the New York State Department of Labor’s InVEST program. More than 500 unemployed and underemployed people will be trained for jobs in high-demand areas such as Teacher Assistant, Licensed Practical Nurse, Welder, Machinist, Carpenter, and Computer Network Technician.
These grants are just the first fruits of the cooperation that’s taking place between employers and the new Workforce Investment Board, which is dedicated to serving employers and job seekers in dynamic new ways.
In the Office of Workforce Development’s Project HIRE, Kate Avissato, "Dez" Jenkins, Bob Fail and Mick Fay are helping the most disadvantaged public assistance recipients make the transition to employment. As of October, 48 percent of Project HIRE’s Oneida County caseload had made the transition to work – a number up there with any region in the nation.
Project HIRE is not just about numbers. It is the story of people helping people. Kate, Dez, Bob and Mick support their clients in every way imaginable. They are on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They can point to success stories such as the Utica woman who is not just working, but has a car, a house, is going to college and has her life together. There is a lot of work in such a story. There are steps back as well as forward. But every time a Project HIRE client stumbles, these staffers are there to help their clients keep trying.
Every person is a resource, including our newest citizens. Joseph Stanek, Senior Workforce Development Coordinator for our Social Services Employment Division, recently helped these citizens move ahead in the work world by having forms describing transitional Medicaid benefits translated into Bosnian and Vietnamese. His work is just one of the hundreds of ways in which the people within County Government help those in our county.
We are also building our workforce of the future. We have a very special program called the Oneida County College Student Corps. It hires Oneida County young people who are in college for summer internships with our local employers, in hopes that once they see the great opportunity that this area has to offer, they will return here after graduation. It works. More than 90 percent of this summer’s employers told us they want to hire the interns they had if they have openings, and 75 percent of this summer’s interns want to come back here to work.
At the hub of it all is a very special person, Program Coordinator Rosemary Carole of the Office of Workforce Development. This past summer, Rosemary kept tabs on 146 interns and yet retained a personal touch with every single one of them. She was their mentor, confidante, problem-solver and leader. That our interns finished the program with a great feeling about this region is due in no small part to the attention Rosemary gives them, and her follow-up that continues when these interns want help coming home to find jobs.
The College Student Corps is one piece of a broader effort known as "Call Mohawk Valley Home," under the leadership of John Holt. We are reaching out to young people in our high schools and colleges – as well as young adults who have left the area. We’re giving them the facts about the opportunities that exist here. Our "Call Mohawk Valley Home" web site, callmohawkvalleyhome.com, tells people everywhere about the great jobs we have and the great region in which we live. Our Business-to-High School effort connected with about 1,500 students this past year, with about 80 percent of those responding to our surveys telling us they want to live and work in the Mohawk Valley. That’s the future talking.
As business people, I don’t have to tell you about the need for fast action when the time is right to expand. That’s why our 2001 budget calls for two new efforts of particular interest.
We are expanding our war on red tape. In 2001 the County Department of Planning will be contracting for on-line permitting for county business permits. We hope that paves the way for further on-line efforts that help our businesses, particularly construction and small business owners. This is one part of a broader vision in which we are working with the Northern Oneida County Council of Governments, Supervisor Annette Foley and the Town of Kirkland, The Town of Whitestown and other communities already connected to the Digital Towpath developed by Niagara Mohawk Power Corp., to keep pace with the on-line revolution. We hope all of our local governments will be working with us to make local permitting and information more accessible. We are also working with new County Clerk Rick Allen to digitize and bring on-line the County Clerk’s records in a new, regional records center in the old fire station on Elizabeth Street in Utica.
We will also begin a local "shovel-ready" initiative that can increase our inventory of 50- to 75-acre development sites. Communities will identify land they think is ready for development, based on a set of criteria that we will develop together. Our goal is to have up to 10 new sites that will have all the preliminary studies completed in such areas as zoning, transportation, utilities, environmental impact, layout alternatives and costs. This will significantly cut the time developers and businesses have to spend before they can start an actual expansion.
However, in order to create the sites for new or expanding businesses, and to remove at its core a cancer afflicting many of our communities, we need to tackle a problem that is bigger than our villages, cities or county, clearing and restoring our brownfield sites. From Mill#2 in New York Mills, to sites in all sections of Utica, to sites in all of our communities, old factory buildings and contaminated fields are left standing because remediation is simply too expensive and risky for private concerns or local governments. We must press on the state the need to loosen the criteria and simplify the process for assistance from the State, so we can partner to create new opportunities in our old neighborhoods.
We need new, special strategies in certain areas of our economy. Our high-tech strategy is bearing fruit, with the new Rome Lab surrounded by a High –tech mini-park and a planned Information Technology Incubator at Griffiss. Our Call Mohawk Valley Home program recently hosted area companies in a discussion of a new joint recruiting effort to bring more high-tech workers into the area and to work with our educational institutions to train more people for careers in those industries.
Another critical component of the hi-tech strategy is the proposed Chip-Fab site in Marcy. Residents in the area have raised the kinds of questions, about traffic, environment, and hazardous materials safety that should be raised and carefully examined. But just as these are good questions, there are good answers. The SUNY Utica-Rome site in Marcy is one of the truly unique Chip-Fab sites in the state, and is already drawing industry attention. All of us who are interested in the region’s future must speak up and impress on the Town of Marcy officials, who are doing their job of considering the necessary zoning change very carefully, that a great deal is at stake not only for immediate neighbors, but for the whole town and the whole region. I thank the Marcy Chamber of Commerce, SUNY and EDGE for speaking out for the Chip-Fab proposal. I hope you too will get involved.
Strategies to support manufacturing through efforts at energy-cost reduction and individually tailored incentives for modernization and expansion have helped companies from GN Nettest to Conmed to Ethan Allen to Special Metals to Revere and Oneida Limited. Utica Corp’s human resources director joined our Call Mohawk Valley Home outreach to high school students.
New strategies are underway or under development in agriculture, tourism and the arts. New regional economic strategies are being planned with our assistance in Waterville. Our County/EDGE steering group on economic development has recently broadened its regular communication with the City of Utica and the Rome Industrial Development Corp. The County is working closely with Utica and with this Chamber on the planning and advocacy for the cleanup and reuse of Harbor Point. Many efforts, of course. Diffuse, yes. But we have hundreds of people involved, and we are already showing progress in most of these endeavors. If you want to be more involved in any of these undertakings, you only need to let us know.
As we move ahead, we must have quality air service. A new airline for our region, Boston-Maine, is planning to fly out of Oneida County Airport. We’re still seeking more airlines. We have completed an intensive and exhaustive review to decide how best the runway at Griffiss Park meshes with the current airport to help air travelers and our businesses. We hope to complete this process in the coming year. But the Chambers of Commerce have been very helpful in our efforts to accomplish first-things first; restoring quality and economical air service to the region. With Lou Raya and C&S Engineers working with us, we are still seeking aircraft maintenance opportunities and more scheduled air service.
Recently the Syracuse Chamber of Commerce has written to many of our area businesses seeking commitments for air service out of Syracuse. We are seeking the same, with some very interesting potential, for potential new service out of your own back yard. Congressman Boehlert and Senator Schumer are both helping to fight for "essential air service" to New York, and we are all working together for a better future for our air resources and for our people.
A note on another issue that holds great potential for the economy and the communities of Oneida County. The SUNY Institute of Technology has put forth a new vision statement with very exciting new expansions possible. MVCC has completed a curriculum and mission review, and is completing its new Utica campus. MVCC, with County support and encouragement, is also working on exciting new initiatives with many of our school districts, from "Ready-Set- College" to Utica’s Millennium Project. Utica College, under the leadership of President Todd Hutton, has undertaken several dramatic new expansions and has its largest enrollment. The Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute’s affiliation with Pratt Institute has brought new higher educational opportunities to the neighborhoods they have completely restored. Hamilton College has opened up a Human Services study initiative with Oneida County and shown its interest in developing more intern opportunities. The Utica School of Commerce is working with us on new worker training initiatives. The cumulative effect of these developments, and the increased possibilities for collaboration to benefit us all, is phenomenal. We could create a whole new higher education community here, with great potential impacts for our center cities, our neighborhoods and our employers. We all need to watch these developments and see how we can help.
The 2001 budgets of some other large upstate counties have included millions of dollars for villages to dissolve into towns or for other wholesale government consolidations. Many of us in this room have talked for years about the need for streamlining and regionalizing more of local government. In Oneida County government I have been fostering a very common sense approach of service sharing by voluntary intermunicipal contracts. As part of that effort, we have developed a Menu of Services that outlines many areas where County Government is ready, willing and able to help local governments provide services at a lower cost to the taxpayers. This is an approach more likely to produce small, immediate victories, as where we became the purchasing agent for Rome or the tax collector for Bridgewater. But it also helps each of our communities keep their own identities, the identity that brings out the most loyalty and civic involvement from its residents, and empowers our towns, villages and cities so they can do more with less and focus their energies on truly local issues. With Jay Meyers, former Deerfield Town Supervisor, now helping us work with communities, it is my hope that our city, village and town governments will embrace our pro-active agenda, so that we can have the best of both worlds – streamlined government that retains the local identity we all respond to without a price tag we can no longer afford.
In line with this philosophy, our proposed new county Sanitary Code will help all of our communities ensure that aging housing stock does not deteriorate. Next year’s budget appropriates $250,000 so our Health Department can help communities in addressing the problems they see to ensure that all people have safe and healthy housing. We will enhance local codes officials’ good efforts by providing new tools and work together cooperatively to rid our communities of blight.
This past year marked continued expansion of our Youth summer recreation and the debut of our consolidation of the Utica and Oneida County youth bureaus. And what a year it was. We provided 65,000 youth opportunities in summer recreation programs. Communities that for years had only hoped for something for their children to do in the summer had solid, character-building activities. We’re building more year-round activities to help our young people stay out of danger as they grow in constructive ways. When partnerships work, we’re ready to act. Youth Bureau Director Jim LaFountain said it best when he recently said: "There are no I’s in the word team." That’s the philosophy of this County Government.
These initiatives are the models for our partnerships with our communities. Big Government is not going to be found in Oneida County. Just Smart Government and Cooperative Government.
One obligation for all of us in government is the stewardship of the legacy of patriotism that built America. Earlier this year, the Utica Veterans Day parade was cancelled. That saddened me deeply, because our ability to gather here freely, everything that we in government do, ultimately exists because of the men and women who have worn America’s uniform down through our history. I am pleased to announce to you today that in 2001, Oneida County will work with local veteran and civic groups to ensure that this special holiday is properly honored.
County Government does not just honor veterans one day out of the year. Through our Veterans’ Outreach Program, begun this year out of our Veterans’ Service Agency, we are fulfilling our moral obligation to homebound veterans.
In this past year, Joe Perrone, our Veterans’ Service Coordinator who works out of our Rome office, has helped Veterans receive help to which they are entitled. A former World War II POW was able to file for a long-overdue service-connected claim. A wheelchair-confined Vietnam vet in the western part of our county received the home health care he needed for medication and bathing. Joe helped arrange transportation so that the 83-year-old wife of an 81-year-old World War II veteran who needs dialysis treatments did not have to make three trips a week to the hospital in the dead of winter.
For Joe, this is not just a job. Joe is a Vietnam vet. In his office, he keeps the pictures of his father who fought in World War II and his grandfather who fought in World War I. His heritage of duty is the spark that helps him give our veterans the support they so richly deserve. Joe’s actions embody our commitment to never forget the men and women who put their lives on the line in the service of our nation.
One of the strongest partnerships we have forged is with our neighbors defending themselves and their property in the Oneida Indian Land Claim Area.
I don’t need to tell anyone here the importance of ending the Oneida Indian land claim. But it must be done in a peaceful manner. The rights of all groups must be protected. The Oneida Indian Nation is a growing economic power. However, there is no justice in any agreement or action in which the rights of one group are protected by infringing the rights of someone else. Property owners who have never done wrong to anyone should never have to live in fear of losing the land they inherited from their fathers and grandfathers.
We won a major victory when Federal Judge Neal McCurn ruled that the landowners of the land claim region cannot be added to the lawsuit. The House of Representatives, thanks to our Congressman Sherry Boehlert, has passed legislation that, if passed by both houses and signed by the President, would not allow landowners to be put in jeopardy. We must again push for a settlement between the Oneidas and the State of New York that will be fair and final. However, a settlement is that much harder to reach when the people you are negotiating with have most of what they want already. In this case the federal Administration has treated the Oneida Nation, and other Indian Nations, as virtual sovereign nations on lands as soon as they purchase them, with everything from disregard to outright disdain for the neighboring communities. I am now chairing a committee of the New York State Association of Counties, and recently spoke to groups at the National Association of Counties, about the need for changes in federal policies that will ensure that federal laws, on everything from environmental protection to civil rights, will be enforced on Indian owned land. Federal law, which currently recognizes that States and localities can charge sales taxes when non-Indians purchase at Indian owned businesses, must be changed to make these taxes truly collectible. Only when all the issues of taxation, governance and land ownership are fairly addressed to protect all people will we be able to move forward. Either a comprehensive and fair settlement of our case or changes in federal policies, or both, may be necessary to achieve the long lasting area prosperity and fellowship we all long for. We are committed to working toward this goal.
County Government also goes into areas some people would like to think never exist. Every day, County workers help individuals facing poverty, child abuse, and the loneliness and desperation of aging. They do a great and caring job, but there is more to be done. We will act to meet that need in 2001. We are proposing a One-Stop Intake Center for all our Social Services programs. This will make it easier for county residents to find help. It will also allow us to reorganize so that more staff can bring services to the people who need them. At the same time, we will expand our investigations of fraud to punish service providers and recipients who try to abuse the system. This mixture of compassion and common sense will allow our dedicated staff to continue their efforts to help people.
Back in the spring, Andrea Hirschey and Hilda Pomeroy changed the course of a human tragedy in the making. An elderly woman was living in terrible self-neglect, which only came to light when her dog dragged her down some stairs, prompting a call to our Office of the Aging and Continuing Care.
Andrea and Hilda responded. They went the extra mile that day and in weeks to come to gain the woman’s trust; help her have the support services she needed; and ensure that a distant relative learned what was happening so that he could take fiscal responsibility. Case closed? Not really. Our workers continued to visit, bringing flowers for the woman and biscuits for her dog. That’s Oneida County government in action. People helping people.
Social Services Caseworker Mary Ann DeNigro also typifies the determination of our staffers to solve problems. She has been working with a neglected child – a teen-ager now – whose life has been nothing but pain. Over the years, this child has been in foster homes and residential treatment facilities. Her life is a series of difficulties and dead ends. But Mary Ann will not give up. She has spent the past 11 months working to find a place that can help this child. Her persistence is paying off. I don’t know if this effort will ever bring a happy ending to this child’s life. I don’t know if this troubled child will ever know how much Mary Ann has fought for her. But I think that all of us here should know.
In 2000 we entered into an agreement with the Resource Center for Independent Living to help make Oneida County one of America’s most accessible counties for people with disabilities. We are already budgeting help for our two largest historical societies to make their buildings more accessible. We invite everyone to work with us on this project that is not only good for our social services goals, but for our economic expansion and workforce goals as well.
From my office in the County Office Building, I look out over Utica’s streets of change, at housing that has been the cradle of dreams for the Irish, Welsh, Italians, African-Americans and now our newest immigrant groups. Every infusion of immigrants brings our area a new burst of energy to achieve success and overcome obstacles, and reminds us what is possible through the basics of hard work and community caring. Diversity is one of the strengths of Oneida County. Our County is fortunate that we have Hilda Santiago as our Child Assistance Program Coordinator. Hilda has a deep commitment to ensure that the Hispanic community in our County has access to job openings and community resources. Her commitment goes well beyond the work day. It is tiring work to resolve misunderstandings related to diversity. But Hilda does her job with excellence and pride. By her presence and actions, she states louder than any words that our County Government is a government for all the people of this county.
I truly believe that nothing can stand in the way of the people of Oneida County when we all work together for the common good. Call me an incurable optimist, but as I go through our neighborhoods and workplaces, I see a tremendous spirit that has been unleashed to rebuild our homeland. Of course there will be challenges. Of course there will be obstacles. But I believe in the power of ordinary people to perform extraordinary actions. Above all, I have an abiding faith I bring with me to work every day that we in government working as partners with all of our neighbors can make life better for the people we serve. This County Government is dedicated to the fundamental proposition that empowered people build strong communities and that we exist to help our people, all our people, in whatever way we can. This is the rock upon which we base our stewardship.
As we prepare for 2001, we can feel a just pride in what we have accomplished together. But best of all, we can share the excitement as we look ahead to the day we triumph over problems we must now resolve. With stable taxes, job growth, workforce expansion, and the wonderful cooperation that has us all working together, I look to next year -- and beyond -- and know that Oneida County’s greatest days are just over the horizon.
I cannot do it alone. We are all partners in this great work. We have blazed the trail for success, but we must walk that path together. As you leave here today, take with you our vision of what can be possible. Share it. And then help us work with you and your neighbors to turn the vision in all of our minds into the reality of all of our communities. We can do it.
And, working together, we will do it.