2006 Brings New Initiatives for County Legislature
As we start another year of business for the County Legislature, I would like to take a few moments to reflect on the work that this Legislature has accomplished - achievements that will provide a firm foundation for the future. We deal with so many issues each month that it is easy to lose sight of the progress that underlies the resolutions. Let me highlight but a few:
Oswego County has made major investments to upgrade its technological infrastructure. The 911 Center is being modernized; a comprehensive plan to update hardware and software in each department is in process; a wireless network is being installed to lower costs and increase bandwidth between and among County facilities; and advanced technology is being deployed in the areas of public safety and emergency preparedness.
Fair and reasonable labor agreements have been reached with four of the five unions that represent the County's employees. This is important for ensuring the recruitment and retention of an experienced and professional workforce, as well as to assist the County in its long-term financial planning.
The County's Power for Progress program is providing 22 companies and municipalities with much-needed relief from high energy costs.
Inter-municipal cooperation has continued to flourish. Examples are numerous - County buildings are now home to three state agencies, a town government, and two non-profits. Several shared-service agreements are in place with the Public Works Department, the Planning Department, the Sheriff's Department, and others. The re-opening of the Niagara Mohawk fire school provides an opportunity for a further expansion of these efforts.
The County's balance sheet has seen substantial improvement. Debt has been eliminated; reserve funds for tax stabilization and retirement costs have been established; general fund balance has been increased to recommended levels; and interest earnings are higher.
Property taxes have been stabilized. There was no increase in property taxes in 2005 and a modest decrease in 2006. I anticipate this is a trend that will continue into the future. I can say that for two reasons. First, this is a smaller government than it was even three years ago. Our budget is actually $6 million less than it was in 2003.
The second reason is because we have adopted a multi-year financial plan. Our approach has not been to construct a budget around one-shot revenues and unsubstantiated estimates. The budget, which is one component of the County's financial plan, is based on conservative principles and anticipates the challenges to come. It's not a question of making life easy or difficult for the next Legislature; it's simply a matter of doing the responsible thing for the people we are here to serve. The major issues we tackle in 2006 are ones that will be of importance for years to come, that will outlive this particular Legislature. We will not finish the work in the coming year, but we do have the opportunity, indeed - the responsibility - to get the work started and on the right track.
It will start with the County's solid waste system. Like it or not, it is one of the prime responsibilities of Oswego County government, and this is the year when we must make provisions for the future of the program.
The first order of business this year for the Infrastructure and Facilities Committee is to work through the recently completed analysis of the County's solid waste system. The report provides us with a series of options for maintaining the integrity of our system. It provides a framework for the Legislature to make decisions; while there are choices, the decisions are entirely ours to make. There will be pros and cons involved with each option, and I am certain that we will not all agree on which direction to take. What we have to agree on, however, is that doing nothing is not an option.
Another area of focus for this coming year will be emergency preparedness. As host to three nuclear electric-generating facilities, Oswego County has made planning for natural or man-made disasters a priority. But we are faced with new threats that may require unique responses.
I recently invited numerous leaders and representatives from essential public service disciplines to participate in an exercise dealing with the latest, and potentially gravest, threat to public health - the avian flu. It was most instructive, and the lesson taken home was that all of us, even in Oswego County, need to be prepared. One of the lessons from this year's horrible hurricane season is that localities need to be prepared to take the lead in responding during emergencies. We will be working hard to be able to do just that.
I would like to address one additional issue of concern, the local economy, and the County's role in promoting its development.
There is a fair amount of pessimism about the future of this County's economy. We've heard it from our constituents; we've heard it from members of the public that have come to address this body; and we have heard it within our own ranks.
Nonetheless, there is reason to be optimistic about this County's economy. The three largest sectors - energy, higher education, and health - are strong and are making considerable investments in their Oswego County facilities. Oswego is home to several manufacturers whose value-added products are in great demand. New small businesses are starting up every day.
We have a good foundation, so we do not need to be pessimistic. At the same time, though, we need to be realistic, and it is a part of our reality that the rate of unemployment and underemployment is still too high.
So what should County government be doing? I recognize that many members of this Legislature have questions and concerns about the return on the County's investments in economic development. In fact, there is debate across the country regarding the value of economic development incentives.
Clearly County government can play a critical role in the creation of a positive business climate. We have spoken many times about stability - maintaining a predictable tax structure, investing in the County's infrastructure, and ensuring continuity of service delivery. But we can do more.
Allow me to offer some examples:
The Oswego County Airport is an important tool for economic development. We know that there is a long waiting list of pilots looking to make the Airport their home base. We know that investments in the Airport's facilities will generate the revenue to make the Airport self-sufficient. And we know that if we do not respond to the needs of the Airport's users, they will take their business elsewhere. Accordingly, I will be asking the Infrastructure and Facilities Committee to initiate a capital project to construct sufficient hangar space to eliminate the waiting list.
Let's also consider what the County is doing for tourism development. We know that when the County was forced to take a number of measures to make the budget balance, it was necessary to redirect bed tax revenues away from municipalities to help pay for promotion of the tourism industry in Oswego. While this was necessary at the time, I think most or all legislators hoped this would only be temporary. The downside of not returning bed tax to the municipalities is two-fold - it takes away support from the very attractions the County wishes to support, and removes incentives from municipalities to contribute to activities that would help bed tax g row. The bed tax is not important in and of itself, but as a measure of the strength of the tourism industry.
And therein lies the challenge for County government. If bed tax revenue is a gauge for the health of the industry, then the fact that collections have been relatively flat over the years means there is much room for improvement. I don't think this is a matter of merely spending more money on advertising; it's broader than that. It's a question of developing the kinds of attractions that makes visitors want to come to Oswego County, and to stay for more than a day. It is also a matter of packaging those attractions in new and exciting ways.
That is why I am proposing a shift in direction for the County with respect to tourism. It starts with returning bed tax money to the municipalities, and empowering local leaders to fashion strategies to promote tourism-related businesses within their communities. It continues with devoting additional county resources to development of the industry, not just marketing. For example, we know that the canal system holds great potential for development, but that someone, somehow, has to take charge of bringing people together to make a plan and marshal the resources needed to get it off the ground. That's why I will be asking the Legislature to consider a marriage of the Promotion and Tourism and Planning Departments to enhance development of the tourism industry. Make no mistake - this involves greater investment in the industry, not less.
The Community Development function of the Planning Department is one that also demands a greater investment. The essential ingredients for a good business climate are also key components of a sound community development strategy. We need to utilize the resources of County government to identify developmental needs, bring communities together, and take an active role in overcoming the barriers that any change faces. Let's make this a priority as we search for new leadership of the Department.
I have spoken about the need for this County to support the elements of a good business climate. It's not hard for all of us to agree on those principles. But what if we flip the coin and talk about the pieces of a bad climate for economic development? Would they include governments without leadership, governments with an unstable tax policy, governments that fight among each other to the detriment of the larger community? I suspect they would be front and center in defining a community that discourages investment. That is our challenge and our opportunity. We have demonstrated that this government can lead; that it can achieve; and that it can plan for the future. We must continue and build upon this foundation.
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