State of the County Address
Legislature Chairman Barry Leemann
Let me begin my 2009 State of the County address by saying, I am proud to be Chairman of this Legislature during such a critical time for our county’s residents. Our work will not be easy, in fact it will be very difficult, but we will be successful and we will get through this recession in much better condition than many other county governments in our state. Thank you for giving me this opportunity.
I’d also like to thank the Legislature and County Administrator Church, and the department heads for the countless hours that were spent in preparing our county to withstand the State’s fiscal disaster. I realize it is not just the State’s problem; it is being passed down to us also. We are going to have to rely on our own ingenuity, frugality, and our fund balance to be able to keep our residents’ services intact and property taxes stable. In our efforts to reach these goals we will work to continue to improve our excellent record of controlling costs and providing services to our residents.
It would be very easy to have a negative tone to this State of the County Address but I refuse to be anything less than optimistic. We are positioned to withstand the State’s fiscal crisis, because we had the foresight to build up our fund balance and reserves. We are working on a four-year plan to keep our property taxes under control while not depleting our fund balance below recommended levels. It is this Legislature’s challenge to use our savings wisely and sparingly over the coming years, so that the state’s crisis doesn’t become our local taxpayers’ crisis.
Throughout the state, we hear predictions of doom and gloom, but Oswego County government is weathering the storm well. There is an old saying, “In times of plenty, plan for times of famine.” That is exactly what Oswego County did during the past few years, which were financially favorable for us. We kept our belts tight. We took advantage of high interest rates and our growing sales tax revenues to rebuild our reserves and fund balance, which, just a few years ago, had been depleted. During this same time we reduced the generic tax rate from 9 dollars and 22 cents to 7 dollars and 18 cents per 1,000 dollars of assessed value.
We are one of the only counties to be upgraded by Moody’s Investors. They recently increased our rating from A-3 to A-2. Moody’s based their decision on our improved financial operations and a healthy fund balance.
To keep our healthy financial standing, we are taking several steps this year. They include:
As you are aware, the tax agreements with the three nuclear power plants at Nine Mile Point expire in stages during 2010 and 2011. The revenue from the plants is critical to keeping our property taxes low, maintaining services, and providing opportunity for local economic growth. The tax status of the plants involves more than just Oswego County; it involves the Mexico and Oswego school districts and the town of Scriba. We may be involved with inter-municipal agreements, property assessment, and county finances. These issues fall under the jurisdiction of three standing County committees. Some legislators are employed by the plants, or have family members employed there. We must avoid conflicts of interest -- real or perceived. Therefore, I will appoint a special committee to handle the plants’ tax status. The committee will be bipartisan and will be comprised of legislators with no potential conflict of interest. This committee will be responsible for keeping the full Legislature updated. Any resulting agreements will only be made by the entire County Legislature.
Last year I started the GREEN TEAM -- a Sustainability Committee. I would like to update you on this very productive committee.
Not many counties in our area have a green committee. In fact, Onondaga County is the only other one. Our members include the Syracuse Center of Excellence in Environmental and Energy systems, the Environmental Finance Center at Syracuse University (this is a federal EPA funded organization), SUNY Oswego, the Central New York Regional Planning and Development Board, and New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. We are taking a regional approach and have included our own county departments and internal experts to work on this important project. We have had discussions with wind energy folks to see if there are opportunities to erect wind turbines on County property, for example, the Scriba Highway facility. The committee has researched biodiesel and its potential for our fleet. We have met with Destiny USA and Ascent Technologies to learn more about the possibilities. We have also had discussions with the New York State Thruway Authority who presently use biodiesel in their fleet of trucks. Work is still on-going but plans are to put biodiesel in a highway facility for a test in the spring of 2009.
Our Purchasing Department is working with other municipalities on Green purchasing opportunities. The Green Team committee is also looking at bringing other Central New York County leaders together to talk about ways to cooperate on sustainability issues. I would like to see a larger regional summit to discuss these issues. We need to keep Oswego County in the driver’s seat on these important matters. Therefore, I will look at developing a “carbon budget” for our county. This would involve research and analysis on the amount of carbon generated by our activities and the amount which is naturally absorbed in our environment. SU has an internationally-known researcher that is willing to assist us in this project.
Last year I also appointed a Temporary Airport Advisory Committee. I want to thank them publicly for a job well done! I asked them in September to review our airport and report on its current status, plans in place for development, and recommendations for future plans. I also asked the committee to consider the need for a permanent airport advisory committee. They held many meetings and were able to provide a report to me, as requested, before Jan 1st, 2009. The report was very well prepared and provided valuable information on the status of the airport. It provided recommendations for this legislature to consider, and we will begin tackling these recommendations this year. They recommended that we re-establish an airport advisory committee and I expect to follow through with this in the coming months.
I am also going to reinstate the County Planning Board. This board will be revised from its previous structure and will only be involved with larger construction and development projects.
I will assign the Consumer and Community Affairs Committee to work with the appropriate county departments to develop a “Citizen-Friendly” tax bill. The most recent tax bill made the county tax look higher than we had promised by combining it with workers compensation costs of the towns and cities. Lines were renamed without providing a definition. We need a consistent design and terminology on tax bills from year to year. The wording should be very clear and easily understood by the average resident. This will allow people to know exactly what they are paying for and to whom they are paying it.
Camp Hollis Task Force
Camp Hollis has been serving Oswego County children and families for 62 years. There have been many changes over the years but Camp Hollis continues to be a memorable part of growing up and living in Oswego County. The culture and environment around the traditional “sleep over” camp is changing. It is necessary from time to time to take a look at programs and services to see if they are still meeting our needs and to see if they can be improved upon.
A Camp Hollis Task Force, made up a variety of stakeholders from the community, could take a look at the programs and services offered at Camp Hollis, as well as the physical structure. Working together, they could develop recommendations to improve upon the programs and services offered and preserve the physical structure.
The County recently surveyed residents about broadband Internet service. A representative sampling involving nearly 1,400 Oswego County residents indicates that there is overwhelming support for a high-speed Internet, or broadband service in Oswego County. This information will help providers in their efforts to leverage grants or other funding to bring broadband services to all residents and businesses in all areas of Oswego County, and do it in a way that the infrastructure can be developed at no cost to the local taxpayers.
In conclusion, as Legislators, we have a very difficult year ahead; we will have to make some very tough decisions. This legislature does not take this national recession lightly. We will deal with the failing economy to the best of our ability, keeping the interests of our residents foremost in our minds. We will accept assistance from others but will not wait for others to assist us. We know we can count on ourselves and the people of Oswego County to work together. And by working together, the Legislature and the people of Oswego County can survive this national fiscal crisis with minimal negative impact.
Thank you again for this opportunity to address you. As always my door is always open to any and all who have questions or suggestions.
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