Oswego County Legislature Office of the Chairman, 46 East Bridge St., Oswego, NY 13126

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State of the County Address

February 15, 2007

By Russ Johnson, Chairman, Oswego County Legislature

My fellow Members of the Legislature, Members of the Press, County Staff and Honored Guests;

Thank you for the opportunity you have given me to speak to you once again about the State of this County government. This is an honor I do not take lightly, and I pledge today to work as hard as I possibly can to reward your faith and trust.

I suppose the conventional place to start would be to recognize the differences of opinion that have been voiced over the last few of months, and urge us to work together to heal our wounds.

I won't be doing that.

It's not because I am blind to what had transpired, but because I don't think we need healing. This, my friends, is a healthy, dynamic organization, not a sick one. This legislature is composed of 25 entirely different individuals, who have different backgrounds and different constituencies. If we agreed on every issue, that would be a sign of weakness and sickness. You know that I enjoy a good debate. I've said that since you first elected me as your Chairman in 2004. I enjoy a good debate because I think it makes us all think and work harder. I would much rather have us pulling and tugging to go in a positive direction, then all of us marching in lock-step in the wrong direction. We are legislators, not lemmings.

What I do want to offer, however, is my promise to do my best to ensure that our debates and differences are on matters of principle - that is, what each of us thinks is best for the people we represent. We cannot let our personal likes and dislikes cloud our judgment when it comes to making decisions that affect our constituents.

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This past holiday season was a treasured time for the opportunities it afforded us to be with our families, to share our good fortune with others, and to contemplate the truly important facets of our lives. And it now gives rise to the time when we are given the license to organize our thoughts about the year ahead, to renew our commitments to those persons and values we hold dear.

So it is altogether fitting that we use this occasion to spend some time thinking about this government's goals for the year ahead.

We need to begin not with a goal, but a statement of principle. It would be tempting to think that the County's restored fiscal health makes it possible for us to coast this year. We might think that all we need to do is maintain the status quo, to just continue doing business as usual. Such a notion is both illusive and dangerous. Every year there are new challenges and new twists on old ones. Some are specific to Oswego County; others are common to all local governments. If we think we can manage by merely treading water, then we are sure to be swept back by the current, and it would be necessary to move forward just to stay in the same place. But we want more for our constituents than that. We want this government to be more responsive, more efficient, more affordable, and that is a principle that will underlie each decision we make in the year ahead.

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One of the first tasks for us this year is to get to know the new administration in Albany. Governor Spitzer has promised to put property tax relief to the top of his agenda. In fact, the Governor just recently announced his property tax cut proposal. Welcome, Governor, to the crusade. Certainly he will find willing partners for this effort here in Oswego County. But as we know from experience, talking about tax relief and delivering it are altogether different creatures. We know that providing better service at a lower cost only comes about through hard work, a willingness to challenge customary ways of doing business, and above all, a commitment to put the public interest ahead of our personal needs.

We enter 2007 with a solid foundation upon which to build. Consider what we have been able to accomplish together:

  • We have been able to provide significant property tax relief and stability.

  • We have fair contracts in place with all our labor organizations.

  • We have made provisions for unexpected financial challenges.

  • We continue to be debt free.

  • We have provided funding for a number of capital projects that will preserve the investments that have been made in the County's infrastructure.

  • We have undertaken initiatives in support of our tourism and agricultural sectors.

  • And, we have adopted a strategic plan that provides us with a guide to future decision-making.

These accomplishments, however noteworthy, are the starting point, not the culmination, of our work. I know each of you have issues you would like to see addressed, and I hope you will feel free to share them with me and your colleagues. None of us are mind-readers, I know I'm not, so open discussion can only breed stronger communication. To start the conversation, I want to speak to the priorities that are at the top of my list.

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One of the first orders of business, of course, is the selection of a new County Administrator. We are moving closer to that end, and I am confident that the search committee is doing its homework and will bring forward to this body a good recommendation. It is critical that we legislators give full support to whomever we appoint.

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This past December, the Legislature took an important step toward reopening a fire training facility in the County. Much work remains to be done in order to equip and staff this operation. We want and need to solidify a coalition of users so that this resource is fully utilized, but with a minimal impact on County taxpayers. I'm confident that the Public Safety Committee, along with the Office of Fire Coordinator, are ready for the challenge to make our new fire training facility the best in New York State. God knows our firefighters deserve it.

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We have spent a great deal of time in recent months in committee meetings considering opportunities for expansion of County recreational trails. We know that there are a number of issues that must be dealt with to make this happen. We have literally thousands of trail enthusiasts both in and outside of our county who are depending on us. I suspect this enthusiasm will only grow larger, and while Jefferson and Lewis counties already have an organized chain in place; Oswego County can no longer afford to be the missing link. The positive impact our trails can have on our tourism industry and the overall economy can also no longer be overlooked. I think we all recognize that the next step is to determine which arm of County government is best suited to take the lead in this effort, and for us to allocate the resources necessary to make it happen. To that end, I will ask the Economic Development and Planning committee, along with the Community Development, Tourism and Planning department to develop an acceptable strategy that will meet the needs of our trail enthusiasts, yet still keep in mind the need to maintain the integrity of the private lands owned by our county residents.

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Another priority for the coming year needs to be bringing greater focus to risk management issues. A sizeable portion of our budget is devoted to insurance - indemnity and casualty; health; and workers compensation. These functions have been vested in different departments, but my sense is that there are opportunities to achieve savings and better protect the County by improving our management efforts. In addition, the Workplace Violence Prevention Act imposes new mandates on the County that must be addressed in the coming months. I will be calling on our Finance and Personnel committee to work with the Personnel department to develop an approach to better help Oswego County government identify and address risk management issues, and also to develop and implement workplace violence protection training and programs to prevent and minimize the hazard of workplace violence to our public employees.

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For some time now, we have been anticipating significant changes in the manner in which elections are conducted in this County. It may be that the timetable is still uncertain, but it is clear that it is time for this Legislature to take an active role to ensure successful implementation. We have a responsibility to our constituents to see that the new system is both cost-effective and reliable. We should not rely on unelected partisans in Albany to decide on what's best for our residents. We have just provided Board of Elections Commissioners and staff a state-of-the-art facility. So, it is clear that our Community and Consumer Affairs committee must continue to work closely with our Board of Elections office to make the HAVA transition reliable to our voting population.

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Every few years Oswego County government offers a household hazardous waste event that provides an opportunity for our constituents to discard their paints, fluorescent lights, pesticides, herbicides and many other types of household hazardous waste. We know that this event gives us some assurance that these items are safely collected and disposed of in a manner consistent with sound environmental practices. And we are all aware that our residents deeply appreciate the opportunity to safely dispose of these items of waste. The problems over the years, however, such as the long waiting lines, infrequency of events, and the accumulative costs of the events haven't truly allowed us to send the signal to our residents that we are serious about preserving our environment. Moreover, routinely our Solid Waste department will field complaints from our constituents that they have no place to dispose of household hazardous waste while we spend months and years trying to figure out when we will have another event. The time has come for Oswego County government to absorb the cries from our constituents and give them an opportunity to dispose of household hazardous waste on a regular basis. I will ask the Infrastructure and Facilities committee to work together with our Solid Waste department for the purpose of developing a plan for a permanent household hazardous waste facility in Oswego County.

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Every year we pour in tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars into data lines to support our data communications between county facilities. Together with this recurring charge, we are bound by the technological fact that we are nowhere near the data push capacity now available in this new millennium. We are aware that we have addressed this problem in part by seeking implementation of a wireless data communications network with some of our facilities, but that merely represents that the cup is only half full. I will ask that the Community and Consumer Affairs committee work closely with our Central Services Department to our make data communications wireless throughout the entire county. In a few short years, the project will pay for itself, and we will then realize a savings to the taxpayers of over $100,000 per year.

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We have some major financial decisions to make this year. We expect in the coming months to receive an estimate of the County's liability for funding post-employment benefits, in accordance with the new rules established by the Governmental Accounting Standards Board. This will have a major influence on how we approach budgeting and funding capital projects for years to come. This will be a decision in which every legislator will want to become educated and involved.

We also will need to make a decision regarding how we should fund our Medicaid obligation. The legislation that established a cap on the rate of growth of Medicaid costs provided an option for counties - we can continue to pay our share on a weekly basis, or instead, give up a portion of the local sales tax revenue. This is not a decision to be taken lightly, and will again require all of us to do our homework.

These are but a few of the matters this Legislature will be taking up in the months ahead. I expect, and indeed welcome, a wide variety of opinions on each of the decisions that we face. We should not be afraid to debate the issues - we can only become stronger if we do. But what we must all agree on is the need to, after the debate is over; make a decision and move on to the next issue.

This is a Legislature of action and accomplishments. Working together, we have faced up to challenges, not run from them. Let's stay consistent and mindfully focused in 2007.

Thank you so much!

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