State of Niagara County Address Delivered by Chairwoman Rebecca Wydysh

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Tonight, I have the distinct pleasure to deliver my first State of the County address and I am pleased to say, without reservation, that the state of our County is strong and that we continue to provide responsible and responsive government to our taxpayers. I believe that opportunities for an even brighter tomorrow are all around us….but we must be prudent in meeting the many inevitable challenges we will face.

Indeed, opportunity and challenge are really two sides of the same coin. For every opportunity we attempt to seize, there are challenges that must be conquered. Put another way, as we know, nothing is ever easy.

That is why tonight I want to start the conversation on how Niagara County can embrace a more forward-thinking, strategic approach to county government that makes us proactive in looking for ways to grow as well as better-positioned to react to whatever unforeseen situations confront us.

And I believe this can best be accomplished by looking for ways to modernize our government. Now, modernization is automatically assumed to mean technology and that is certainly part of it. But modernization is also a mindset. It’s a way of breaking free from the constraints of “we’ve just always done it this way” and asking “but is there a better way to do it.” It’s also about fresh faces and newideas.

When I talk about modernization, I do NOT want to give the impression that our government is a house falling down. Quite to the contrary, the foundation of Niagara County has never been stronger. This year’s budget marks the ninth straight year that we have stayed beneath the property tax cap….which happens to be every year since the property tax cap was enacted.

Indeed, we are on a perfect streak…and I think I can speak for all of us when I say to our county manager and his team….it’s a streak we fully expect will continue. I congratulate everyone involved in helping Niagara County function so prudently. We can all take great pride knowing that the tax rate is the lowest it has been in decades. That does not happen by accident. Rick Upedgrove, Dan Huntingtonand our entire county team….keep up the good work.

It’s knowing that we have this solid foundation….this level of fiscal responsibility…..that allows us to dream bigger….to create a vision of what we want our community to be tomorrow and begin working toward it today.

At the same time, Niagara County is not an island. There are forces beyond our control that can have a significant impact on how we operate. New York State is currently facing a 6 B-I-L-L-I-O-N Dollar deficit. The overarching reason for this budgetary nightmare is the exploding costs of the state’s Medicaid program. The estimates I have seen say 2/3 of the state’s deficit is directly attributable toMedicaid.

 

Niagara County Legislature Chairwoman Rebecca Wydysh.

 

There is already a growing concern coming out of Governor Cuomo’s State of the State Address that he may undo the Medicaid cap on local governments and make his Medicaid problem, our Medicaid problem. I have heard him say that counties get to write the checks for Medicaid that state government signs, implying that we are somehow being reckless in our administration because it’s not our money.

The fact is nothing could be further from the truth. County governments have little to no say over the running of the Medicaid program. Everything is mandated by the state. So, I say to the Governor, if the state is going to make all the decisions, they should pay for those decisions. Don’t pass the burden onto county government and local property taxpayers.

But, I will also say to the Governor, if you are truly interested in cost control. If you are truly interested in stretching every Medicaid dollar as far as it will go. If you are truly interested in providing a safety net that meets basic needs at a price taxpayers can afford….then work with us, the county governments across the state. Invite us to the table. Make us part of the solution. And let’s figure this out.

I am confident that by working collaboratively, we can make real progress. But I want to stress that I hear from Niagara County taxpayers all the time that they are paying exorbitant amounts out of pocket for their basic health insurance and their plans do not have dental, or eye glass coverage, etc. Yet, their tax dollars pay for those amenities within the Medicaid program for others.

And whether these costs are borne by the county or the state, they ultimately come from these same taxpayers who are fed up and have had enough. So solving the Medicaid cost explosion also means finally brining some realism and restraint to the program. Governor, if you’re ready to work together, so are we.

The willingness to work together really is the key to solving any issue, to making real progress. This is especially true in a county like ours where we have limited resources to put to good use. It is bad enough if leaders across our county are all operating in silos….it is even worse if we work at cross purposes. That is why I want to answer the call from newly elected Niagara Falls Mayor Robert Restaino who called for collaboration in his efforts to right the ship in Niagara Falls.

For too long, Niagara Falls and Niagara County have pursued different agendas when we have so much more to gain by working on areas of common agreement. So in that spirit, Mayor Restiano, I welcome your call. I propose that within the next two weeks you and I convene a summit with our respective leadership teams to identify broad areas where we can make immediate progress and set anagenda for moving forward. 2020 is the start of a new decade. Let’s make it a start of a new relationship between Niagara Falls and Niagara County.

We already know that when you plant the seeds of cooperation, good things can later blossom. In 2017, the Niagara Orleans Regional Land Improvement Corporation was formed. Better known as the Land Bank, this joint effort of municipalities in Niagara and Orleans County had a singular focus to acquire land that was vacant…abandoned….delinquent on taxes….and return it to productive use.

In 2018, the focus on the Land Bank was actually getting itself up and running. Again, nothing is ever easy and significant time had to be spent on the formation of the board, the organizations policies, procedures, stakeholder engagement and so on. Last year was really the opportunity for the land bank to begin fulfilling its mission.

I’m proud to report the Land Bank took control of more than a dozen parcels and has already put 9 back to productive use. While these numbers are impressive, focusing on a macro number obscures what the Land Bank is really all about. You see, just a stone’s throw from where we are sitting right now is 171 Niagara Street. It was going to cost Niagara County $40,000 to demolish this vacant structure.

Instead, the Land Bank took control of the property and was able to sell the house. Today, there are owners hard at work fixing up this house which will become a home. And that homeowner will be part of a neighborhood. And that property will be contributing to our community. And those living around this home will not see their own properties devalued by blight, but rather enhanced by new investment.

That’s one house on one street in Niagara County. But, really, it means so much more than that. That’s what the Land Bank can accomplish. We look forward to many more stories like 171 Niagara Street.

Unity is what we also need as we continue to face the terrible consequences of Lake Ontario flooding. Our communities along the lake have been battered and bruised and continue to mobilize…continue to fight….continue to look for any and all solutions to mitigate what is seemingly becoming a never-ending problem. But when each year seems to bring a “new record high” in water levels, it ceases tobecome an anomaly and instead becomes the new normal.

We welcome the fact that State Government has become a much stronger ally in this fight. Our “Lakeshore” legislators like Dave Godfrey, John Syracuse, Irene Myers and so many local leaders, residents and others need all the help we can get. The fact is significant resources need to be committed to addressing this issue and quite frankly local residents and state taxpayers should not be footing the bill for damage caused by poor decision-making of the International Joint Commission.

Let’s just call it as it is — the IJC has failed. I’m tired of reading excuses that it is not Plan 2014’s fault. That strains believability but is also irrelevant. Of course the IJC can’t control Mother Nature. But they certainly can make decisions to mitigate Mother Nature’s impacts.

The fact is, the IJC is guilty of picking winners and losers – the winners are the shipping industry. The winners are other points downstream who have not had nearly the damage that residents along Lake Ontario have suffered. I do not think it is expecting too much that the IJC spread the consequences of their poor management and terrible policies evenly across all stakeholders while we try to find ways to mitigate the issue.

To that end, a special thank you Jonathan Schultz, head of Emergency Services for all of his tireless efforts to battle the flooding. You will continue to have the support of this Legislature as the fight continues.

So far, I’ve spoken a lot of collaboration and the need to work together. This is especially true on issues that create division among us. Specifically, I’m referencing Article X and the various wind and solar power projects that are popping up across the county.

The battle over these wind and solar projects is tearing up communities, pitting neighbor against neighbor and creating a whirlwind of back and forth information that leaves people unsure of what is true and what is not.

This issue runs the gamut of environmental safety, private property rights, long- term land spoilage, clean energy and on and on. And each project seems to create its own fire drill within a community.

The Article X legislation was supposed to create some sort of coherent process….it’s become a giant mess. And it’s made worse by the fact that state leaders have repeatedly failed to appoint a local representative to these siting boards….giving credence to the idea that they don’t care about the concerns of local residents.

I do not come before you today with the answers. But we need to find a better way to proceed. I’ve talked to many residents, legislators and local leaders who are equally exasperated. I have heard from the Niagara USA Chamber of Commerce expressing similar concerns. So, in these discussions, it seems there is consensus around creating an Ad Hoc Committee on Article X that can bring people to the table and figure out if, together, we can bring some order, some best practices, some lessons learned, and perhaps create a more coherent path forward.

Tonight, I have touched just a few of the many issues that face our county. Every day, there is something important going on that impacts our citizens and there is no way to touch on all of the important work of every department. But it is important.

So rather than me give this work a short paragraph in a speech, the Legislature will be asking department heads to present to the Legislature over the course of this year on your accomplishments, challenges and goals. And I would like you to keep in mind this concept of how we can modernize our government. Allow me three examples.

First, I applaud all the effort that has gone into establishing the new Document Management System. That name does not do it justice. This DMS is about bringing significantly more oversight and accountability to our procurement contracts. It’s breaking down silos across the county so information can be shared, leading to better prices and better services for our taxpayers.

Next, in six short years, the Refuse Disposal District under Dawn Timm’s leadership has been able to transform from an active operation with $16 million in liability primarily financed by the tax levy to a post-closure operation managed by existing county resources that erased $8 million of that liability. All remedial concerns at the District have been addressed and accomplished while decreasing the district tax rate.

Lastly, modernization means making wise investments that help us produce better results. Public works has been investing in equipment and manpower to meet the demands of our county. After all, there is nothing more visible to our citizens every day than the quality of our roads. Because of their ability to do more in house and their overall planning, they are on course to reduce the 20 year road rehabilitation schedule down to 12-15 years.

These three examples are the results that taxpayers expect and we are delivering. I know we can continue to do more.

We live in an era when taxpayers also expect easy access to information. They expect transparency and want to be kept informed. Yet, outside of big issues or the latest controversy, local governments often function well below the radar. I would like to see that changed.

After all, there is so much County Government is involved with – issues, programs, opportunities – which the average citizen just simply never hears about. My goal is to look for ways to more effectively communicate our involvement through all the channels available to us. I want to engage more folks and perhaps, more folks will engage with us. Perhaps new faces will step forward to serve on our boards and offer their expertise.

To that end, tonight on your desk, you have some new appointments to the Board of our Industrial Development Agency. The IDA is on the front lines of economic development. Sue Langdon and her team do a tremendous job, working in concert with Commissioner Casale and his Economic Development Department. With the start of the New Year, the time seemed right to bring in some fresh ideas to the IDA board. I welcome the new board members and wish them much success because we are counting on them to attract business and opportunity to Niagara County.

I will close with a message to you, my fellow legislators. First, I again thank you for your confidence in me to lead this body. It is indeed an honor. As we move forward, let us not forget that we are here to conduct the people’s business. Let’s find commonality of purpose so we can work together and make progress.

When we have disagreements – and I’m sure there will be a few of those – let’s disagree with a sense of respect for each other and this institution. The issues I mentioned today represent a pretty full agenda and that just scratches the surface of all that is on our plate. So, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work.

Thank you.

 

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