Oswego County Legislature Chairman James Weatherup, R-Central Square, delivered his 2020 State of the County Address this week at the regularly scheduled meeting of the county Legislature. The following is Weatherup’s full remarks, given Thursday before his legislative colleagues, county employees and members of the public.
First, I want to assure all of our residents that our leadership team, in concert with our local, state and federal partners, has been working diligently to stay abreast of this issue and plans are in place to address the various potential scenarios should they develop. In the meantime, I would like to encourage everyone to remain clam and to be vigilant in your efforts to take preventive measures to avoid exposing yourself or others to the virus. Do your part by following the advice of the medical professionals and we should all come through this with minimal impact to our lives and communities.
As we celebrate our 204th anniversary throughout this year we should keep in mind all of our predecessors who dedicated their time and talents to the ongoing mission to make this a better place for all. I would especially like to remember Legislator’s Jack Proud, Kenneth Wheeler Jr. and Daniel Eiffe, three former members who left us for a much grander chamber in 2019.
To our first-term Legislators, Michael Yerdon (Dist. 1), Herbert Yerdon (Dist. 2), Laurie Mangano (Dist. 17), Robert Wilmott (Dist. 18), Marc Greco (Dist. 24) and Ralph Stacy (Dist. 25) I offer a renewed message of welcome that comes with my encouragement to accept and approach your new-found responsibilities in a patient and thoughtful manner. For some of you, this is your first foray into elected office and public service, so I suggest to you, and I remind your colleagues, we did not choose this path simply to make a living or enrich ourselves. We are here instead, to enrich our communities with a greater vision and a spirit of hope and achievement.
After almost seven years in this body and just over one year as the Chairman, I was honored and humbled by your support when you chose me to lead the County into a new decade. The complexion of our County Legislature is somewhat different with the addition of six new members, but our leadership team will largely stay intact, recognizing the progress that we have enjoyed over the last year or so.
While many of the faces have changed, many of our goals and objectives have not. Much remains to be done, but I am certain that if we continue to grow our spirit of cooperation, both internally and externally, with our constituent communities and beyond, the future of Oswego County will get brighter with each new agreement and partner that we embrace.
It has been said that, “the measure of a person is not where they stand in times of ease and convenience, but rather where they stand at times of challenge and controversy.” Let us commit today to stand together and to make the tough choices that will be necessary over these next few years to move the county forward.
If you will permit me, I would like to start those conversations by sharing some recent accomplishments and thoughts about where we go from here.
To start with, while it was a small reduction, we were able to craft a county budget for 2020 that resulted in a decrease in the generic tax rate. This was the first time in seven years that the rate has decreased. Having said that, it is worth noting that the rate had not changed for four years prior and, when we look back over the last 15 years the rate for 2020 is 16.4% lower today than it was in 2005! To put that in perspective, if the 2005 rate ($9.20/thousand) had kept pace with inflation, it would be $12.11 today, instead of $7.69. Through careful fiscal management, we have been able to negate the inflation impact on your tax dollar over that period.
With this budget, the County has also achieved its goal of eliminating dependence on the use of unappropriated fund balance to stabilize the tax rate, making it the first budget in 15 years to be balanced strictly between expenditures and revenues. This year the fund balance can be appropriately used by the Legislature for multi-year planning of our capital reserves, capital projects and to cover any large unanticipated expenses that arise.
This is a goal we have been working on for quite some time, and one that all our team can take pride in. Our 2020 budget provides funding at responsible levels for the services mandated by law and those valued by our residents, including snow removal, road maintenance, law enforcement, economic development, emergency communications and response, and human services for youth, elderly, the unemployed, and veterans.
This has been, and will continue to be, a very difficult task going forward. One that needs careful and thoughtful deliberation as we attempt to strike a balance between keeping the County tax rate down and providing the types and levels of services that our constituents believe are essential to maintaining the quality of life that we all enjoy here in Oswego County.
While it varies slightly from year-to-year, our annual budget is about $217 million. Of that, more than 80% pays for state and federal mandates.
To help cover this cost, the State gives us $38.7 million and the Feds give us $26.2 million. That’s just $64.9 million for more than $174 million in mandated costs. We pay for the rest through property tax, PILOTs, sales tax, fund balance and “other” miscellaneous revenues.
If we are going to be successful in our goal of keeping property tax stabilization as one of our top priorities in 2020 and if we want to do that in a way that minimizes our reliance on reserve funds, we need to find ways to increase our tax base and add jobs in our communities. Working with our Federal, State and Regional partners I feel certain that there are opportunities in front of us.
We must also recognize that in some cases we may need to make strategic investments to bring those opportunities to fruition. I look forward to working with all of you as we analyze and pursue every initiative that can make Oswego County a better place for all of us.
As we have clearly seen over this last decade, the challenges before us can only be overcome through a bi-partisan and coordinated effort, one that reaches beyond the 25 of us deliberating here today.
2019 was an eventful year and 2020 will see us continue to make even greater progress on many of the items that we have been working on.
Some recent highlights include, the completion of a new motor vehicle complex in Oswego, important and long over-due structural repairs to this, our legislative office building, restoration of the historic lodge and infrastructure enhancements at Camp Zerbe, a new jet hanger at the county airport and a new government services website, providing the public with easier and improved access to our staff and services.
In addition, we have enhanced our efforts to work closer and more cooperatively with our local government partners. This has resulted in significant savings to most of those involved. Most notably, by working together to secure pharmaceutical services, the county alone saved over $1 million dollars. Bringing some services, legal and other, in-house helped bring another $1/2 million in savings.
One of the local partners I would like to touch on is the Oswego County Land Bank. Formed by this body in 2016, the Land Bank was created to deal with blighted, vacant and abandoned properties throughout the county. These properties were not generating tax revenue and were dragging communities, and the tax values of neighboring properties, down. After final approval from the State of NY, the Land Bank began its mission in 2017 and since then has worked to strategically address properties throughout the county and, through demolition or rehabilitation putting them back on the tax rolls, increasing the value of surrounding properties and neighborhoods.
Since 2017, the Land Bank has returned $1.5 million dollars in property value to the tax rolls and the number continues to rise. Twenty-two structures have been demolished, 25 have been completely rehabilitated while 15 more are currently in various stages of rehabilitation. Over the course of these first few years, a strong partnership has developed between the Land Bank, this Legislature, the cities of Fulton and Oswego, most of our towns and villages and even some of our local banks. When coupled with the good work done by the Block Builders in Fulton and the Renaissance Association in Oswego, Land Bank projects are helping to encourage neighborhood pride and investment, not just in our two cities but in communities throughout the county.
While not specifically a County project, our many years of partnerships with the NYS DEC helped to encourage that agency to acquire the former elementary school in the Village of Cleveland for conversion into a new training academy. A project, when coupled with their plans to repair and rebuild the historic Cleveland dock on Oneida Lake, will surely have some significant economic impact in our eastern most village.
And finally, we can’t overlook the partnerships we have developed under the NYS shared services program. Our current shared services plan, developed by town supervisors, city and village mayors and under the leadership of County Administrator Phil Church, projects potential annual savings of more than $1.9 million across our various municipalities. A clear demonstration that coming out of our individual silos and working together we can continue, as a team, to make Oswego County a better place.
Looking forward, we have several initiatives on the horizon. Infrastructure improvements at a few of our facilities will provide greater access for our customers, funding from New York State will allow us to stabilize the bluff at our Camp Hollis facility protecting that asset from the ravages of wind and higher water on Lake Ontario for many years to come. We are also moving forward with mandated renovations at our Public Safety Center to comply with the State Court systems space demands. The transition of Oswego Health’s Behavioral Services unit out of our Bunner Street facility into their own site will allow us to address overcrowding at some of our other offices. 2020 will also include the finishing work on our new records center. While the outside may look complete, a facility like this has many unique requirements for the safe and proper maintenance of our records so some special interior work still remains.
We will also propose today to award the bid for the construction of a new sewer line that will connect the county airport and the adjacent industrial park to the City of Fulton’s collection and treatment system. A project that has been 10 years in the making.
2020 marks the start of a new national census count and we will be coordinating a very comprehensive effort to ensure that we are fully counted. Data from the 2010 effort seems to indicate that we have areas in the county that may have been undercounted by as much as 25%. This means that potentially we could have lost out on millions of dollars in federal aid for various programs. We hope you and others will help us spread the word on how important this effort is.
Other initiatives that continue to advance include our third year in the multi-year process of a four-county effort to have a portion of Lake Ontario designated as a National Marine Sanctuary. This process, if approved can have a tremendous economic impact on our region while helping to further protect our vast underwater historic resources. Also, regarding historic resources, we are more than halfway through another effort that is analyzing the possibility of designating the Fort Ontario Military Reservation, including the Safe Haven museum, as a national historic site or even perhaps a national park. Tourism, as you know, supports a major part of our small business community and these initiatives, if approved, could result in thousands more visitors to Oswego County and the Lake Ontario region.
In the interest of time and a departure from recent State of the County messages, I am not going to detail for you today all of the amazing things that our staff does as they carry-out their day-to-day activities but suffice it to say that, with a greater shared vision for our goals, coupled with enhanced communication between and among our leadership team, our department heads and our front line staff, your county government is operating more efficiently and effectively than ever before.
On behalf of this Legislature, I would like to thank our County Employees and Department Heads for a job well-done. I assure you all that we know how hard you work and appreciate your dedication to your job and the people of this County.
Our opportunities are plentiful and our challenges abundant, but I leave this podium today confident in the ability of this Legislature, our Employees, and our Department Heads. I am confident that together we can accomplish our task of providing the people of Oswego County with an efficient, friendly and effective government. And I am confident that we can accept and adopt the positive energy needed to find creative and progressive solutions to the issues that come before us. Solutions that will help us make Oswego County a better place to live, work and raise a family.
I thank you all for this opportunity and the honor to serve as your chairman and I look forward to a productive future for us all.