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McNall Stresses Value of Cooperative Efforts in State of County - Urges Cross-Agency, Intermunicipal Partnerships in Formulating Policy

Author: Christian Peck/Thursday, January 18, 2018/Categories: General, Legislature

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LOCKPORT—In his first major speech since being reelected to a new term as head of Niagara County’s government, Legislature Chairman Wm. Keith McNall, R-Lockport, will deliver his annual State of the County address at the Niagara County Courthouse tonight.

The prepared text of that speech follows:

Vice Chairman Burmaster, Leader Bradt, Leader Virtuoso.

Sheriff Voutour, District Attorney Wojtaszek, Mr. Jastrzemski, Mr. Andrews.

My fellow Legislators.

Neighbors, taxpayers, concerned citizens.

Tonight marks the third time I have addressed this Legislature about the State of the County.  Let me begin by saying: Niagara County is continuing on a resolute and responsible path, and our county is strong.

Two weeks ago, when this government was sworn in, I noted to all in this chamber that the voting public in our county had seen fit to return all 15 members to this Chamber.  I take that as a strong indicator of the public’s sense of the direction of this government.  There is no more reliable barometer of the public sentiment than the outcome of an election, and here, they are able, every two years, to contemplate hiring entirely different leadership for their government if they believe we are not taking the county where it needs to go. 

Last November’s election reaffirms that the policies of this government have been good policies for the taxpayers, good policies for families, good policies for job creators, and good policies for Niagara County’s future.

Let me begin by congratulating County Manager Updegrove, and Budget Director Huntington, on another successful budget.

The 2017 budget was a strong spending and taxing plan that cut property tax rates to historic lows not seen this century.  Mr. Updegrove and Mr. Huntington, though, showed that they could outdo that performance this year when they gave this Legislature a budget blueprint that allowed us to cut taxes to their lowest level since at least 1980. The last time property tax rates were this low in Niagara County, the U.S. hockey team was getting ready to take on the Soviets at Lake Placid. That is historic. Rick, Dan, well done.

Now, I will set a firm challenge for them in a 2018 where revenues and cost centers may be affected by decisions of the state government.  Let us not lose ground in this budget. While so much of our spending is driven by unfunded mandates from Albany, I still expect our Office of Management and Budget to deliver a spending plan that, if it must increase, increases less than the rate of inflation, and keeps taxes in check. Our taxpayers deserve a county government that values their hard-won earnings, their sweat and toil, as much as they do.

The 2018 budget sets a strong blueprint across the board for this government, though, and it is not merely on Mr. Updegrove’s shoulders, or Mr. Huntington and his staff’s, to innovate, to cut spending where possible, to improve processes and bolster efficiencies.  It is to every single department head that I say: use our year-long budget planning process to cut wherever there is waste.  Be as frugal with the taxpayers’ dollars as you would with your own family budgets.

Of course, the entire point of having a budget, of making these decisions, is so that we might provide for the needs of our county residents that they cannot meet themselves.

Last spring, when Lake Ontario flooded—the result of a perfect storm born of a wet spring and extremely bad decisions by the International Joint Commission, placing extreme environmental priorities ahead of the sanctity of lakeshore homeowners’ properties. 

Despite this, I must commend our county’s response.  Mr. Schultz, in particular, deserves praise.  Jonathan lost his entire spring, I think, to organizing the sandbagging of our Lake Ontario shore, and he deserves the applause of this body tonight.  Of course, Mr. Schultz wasn’t alone.  I know Legislator Syracuse, Legislator Godfrey, and Vice Chairman Burmaster devoted considerable hours to this issue.  And, I know our Public Information Officer practically moved into Legislator Syracuse’s house back at the end of April.  Our state delegation, too, devoted considerable time to that crisis.  I know Senator Ortt was regularly in contact with us, and that my neighbor, Assemblyman Norris, seemed to spend every day he wasn’t in Albany touring places like Olcott to inspect the latest damage.

We took the right steps.  Mr. Schultz, your guidance here was critical.  We succeeded in, through the declaration of a State of Emergency, prompting similar designations by the state and federal governments.  We were able to see that federal and state dollars were secured to help our lakeshore businesses and homeowners rebuild—and I know Mr. Peck made aggressive media outreach here a major part of our overall lakeshore recovery strategy, and it paid off as state and federal leaders saw the impact of that crisis firsthand.  Also, it bears noting that the Department of Environmental Conservation, in particular, should be commended for putting our people along the lakeshore first.

The same cannot be said of the IJC, and this government renews its call on President Trump to nominate new U.S. commissioners, so that the disastrous Plan 2014 can be replaced with reasonable maintenance of our lake levels that protects our homeowners, our charter captains, our marinas.

And Mr. Schultz: please continue to prepare.  When we discussed your goals for 2018, I know you listed planning for potential Lake Ontario flooding with your counterparts in other counties and at the state as your first priority.  You also spoke of pre-staging equipment for a faster response. This is the right attitude. I encourage you to follow that course—and I think every member of this Legislature hopes that it proves time spent needlessly this year. But, if it proves a necessity again, you have our confidence.

While 2017 got off to a rocky start, it became a very good year in Niagara County.  There is much reason for optimism in 2018, but running a tight ship is still the bedrock principle of effective, successful governments.

This can be a great year in our county, and this is because we should participate in the national story.  Over the weekend, I watched CNBC. They have increased their GDP forecast for 2018. For one thing, for the first time since 2005, the U.S. has enjoyed three consecutive quarters of GDP growth above 3 percent.  Commissioner Ferraro, it is this government’s firm directive to you: seize this moment, where our nation is enjoying strong economic growth, and make sure our county is participating.  It is our expectation, here in the Legislature, that the Center for Economic Development utilize its resources to help businesses locate here in 2018, to help existing businesses grow their payrolls and invest in new plant and equipment.

The Center for Economic Development is off to a strong start.  First, let me just make an observation.  How many of you in this room tonight know that Sam has spent 27 years with this county and four decades in the economic development field?  We are fortunate to have his experience. I know we often celebrate “new blood” and “new ideas” in government, but it bears noting that, in Sam Ferraro, we have one of the best resources possible for making economic development decisions with the benefit of long-term perspective.

In that spirit, I asked Mr. Ferraro what he felt he and his team had accomplished.  Here’s part of what he told me—and this is a direct quote: “In terms of a big accomplishment there is nothing bigger than selling all the land here at Vantage Industrial Park. Keep in mind this park was costing Niagara County $1,000 a day in special district taxes with absolutely no revenue on 160 acres of land. Fast forward to today and…you will find as a result of county efforts we have created over 500 new jobs and created a new revenue stream as a result of PILOT payments. For 2017 this park is generating $287,116 in new taxes to the school district and Niagara County; Niagara County's portion is $62,754. Keep in mind these payments will continue to increase until the final PILOT year and then be on the tax rolls 100%. Also the job numbers will continue to grow as the companies add more jobs.” 

That’s what Sam told me.  As I said, Sam Ferraro offers long-term perspective and the long view, something that is an asset in making government policy.

Sam tells me that in 2017, the Center for Economic Development contacted 75 local companies and held 54 meetings with local companies focusing on their long-term economic development plans, focusing on retaining and adding jobs, focusing on making our regional economy stronger.

Three of those companies, according to Sam, have initiated projects that will result in $39.9 million in capital investment—and the creation or retention of 1,440 jobs. And another company is considering a $40 million expansion by itself—and the creation of 14 new jobs with 87 more jobs retained.  Sam, you’re doing well—let’s deliver those outcomes.

To do that, Sam, I’m charging you and Mr. Jablonski with forging a stronger bond between your agencies.  Mr. Jablonski, it should be noted, has done masterful work since taking over the Department of Employment & Training. Last year alone, his agency placed 352 individuals in private-sector jobs. These 352 individuals again know the dignity of work, of earning a paycheck.  And many of those individuals are providing for their families. I should note that Mr. Jablonski has taken a “whole county” approach to his agency’s mission, expanding his Niagara Falls-based job fairs to Lockport last year. In fact, I was even fortunate enough to visit this job fair.  I saw the county residents coming in, hoping to make a change in their lives—and the businessmen and women trying to make their companies stronger by hiring good, ready workers with the right training and experience. Don, Sam, it seems to me your agencies have much to offer each other going forward, and I’d encourage new initiatives born of that fact, as the national economy surges.

Of course, I would further challenge Mr. Ferraro to always remain cognizant of what makes Niagara County a unique and welcoming place to do business, so we can continue to foster a climate that creates jobs.  Our low-cost power has been a strong incentive, and must remain so. Equally, our closeness to the Canadian border cannot be understated in its importance. We saw this with Borderworx buying that last great parcel in our county industrial park in Sanborn.  We see it, too, in your Canadian marketing program.  In 2017, 3,090 Canadian companies were contacted through traditional mail and social media efforts—with staff ultimately meeting with 63 companies to discuss U.S. expansion.  Our Foreign Trade Zone—particularly in this era of NAFTA renegotiation—served as a strong inducement for those companies to listen to what we had to say!

In 2018, our Economic Development strategy must remain bold.  Chairwoman Lance has developed a strong platform leading this committee, and I know you have sought to implement her vision at every turn, Sam. In 2018, we must continue our business retention efforts even as the economy expands—and maybe in part because an expanding economy may incentivize some of our companies to consider leaving for bigger markets.  We must continue our Canadian and foreign outreach.  We must continue to improve our environment, and I would charge you and Ms. Fisk with a renewed emphasis on our Brownfields programs.  I would further encourage that our new land bank take the steps necessary to become fully operational and start producing dividends: coupled with Brownfields redevelopment, this is a powerful tool.

Lastly, I would encourage you to develop and market the Cambria Technology Park and the proposed fiber-optic network to interconnect sites at the Niagara Falls International Airport. It is time to initiate these projects, including the installation of infrastructure, and expand economic development in the center of our county.

As we speak of infrastructure, I wish to discuss a few other items.

First, our Public Works and Buildings and Grounds teams.  Mr. Gaston and Mr. Meal have advised me that they are confident, based on the results of a recently-completed energy audit conducted by Danforth, that they can undertake a large-scale capital project resulting in $6 million in upgrades to virtually every county building, and that this should produce substantial savings in cost through new light fixtures, new HVAC systems, new windows, and the like. They further point to NYPA relicensing fees as a significant source of funding for this.

This is worthy of exploration.  Mr. Gaston and Mr. Meal both assure me that this approach does not “create” new projects so much as devise a plan for addressing pressing priorities and needs. The entire plan should be “budget neutral”—that is, the savings produced should pay for the investment.

I am directing Mr. Huntington and the Office of Management and Budget to review this proposal, and, if it can indeed be accomplished in a budget-neutral manner, that this Legislature take up contractual legislation and our Buildings and Grounds personnel initiate this project before summer if possible.

Mr. Meal, I am further directing you to devise, and release early, an aggressive road repairs plan. This winter has been tough so far. No doubt you will have to make some decisions in this spring. I know that you, and Mr. Lapp in the Highway Department, were integral to lakeshore rebuilding last spring and summer and unable to address road repairs as aggressively as you would under normal circumstances. This year, I ask that you redouble your efforts in this regard, and target, first, those roads damaged by this bitter winter.

I also am asking you to work closely with Director Bieber at the Water District. She shared with me her 2018 plans, and I know that among other items is the completion of the 36-inch water line on Lockport Road. I would urge that we be cognizant of the Water District’s expanded plans in the year, and years, ahead as we schedule our road repairs.

I will address these comments to the Water District itself. This Legislature has given you the tools to provide good quality service to our residents, including supporting your new rate schedule. I am aware that you are looking to update two interconnections with the City of Niagara Falls to help provide water in the event of emergencies or repairs.  The past year has shown us that the Niagara Falls Water District is reacting to any number of challenges, much of it related to aging infrastructure. The Niagara County Water District has always enjoyed a well-earned reputation as a well-run agency with good infrastructure. Given that the water issues in Niagara Falls have now impacted our county government buildings in that city, assisting the Niagara Falls Water Board must be a priority for you: the Niagara Falls water system directly impacts the performance of county government operations. I expect that you investigate these options and report back to me in the spring on how you will proceed. I know my friend Minority Leader Virtuoso will be pleased by increased cooperation between the county and city here as well.

In the same spirit, I will urge Ms. Timm and the Refuse District to continue their strong interaction with our local municipalities—and thank you, Dawn, for your active work over the past year to assist the City of North Tonawanda’s Forbes Terrace residents addressing concerns linked to the Niagara Sanitary Landfill. While this is, ultimately, a municipal issue for North Tonawanda and Wheatfield to resolve, thanks to Ms. Timm’s leadership here, residents impacted by this site have had a capable and aggressive advocate working closely with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. We need more intermunicipal cooperation like that in coming years.

Of course, government infrastructure entails much more than buildings and roads and pipelines. Mr. Flynn and the Information Technology staff have had a busy few months launching our telephone upgrades, and installing more than 800 lines.  I will say that I have mixed feelings; I knew how to use the old telephone just fine, Bill, and this new one sure has a lot of gee-whiz features.  However, many of our employees seem happy with the new system as it comes online.

That being said, it is new technology, and I expect that in the year ahead you will take the opportunity to train our employees on its use, and maximizing the benefit from new features.

I also am aware that you are migrating the GIS tax mapping database to in-house servers to produce an annual savings of $25,000.  While a small figure in terms of a $300 million budget, this is the kind of attitude we need: finding cost savings wherever they exist and implementing them. I would strongly encourage you to implement a new Document Management system in the year ahead as well, with an eye toward boosting efficiencies.

In the same vein, I wish to commend Commissioner of Social Services Tony Restaino. Tony is charged with operating the largest agency in our government, and is always looking at bold initiatives to cut costs. This past October, he finished implementing an “Optical Imaging System.”  Basically, Commissioner Restaino is eliminating needless printing, needless paperwork, and saving a very basic cost of government.  In an agency the size of his, this is not insignificant.  I know he wants to purchase mobile tablets for caseworkers in 2018, to accomplish similar efficiencies. Tony, you have my full endorsement to proceed with that plan.

Lastly, there is the area of human services.

I will again commend the work of Legislator Wydysh and the OASIS committee in combatting the opioid epidemic.  Mental Health Director Laura Kelemen’s strong leadership there, as well, is noteworthy.  Mrs. Kelemen is to be commended, in particular, for her decision to apply for licensure to provide fully integrated care spanning mental health, substance abuse, and primary care services at both our Lockport and Niagara Falls mental health offices—and her success in treating more than 1,200 county residents.

I reviewed Mrs. Kelemen’s accomplishments for 2017 and her goals for 2018, and honestly, much of it reads as if it is ripped from the headlines. You can see the impact of the opioid and substance abuse issues across our mental health systems. I’ve heard your crisis line radio ads.  I know you’ve worked so closely with Legislator Wydysh, Legislator Steed, Majority Leader Bradt, the Sheriff, the DA, and so many of my colleagues to address this crisis. Laura, you’re doing great work on this issue.  Keep it up.

In 2018, I hope sincerely you will develop an aggressive plan to expand the availability of home and community-based behavioral health services—and to see that third party payers cover as much of the cost of these services as possible. I also hope you work closely with the New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services to expand our response to the opioid crisis, including adding additional Narcan training for our local first responders.

Also, I am pleased you are working in conjunction with the Office for the Aging and the Northpointe Council to implement the Partnership for Health Aging Program.  As we address mental health and substance abuse issues, our senior community cannot be forgotten, as they are vulnerable here too.

Mr. Genewick, of course, I’ve known for many years, and I’m glad to see him linking arms with you on this. I enjoyed it immensely that, in communicating with both of you about your accomplishments and goals, you both listed this program in your top three.  That is telling, and it is a good lesson in the value of our county government agencies not acting parochially, but instead working side by side to produce better outcomes for our citizens. I hope at 2018’s close, I hear of more cross-department cooperation to address our population’s needs.

Of course, no population is as vulnerable and in need as our youth.  I am pleased to see Director of Public Health Dan Stapleton addressing the needs of at-risk infants and toddlers so well—100 percent of referrals to the Department of Public Health’s Early Intervention Program had Individualized Family Service Plans adopted within 45 days.  I commend you for that result.

Mr. Stapleton, I would, in 2018, urge you to formalize your department’s fiscal audit policy and procedures, however. We must have a good accounting of where our public funds are spent.

Of course, I hope our government continues to make that a priority everywhere.  I know Mr. Lopes has worked to ratify and implement strong, well-written employment contracts with our labor unions—including the Teamsters, which we ratified in 2017, meaning we produced contracts with all six of our bargaining units. Mr. Lopes also spent much of 2017 developing and implementing a Title VI compliance policy for the county—something that impacts so many of our contracts. And he worked to successfully respond to and close out significant employment litigation matters in concert with our County Attorney’s office.  Claude Joerg and Peter Lopes understand that government’s cost is easily increased by lawsuits that are ill-defended.

But lawsuits do happen, and no defense can protect us from suits where we are, in fact, culpable. Given the wide-ranging challenges impacting the broader culture, and the need to ensure our employees are all treated with dignity and respect, I would challenge Mr. Lopes to develop and implement—soon!—training to address these pressing issues of employee conduct.  Our employees deserve to come to a safe work environment; as government leaders, it is our responsibility to ensure our department heads and our staffs react appropriately to concerns raised about employee conduct.

Peter, I know you are updating the Niagara County Employee Policy and Procedure Manual almost a decade after its first adoption by this Legislature.  I would encourage you to take the opportunity to make it a strong, comprehensive guideline for our workforce.

Also, I do want to address a bit of good news.  Ms. Pitarresi in Risk Management succeeded in following my guidance to implement EGWIP last year.  In the first three quarters of that year, we realized $670,000 in savings, and she is projecting approximately $200,000 for the last quarter.  In 2018, we should again realize at least $800,000 in savings.  Well done.

Our government is doing the right thing to produce good results for our taxpayers.  There are few real home runs in government policy, but a lot of singles—a lesson Sam Ferraro once taught me.  But those singles add up, and eventually turn to runs batted in.  We are seeing those results in our county budget, in our historic low property tax rate.

In 2018, we already have a plan, and it’s a strong one.  I urge all of the department heads here tonight to take the opportunity to ponder 2019.  To make good decisions all year long, so that we can continue to deliver good, effective, efficient government at a cost savings. This government is producing good policy and good results.  I challenge you all to keep it that way.

Lastly, I’d remind every department head who finds making change hard to remember the plaque President Reagan kept on his desk in the Oval Office.  It bore just four words:  IT CAN BE DONE.  Let that be your guidepost going forward, and let’s make a difference for our residents.

Thank you all, good night, and may God continue to bless the County of Niagara.

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