At the March 12 meeting of the Tioga County Legislature, Legislative Chair Martha Sauerbrey gave her annual State of the County Address. Below are her full remarks, which comment on a range of issues from the local workforce to State mandates.
We look forward to this every year. This is an opportunity when I get to deliver the State of the County Address and so today we will begin. The original purpose of county governments was very straightforward. Counties built roads, protected residents and delivered social services programs. Today we do all of those things and more. From public health to public safety, from supporting local industries to delivering state programs, County government is constantly changing because of new influences, new technology and new mandates.
Change is happening across our Country, especially in workforce. The County has seen a significant increase in the number of retirements. The turnover keeps our Personnel Department busy recruiting, hiring and transitioning employees. Fortunately we saw this coming and took action. We developed and implemented a new program called “Institute for Advancement” and 19 of our employees participated in the program throughout last year. That program provided additional information and training to our employees who are striving to become leaders in County government. We will continue that program into 2019 as well.
2018 was an outstanding year for the Veterans’ Services Agency. They expanded their hours of service, developed new partnerships with community based providers, and can now do a better job of serving the mental health and substance abuse needs of our communities. The Tioga Career Center works closely with the Veterans’ Services Agency and for the third consecutive year the Tioga Career Center received the Veterans’ Program Office Award from the New York State Department of Labor for their exemplary service to veterans. Last week the Tioga Career Center held their fifth successful job fair with over 100 businesses participating and all had jobs to offer.
We saw a slight decrease in drug-related deaths compared to 2016 and 2017. The Tioga County Alcohol and Drug Services Department continues to be the primary provider of outpatient drug and alcohol services within the County. They have been on the front lines in dealing with negative impacts of opioid and opioid addictions. Trinity CASA also provides a varied amount of services to individuals and families in Tioga County. Grant funding from Senator Akshar and the Floyd Hooker Foundation has provided additional funding for these needed services.
The Tioga County Allies and Substance Abuse Coalition continues to make good progress and last fall they were awarded a five year drug free communities grant. With support from the Community Services Board and the County Legislature Tioga County has made substance abuse prevention, treatment and recovery service a main focus.
With the change in recent weather patterns the Public Works Department has been repairing roads, creeks and bridges that are affected when there is a serious weather event. They also work with our public safety agencies to ensure the safety of our citizens. Emergency Management, the Sheriff’s Office and Public Works have had their hands full this year dealing with weather issues from flash flooding, ice and snow. Keeping people safe is also a responsibility of the Department of Social Services. Although they saw a decline in financial assistance needs, they experienced a serious spike in hotline calls. The challenges of today’s society along with the abuse of drugs and alcohol is a major cause of concern for the safety and wellbeing of our children.
The Public Health Department provided rabies clinics that inoculated close to 1300 animals this year. The Healthy Neighborhood Program is wrapping up its fifth year of a grant and through that program they provided many home visits to ensure safety from problems with pest management, home pollution and radon concerns. Our aging mobile dental van had a productive year providing several thousand dental services to children and adults throughout the County.
The Law Department worked with Probation and other Departments regarding new New York Raise the Age legislation. Another challenge was addressing Counsel at First Arraignment. It took cooperation of Probation, Sheriff, Public Defender, District Attorney and the New York Office of Court Administration to accomplish this task. Working with the ILS Grant Administrator and the Public
Defender the Law Department secured funding through the New York State Office of Indigent Legal Services and we hired a full time Public Defender early this year. The County Jail will accommodate a centralized arraignment part Court.
The District Attorney created the Traffic Diversion Program last year and took in almost 1500 applications and received close to $400,000 in fees. These fees were shared with the local municipalities where the tickets were originated. Tioga County received $250,000 through the program to offset expenses of operating the program.
Last year I hosted many shared services meetings with our Village Mayors and our Town Supervisors. Shared services is a mandated program by the State to save tax dollars by sharing services. This is something that we have done for years and because of change in technology, we will share services with Towns and Villages for information technology and communication services. Municipalities can elect to have the County’s IT Department manage their computer and technology infrastructure. This not only results in a significant upgrade in services for the entity, but it also reduces costs as much as 30 percent. The first municipalities coming on board are the Town of Owego and the Village of Waverly. Other communities may come on board in the future.
Last year our Tioga County sales tax income increased 16.5 percent from 2017. That is the second highest in the State. Because we share our sales tax with Towns and Villages, municipalities benefited over $6,000,000 in sales tax revenue for 2018. Income from Tioga Downs totaled $1,300,000. Where are we currently spending your tax dollars? $2,300,000 of our tax dollars went to community college tuition, that represents 10 percent of our County tax levy. This mandated program benefited less than 3,000 County residents pursuing higher education. Further State mandates already take up 90 percent of our annual budget and the mandates keep coming.
The cost of State mandates on County and New York City taxpayers is more than $12,000,000,000 for just nine major State programs. That means our local taxpayers send $1,000,000,000 a month to Albany with no funds going back to local needs. This year the Governor is proposing even more mandates on counties in this budget. These new mandates will lead to higher property taxes and they include requiring the County to restore Aid to Municipality funding through County tax dollars, not State tax dollars. An expansive election reform totally at County cost, a 3 percent across the board cut in local assistance if the State revenues estimate falls short, bail reforms that will likely increase costs and require our County to hire more people. We fully expect Albany to implement a mandated permanent tax cap as part of the State budget, however this Legislature will continue to keep taxes low and stay at the 2 percent tax cap, not because of a mandate, but because we want to do the right thing for our taxpayers.
How do we address our financial needs and bring more income to the County, economic development. Economic development brings jobs, people, housing and opportunity. Economic development brings dollars to our community. Our Economic Development Department secured over $13,000,000 in State and Federal grants last year that will benefit the communities of the Village of Owego, Spencer, Nichols, Newark Valley and Waverly. A report from the US Bureau of Economic Analysis states that the Tioga County gross domestic product from the years 2014 to 2015 showed an increase of 10.8 percent, which was the largest percent in the State of New York. Examples of progress and change in our communities is the renovation of Owego Parkview’s historical hotel and the construction of the Gateway building on Front Street. Last August the Village of Owego received a Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant for $10,000,000 thanks to a large part to Team Tioga and our Economic Development Team of individuals. The DRI funding will support downtown revitalization through transformation of housing, economic development and community projects that will attract and retain residents, visitors and businesses.
Last year the Tioga County Property Development Corporation or the Land Bank formally established and they received a $500,000 Community Revitalization award. The goal is to maximize foreclosed properties to their best possible use and develop a Land Bank program that will demolish or rehabilitate properties to go back on the tax rolls. The first round of activity is nine properties have been identified in the Village of Waverly and three in the Village of Owego.
Change is coming to New York in the form of agricultural development. A Federal Farm Act bill was passed in January that legalizes hemp. This has become a viable product for the agricultural market and there seems to be a lot of interest in Tioga County. As soon as Albany figures out the details marijuana will become legal in New York State.
Change will always be with us. There is no question that we have much work to do, especially if we are to reach our full potential, however we should never forget how fortunate we are. Here in Tioga County we will continue to work together to build our foundation where people can live safely, raise their families and enjoy a healthy quality of life. Thank you.