Looking Ahead To 2019 In Chemung County

Last year on New Year’s Day I published a blog post entitled “Key Fiscal Issues in 2018”, found here. The issues – what to do with the First Arena, Sales Tax distribution, the fiscal health of Chemung County and the City of Elmira, the impact of state and local law on our economy, and the potential for significant change in local leadership – proved to be important matters in 2018, most of which will continue to demand our attention until they are resolved.

The New Year’s post this year is somewhat different. Having been entrusted by the residents of Chemung County’s 7th Legislative District to try to help address the issues listed above along with a host of others, I have shifted the focus of my 2019 New Year’s post away from a simple commentary about the issues into an action plan where possible. Is the list below complete? Not even close, but it presents a few workable, practical ways to begin dealing with some of our community’s very serious problems.

As always, everyone is encouraged to provide feedback and ideas directly on the bottom of post, through the Chemung County Matters’ Facebook page, or by emailing me directly at csonsire@co.chemungcountyny.gov.

CONTINUED ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

Large-scale economic development projects across Chemung County have been visible over the past few years, and the announcement that LECOM will break ground soon on a new building to house its medical school in downtown Elmira is great news. This positive momentum needs to continue.

However, the statistics surrounding local private-sector job growth remain a source of significant concern. A new report published on December 20, 2018 by the Empire Center, a fiscally conservative think-tank based in Albany, compares our community to the rest of New York, revealing that we have not yet turned the corner on job losses even though other upstate areas aside from Binghamton are beginning to grow.

The Empire Center report is found here, and an article in Rochester’s Democrat & Chronicle describing its findings is found here.

Of note, the chart above shows nearby Ithaca had the greatest gains in private-sector jobs in all of New York in 2018, adding 1,900 jobs and nearly tripling the state’s average. As those pesky Extreme Ithaca Liberals appear to be doing a great job in terms of economic development, we all should seek out ways to work with leaders from Ithaca and Tompkins County so we can learn from their examples.

What other steps can we take?

A place to start may lie with Chemung County’s Industrial Development Agency (CCIDA). Unlike many counties, CCIDA does not have paid staff, instead contracting with Southern Tier Economic Growth (STEG), a for-profit corporation, to provide its administrative services. In addition, several members of the CCIDA Board are also members of the board of STEG.

This arrangement was questioned in a 2015 report by New York’s Authorities Budget Office (ABO), found here on page 17:

The composition of the IDA board presents potential conflicts of interest that are not being properly disclosed by board members. The IDA board of directors is comprised of seven members appointed by the Chemung County Legislature. Four of the current members (Santulli, Draxler, Hosey and Quick) are also members of the STEG board of directors. Proper disclosure or recusal is needed when these IDA board members are voting on matters that affect any business conducted between STEG and the IDA. A review of the IDA’s 2013 board minutes found that STEG’s current contract with the IDA was renewed with two of these members present. Meeting minutes did not indicate that the two board members recused themselves from the discussion or disclosed their relationship with STEG. Further, three IDA board members were absent from this meeting and the affirmative vote of the two conflicted board members was essential to approving the contract. Had these board members properly recused themselves from any discussion or action on the contract’s renewal, the board would not have had the quorum needed to conduct official business and could not have voted to approve the contract extension.

The IDA responded that it will confer with its legal counsel to evaluate whether serving on both boards creates a prohibited conflict of interest. This response is disheartening. As indicated, the IDA contracts with STEG to administer the IDA, and any prudent person would view an IDA board member also serving on the board of STEG as presenting a potential conflict of interest.

In addition, we determined that 20 members of the 71-member STEG board are executives or owners of companies that receive or have received financial assistance from the IDA. As discussed in this report, the IDA board routinely accepts all applications submitted, and appears to provide little to no oversight or guidance regarding project selection, review and approval. As a result, there is the appearance that STEG officials are processing and submitting projects submitted by STEG board members for IDA financial assistance with minimal if any independent review and oversight by the IDA board. The IDA responded that STEG’s board of directors does not make any determinations as to who is eligible to receive IDA assistance. This position ignores the fact that STEG’s president, who serves as the IDA’s chief executive officer is making those determinations and presenting recommendations to the IDA board, concerning projects that are related to the companies of STEG’s board members.

Finding ways to separate the functions of CCIDA and STEG makes a lot of sense. Whether this requires a wholesale restructuring of the way the two entities work together is ultimately a question for incoming County Executive Chris Moss. However, the Legislature has oversight as to who is appointed to the CCIDA Board as well as what level of funding is provided to STEG. As these are matters that will likely come before the Legislature early in 2019, feedback from community members who have dealt directly with or served on the board of either entity would be most appreciated by me and other members of the Legislature.

ESTABLISH A COUNCIL OF GOVERNMENTS

The idea of reestablishing a Council of Governments (COG) was something I promoted heavily throughout last year’s campaign. Described in detail in a bog post from last April found here, a COG is a vehicle for bringing community leaders to the table to talk about issues and, hopefully, find solutions that are beneficial for our community. When leaders sit face to face with each other and are forced to interact, many issues can be avoided and new solutions are discovered. Additional links to what I have written on this topic can be found here and here.

Many nearby communities have COGs. The purpose of Schuyler County’s council is to “provide a forum for discussion and negotiation leading to agreements for increased efficiency, fiscal responsibility, and improved quality of government services”, and the Tompkins County’s council is “organized to provide a forum for discussion and negotiation leading to agreements for more efficient and fiscally responsible delivery of government services). Simply clicking through the websites from Schuyler and Tompkins County shows how valuable an organization can be. Neither of these COGs seek to control how municipalities or other political entities do business, but instead provide a forum for leaders to work together for the common good of their constituents.

Additionally, Tompkins County launched a Council of Government Training Academy in 2018 in order to save cost and make local government more efficient by training all government officials in the same way. A link to the program is found here.

There is no question that a significant change in county leadership will bring with it significant changes for all of our local communities. Having a COG will give municipal leaders opportunities to work together in order to find ways to help each other. There is simply no downside.

CONDUCT IN-DEPTH STUDIES

We all recognize that our area, like nearly all other communities in upstate New York, has significant problems.

As many people pointed out during last year’s elections, the Legislature does not need to be a purely reactive body. Chemung County’s Charter gives the Legislature the power to undertake in-depth studies, including the establishment of temporary advisory boards of citizens to provide expert information.

Specifically, the Charter says the Legislature has the power:

I propose the fifteen legislators be assembled into five three-person groups, and that each group is charged with conducting an in-depth study followed by a public presentation of its findings and recommendations. The studies would be of little to no cost, relying instead on the hard work and commitment of legislators and appointed citizen advisors to drill down deeply on the problems in order to help discover solutions.

The broad issue areas could be (1) crime; (2) poverty; (3) job growth; (4) environmental concerns; and (5) municipal relations, though there may be others more suitable and/or of greater importance.

Like the motivation underlying the creation of a COG, a reason to undertake these studies to help get a handle on what the many service and non-profit agencies are already doing to address these issues, and find ways we can all work together to be more effective and efficient.

UNTANGLE THE ARENA

Image: Star Gazette

It’s a good thing that hockey has returned to First Arena, but it continues to come with a significant public cost.

The CCIDA owns the Arena, and leases it to Robbie Nichols for $125/month along with an investment by CCIDA of $200,000 for capital improvements and the first $100,000 of utility expenses. This is in addition to the 25-year commitment of $103,000/year of Chemung County room tax money to pay off an Arena loan, described here, and a $500,000 note held by Southern Tier Regional Economic Growth (STREDC) that forms the basis of a lawsuit brought by former Arena owner Tom Freeman against outgoing Deputy County Executive Mike Krusen. A copy of the complaint is found here.

Municipal and economic development leaders must make the discovery of a viable, long-term solution to this matter a top priority for 2019.

WORK WITH THE CITY OF ELMIRA

Although there is no easy fix for the financial situation in the City of Elmira, one thing is clear: we need to start by putting everything on the table in a transparent and public way so that everyone understands what is at stake and what the viable options are going forward.

A primary problem under the past administration was a breakdown in trust between City and County officials. We have the chance for a fresh start – and we must take full advantage of it.

GO GREEN TO HELP BUSINESS AND THE EARTH

Green energy initiatives are often associated with tree-hugging hippies, but the fact is they can help grow business, create jobs and save taxpayer dollars.

An easy step toward promoting green energy in Chemung County is by participating in Energize New York’s Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE)  finance program. PACE financing is made available to eligible Property Owners in order to provide attractive financing for property improvements that lower energy consumption.

However, a municipality must opt to participate in the program before residents and commercial property owners can take advantage of the benefits. As shown on the map below, Chemung County has not begun the process of becoming a member.

Tompkins County, on the other hand, became a PACE partner in 2016 and has found the program to be very advantageous.

At least one local government (the Town of Elmira) has taken some action with Energize New York at the urging of Mothers Out Front, a leading environmental group in Chemung County, as described here. However, a programs like PACE is an easy way to help business grow while protecting the earth – a win-win for everyone.

MAKE THE LEGISLATURE MORE ACCESSIBLE

Finally, there are things the Legislature itself can do to improve the way it functions. Compared with some of the complex matters above, these are relatively quick, easy improvements that will help bring about the kind of accountability and transparency our community clearly wants from local government.

  • Livestream and/or record & post all meetings. There is no reason to decide against this. Technology has improved such that there is very little cost involved. Allowing interested members of the public to watch meetings from home or navigate through recordings to find exactly what was said will pay dividends toward openness and accessibility.
  • Permit legislators to speak with Chemung County Department Heads. For reasons still unclear to me, legislators have been restricted from speaking directly to department heads for the past few years. Instead, all communications needed to go through the Legislative Chairperson, a process that is unduly burdensome and time consuming. Incoming County Executive Moss has indicated he wishes this practice to end, something I intend to promote as well.
  • Term Limits. The Town of Big Flats officially got this issue moving last month, indicating a desire for elected municipal leaders to have term limits. The issue was discussed widely during last year’s election and it seems there is overwhelming support for them to apply to the County Executive and Legislators. This matter will likely require a public referendum as it invokes a change to our charter – so stay tuned!

There is no question 2019 will be an interesting year in Chemung County. I believe it will also be a prosperous and positive year. We have a unique opportunity to move our community forward. Let’s all go out and get after it!

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