This is a guest blog post. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the blog’s author. Members of the community are encouraged to submit guest blog posts in order to help identify issues and discover solutions to matters affecting Chemung County.
This post was contributed by Jim Waters, Elmira City Councilmember for the 1st District who retired after serving as Chief of the Elmira Police Department.
Yesterday the Elmira Star Gazette published a story describing a group, called the “Commitee for Elmira”, that I helped create for the purpose encouraging dialog between the city and the county. In it, the Star Gazette referenced a statement the committee shared with the paper, but it did not publish the statement. The purpose of this guest blog is to share the statement, and the issues it identifies, with the public.
By way of background, the statement from the Committee for Elmira was sent to the Star-Gazette two months ago; it was not in response to the city’s announcement to the 17% tax increase. I have read the responses and critiques to the Star-Gazette article and subsequent blogs with interest. The various point-of-views, extreme or not, have value worth consideration. It is encouraging to see that people care, are willing to offer suggestions, and take part in the solution process.
The purpose of the statement is a simple one, to get the two entities (City/County) engaged in conversations that best serve the people they represent. It remains to be seen if that purpose will be served. I am encouraged to see responses from both the County and City Administration to the Star-Gazette article. I am also heartened to see comments on social media from Mike Krusen, Deputy County Executive, expressing an interest in having a positive conversation with the City Administration. It isn’t easy opening yourself up to what can be intense criticism via social media, so I respect his willingness to be open.
There will be an opportunity at the end of January or beginning of February for a meeting that could have great significance for the County and City. The players simply need to come to the table looking ahead rather than behind. We must stop thinking we are playing a tennis match where one player must beat the other. Instead we need to subscribe to the notion we are playing a game of solitaire where there is only one player whose purpose is to win.
I believe it is important to see the entire statement from the Committee for Elmira and not just portions that can be misinterpreted and taken out of context. For that reason, I’d like to share what we came up with; please see below.
Committee For Elmira – Statement
The Committee For Elmira was formed with a dual purpose: to advocate for the taxpayers of Elmira and to provide support to the management of the city by identifying 2-3 top priorities, finding solutions, recommending employee responsibility for the task, and suggesting a proposed plan to resolve the issue. The committee is non-partisan, being comprised of members who share one simple commonality: a passion for a better Elmira. The group includes several retired city employees, business owners, a developer, a former city council member and a current city representative from the county legislature all with decades of community service.
Over the past 9 months the committee has met once or twice each month for several hours. During some of those brainstorming sessions, several community officials have been invited to participate, including the Mayor, City Manager, a Councilmember, Director of Community Development, Director of Code Enforcement and other resources outside of Elmira city government, such as City Planning and Economic Development Directors from other successful municipalities. Several topics were discussed and recommendations made; such as the possible creation of a city planner position in the future. Also discussed is the importance of a city representative being appointed to the IDA Board of Directors. There is currently a vacancy on the board previously held by the former City Manager but no offer has been made to the present city administration.
At our last meeting the committee recognized one detrimental issue that continued to come up during each of our discussions: the contentious relationship between the County of Chemung and the City of Elmira. The tumultuous relationship between the two entities has been evident both publicly and privately over the past several years, which begs the question of “Why?” Common sense would tell us a respectful, open relationship would better serve the purposes and interests of both, yes? The purpose of this communication is to make recommendations to both and is not intended to lay blame.
The Committee For Elmira recognizes the importance of a positive, forward-thinking relationship between the County and the City. What is missing between the two is a trusted dialogue with open communication where motives are clear and proposals are detailed. We recognize being a government official can wear on patience but patience is exactly what is needed! Often the two entities are reacting to each other rather than adopting a proactive approach; both need to recognize they are not on different sides but on the same, working toward the common goal of attracting jobs, growth, and sustainable economic vitality. None of these goals will be achieved without developing that relationship.
Most cities and counties in the country are struggling financially; Elmira/Chemung isn’t singular in that regard. Often the answer to the fiscal issues is to systematically get more money from the taxpayer by increasing fees and taxes. Aside from being the worst solution (and certainly not the most popular) it should be the last option, not the first. Rather the city and county should look for methods to run cost-effective government. Is that by combining services? Probably but not certainly! This committee has not studied whether shared services is the answer; no one has, to our knowledge. Have there been groups assigned to examine the best and most effective solutions for developing shared services and which ones should be shared? For example, has a group or committee been established to assess a county-wide police department and if doing so is cost effective enough to justify the change? Is it more efficient? Would it provide the same level of service or better? Would doing so save taxpayer dollars rather than increase costs? Or have no impact? Or be better for the employees? This committee does not have those answers but believe there are people who can easily do so; and should. Who and how? Representatives of the very people impacted by a consolidation: the department heads, city/town, village leaders, business leaders, and most importantly, the employees. A working group with delegates from each segment should be established to look at the feasibility of shared services. If it can be done, they should be the people providing the direction. There is no need to waste dollars on studies from outside groups; this would never be viewed as objective and would only serve to build mistrust and skepticism. Moreover, there must be involvement and input from the people who are affected by these changes for said changes to occur. This is the only way to eliminate suspicion and ensure the interests and concerns of all are equally weighed. We urge the city and county to focus on these issues, assign personnel to be responsible for getting things done and set a completion date with follow up to insure a conclusion.
Additionally, we strongly encourage the county and the city to make plans for regular, scheduled meetings to hash out any differences and develop clear strategies for problem-solving, rather than stoop to name-calling and reactive tactics. There will be times of varied opinions and discourse but surely less so if both sides communicate their intentions, motives, plans, and their purposes with the taxpayers and employees in mind. The city and country have the same goals – the best way to achieve them goal is together.
Jim Waters, City Councilmember, 1st District with:
Mayor Dan Mandell, County Legislator Marty Chalk, retired city Public Works Commissioner Charlie Shaffer, retired Elmira Police Chief Scott Drake, retired Fire Chief Pat Bermingham, former City Council member Dan Royle and Marc Monichetti, owner of the Elmira Fitness Center.