Today’s Star Gazette featured two starkly different visions of Chemung County’s future. Unfortunately, the Star Gazette recently stopped publishing its Opinion page online, meaning that many residents have not had a chance to read them.
One piece, co-authored by me and Tony Pucci, a candidate for legislature in the First District, pushes for transparency and cooperation, particularly when it comes to financial arrangements among Chemung County, the City of Elmira, and the towns and villages. This vision of an open, responsive and cohesive local government has been central to each of our campaigns since we decided to run nearly a year ago. The piece was previously featured in a blog post found here, and is embedded below.
The other piece was written by Neil Milliken, the current 7th District Legislator and my opponent in this November’s election. Entitled “Stay the course in Chemung County,” it suggests that things in our community are going well and therefore changes are not necessary. This piece is also embedded below.
I agree there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about Chemung County’s future. Some very good things are happening, and an increasing number of people are looking for ways they can roll up their sleeves and get in there to help out.
However, the notion that we should “stay the course” does not comport with most people’s impression of how things are going in Chemung County. Look at just about any metric about Elmira – from graduation rates to violent crime to economic stability to health outcomes – and you will find we have not been doing well for many years when compared to nearly all other counties in New York. It doesn’t take a statistician to tell us this; a quick drive around our community reveals we have a long way to go.
The problems cited above are not isolated to the City of Elmira, but include the Town of Elmira and 7th Legislative District as well. I have been knocking on doors for months. I am shocked at the number of foreclosed and abandoned houses in some of West Elmira’s most beautiful residential neighborhoods. Just yesterday I counted four on one street alone. Talk to members of the West Elmira police department and you will learn that violent crime doesn’t suddenly stop at Guinnip Avenue, but has begun showing up in increasing numbers across the town. And, take a took at the New York Comptroller’s recent assessment of municipal financial health. For the third time since 2016, the Town of Elmira has landed on its “fiscal stress list.”
There is no question Chemung County is a great place to live, and many people – including me – are extremely hopeful about its future. However, we have seen our socio-economic problems steadily get worse as our population shrunk considerably, and recent public disputes between County officials and many of the municipalities made clear that we need to find a new way to foster genuine cooperation in order to be able to adequately address them.
Staying the course is, of course, one option. But, it’s not the only one. There are a lot of talented, committed people running for office in Chemung County this year. At a minimum, check them out and find out what they have to offer. Bringing some new heads and new ideas to the table could be exactly what our community needs to move things forward in the kind of direction we all desire.
(Here is typed version of what me and Tony Pucci wrote, as it is a little but hard to read the newspaper clipping. I do not have a typed version of Dr. Milliken’s piece.)
On October 9th, we attended a meeting of the Chemung County Legislature during which it voted to change the way sales tax revenue is shared between the county and its municipalities.*
The issue of whether sales tax revenue is shared in the most economically sound way for our community has been hotly debated since 2013. At that time, Chemung County was facing significant fiscal hardships. Arguing that all municipalities aside from the City of Elmira had too much money in the bank, the County enacted a plan that took money from these municipalities in order to shore up its own finances.
The plan worked in part. The County was able to avoid a tax increase; however, many of the municipalities began to experience significant financial stress.
The Town of Horseheads levied a tax for the first time in 30 years. The Village of Van Etten voted to outright dissolve. The Village of Elmira Heights is teetering on the edge of solvency. The Towns of Veteran and Chemung are facing potentially significant tax increases. The Town of Elmira has been on New York’s “Fiscal Stress List” since 2016. The Town of Southport halted all plans for infrastructure projects and buildings, and the City of Elmira, even with ample shared services agreements, had to impose a 17% tax hike this year. All you need to do is attend a budget meeting for any of these municipalities to learn the truth of their precarious financial conditions.
Despite plenty of objective facts, County officials have insisted the municipalities except the City are in excellent financial shape, dismissing calls for sales tax reallocation as a convoluted campaign ploy. Indeed, responding to these very arguments last spring, Chemung County Treasurer Joe Sartori said Ms. Sonsire “could ask [people facing foreclosure] if they are okay with municipalities holding their tax dollars in reserve. She could get their thoughts as to whether the county should give away their tax dollars without requiring reasonable restraint with regard to spending.”
This is precisely what makes the vote on October 9th so confounding.
As it turns out, the new sales tax allocation plan actually gives more money to the towns and villages. If the towns and villages are doing as well as we have been led to believe, why does the County want to give them more money? We have each asked this question to County officials many times since the new plan was unveiled, but have not yet received an answer. As Mr. Sartori pointed out, it is not fiscally responsible for the County to give away your tax dollars without a purpose.
But, if many of them have been harmed, as we and others have pointed out exhaustively over the past year, the intent behind the new sales tax plan is commendable even though it is questionable whether the plan goes far enough to provide adequate relief.
We must wonder how soon the County will have to revise their revised plan. Instead of rushing into an agreement with so many unanswered questions, it would behoove the County to conduct a more thorough analysis, not just to get a deal done, but to get a deal done right.
(*It should be noted that the new plan passed with a vote of 12-2, with Leg. Rodney Strange and Peggy Woodard voting against it.)
Thanks for reading,