Image: Star Gazette

As Chemung County government continues to move ahead with many changes at a rapid pace, it is bound to encounter some bumps. The hope is that these bumps are mild and ultimately push us in an even better direction with the kind of positive momentum everyone wants to see.

City-County Committee

An undertaking that seems to be working particularly well so far is the new City-County Committee. The group was formed upon the recommendation of County Executive Chris Moss earlier this month and is co-chaired by County Legislator John Burin and City Councilperson Jim Waters.

Burin and Waters were each permitted to select up to four individuals to sit on the Committee. Seven have been selected so far, including:

  • County Legislator Marty Chalk
  • County Legislator Scott Drake
  • County Legislator Bill McCarthy
  • Me
  • City Councilperson Joe Duffy
  • City Manager Mike Collins
  • Former City Chamberlain Dave Vandermark
  • (Vacant seat)

The Committee has met twice. As quorum is not invoked, the meetings are not open to the public. Instead, the resolution calls for the Committee to issue a report to Moss once a month. It will ideally create a document with specific recommendations for public review by the end of 2019 at the latest.

The overall tenor of the Committee is a mixture of genuine teamwork and stark realism. There is no question Elmira continues to face very serious fiscal stress, and the financial future of Chemung County, at least in the near-term, is uncertain, especially with Albany’s recent threats of funding cuts and new mandated county expenditures along with a projected budget that already calls for a steep reduction in reserves by 2021. At the same time, there are a lot of outstanding things happening in Elmira such as LECOM and the Water Street project that stand to greatly increase city, and therefore county, revenue.

One aspect of Elmira’s situation of particular interest was provided to the Committee by Councilperson Waters and shared here with permission:

Percentage of Tax Exempt Property in each Municipality

Ashland 8.6%

Baldwin 2.3%

Big Flats 12.9%

Catlin 14.1%

Chemung 37.2% (PILOTs include CVS and Vulcraft)

Town of Elmira 8.9%

Erin 2.9%

Horseheads 13.2%

Southport 28.6% (Prison)

VanEtten 15%

Veteran 11.2%

City of Elmira 38%

With 38% of its properties tax exempt, and a decrease of $18 million in assessed value over the past five years, Elmira clearly needs a thorough analysis to discover how to maximize its revenue streams.

The Committee is looking closely at all of these things, and ultimately asking one fundamental question: what can each side do to help the other succeed? As we all recognize, Elmira is the county seat and the center of this community. To have any hope of moving forward, we need to harness the good things that are happening right now and continue to build upon them. The Committee is one small way to help this goal become a reality.

Separation of Powers

The question of what powers are vested in each branch of government is not isolated to what happens at the state and federal levels. Chemung County’s Charter, vaguely analogous to the constitutions of the United States and New York state, describes what powers each branch holds. A copy of our County Charter is found here.

The history surrounding the creation of our County Charter is important. Prior to 1973 Chemung County had a 23-Member Board of Supervisors, consisting of the heads of each municipality plus ten at-large representatives from the City of Elmira.

In 1973, by public referendum, Chemung County voted overwhelmingly to create a charter form of government. The County Charter created fifteen legislative districts as well as a County Executive.

The powers granted to each branch under our County Charter are explicit:

Legislative Powers

Section 201(3): The County Legislature shall be the governing body of Chemung County. It shall be the legislative, appropriating and policy-determining body of the County. S

Section 203: …In addition to all powers conferred by the foregoing of other provisions of this Charter, the County Legislature shall have the power among others:

  • to make appropriations, levy taxes, incur indebtednessand adopt a budget, including a capital program
  • to make appropriations, levy taxes, incur indebtednessand adopt a budget, including a capital program
  • to exercise all powers of local legislation in relation to enacting, amending, or rescinding local laws, legalizing acts, ordinances, or resolutions;
  • by local law to adopt, amend or repeal an Administrative Code…;
  • by local law to create, alter, combine or abolishCounty administrative units not headed by elective officials;
  • to adopt by resolution all necessary rules and regulations for its own conduct and procedure;
  • …to fix the number of hours constituting a legal day’s work for all classes of County employees, and grant to the employing officer or board the power to stagger working hours;
  • to fix compensation of all officers and employees paidfrom County funds except members of the judiciary and of such other officersand employees when specifically authorized by statute;
  • to fix the amount of official bonds and undertakings ofofficers and employees paid from County funds;
  • to make such studies and investigations as it deems tobe in the best interests of the County and in connection therewith to obtainand employ professional and technical advice, appoint temporary advisory boardsof citizens, subpoena witnesses, administer oaths, and require the production ofbooks, papers and other evidence deemed necessary or material to such study orinquiry;
  • to legalize and validate any act had and taken inconnection with a lawful municipal purpose or for a lawful municipal object orpurpose by the governing board or other local body, officer, or agency of amunicipality, wholly within the County, in the manner provided by Section 227of the County Law;
  • to create and establish the office of deputy ordeputies to the head of any department, administrative unit or to any principalexecutive County officer with power vested in such deputy to act generally forand in place of his principal;
  • to determine and make provision for any matter of County Governmentnot otherwise provided for, including, but not by way of limitation, anynecessary matter involved in the transition to the transition to this Charterform of Government
  • to establish the County Equalization Rate for the Cityof Elmira and each town as provided by the Real Property Tax Law and;
  • to award all contracts for professional services.

Executive Powers

Section 302: The County Executive in addition to any other powers and duties provided by this Charter, shall:

  • be the Chief Executive Officer and administrative headof the County Government;
  • supervise and direct the internal organization and reorganizationof each department or other administrative unit, the head of which he has thepower to appoint;
  • be the Chief Budget Officer of the County and beresponsible for preparation of the operating and capital budgets of the County;
  • determine and fix real property tax equalization rates…;
  • have authority to appoint and terminate one or more temporary advisory boards or committees of citizens…;
  • designate one or more depositories located within theCounty for the deposit of all monies received by the County Treasurer, anddetermine what funds may be vested and in what securities, according to law;
  • examine and approve or disapprove the sufficiency ofsureties on official bonds and undertakings of the Directors of the Division ofBudget and Research, Division of Purchases, and Division of CentralServices.  The sufficiency of sureties ofall other official bonds and undertakings shall be examined and approved ordisapproved by the County Legislature;
  • report to County Legislature annually at the close ofthe fiscal year or as soon thereafter as practicable, but in no event laterthan the first day of March, and at such other times as the County Legislatureshall direct, the activities of the several administrative units of the Countyduring the preceding fiscal year, in such detail as the County Legislatureshall direct;
  • appoint a member of the County Legislature to serve asChairman of such board, (1) for the remainder of the calendar year, in case theCounty Legislature has failed to select a Chairman on or before February first,or (2) for the unexpired term of the previous Chairman, in case the CountyLegislature has failed to select a Chairman within thirty(30) days after avacancy has occurred in the office of the Chairman;
  • to administer the workmen’s compensation programs asnow provided by local law and the laws of the State of New York applicable thereto;
  • perform such other duties and have such other powers asmay be prescribed for him by law; and
  • have all necessary incidental powers to perform andexercise any of the duties and functions specified above or lawfully delegatedto him.

The Executive additionally has the power to appoint numerous department heads, subject to legislative approval.

What it means

It is clear our County Charter calls for a strong, independent legislature with the requisite power to serve as the legislative, appropriating and policy-determining body.

However, it appears the ability of the legislature to carry out its duties will be put to an early test on Monday. At our last Personnel Committee Meeting, I made a motion in “Old Business” that was unanimously approved to create a system through which basic background information about appointees to committees and department head positions is provided to members of the Legislature prior to a vote. The Personnel Committee tasked me with the job of creating a system and form that could be used to this end.

Two weeks ago I submitted a resolution laying out my proposal:

[I did not include embed the proposed forms here as the post is already too long (!), but will provide them to anyone upon request.]

This resolution clearly falls under the powers of Section 203(f):
“to adopt by resolution all necessary rules and regulations for its own conduct and procedure.”

However, the resolution does not appear on this month’s Agenda. To the best of my knowledge, it was pulled from consideration by the Executive Branch.

Although this is a relatively minor matter, it gets to the heart of a very important issue — the power of the legislature to independently legislate and govern its own affairs. There is no question the drafters of our County Charter envisioned a legislature fully invested with the power to pass this type of resolution. I intend to revisit the topic tomorrow night and hopefully get more clarity on where other legislators stand. This may not be the most critical matter we face this year, but there is no doubt tough decisions lie ahead.

The Standing Committee Meetings begin at 7:00 pm on the Hazlett Building’s 5th Floor. They are open to the public and will be live-streamed on the Chemung County Matters Facebook page.

Industrial Development Agency reviews

Briefly, the CCIDA has begun its audit process as well as an independent legal review of all projects undertaken over the past 3 years. Information will be available to the public as soon as possible.

The Chemung County Industrial Development Agency meets on the first Thursday of each month at 8:40 a.m. in the Hazlett Building’s 2nd floor Conference Room and are live-streamed on the Chemung County Matters Facebook page.

Christina Sonsire