Image: WENY

2019 was an interesting year for Chemung County government.

With new people serving in scores of critical roles – including County Executive, Deputy County Executive, County Treasurer, County Attorney, Legislative Attorney, Sheriff, Industrial Development Agency Director, IT Director, Aviation Director, Department of Social Services Director, Sewer District Director, Legislative Chairperson, Legislative Clerk as well as seven of fifteen new County Legislators – it is no surprise that a steep and swift learning curve was necessary to keep things moving forward at a time when there is reason to believe our community is headed in a positive direction.

The good news is that despite some very public bumps along the way, the new administrative team was able to identify and begin the process of rectifying some very important problems within its first year, setting up what looks to be an even more interesting set of issues for 2020.

The list below highlights seven areas to watch over the next twelve months. As I have stated many times, the purpose of the Chemung County Matters blog is to help provide information to the community so that every person has the opportunity to be an informed participant in local government.

Elected officials are no more important than any other community members, and our opinions carry no greater weight than those of anyone else. Moreover, the primary role of a person holding an elected legislative office is to act as a conduit, transporting information from government to the public, and bringing the public’s opinion about the information back to government.

As always, please share your thoughts on these and other issues with people serving in Chemung County government so we can represent your interests in the best way possible.

Continued fiscal responsibility

As I described in detailed blog post found here, Chemung County’s legislative and executive branches had to make some tough budgetary choices this year, including a unanimous decision to increase local property taxes for the first time in 14 years.

A copy of the 2020 Budget and legislative changes that were adopted into it are embedded below:

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One of the most important aspects of the 2020 budget is the amount of money it predicts we will spend out of county reserves. Reserves – also referred to as Fund Balance – are akin to a savings account, and any money taken from reserves within a fiscal year represents deficit spending.

The budget with adopted legislative changes calls for $422,303 to be spent from Chemung County’s reserves next year. This represents a marked decrease from over $1,500,000 that was spent in 2019 based on a budget passed the previous year, but is nonetheless concerning given Chemung County Budget Director Steve Hoover’s continued conservative predictions for the future of county fund balance, found on page 7 of the budget and embedded below:

Chemung County’s 2020 budget is fiscally responsible and represents a step in the right direction. However, increasing property taxes by 2% while still predicting deficit spending of at least $422,303 is concerning. Throughout the next year county leaders will continue to look for new and creative ways to run the government more efficiently.

Evaluation of the Chemung County Nursing Facility

Image: Star Gazette

This topic is likely to garner a great deal of attention in 2020 as county leaders, in an effort to identify ways to save money while still providing essential services to the community, evaluate the impact of the Nursing Facility from both fiscal and societal perspectives.

For many years the Nursing Facility has relied upon an intergovernmental transfer (called an “IGT”) to fund its operational budget. In general, an IGT is a financing mechanism authorized by the federal government that allows states to use revenue from local governments to help fund the state’s share of allowable Medicaid expenditures.

Chemung County can apply for two IGTs within each fiscal year whereby the county pays $1,500,000 to New York state and receives $3,000,000 in return. In other words, Chemung County has the option to pay up to $3,000,000 in 2020 and receive $6,000,000, all of which must be used to fund the Nursing Facility.

The 2020 budget does not include any IGT expenditures. Although this does not preclude Chemung County from deciding to apply for one or both, the likelihood is that, unless other changes are made, 2020 deficit spending would increase to nearly $2,000,000 with one IGT and $3,500,000 if two are used.

It appears the Nursing Facility has adequate funding in its own reserves to remain fiscally healthy throughout 2020 without an IGT while county leaders and the community evaluate its finances and long-term viability, and consider all options for future management. A resolution calling for an independent consultant to examine the Nursing Facility in order to help answer many of these questions should come before the Legislature as early as January 6, 2020.

I am very open-minded about this issue. I recognize how important the Nursing Facility is to Chemung County and the outstanding care its employees provide to some of our most vulnerable community members, but I also appreciate the substantial fiscal burden running it places on local taxpayers. This issue clearly demands thoughtful, abundant community input in order for Chemung County to find the right solution.

New Sales Tax plan

The two primary ways to fund municipalities in New York are through property and sales taxes. Sales tax revenue collected in Chemung County is currently distributed among the City of Elmira, Chemung County and local municipalities under a two-year agreement which will expire in late 2020.

The plan, passed in late 2018, increased the amount of sales tax revenue going to all municipalities except the City of Elmira by 3.4%. It did not call for any increase to the city, but instead extended the amount of time for the city to reimburse the county for various shared services agreements.

Specifically, as of the start of 2019 the city owed the county $2,769,292.00, and is required to pay it off in installments over the next four years. The current plan does not change the amount the city owes, but allows two extra years for it to pay off the debt.

Last year a City-County Committee, formed by County Executive Chris Moss, researched numerous municipal issues including sales tax distribution. A copy of the City-County Report – which includes a lengthy discussion of the history of sales tax in Chemung County and ideas for how to improve the way it is distributed beginning on page 13 – along with slides pertaining to sales tax from a presentation the committee gave last summer are embedded below:

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Chemung County and the City of Elmira will undoubtedly spend a considerable amount of time throughout the year deliberating over how to craft the best sales tax distribution agreement before the current agreement expires, and will have to decide whether to impose a sales tax increase in order to provide additional revenue to be shared. The committee’s recommendations provide a good starting point, and added input from municipal leaders as well as the public should lead to a robust, community-wide discussion about this very important issue.

Sewer District improvements

Without question, necessary improvements to the Chemung County Sewer District’s infrastructure is one of the most critical issues our community will face in coming years.

Specifically, major infrastructure upgrades – totaling anywhere from $80 to $100 million dollars – are necessary to provide basic maintenance to our Sewer Districts’ facilities and bring them into compliance with pollution reduction targets set by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation that will take effect in 2025.

In September I wrote a blog post, found here. Instead of recapping it, please take the time to read the original post as it includes a great deal of detail about the new laws and the current status of our sewer system.

At the end of 2019 the legislature unanimously passed a resolution funding a study that should provide us with critical analysis regarding the potential for Sewer District consolidation and what needs to be done to be in compliance with New York law by 2025.

Environmental concerns

Image: Southern Tier CEC

New York state offers many programs through which municipalities can save money while helping improve the environment. Chemung County government needs to begin taking advantage of them.

In Chemung County, eight local municipalities participate in New York’s Clean Energy Communities (CEC) program, a $16-million initiative to help local governments across the state reduce energy consumption, drive clean energy use in their communities and save money. The CEC provides grants, direct technical support to communities, and recognition to local governments that demonstrate leadership in the area of clean energy.

Four of these municipalities – including the Town of Veteran, Town of Catlin, Town of Big Flats, and Town of Elmira – are certified Clean Energy Communities, and the Village of Horseheads, Village of Elmira Heights, City of Elmira, and the Town of Southport have taken steps toward becoming certified. Additionally, the Town of Big Flats recently became the the first community in Chemung County to participate in the Climate Smart Community Program.

Unfortunately, Chemung County government has not taken any steps to become involved with these programs. There has been talk of an effort in 2020 to create an comprehensive environmental master plan for Chemung County. The programs mentioned above, along with others offered in New York, must be included.

In addition, the ban on plastic bags in New York state goes into effect this spring. Many counties have passed resolutions calling for a five cent fee on all paper bags as a way to encourage consumers to carry reusable totes and thereby cut down on the waste associated with both paper and plastic bags.

In early December I drafted and submitted a resolution to the Chemung County Legislative Chairperson, but the resolution does not appear on any of the agendas for our January 6, 2020, Standing Committee meetings. At a minimum the resolution should come before the Legislature for a vote so that we have an opportunity to debate this issue in a public setting.

A copy of the resolution I submitted is embedded below:

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New State laws

2019 was a very active year for the New York State Legislature, and county governments are still trying to determine the breadth of impact new state laws will have on local government.

The images below, recently shared by Mathlyde Frontus, a New York Assemblywoman from downstate, provide a detailed outline all of the bills passed in Albany last year:

There is a growing recognition that some of the bills – particularly those related to criminal justice and election reform – will have far greater fiscal impact on counties than originally predicted. It remains to be seen whether other measures passed last year can offset some of the costs.

Legislative housekeeping matters

Finally, the Legislature has a lot of work to do to make sure it functions in the best possible way for our community.

Live-streaming

At his inauguration on January 1, 2018, County Executive Moss said that all public meetings in Chemung County would be live-streamed to provide greater transparency for and involvement with the public.

To his credit, Moss was able to secure grant funding that can be used to pay for equipment and software to begin streaming many meetings in 2020. However, the Chemung County Legislature has not yet decided whether it will allow the Hazlett Building’s Fifth Floor, where our meetings are held, to be wired for streaming.

I voluntarily live-streamed all public meetings I attended last year and will do so again this year. However, I look forward to the time when I can hand over the responsibility to Chemung County, as the quality of the videos should be much better. I am not sure when or if this will happen, but I certainly intend to keep pushing the issue.

Caucuses

Related to transparency and public involvement is the issue of private meetings where public business is discussed.

The Chemung County Legislature’s Republican Caucus, comprised of 12 out of 15 sitting Legislators, held seven “political caucuses”, each lasting approximately one hour and held before and/or after meetings of the Legislature, as explained in detail here.

Similar to the paper bag resolution, I drafted and submitted a resolution to the Chemung County Legislative Chairperson in early December to prohibit caucuses, but the resolution does not appear on our any of the agendas for our January 6, 2020, meetings. Again, resolutions should at least have the opportunity to come before the Legislature for a vote so that we Can have an opportunity to debate the issues in a public setting.

A copy of the resolution I drafted is embedded below:

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Term limits and legislative compensation & benefits

Finally, the Legislature needs to bring measures related to term limits for Chemung County elected officials as well as legislative compensation and benefits to a vote. Last year two small committees were formed, but no substantive action whatsoever was taken on either item. It is time for us to address these issues so we can spend our time working on the tough work ahead that is outlined above on this list.

Christina Sonsire