Like all entities, the Chemung County Legislature has been forced to adapt its practices to meet the challenges presented by COVID-19 and the social distancing measures currently in place.
Under ordinary circumstances, New York’s Open Meetings Laws (OML) requires elected bodies to allow members of the public to attend meetings, and the rules of Chemung County’s Legislature permit anyone to speak for up to five minutes on any topic at the start of full meetings.
Executive Order temporarily changes Open Meetings Laws
However, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo passed an Executive Order on March 7th that suspends parts of the OML in order to allow local governments to attend to important matters without requiring officials to gather in crowds. The full text of Executive Order 202.1 is found here and the relevant portion is embedded below:
At a special meeting of the Health and Human Services Committee this upcoming Monday evening, the Chemung County Legislature will consider a resolution opposing an Executive Order by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo that requires hospitals and other medical facilities to inform New York’s Department of Health (NYDOH) of the amount of ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE) they have and allows NYDOH to redistribute up to 20% of these items from areas that are not experiencing high levels of COVID-10 infections to places that are currently in crisis.
This resolution is moot, misleading, contrary to a spirit of cooperation being fostered in New York and around the globe, and – ironically – against the best interest of people living right here in Chemung County.
We are all in this mess together. Working together without regard to politics is the only reasonable path forward.
On April 7th Governor Cuomo signed the Executive Order in question. A full copy of it as well as an isolated portion of its relevant portion are embedded here:
As a disclaimer, my name is Christina Sonsire. I am the author of the Chemung County Matters blog, an information-sharing site I created in December 2017.
The information in this post is true to the best of my knowledge and is based on what I have learned both firsthand from local officials and by closely following the news about the global pandemic. Please excuse me if it is inaccurate or outdated in any way.
How can I get tested for COVID-19?
This is a question I have been asked many times over the past two weeks, and I have seen a number of posts on social media describing concerns about how testing is being undertaken in Chemung County.
Contrary to the notion that everyone who wants a test can get one, it is critical to recognize that there are not enough tests…not enough tests here, in New York City, in the United States or in the world. Companies across the globe are working hard to develop a rapid test to scale that would allow widespread testing, but the capacity simply does not exist right now.
A report published yesterday on NPR, found here and embedded below, speaks to the overwhelming demand for tests across the United States.
I imagine that when all of this passes, Webster’s Dictionary will have a new “Word of the Year” that none of us have heard because it does not yet exist within our lexicon. Crazy, unbelievable, incredible, overwhelming – none of these words quite capture the feelings we all have right now as our lives are increasingly upended and the challenges we face – and will continue to endure for the foreseeable future – become more and more evident.
However, moments like these present communities with the potential to pull together in ways that are hard to imagine when times are good. Like many of you, I keep thinking back to the months after 9-11 when our society was able to find the very best in itself. We have that opportunity again as we each find our role by doing things such as teaching our children, supporting our coworkers and employees, making sure neighbors who are older or may be ill have what they need, reaching out by phone or computer to people who live alone and are in need of social interaction, buying local to the extent possible, and generally helping out in any way we can.
The purpose of this blog has always been to share information. As we begin to navigate through this uncertain time, I will do my best to provide as much information as I can about what is happening in the Chemung County Legislature as well as the Chemung County Industrial Development Agency, including things those entities can do to help you.
Please understand that, like you, my life has been turned upside down. Working hard to make sure all of the needs of my clients at the Ziff Law Firm are met, my duties to the country fulfilled and my 5th and 2nd grade daughters are educated is an extraordinarily tall task. I will share information through this blog as well as the Chemung County Matters Facebook page whenever possible to do my part to help us all stay informed.
I decided to run for the Chemung County Legislature in order to use my background and experience to try to make a difference for our community. Running in 2018 when many great economic development projects were beginning to take shape and most legislative candidates were expressing a desire to bring about meaningful change to the way local government does business was exciting and filled me with a sense of hope for what the Legislature might be able to do over the next four years.
Last year started a bit rocky, but the Legislature nonetheless was able to take on some important topics such as a deep-dive into ways the City of Elmira and Chemung County could collaborate for their mutual benefits, hard work with the County Executive’s Office to begin addressing major infrastructure problems at the Sewer District, and tough decision-making regarding Chemung County’s future financial picture that resulted in a unanimous vote for a property tax increase, something we recognized was unfortunate but unquestionably necessary.
However, over the past few months the Legislature has, in my opinion, been bogged down by a number of non-substantive (i.e. time-wasting) approaches to issues that are distracting from numerous very important matters facing our community.
The Chemung County Skilled Nursing Facility, located in downtown Elmira, is a healthcare facility owned and operated by Chemung County that provides long-term, inpatient, skilled nursing services to residents who have chronic, debilitating illnesses or require inpatient rehabilitation services.
With the capacity to employ approximately 300 people and house up to 200 patients, Chemung County’s Nursing Facility is an important part of the fabric of our community, as it provides critical societal benefits such as high quality, affordable healthcare and stable, well-paying jobs for healthcare professionals.
However, the Nursing Facility also unfortunately places a significant fiscal strain on Chemung County. As anyone who follows local government well understands, Chemung County has an extraordinarily tight budget. The combination of very serious and time-sensitive infrastructure needs for our municipal sewer system together with a yearly reliance on deficit spending that continues to diminish Chemung County’s reserves has resulted in all options – including outright privatization of the Nursing Facility or the creation of a public-private approach to its management – being placed on the table by Chemung County Executive Chris Moss as he evaluates what options we have for reducing county expenditures.
As explained below, the process of exploring whether Chemung County should privatize the Nursing Facility is already underway. It appears the Legislature will be provided with financial data, i.e. the costs associated with owning and operating the Nursing Facility along with the potential fiscal benefits a sale could bring, before any binding decisions are made.
However, financial data is just one piece of this analysis. The critical question is not simply how much the Nursing Facility costs, but whether we, as a community, feel those costs are outweighed by the societal benefits it provides back to Chemung County. In order to undertake this evaluation, we – and by that I mean all members of the community – need a mechanism through which we can identify and somehow attempt to quantify these benefits.
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.
Three members of the Chemung County Legislators – Bill McCarthy, Bob Briggs, and I – submitted a law to the legislative chairperson that would prohibit the private discussion of public business when a quorum (majority) of the Chemung County Legislature is present. We would like this measure to be placed on the Legislature’s Agenda, most likely through the Personnel Committee, this month.
If Webster’s Dictionary had identified a “Word of the Year” for Chemung County in 2018, it undoubtedly would have been “transparency.” With contested races for county executive and nearly all legislative seats, many candidates sought to distinguish themselves by talking about how “transparent” they would be if elected.
Live-streaming of meetings? All for it, they said.
Increased public participation on county matters? Absolutely!
Open, fair dialogue between county government and the public? We wouldn’t want it any other way.
Throughout the first ten months after getting elected, I felt these campaign themes were being honored, albeit imperfectly. I have provided live-streaming of all of our meetings with limited push back from elected officials, and there has been some movement toward greater inclusion of members of the public in both activities and discussions.
However, my perspective has changed markedly over the past month.
The Chemung County Legislature’s Republican Caucus, comprised of 12 out of 15 sitting Legislators, has held six “political caucuses”, each lasting approximately one hour and held before and/or after meetings of the Legislature. During these gatherings numerous topics – including the 2020 Chemung County Budget, Elmira’s First Arena, and Chemung County’s relationship with the Library District – have been discussed at length. To the best of my knowledge the “caucuses” were held before the meetings on November 12th, November 13th, November 18th, before and after the meeting on November 25th, and after the meeting on December 2nd.
In other words, 12 of 15 Legislators have spent no less than six hours over the past month addressing public business behind closed doors where even elected members of the Legislature, including me, are unable to attend or even know what is being discussed.
We are in the middle of the budget process in Chemung County. County Executive Moss provided his proposed budget to the Legislature on November 12th. A copy of the budget is embedded below and can be found here.
The Legislature held four budget workshops during November. Chemung County Budget Director Steve Hoover led three discussions where he allowed for a very candid exchange in a question-and-answer format among himself and legislators as we attempted to learn more about what impacts the proposed budget would have on various sectors of our community as well as local government itself. The fourth workshop was an open discussion among legislators.
The first three workshops were live-streamed to the Chemung County Matters Facebook page, found here, where the videos remain embedded. I had to miss the final workshop due to a family obligation.
The Legislature’s Response
The Chemung County Charter requires the Legislature to provide a report back to the County Executive by November 25th with any recommended changes or amendments.
The document below constitutes the legislature’s report.
Of note, Exhibit “A” of the report, beginning at page 19, sets forth the Legislature’s budget recommendations.
John Burin, Vice Chairperson of the Legislature, did an outstanding job analyzing the budget and helping us brainstorm ways to possibly improve it. Drawing on his experience as the City of Elmira Manager at a time when Elmira faced extreme fiscal stress, Burin developed a proposal that calls for limited spending from reserves ($84,246) while accounting for additional mandates handed down from Albany this year.
An informal poll of the legislators has revealed unanimous support for the recommended changes. I embedded the recommended changes alone to make them easier to access.