Blog

24 Feb
1

Tough questions ahead of Chemung County’s Annual Economic Forum

The Chemung County Chamber of Commerce will hold its 25th Annual Economic Forum this Wednesday, February 28th at the Holiday Inn Riverview beginning at 7:30 AM. The event is open to the public, and registration can be made here.

The 2018 Economic Forum comes at a particularly interesting time, as Chemung County’s fiscal health is under increased scrutiny from many different sources.

Without question, people who choose to live and work in Chemung County want to see our area thrive like many other communities located in rural America have begun to do over the past decade. But, getting to that point requires us to fully acknowledge and accept how serious the local economic picture has become, and adopt a new way of thinking in order to propel Chemung County forward.

An article published online on February 23, 2018, by Binghamton’s Press & Sun Bulletin entitled “Binghamton, Elmira play economic catch-up after years of decline” points to several sobering statistics:

*Elmira is losing private-sector jobs at the highest rate in New York state, nearly 3 percent over the past year, and has recorded a 6 percent drop since 2008.

*Personal income growth since 2008 in Elmira was half the United States national annual average for metro areas of 3.2 percent, according to numbers compiled by the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

 *Since 2008, Elmira’s population has declined by annual compounded rate -0.3 percent.

It went on to question what steps are being taken to translate monies awarded by New York State into meaningful economic recovery for Chemung County:

Questions quickly arise about the infusion of economic dollars — $500 million for the Southern Tier in the Upstate Revitalization Initiative; $481 million for the eight-county area in regional economic development awards…and; $10 million to Elmira for the Downtown Revitalization Initiative.

Where and when will the impact of those program be realized?

A link to the article is found here. (When the article appeared in the print edition of Elmira’s Star Gazette on February 25, 2018, the content remained the same, but the title was changed to “Area Rebuilds a Fragile Economy.”)

Questions about the translation of state aid into sustainable job creation were also raised last December by Tom Tranter, President of Corning Enterprises, and Binghamton University President Harvey Stenger.

Tranter and Stenger serve as regional Co-Chairs of the Southern Tier Regional Economic Development Council, a group that exists to create long-term strategic plans for economic growth in our area. Ten regional Economic Councils were created in 2011 by Governor Cuomo as public-private partnerships made up of local experts and stakeholders from business, academia, local government, and non-governmental organizations. A list of the members of the Southern Tier Regional Economic Development Council is found here.

According to an article published in Binghampton’s Press & Sun Bulletin, the Southern Tier received the least amount of economic funding in 2017 of all ten regions.

Tranter stated that identifying economic projects that result in job creation needs to be our area’s top priority, but “we haven’t had any really big job projects.” Stenger echoed those sentiments, stating that the group ” really (has) to double down and work a little harder.”

A link to the article is found here.

“Elmira, Binghamton play economic catch-up after years of decline”, linked above, includes a quote from Mike Krusen, who serves as both president of the Elmira-based Southern Tier Economic Development organization and Chemung County’s Deputy County Executive. “We have to change the mindset,” said Krusen, “We have to get the people to change from feeling that we’re flat on our back to we are in a turnaround.”

This type of cheerleading can yield positive results, as a positive attitude goes a long way toward encouraging people to invest the time, energy and resources needed to begin turning things around in the Southern Tier.

But, we also need to be realists.

It only takes a quick drive across Elmira or a review of the types of statistics cited above to realize Chemung County is still facing very tough times. The reasons why we got here are plentiful, and the path forward – with increased manufacturing automation,  continued brain drain of our youth, and a growing violent crime problem that serves as a deterrent to investment – is anything but clear. Our leaders need to openly acknowledge where we are economically, and genuinely work together with each other and the community to discover creative solutions.

Hopefully Wednesday’s Forum will be a good opportunity for all of us to get a better idea of where things stand, and figure out how we can best help out.

Christina Sonsire

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21 Feb
2

Krusen Responds to Call for Reduced Salary.

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Tony Pucci

Two weeks ago Tony Pucci, a member of the Veteran Zoning Board who retired after teaching English at Notre Dame High School for forty years, wrote an Op-Ed to the Star Gazette, critiquing the level of compensation paid to Chemung County legislators as well as County Executive Tom Santulli and his Deputy, Mike Krusen. A link to Tony’s piece is found here.

Specifically, Pucci argued that paying our county executive, who oversees a population of roughly 87,000 people, more money than 41 of 50 US governors – including those who govern Massachusetts, Texas and Florida – is inappropriate, stating:

Not only did the Chemung County legislators vote themselves a pay increase, they also voted on Resolution No. 17-629, which establishes the new salary for the county executive at $166,273. This resolution passed by a vote of 15-0. That salary places our county executive as one of the most highly compensated county executives in the state.

By comparison, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott earns $150,000. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker makes $151,800. Florida Gov. Rick Scott receives $130,273. Given the responsibilities of governing a state with a population in the millions and a budget in the billions, what possible justification is there for the executive of a small upstate county to have a salary that is higher than theirs? In fact, the Chemung County Executive’s $166,273 salary is higher than that received by 41 of the nation’s 50 governors.

Today Krusen, who is running to replace Santulli when he retires at the end of this term, announced a proposed compensation plan that includes reduced pay for our county’s top administrators. In it, Krusen stated that “[w]ith the pending change in our long-tenured County Executive’s position, it is an appropriate time to review the compensation and benefits provided to this position.” A link to Krusen’s announcement is found here.

Although Krusen’s announcement does not address the inflated salaries of legislators or the yearly pension of more than $80,000 he currently receives in addition to his active service salary, it shows that speaking out in a respectful way on matters of public interest can really make a difference.

 

Christina Sonsire

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17 Feb
2

Opioid Class-Action Lawsuit: It’s Time for Chemung County to Join

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Image from NBC New York 

There is no question our nation is facing an epidemic.

Opioid addiction and associated heroin use is widespread – and our community is unfortunately not immune. In fact, a recent study by Rochester-based Common Ground Health suggests Chemung County has the highest rate of opioid abuse in the Finger Lakes region. A link to an article describing the study is found here, and the study itself is found here.

Although Common Ground’s conclusion that Chemung County’s problem is worse than surrounding communities has been met with some skepticism because the metric on which it is based – Emergency Department visits related to opioid abuse – could be skewed based on socio-economic factors, it is nonetheless clear that we must to everything we can to address this issue head on.

In my law practice at the Ziff Law Firm, I frequently represent people who are prescribed opioids following an injury or illness. Although I am careful to never offer medical advice, I try to speak openly with my clients about the risks these medications pose over time. Despite our discussions, a fair number of my clients have developed opioid dependency or addiction, something that upends not only their lives but those of their family members and friends as well.

I have had a chance to observe two recent presentations to the Chemung County Legislature on opioid and heroin abuse. The first was given last fall by two representatives from the Chemung County Sheriff’s Department on its recent initiative called “Project Hope”. A link to an article about “Project Hope” is found here.

In the presentation, Investigator Pete Ruhmel and Captain Doug Houper explained that opioid and heroin abuse is increasing across Chemung County, and they provided sobering statistics showing the problem is not limited to one geographical area or demographic.

Last month Brian Hart, Director of Community Services for the Chemung County Mental Hygiene Department, presented a similar report, and encouraged Chemung County to continue supporting his department’s work to combat this growing problem.

Following each presentation I expected that the Legislature would undertake action toward joining a class action lawsuit that has been brought on behalf of numerous counties from New York and other states, as well as several cities, alleging pharmaceutical  companies engaged in deceptive marketing practices meant to minimize the addiction risks associated with opioids.

In fact, after Brian Hart’s presentation on January 22, 2018 – almost one month ago – I asked Deputy County Executive Mike Krusen if Chemung County intended to join the lawsuit. He said he believed so, but to the best of my knowledge there has yet to be any discussion on this issue within the Legislature.

At least 20 counties in New York have joined or are in the process of joining the lawsuit, including the upstate counties of Broome, Steuben, Tompkins, Seneca, Sullivan, Schenectady, Schoharie, Rensselear, Niagara, Orange, and Oswego, as well as the City of Ithaca.

The tenor of the lawsuit is similar to those brought by municipalities in the 1990’s against tobacco companies, something that not only resulted in huge monetary recovery but also drastic changes to the way tobacco companies do business. Indeed, the language at the start of Tompkins County’s lawsuit – albeit somewhat proactive – makes clear what this lawsuit is all about:

“This case is about one thing: corporate greed. Defendants put their desire for profits above the health and well-being of Tompkins County consumers at the cost of the plaintiff.”

Articles describing the lawsuit’s current procedural posture can be found here, here and here.

Chemung County needs to become part of this lawsuit in order to hold pharmaceutical companies accountable for what the opioid epidemic is doing to our community. There is simply no good reason for us to sit on the sidelines.

 

Christina Sonsire

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03 Feb
2

COOPERATION IS CRUCIAL FOR SOLVING ELMIRA’S FISCAL CRISIS

This post also appears on the Star Gazette’s website (link here), and will be published in the Star Gazette newspaper on February 4, 2018.


The City of Elmira is undoubtedly facing a fiscal crisis. Forced to either impose a 17 percent property tax increase – a measure that will close Elmira’s budget gap for 2018 but not solve its underlying economic problems – or lay off significant numbers of public safety employees, Elmira’s mayor, manager and councilmembers are in the unenviable situation of deciding between tremendously unpopular choices.

The reasons underlying Elmira’s fiscal crisis are complex. Most fundamentally, 38 percent of properties in Elmira, including large entities such as Elmira College, Arnot Ogden Medical Center, St. Joseph’s Hospital and all of Chemung County’s administrative buildings, are exempt from taxation. Even though it does not receive any revenue stream in return for its services, Elmira is required to provide police and fire protection to these properties, meaning that 62 percent of Elmira’s property owners pay for 100 percent of the services it provides.

(more…)

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31 Jan
5

County and City Officials Reach Different Conclusions Regarding Sales Tax Redistribution.

The impact of Chemung County’s 2013 decision to redirect sales tax revenue from the City of Elmira and other municipalities into its own coffers is proving to be an integral part of the discussion of how to address the City’s dire fiscal situation, as well the impact being felt by local towns and villages.

In 2013 the Chemung County Legislature voted to approve a controversial measure called the “Chemung County Financial Restructuring Plan” to redistribute the way sales tax revenue is allocated in Chemung County.

(more…)

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01 Jan
6

Key Fiscal Issues in Chemung County to Watch in 2018.

2018 is poised to be an important year for Chemung County.

As the Finger Lakes region continues to develop, Chemung County has the potential for significant gains – but only if we openly acknowledge the unique obstacles we face and work together in a transparent way to discover innovative solutions.

We undoubtedly have the collective brainpower and desire to make our community shine. The list below represents some of the pressing fiscal issues we face. If it is incomplete – or in any way inaccurate – please join the discussion here or on social media. The pathway toward meaningful change starts with an honest discussion.  

The First Arena

What to do about a portion of the debt associated with Elmira’s First Arena is a matter that will be taken up by the Chemung County Legislature during the first few months of 2018. 

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First Arena (Image: Elmira Star Gazette)

In June, 2016 the Chemung County Industrial Development Agency (CCIDA) purchased the First Arena despite significant yearly deficits in an attempt to facilitate a sale to a private buyer. A description about the history of the Arena’s ownership is found here.   (more…)

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27 Dec
1

GUEST BLOG: Former Chemung County Legislator Andy Patros Stresses the Increased Need for an Independent Legislature.

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.

I had the privilege of serving the community as a Chemung County Legislator from 2007-2011. During that time I was often asked, “How do you like being in the position?”

The answer I gave then is similar to the one I would give now: I greatly enjoyed it, but quickly learned the legislature does not operate as an independent body in the way Chemung County’s Charter – or, more generally, a representative government built upon the theory of separation of powers – envisions.

Recognizing that this fundamental matter affects the way our county government functions in a very significant way, I wrote a Guest View along with the late Terry McLaughlin, also a County Legislator at the time, that was published in the Star Gazette in July, 2007.  A copy of the Guest View is embedded below and can also also be accessed here.

Guest View Patros and McLaughlin 2007

I am raising this issue again because unfortunately not much has changed since 2007. With the exception of a few references to matters that the legislature was facing back then, this Guest View almost precisely represents how I feel today.

Almost precisely, because the matters facing Chemung County today – including the mounting financial crisis in the City of Elmira, the status of First Arena, the growing budget deficits in many of the Towns and Villages, decreasing sales tax revenue across the region, the likelihood of increased state mandates in response to changes in the federal tax code, and the rise of crime and drug problems that we all see when we drive across the County – are even more critical, making the need for an independent legislature that involves the public in an open, transparent dialogue more important than ever.

As Terry and I observed in 2007, “American government works because of the separate but equal branches in our county seats, state capitals and in Washington D.C. Neither branch, executive nor legislative, should operate at a higher level than the other. For government to be effective, a series of checks, balances, separation and oversight must be in place.” This tenant is as true now at every level of government today as it ever has been in American history.  It is time to finally restore that balance right here at home.

Andy Patros

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20 Dec
2

GUEST BLOG: Elmira City Councilmember Jim Waters Shares a Statement from the “Committee for Elmira.”

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.

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Elmira Councilmember Jim Waters

 


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.

Jim Waters


Committee For Elmira – Statement

 Overview: 

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.

Statement: 

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.

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19 Dec
2

Current and Former Leaders Urge Cooperation in Dealing with Elmira’s Fiscal Problems.

Today the Star Gazette published an article (link here) about a group of current and former Elmira and Chemung County leaders who are working together to address Elmira’s dire fiscal health and bring that information to the public.

The group’s members include City Councilman Jim Waters, 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.

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Elmira City Hall (image: Stilfehler at Wikivoyage)

Specifics on Elmira’s current economic condition can be found in its 2018 Proposed Budget and 2018 Proposed Budget Presentation.

The article quotes Councilman Waters, the group’s founder, as stating that “[the group believes] any real or perceived slights should be set aside for the good of both the city and the county taxpayer. A collaborative effort to identify, prioritize, and solve problems is imperative at this point.  Each day that passes is an unnecessary and perilous delay.”

(more…)

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17 Dec
0

GUEST BLOG: Anthony Pucci Presses County Government for Open Dialogue.

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 Anthony Pucci, a member of the Town of Veteran’s Zoning Board who taught English at Notre Dame High School for 40 years before recently retiring.


In his response to my “Your Turn” piece appearing in the Star-Gazette on December 7th, Joseph Sartori, Chemung County Treasurer, would have us believe that “County administration and the legislature do recognize the issues facing the county and are continually working to address these problems.” A link to the Sartori response is herepucci.

That sounds reassuring, but what have they done? Sartori points to changes in the sales tax formula. Yes, the formula has changed. The County now takes more and more of sales tax revenue, leaving less and less for the City of Elmira and the surrounding towns and villages.

 

Sartori points to “a myriad of other cost-saving steps” that the County has taken. At their meeting of December 11th, members of the Legislature voted 12 – 3 to give themselves and other County officials a salary increase to take effect as of the first of the new year. If our legislators are so diligently working to address the County’s fiscal challenges, does a salary increase seem justified? I think not.

 

Sartori complains of a distortion of facts. However, he continues to twist Sonsire’s plea that we, as a community “start talking about” the fiscal problems the County faces into a desire to increase taxes. No reasonable person should accept that faulty logic. It is nothing more than a fear tactic. (more…)

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