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The County Beat: August 18th Legislative Committee Meetings

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From Amie Acton, 8/22/21

All members were present for the plethora of committee meetings on August 18th. The Planning and Economic Development Committee saw the most discussion, most of it due to the preliminary dump of census data and results of the latest completed project from the Allegany County Land Bank. The county has also taken in a significantly larger amount of sales tax revenue as compared to past years, prompting discussion amongst the Budget Committee. Here are the highlights:

Resource Management:

  • Soil and Water Conservation Executive Director Scott Torrey wasn’t present but had submitted a report on their activities including submitting for six grants from the Water Quality Improvement Project through the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, meeting Mayor Truax of Andover regarding continuing erosion issues, and working with Cuba to assist with flooding issues. Will this latest round of heavy rains and flooding result in an even busier month for the department?
  • Youth Director Brian Perkins was pleased to announce to the committee that Allegany County now has a representative on the Governor’s Youth Council: Emily Schweigart of Andover. Ms Schweigart clearly values her school and community and, based on her involvement in many different organizations, it’s clear this new Youth Council Representative will be a credit to our county.
  • Laura Hunsberger from the Cooperative Extension was also not present. Her submitted report included stats on recently hosted workshops, an update on 4H success at the county fair, 20 members had items that qualified for State Fair, and the sad news that our much-beloved Farm to School Coordinator Cassandra Bull will be leaving on September 1st. Best of luck to Cassandra as she continues her education! She will be missed but her presence will be with us for years to come.
  • County Administrator Carissa Knapp asked for committee approval to, through the Allegany County Snowmobile Federation, apply for a grant of $113K for the maintenance of snowmobile trails. Grant monies come from the NYS Office or Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, ensuring the safety and continued improvement of these trails. Mr Dibble (3) added his support to this grant application and emphasized its importance.

Budget Committee

  • County Treasurer Terri Ross reported the county is up 21.7% in sales tax revenue compared to last year, a dollar amount of $2.8 million. Mr Healy (2) asked chair Harris (5) if it would be possible to use increased sales tax revenue to reduce property taxes, to which Mr Harris responded “if you don’t increase expenses somewhere, yes”. It would take more than one year of increased tax revenue, however, to determine if a reduction in property taxes could be sustainable. If this increase in tax revenue were to become a trend in the coming years the question would be more applicable.
  • Discussion also sprang up regarding the upcoming budget hearing on September 9th. Because the hearing now occurs over one day instead of two and a half, Mr Harris (5) and Mr Healy (2) were inquiring as to ways the process could be streamlined. Possibilities included encouraging questions to be submitted ahead of time and legislators receiving their budget binders enough in advance to address  simple questions first. Regardless, they will have a long day on September 9th.

Planning and Economic Development

  • Employment and Training Director Reita Sobeck-Lynch reported a quiet month in her department as well as high numbers of people receiving unemployment insurance now beginning to start their job searches. Current COVID-related legislation allows for people to receive unemployment insurance without the normal state mandates being applied. Now that said legislation is set to expire people still receiving benefits will need to follow the normal structure of unemployment insurance. Based on the number of businesses in the county looking for workers this is an encouraging piece of news. Mr Healy (2) asked Sobeck-Lynch for clarification on benefits and job search requirements and Sobeck-Lynch replied that applicants were “taking it very seriously”. With a hint of snark in his tone Healy responded “imagine that!”
    • Sobeck-Lynch also highlighted an upcoming job fair on September 16th being held at the David A Howe Library in Wellsville, organized in conjunction with the mayor’s office, the Wellsville Chamber of Commerce, the Department of Labor, and the Workforce Development Board.
  • Planning Director H Kier Dirlam had a lot of information to present. He shared updates on projects his department was working on with the county Chamber of Commerce, sharing that the new ad campaign “Wild Souls, Wild Places”, detailed very thoroughly in the most recent issue of the Cuba Patriot, will go live on Labor Day weekend. The Planning Department is working on getting funding for two major projects in the county: improved infrastructure at Crossroads and an extension of the sewer line from the village of Alfred into the village of Almond. Committee approval was granted to apply for grants to support these projects and Dirlam was hopeful they would be funded. The county land bank had been denied a grant, which drew confusion from a legislator who was unidentified and had to be reminded to turn on their mic. According to County Administrator Knapp there were “some deficiencies” in the application, specifically not enough letters of support from the community. Fortunately, these can all be addressed if the land bank chooses to apply next year.
  • Census 2020. Mr Dirlam shared that he had received an initial data dump from the state with all its census information. After downloading multiple large files that contained 575K rows in spreadsheets Dirlam was able to provide some rough numbers to the legislators, emphasis on rough:
    • Allegany County lost 2,490 residents, a 5% population loss
    • 5 towns increased population with Centerville as the biggest winner: 107 people, a 13% increase
    • Oil Springs Reservation had a 600% increase in population. There was previously only one resident and now there are seven
    • 24 towns lost population with West Almond as the biggest loser by percentage: 18% which is roughly 60 people. Wellsville had the largest numerical loss of 333.
    • Within legislative districts, District 1, Angelica, Belfast, Caneadea, Centerville, Granger, Hume, Rushford, is the largest and District 4, Wellsville and Andover, is the smallest.
    • Dirlam noted some changes made to special housing data, such as college students, nursing homes, and correctional facilities.
    • Great surprise was noted in that the report showed a loss of 2,686 housing units in the county. Dirlam was unsure how this happened and theorized it was most likely due to changes in labels and definitions of “housing units”. This will perhaps become more clear as the data sets are further analyzed and contextualized.
    • Dirlam stressed that all this data is preliminary, stating that NYS is expected to release a “cleaned up” version in late September, making special note that the data should be easier to read and without the “nightmare tables” he had to download.
    • Ms Root (3) asked where these reports will be posted and Dirlam indicated they would be up on the Planning Board’s site.
  • Gretchen Hanchett, Director of the Greater Allegany County Chamber of Commerce, wasn’t present but sent in a report and board member Rod Biehler in her stead. Biehler highlighted participation in Fresh Air Adventures and WNY Destination Guides and the interest they’ve generated in our county. The “Wild Souls, Wild Places” ad campaign is almost ready to release six to eight 30 second tourism videos with assistance provided by Nick Davis of Genesee Valley Media. After answering some questions from Ms Hopkins regarding marketing Mr Biehler concluded that “Gretchen and Steve have done one heck of a job!”
  • Next was Craig Clark of the IDA with some good news: for the first time since he’s been involved in the IDA they’ve been receiving lots of inquiries through Empire State Development and other entities. While there’s no guarantee something will come of every request, the fact alone is noteworthy. Currently there is potential for some greenhouses, small manufacturing, and a possible call and distribution center. Clark noted there were also international companies looking at Allegany County. Recently, Clark has done two walkthroughs at the Wellsville Business Park with a potential tenant, noting “things are picking up”.
    • Green energy projects in Alfred and Hume are still in discussion phases and can move forward when contracts are in place
    • Mr Healy (2) asked for updates on Great Lakes Cheese, is the IDA still pursuing an arrangement with them? Clark has sent the company potential sites but not heard back. Currently the company is still moving forward with their plans for a facility in Franklinville. Mr Healy followed up by asking if a possible upgrade to the electrical system at the Crossroads could be done in an attempt to make the area more appealing in future inquiries. Clark indicated that while a small upgrade was going to be done to accommodate a smaller facility than the Great Lakes Cheese facility would’ve been, it seemed unlikely that a large-scale upgrade would occur without the commitment of a future tenant.
    • The IDA is still in discussions with LC Whitford, owner of the former KMart facility, for potential tenants. The Hydromec facility in Scio is still empty and Clark hasn’t heard any news regarding it.
    • Mr Healy (2) and Mr Decker (2) both spoke on a new building in Friendship to replace the former convenience store,
  • The next big discussion began when Mr Barnes (4) brought up the sale of a house recently renovated by the Allegany County Land Bank. The house is currently listed for $199.5K which aroused concern from Barnes. Was this a practical price for a one-story home on a rundown street? Clark deferred to H Kier Dirlam, County Planning Director, for a response. Dirlam stated, “the purpose of the land bank is to improve neighborhoods and put better things in perhaps than were there before. That site had no house…[it] was an empty lot” This response was peppered with Dirlam and Barnes seeming to talk over one another until Mr Dirlam prevailed in his statement. Dirlam went on to explain that the original plan was to build two houses on the lot in question but because of pricing increases and scheduling conflicts, both the result of COVID, the budget was only able to cover one house. Dirlam concluded that, regardless, the land bank would be selling the property for less than the building costs. From here began a discussion that touched on operating expenses, real market value, and philosophy of government:
    • Barnes: “that’s not a very profitable way to operate”
    • Dirlam: “the land bank is not in the business to make money”. The funding is set up with the expectation that money won’t be made on projects. “…are we making an impact? I think we are.” If this was funded by county money the method of operation would most likely be very different but this is state funding and the land bank operates the way that funding dictates.
    • Fanton: was Alfred State College supposed to help?
    • Dirlam: That had been the original plan but because of COVID and scheduling it wasn’t possible. This required them to hire contractors to do the work, significantly increasing the operating costs.
    • Clark: “I’m in big favor of the land bank”, re-emphasizing the points already made by Dirlam. With his own personal experience from working at Alfred State, Clark confirmed that this isn’t an unusual occurrence and that houses built and sold by the students rarely if ever covered the true cost in their asking price. Because of the additional added values provided, a new home for a resident, the removal of an abandoned or damaged building, the refurbishing of a dilapidated building, they are able to improve the conditions and value of  a neighborhood.

Ways and Means

  • The committee had a short agenda but ended up requiring a healthy amount of time to clarify one of the agenda items.
  • The committee voted to let clerk of the board Brenda Rigby Riehle accept an insurance check that covered repair costs of water and electrical damage in the county jail, as was discussed by Sheriff Whitney in a previous meeting of the Committee for Public Safety.  Rigby Riehle also asked to create a new clerk/typist position in her department which was approved
  • County Treasurer Terri Ross asked for approval to create a new position in her office as well, a Confidential Secretary to the Treasurer. This was also approved.
  • Next was the discussion over the county attorney positions. Currently Tom Miner is serving as the county attorney, part time. County Administrator Carissa Knapp has also been authorized to fill in this role when Miner isn’t in the building. Miner is looking to fill the positions of 2nd and 3rd Assistant County Attorney. Thus began the discussion of these positions and what differentiated them. Knapp began by stating it was merely an order of succession: if the county attorney was unavailable, the 2nd assistant was in charge and so on. Mr Harris (5), Ms Hopkins (1), Mr Barnes (4), and Ms Knapp began discussing the overly complicated situation reflected by these job titles. In short, Knapp stated the intent of keeping on the books more positions than were likely to be needed to fill. The plan from there being to allow for room to shuffle people about until a good fit is found and, hopefully, eliminating superfluous positions from there. It appeared the idea behind this approach was to prevent the continuous addition and removal of positions from the roster while a suitable arrangement was put together.

Personnel

  • The agenda for the Personnel Committee was short. They received a referral from the Ways and Means Committee regarding the Treasurer’s request to create a position within her department. After moving to vote, and before the voting took place, Mr Barnes (4) jumped in with a last minute question, mistaking this first position on the agenda for the position that was to be discussed next. In the confusion, Chair Havey (4) and the other committee members lost track of whether or not they’d officially voted on the issue. After the awkward and somewhat funny back and forth that always results from these sorts of confusions, it was confirmed from the meeting minutes that, in fact, the committee still needed to vote. They did so and the request was approved.
  • The next resolution was regarding the other position discussed by the Ways and Means Committee. As this was the position he had a question regarding, Mr Barnes (4) spoke up. Barnes went against acceptable practice and decided to speak about job performance issues that are usually reserved for the privacy of Executive Session. Noticing the direction he was going in, multiple committee members chimed in to state that such comments should not be discussed in the open meeting, rather in Executive Session. Mr Havey (4) then called for a vote to move into Executive Session where it is assumed Mr Barnes’s concerns were addressed properly and without resulting in the humiliation of an employee. After going back on the record the committee voted to approve the request and the meeting was adjourned.
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