[Editor's note: The following text is a draft of the 1999 State of the County address delivered by Raymond N. Pomeroy II in the Legislative chambers at the Sullivan County Government Center on February 8, 1999. A few paragraphs were omitted for space.]
My fellow Legislators, honored guests. When I first stood before you three years ago to report on the condition of Sullivan County, we had just begun a new experiment in government, as the first elected Legislature in the county's history.
Now we prepare to enter a new century, indeed a new millennium.
It is wise to take just a few moments to reflect on where Sullivan County has come from over the last several years.
For a long time we knew we were a county "in trouble" property taxes had increased 180% between 1986 and 1993 and many pundits believed that double-digit increases were the inevitable "way of the future." Residents said that government was "out-of step" and "not responsive." The old hotel industry was in decline; new economic projects were few and far between; our roads needed repair; our landscape was blighted, littered and run down; and there was a need to do something about "Woodstock."
Sullivan County had seen better days.
Citizens were demanding more from their government from their new government and the nine legislators sitting here today were the individuals voters chose to make those changes. People wanted representatives who placed the interest of the whole county ahead of the interests of one area. People wanted a more activist and more responsive government.
We have provided that leadership, as we have consistently addressed the difficult issues.
In fact today we find a county with its lowest unemployment figures in five years, its highest sales tax revenues in six years, its lowest reliance on short-term borrowing in years, and we stand ready to wipe out all outstanding tax anticipation notes due to tax collections... four consecutive years of surpluses, a $12-million fund balance; a smaller, more effective work force; and the first improvement in our bond rating in memory.
That bond rating is one of the guides, which the financial community outside Sullivan County uses to measure our economic health as an area. And it stands to be improved again. Since we petitioned the bond rating firms in November, much has happened.
Another budget has been adopted, on time and with no property tax increase for residents. Numerous economic development projects have come to fruition. We are continuing to show that we are not the county of the past.
So let me begin to address our future.
When the Legislature took office, it made economic development its top priority. We set about creating a plan to revive the county. We adopted a Strategy for Economic Development and two lists of projects known as Rebuilding I and Rebuilding 11. We developed a realistic plan to make Sullivan County over, through a combination of targeted government support in areas where government can do things best like grant writing and land use planning and a partnership with private industry in areas where private firms can do things best like job creation and capital investment.
Look at two of the county's nationally successful businesses that are contributing to this effort with major commitments. Alan Gerry's Granite Associates has brought hope and spirit back to Sullivan County by taking on the thorny question of "what to do with the Woodstock site" and turning it into a success called "A Day in the Garden." These seeds produced not only top-notch musical entertainment, but jobs and economic stimulus was felt throughout the region.
Frontier Insurance has committed the company's growing business to a successful future in Sullivan County with building expansions, hundreds of new jobs and now even a small conference center.
Sullivan County is on the rebound!
Last week a significant article in the national edition of The New York Times headlined to the world that Investors Stir Hope of Revival in the Catskills.
The story was responding to the remarkable fact that in the course of the last six months five major hotel properties have been turned around. New hotel owners are like new pioneers to the area.
After almost two years of bankruptcy, last month's sale of the Concord Resort will bring "the Queen" of Sullivan County's tourism industry into a new and modern era. Investor Joseph Murphy's perseverance in acquiring the property will mean the county can continue in its tradition of "first class hospitality."
After closing last year, the Pines Hotel has now been purchased by a group with plans to convert it to condominiums and also build private homes on the property.
The Laurels Country Club property at Sackett Lake has been restored to the tax roles after its sale for over a million dollars. Developers say they intend to invest millions more to build an entertainment complex.
After closing a decade ago, Grossingers Hotel in Liberty has been acquired by a new developer with the resources to bring it back as a "five-star golf resort and spa."
And the former Stevensville Hotel has, quite literally, been reborn. Now the Swan Lake Country Club this splendid faculty had a date with a bulldozer. Now it has a date to be reopened. It will begin bringing guests to the area in time for the summer season, as it provides 250 jobs to residents.
I also want to take this opportunity to recognize the role of County Attorney Ira Cohen in this revival of the hotel industry. His innovative and relentless efforts were successful in obtaining the county's share of delinquent taxes, while enabling these valuable properties to be put back in the hands of developers.
County government will continue to assist in this hotel renaissance. And we have already begun by putting, out RFP's for a convention center feasibility and marketing study.
While we are encouraged and applaud the return of these facilities, we do not wish to return to the old days of one industry dominating our economy. One of those instrumental in making sure that we also turn our efforts toward other aspects of economic development has been Legislator Bob Kunis, who chairs the Planning and Economic Development Committee and the Industrial Development Agency.
Skeptics take note. Sullivan County could see as many as a thousand new jobs become available by summer with more on the horizon as strong activity by the Partnership for Economic Development and the IDA, continue to line up commitments from new firms. Some plans are in the talking stage, some are working out financing, some are under construction, some are now hiring like Woodbourne Tank, an IDA project.
One of Sullivan County's most successful job programs is the EARN Team, which is helping those unemployed for long periods of time for a variety of reasons, to overcome barriers that have kept them out of the workforce.
Sullivan County is proud of our EARN participants.
Sullivan County must do even more to help its citizens find work. We are now developing a plan that could move individuals directly from the welfare roll into a job.
For example, the proposed Addis poultry plant will bring many new jobs to Liberty. Since the company will receive support through the county IDA, it will make "in lieu of tax" payments to the local municipalities. Let's go further and offer companies like Addis a dollar-for-dollar savings for every person they hire directly from the welfare roll... who is still working six months later.
Sullivan County's success is not all due to county government. For example, the giant retailer Wal-Mart is set to open a 200,000 square foot super-store in the Town of Thompson on April 21. Representatives of the company are already taking applications for the more than 400 positions they need to fill, the United Way and the County Center for Workforce Development are assisting.
Wal-Mart's presence is the signal that Sullivan County is on the move. In addition to new jobs, the retailer will attract new shoppers, and is expected to boost county sales tax revenues this year adding to the trend.
1998 saw a major increase in sales tax revenues, up approximately $500,000 over the previous year. Actually, Sullivan County has seen sales tax collections go up for the last six years.
This reversal of the county's economic situation is no accident and it is not hard to understand.
A sound national economy, combined with hard work and innovation by county government has produced a brighter future. We are turning the county around, swimming against a tide of neglect and decay that had come to define the Catskills for all too long. But no longer.
Make no mistake, as we face the extraordinary task of rebuilding, we must turn to innovative, perhaps even extraordinary measures to correct the problems that remain.
And there are many examples of the way government can act to make a difference.
One is the announcement that we have signed a contract for purchase of the Emerald Green Corporate Center. With assistance from the Town of Thompson, this project will move forward this spring.
Let's fast track this effort, and announce a ground-breaking date before spring.
As the Route 17 Quickway is transformed into Interstate 86 in the 21st Century, and as a renaissance in the county's tourism industry is underway, a Sullivan County Visitors Center will become the gateway for millions of people. Funding has already been approved, the preliminary engineering work is underway.
The last task is to move toward a location that meets all the criteria: one that is on Route 17; one that offers a breath-taking view to welcome visitors; one that presents the "county as a whole" to visitors; and one that meets the needs of travelers without being encumbered by other activities. The right thing for government to do is, to proceed with the project. I pledge tonight that we will take action to break ground on this facility this year.
As our revival broadens, we also need to dream a bit about concepts just in their infancy. A stronger economy will enable us to find new funding partners for other projects like the Neversink Learning Center and as Legislator Richard Levine has suggested why not an observatory to go with it, and the Native New Yorker Hall of Fame, and the Catskill Entertainers Hall of Fame.
One of the problems of our past was the unrealistic hope that a big pot of gold was waiting to be found through the introduction of casino gambling.
This legislature has supported Assemblyman Jake Gunther's efforts to place the issue of casinos in the Catskills before the public and to endorse private sector plans to site an Indian-run casino in Sullivan County, specifically at Monticello Raceway. We will continue to do so.
But we can't afford to wait for or even depend upon the arrival of gaming. Sullivan County is on the move right now. We will not wait for decisions to be made in Albany or Atlantic City or on an Indian reservation to decide our economic well-being.
We will put our own house in order and the place to start is with a tax cut. This legislature has been diligent and resourceful in keeping the county share of property taxes stable. From 1993 to 1999 the tax levy has gone up just 2-percent, a remarkable turn-around that began with the final Board of Supervisors, which deserves recognition for starting that effort. In refusing to raise the tax levy over the last six years, we have made buy one exception, a 2-percent increase placed into a dedicated fund to fix roads and develop the economy.
But as good as our record, is, we must do better. We must now lower taxes, both as a symbol of our commitment to responsible government and because homeowners need relief from high property taxes.
There is such a way.
I will be submitting a proposal to the legislature that calls for a 3% property tax cut to begin in our next budget to be funded entirely by the county's portion of the tobacco settlement.
Over the years taxpayers have incurred a public health expense to pay for the results of tobacco use. Now the comprehensive settlement with the tobacco industry will bring billions of dollars into New York State in compensation. Sullivan County's share will be about a million dollars annually for the next 25 years.
We should not allow this tobacco money to go up in smoke, we should give it back to the people who have borne the costs over the years the taxpayers. These funds will insure that this 3% property tax cut remains stable for the next 25 years.
In his annual "State of the State" address last month, the Governor proposed additional state money to address children's health problems like asthma and diabetes. He said, "Keeping our children healthy is not an option, it's an obligation."
If we believe that, and I do, then we have to admit that New York State still doesn't go far enough. Children's health begins with the health of the family in which they live the most difficult aspect in meeting health care needs of children is our large, rural county.
Some of the tobacco money must be used to improve health.
Over the coming days 201 weeks we will be outlining a plan that provides $2.5 million dollars over the next 25 years for a targeted health initiative to reach those who are under-served in Sullivan County.
We will call upon the trustees and staff at Community General Hospital to administer this new "Sullivan Health Fund" over the next two-and-a-half decades, as an indication of our support for the primary medical facility in our county.
Working with county Public Health Nursing, Community General will be able to provide greater outreach to those in need through a mobile health care unit or van, paid for through 10% of the tobacco money, or about $100,000, annually.
I'd like to recognize the new CEO of the hospital, Brian Buonanni, board president Joyce Salimeno, and all the hospital trustees here in the audience. We will do everything in our power to make sure that families living in Fremont and Cochecton know they have the same access to care as those living in Wurtsboro or Livingston Manor.
That is why we have combined the health and family services committees, as we continue to refine and define the county's role in public health.
To that end I am naming vice-chairman Gordon MacKinnon to head a series of special forums on health care issues in Sullivan County.
And I call upon legislator, Steve Kurlander who first suggested this concept, and on all my fellow legislators, to join this process.
I believe this hearing process will allow you, the public, to help those of us in public service to focus on the real problems and find common sense and affordable answers.
There is one other health and safety issue I must address tonight.
The day will soon come, when every child, every senior citizen, every visitor and guest to our county will be able to call for emergency help and know that assistance is on the way, even if they are unable to speak or don't know where they are.
I'm talking, of course, about 911 the emergency response system that Sullivan County has been "readying" for several years. Completely funded through money you pay on your phone bill, we expect 911 to be on line later this year.
I can tell you that the system is on track. Emergency dispatchers should be moving into our newly completed 911 building this spring.
Throughout the Legislature's term we have often spoken the phrase "Rebuilding Sullivan County" It has been our theme in many different areas. Clearly one that had gone neglected too long was our infrastructure.
The single biggest benefit that most residents receive from paying their county taxes is maintenance of a good road system. Reliable roads in a rural area are not a luxury, they are the lifeline that allows us to get to work and school, to shop for groceries and other essential goods, to get to the doctor's and dentist's office, to attend worship service of our choice in short, to be part of a community. In this tourist destination, good roads and bridges take on the added burden of becoming an economic development tools.
The largest share of our discretionary spending goes for highway maintenance, snow plowing, bridge repair, and similar tasks.
For years county government took the approach that if costs were to be kept down, the first and easiest place to look for the savings was in the Division of Public Works.
This Legislature has refused to take that approach because deferring maintenance does not make the need go away.
Today under the leadership of legislator Rodney Gaebel, who chairs the Public Works Committee, we are in the second of a two-year program to rebuild our infrastructure with millions of dollars going directly and specifically to the roads. Combined with New York State's recent construction in Liberty, Thompson and elsewhere, Sullivan County has never witnessed a road rebuilding program of the magnitude that occurred last summer. This summer you will see the same aggressive commitment as we enter the program's second year.
Even so it is not enough. Today I am announcing that I will ask the Legislature to extend this road and bridge program into a third year to continue the formidable job of rebuilding and putting the county closer to its goal of regular and sustainable maintenance for its highways.
It is also time to turn our attention toward the county buildings, which serve the public. In addition to moving our emergency dispatchers into the new 911 center at the County Airport in April, a new Community Services Building will open in the completely renovated old Adult Care Center at the Liberty Complex. This will allow us to leave a costly lease in an inadequate and temporary facility, and deliver mental health services in a new structure designed to meet the needs of both clients and staff alike.
Yet years of neglect have left many county buildings still in need of more work. This legislature must commit to the $1.7 million program that was recently discussed in the Public Works Committee.
However the gem of all county structures, the Lawrence Cooke Courthouse in Monticello, will take more than a quick patch to make it right. Quick fixes were something the county has been doing for years. Now it's time to renovate and reconstruct this historic building which serves as the symbol of our county seat.
Sullivan County is soliciting "requests for proposals" from architectural firms, to find just the right company, that knows how to bring back the glory of one of New York State's oldest "Halls of Justice" without taking a blind eye to the costs taxpayers will have to contribute.
Last year we made a major commitment to continue secondary education here in the county by firmly and unambiguously supporting Sullivan County Community College.
The county's decision to provide $5 million in bonding for SCCC, to be matched by the same amount from the State Board of Regents, represents the first significant rebuilding of our community college in nearly 30 years. I am proud that this legislature has led the way. It should clearly signal that we believe education plays an important role in the county's future.
I would also like to mention that the county DPW obtained an over $3 million dollar federal grant to repair and reconstruct the runway at the county airport at White Lake. We believe this modernization will help market the airport for commercial development.
One last point about buildings. While we fix up county structures, as Legislator Leni Binder has suggested, it is also past time that we take one of the surplus properties acquired by the county for non-payment of taxes, and turn it into a homeless shelter, in conjunction with private, non-profit organizations addressing the problem. A small facility will help provide temporary emergency overnight lodging.
These are ambitious programs. Maybe if we had been investing all along, we wouldn't have found the need to address so many things at once. Fortunately, as I mentioned earlier, our bond rating has improved, so it costs less to finance construction and we remain well within our cap for a prudent amount of bonding. To date the greatest amount of bonding has been caused by our landfill, a mountain of debt. So let me say just a word about the county landfill and this legislature's willingness to tackle the issue head on. Our problem has always been more than a mountain of garbage, it is that mountain of debt.
When we came into office, we faced millions of dollars in bonded indebtedness arising directly from the landfill. Even if we never took another bag of garbage and closed it tonight, we would still have to pay off those bonds and new costs associated with shutting it down. All told, over $40 million dollars.
Last month my colleagues and I agreed to put in place an orderly plan to close the landfill permanently over the next 10 years. That decision was made in the face of an offer which could have brought millions of dollars to taxpayers and a vastly expanded dumping facility.
We have achieved a middle ground, a new balance, if you will, that guarantees money will be set aside to close the landfill in a decade and monitor it for 30 more. Residents now have a certain end date, and more importantly, a way to pay for it.
Let me take a moment to something I almost never do, respond to a recent newspaper article. The story suggested that Sullivan County was "Prime for Crime."
I do not wish to pick a fight, especially one I can't win. But on behalf of the residents of this county, all the law enforcement officials who work so hard, especially our District Attorney and Sheriff, the second homeowners, and all the visitors to this county, I wish that newspaper had told the whole story.
I wish the newspaper had showed that overall crime has dropped in Sullivan County, that burglaries, robberies, auto theft, have all declined. I wish the story had explained how arrests, prosecutions and convictions are up across the board.
Instead of just a few paragraphs, I wish the paper had really elaborated on how misleading the state collection of statistics is since its methodology doesn't count out huge summer population when figuring the crime rate based on 70,000 full-time residents.
I have often heard the district attorney describe how the state's method distorts the crime rate. So today, I have sent a letter to the state officials responsible for these crime records and for annual justice policy, asking for a clarification.
Are they saying that these crime statistics are accurate, so accurate as to require an infusion of state resources into Sullivan County including a new State Police barracks in Monticello... or will these state officials concede that their is something wrong with figures published in that recent story and they do not adequately explain the amount of crime faced by a community.
But with all the renewed interest in Sullivan County, we must aggressively answer the question raised by this article. I will rely on our law enforcement professionals to tell us: if new strategies are needed. But if this story is the result of the poor manner in which statistics are gathered, then someone owes us an apology.
When this legislature came into existence in 1996, we examined 2000 responses from a survey of our residents. Striking in the survey was the number of residents who thought that changing the appearance of the county was the single most important thing that would spur tourism and economic development.
Beginning with Sullivan First and the incredible effort it is doing to clean up the county, this legislature has been supportive of many projects to improve the county's aesthetic appearance. This is not a casual effort to redecorate the area by moving around the furniture. It is a complete "make over" of the county, turning around our image by actually becoming a better place.
We are fighting for our future in a world of eco-tourism a world gone "green" where people care about litter on the street, run down buildings and attractive Main Streets.
As I stand before you tonight, let me say that you can already see a difference. Sullivan County looks better.
The "Lander Initiative" suggested by Legislator Bob Lander has been taking down blighted and unsafe buildings in the 15 towns and 6 villages, one structure at a time. The county will continue to fund this program, which allows municipalities to focus on the problems they identify as the one most needing attention.
Sometimes the county acquires some of these problem buildings through the foreclosure process. Tonight I am announcing our intention of enlarging the "Lander Initiative" to include county-owned buildings in need of demolition.
The Route 17 task force brought together county government and the office of Assemblyman Jake Gunther. It succeeded in getting increased DOT maintenance along the Quickway, and then launched the innovative adopt-an-exit program... the first of its kind in New York State DOT officials tell us that three other counties want to implement the idea in their communities.
Now we must use the same model, and turn our attention to a task force for Route 17B, the artery which provides access to our airport, the original Woodstock site, the very heart of our county. Last summer's "Day in the Garden" concerts answered the Woodstock dilemma for most residents in a positive and progressive way. This year we are told that the site will be further developed with more activities planned.
Most of Route 17B lies in the district of Legislator Chris Cunningham, who will spearhead this effort. The task force will tackle such issues as planning, aesthetics and billboards. It's work to insure that visitors along Route 17B will see the county at its best.
The National Park Service, counts over a quarter of a million visitors to the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River every year, we need to continue efforts to turn Route 97 on the western end of the county into a scenic byway. I'm pleased to announce that our planning division has secured a $120,000 grant from DOT to prepare corridor management plan to put the scenic designation in place.
Like all the issues I raise tonight, there is more to be done, more ways to build on what we have already begun.
And perhaps no single program better illustrates the connection between aesthetic improvement and economic development than our Main Street Redevelopment Center. Once the very pride of our county, the main streets of our villages and hamlets were vibrant, attractive centers of public life. Many still are in Roscoe, Jeffersonville, Narrowsburg, Wurtsboro to name a few.
Others like Mountaindale are literally being resurrected.
And still others need our attention and commitment. For example, the Village of Monticello is finalizing plans for a complete reconstruction of Broadway, with a $3.5 million grant from New York State DOT.
The county is helping through our Main Street Center, which has been funded with $200,000 in state money. To date 20 buildings are complete, with 40 more ready to go.
As one building is done, nearby businesses become interested and a waiting list has developed. Shop owners are rushing to improve the fronts of their stores. That is why tonight I ask the legislature to join me in calling for $200,000 in new money for those on the waiting list so we can again find our Main Streets the centers of commerce in our villages and hamlets. Half should come from county dollars.
Finally let me say something directly about the future. I have pointed to the achievements of an activist legislature and outlined new programs and commitments. Part of why this legislature has been so successful, has been our ability to communicate where we want to go to County Manager Jonathan Drapkin and his ability to figure out how to get us there.
Next week on the 18th a majority of this body will approve an amendment to the charter allowing us to make a one-year extension in his contract. I call upon all my colleagues to join with me in making this a unanimous vote. It would express a sentiment voiced by the majority of citizens and all of the area press one consistent with the outstanding ratings he has received.
As we look toward the future, I believe it is essential that we build stability into the process, so the county's incredible turn-around is allowed to go forward without interruption. The best hope of continuing our progress in the first part of next year is to keep Jonathan Drapkin and his team in place until a new legislature can decide its own course.
We know that government cannot, and should not, do everything. As lawmakers, we are aware that where possible, government should be smaller, leaner, and more effective. Through restructuring county departments and consolidating services and by privatizing in areas where industry can do the job as well or better than the public sector without: laying anyone off, we can reduce the taxpayer's contribution.
The legislature is committed to continuing its consolidation efforts at the county level, but it is time to focus attention on consolidation in the inter-governmental arena.
As we move to the 21st Century, New York State ranks tenth in the number of taxing districts. Here in Sullivan County, we have a county legislature, 15 towns, 6 villages, 41 fire departments, 21 ambulance corps, 10 school districts, countless special lighting, water and sewer districts, 21 separate departments for maintaining our roads, separate courts in many towns and most villages, separate tax collectors, property assessors, dog officers, zoning and planning boards. If it exists, Sullivan County has a dozen of them, or more.
Clearly something needs to be done. But the public sends mixed messages about consolidation whenever it is put to a vote. The tri-school merger in western Sullivan is a splendid idea that was strongly supported by a majority of those effected and backed by each of the county legislators whose district would be included. But it narrowly missed approval in one of the three districts and a second vote must occur in May.
Last month Liberty residents rejected a plan to construct three separate firehouses, seemingly saying they wanted consolidation. Now the Village of Liberty is studying the idea of going out of business.
Let's approach this issue with the future in mind, figuring a way to join together so no one loses a job, everyone saves money, and services are improved.
Some of it is already happening. Jeffersonville and the Town of Callicoon already have just one court system; the towns of Thompson, Rockland and Highland already use the county's salt and sand sheds.
This year the legislature has given the county manager the go-ahead for "Sullivan 2009"... and funded the program to the tune of $150,000 to examine how to consolidate over the next ten years leading up to the county's bicentennial. The money will be used for studies to determine actual savings.
Next week he will announce specifics on how to access the funding and the members of an advisory panel that will look into the future, consider realistic goals, and begin to draft a roadmap on tow to get there.
Government must shape itself for the age of computers, casting off some of the forms and procedures that served well in the horse and buggy age. We must streamline, modernize, reinvent ourselves.
Such a challenge won't be easy or fool-proof. Nothing in life is, we come to learn as we grow a little.
But let us face this new year, this new millennium with our hopes and dreams, not with our cynicism and doubt.
Let us say "we know the road is hard," but also that "it is not impossible."
We are the first legislature, in Sullivan County history. We have worked diligently to improve the county economic condition, to fix the infrastructure, to better the quality of life for our residents.
We now begin to complete the last of our four-year term. As chairman of this body, I am proud to report that the state of the county is good, better than it was a year ago, and much better than we found it when we took office.
Finally, I report that we will begin the 21st Century in good stead, with our future prospects outstanding.
God bless all of you... and God bless Sullivan County.
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