CANTON — Fiscal cautionary tales, capitalizing on assets and how best to serve the St. Lawrence County public were major goals county legislators focused on Thursday night during their 2020 organizational meeting.
Following his being voted into a second term as legislative chairman, Joseph R. Lightfoot, R-Ogdensburg, cautioned the board to be “very, very careful and be very attentive about what comes before the board in this upcoming year.”
“What we are looking at from the state of New York is a financial disaster, and as you all know, when the state has financial difficulties, it’s counties that are brought up to pay for those financial difficulties,” Mr. Lightfoot said. “It has already started in that Medicaid is going to be reduced by one percent going forward and that’s just a start in my estimation.”
He said in the past few months 25 new positions have been brought before the board which were “pretty expensive,” and there were more to come.
Moreover, Mr. Lightfoot pointed to the state using a portion of sales tax revenue from counties to supplement the $59 million cut in Aid and Incentives for Municipalities funding in the 2019-2020 budget.
“And just a word of caution, why we should be looking at this is this Raise the Age law,” he said. “There is an exception, but if the counties do not remain underneath the tax cap, we lose Raise the Age money, that could be significant.”
“So all I am asking is that we pay very special attention to the positions that we are looking at and the moneys that we are spending, and that’s just about everything,” he said. “If we get footloose and fancy free with the taxpayers’ money, if we start putting on people that maybe we don’t need to put on, I hate to see us have to lay people off because we need to stay underneath the tax cap in order to get the funding that is guaranteed to us, so I would ask for your diligence, I would ask for your focus on personnel matters and financial matters.”
Legislator David A. Haggard, D-Potsdam, said the Democratic caucus had discussed goals it wants to see the county work toward together, including creating a leadership structure that assures transparency for all stakeholders, in particular, the public it serves.
“We also set a goal as a caucus to create a process for increased accountability for community services,” Mr. Haggard said. “In addition, we set a goal to increase awareness of the challenges faced by constituents and finally, identify the top priorities for 2020 via strategic planning with stakeholders, particularly with a focus on high-risk, high-volume and problem-prone services.”
Legislator John H. Burke, R-Norfolk, looked to the services provided to those in the county that were struggling with poverty, specifically children, who he called the most vulnerable of those in the county. What was missing, he said, was a better understanding of that demographic and he sought some more solid figures in order to provide critical mental health and substance abuse services.
“We are above the state average in poverty. It’s, I think, four points above the state average, and as it relates to mental health and substance abuse, as it relates to the provision of services, I think before we make any decision as to what direction we should go, we need a solid base of information,” Mr. Burke said. “To the best of my knowledge, nobody has clearly described the extent of the problem that we have with mental illness and substance abuse. My gut reaction is that there are many gaps that we have to get filled. Again, that’s a shot from the hip that I think, as we move forward, we need to have solid information to base future decisions on.”
Additionally, Mr. Burke asked that the board examine assets such as space on towers and land that could be marketed for solar panel use.
“I don’t believe we have taken any action to market the space on our towers, so I think these are lost opportunities, and I think that it is time that we capitalize on the assets that we have,” he said.
Legislator Kevin D. Acres, R-Madrid, agreed that data was needed to make decisions, particularly concerning community services as far as clinics in the county but said his focus was that of the county infrastructure.
“The major priority for me, and I would hope for others, is the roads and bridges that everyone in this county rides on and drives on and has to function and move their goods and services,” Mr. Acres said. “So when we are 40 percent efficiency I think that my constituents and I believe yours, too, would want to be focusing on our dilapidated infrastructure as far as transportation.”
Mr. Lightfoot tasked County Administrator Ruth A. Doyle with reaching out to department heads and other resources to obtain statistics regarding poverty numbers and those utilizing children’s services, social services, as well as how to market vacant tower space and land for solar panels.
Mrs. Doyle said she would have that information presented to the board in the coming months.