by Chairman William L. Ross
I want to thank my legislative colleagues for your vote of confidence in selecting me as the 2013 chairman of the Niagara County Legislature. It is an honor and a pleasure to address you this evening (Jan. 2) on the state of the county.
I want to begin by wishing everyone in the legislative chambers and the outside listening audience a happy, healthy and safe new year for 2013.
Tonight's State of the County Address will review the legislative highlights and disappointments of 2012, 2012 economic development accomplishments, 2013 economic development priorities, the 2013 adopted budget and the 2013 goals for Niagara County government. It has to be remembered that the State of the County Address is a blueprint and there may be changes during the 2013 legislative year.
The New York state 2 percent property tax law of 2011 has been successful in limiting the tax increases that a local government or school district could impose upon their constituents. A property tax law was sorely needed to provide relief to millions of New York state taxpayers.
Unfortunately, it forgot its promise of offering local government relief from scores of unfunded state mandates that are leading in the direction of a critical fiscal cliff for many county governments across New York state.
It would be unfair to suggest that Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the State Legislature have done nothing to relieve local taxpayers. First and foremost is the tax cap, which generally holds property tax increases to 2 percent. But Cuomo and the State Legislature have done more by agreeing to gradually take over increases in state Medicaid costs over the next three years and creating a new pension tier that will save property taxpayers money in years to come.
The governor and the State Legislature have to show that they understand the crushing burden of unfunded state mandates, which can account for nearly all of the county's property tax levy by more mandate relief.
The list of possible mandate targets is long and includes: Medicaid, youth detention, indigent defense, public assistance, pre-school (early intervention and special education pre-K) and the unsustainable pension contributions that are strangling local governments. A fiscal cliff for county governments must be avoided.
Remember always, state mandates impact county property taxes and we as county legislators believe local property taxes should be used to help finance local services like programs for the aging, parks and recreation, public safety, public health, highways/bridges, water, sewer and promoting economic development.
The 2013 Niagara County adopted budget was difficult and the county manager, the county manager's team and department heads worked diligently to successfully meet targeted reductions. The decisions made did not come easy because of deep cuts needed. The result was a balanced budget that responsibly funded necessary programs that are vital to the residents of Niagara County. Remember, this 2013 adopted budget had to work through an extra Medicaid payment of $1.7 million, another million dollar plus increase in county government pension contributions, a reduction in A.E.S. county property taxes, increased health insurance costs and further reductions in budgeted revenues from federal and state agencies.
The key factors surrounding 2013 are summarized as follows:
Property tax rate for 2013 will be held to an increase of $0.09 or 1.9 percent per $1,000 of assessed valuation. The average projected county tax on a property assessed at $100,000 would therefore increase by $9.
The Niagara County sales tax revenue is projected to increase by $2.5 million from 2012.
There were several high points that occurred in the county, during the Niagara County Legislature's 2012 calendar year:
•The Niagara County Community College Culinary Institute in downtown Niagara Falls. The beautiful $26 million venue is a showpiece that will be able to provide for 1,000 students in the renovated Rainbow Mall.
•The Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station and the actions to save the 107th Airlift Wing.
•The Nik Wallenda tightrope walk over the falls, which was approved by the New York State Legislature and the Province of Ontario government, along with the leadership of the local Niagara County state legislators. This was a great transfusion for local tourism.
•The Western New York Regional Economic Development Council, consisting of Allegany, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Erie and Niagara counties, which are one of the 10 councils in New York state who for the second consecutive year competed for millions for economic development. The W.N.Y. Regional Economic Development Council was awarded $53 million for 2012 along with $100 million in 2011.
•The completion of the federal mandate on narrow banding for all counties. The process is proceeding with approval of the draft generic environmental impact statement.
•The A.E.S. Town of Somerset coal burning energy plant was placed back in full services during the past summer, which included the retention of its workforce.
•Niagara County's Government Rural Transportation System has taken action to provide bus service within Lockport after the NFTA Metrolink Route 201 was shut down on Nov. 30.
•The establishing of NORA (Niagara Orleans Regional Alliance) to solve common problems shared by the two counties.
There were also low points or disappointments that could in some cases impact Niagara County government and in particular the 2013 county budget:
•I am again repeating in this State of the County Address that the New York State 2 percent property tax cap law of 2011 places much needed restrictions on escalating local property taxes, but does not provide enough mandate relief for counties.
•The threat of the elimination of the 107th Airlift Wing - New York Air National Guard was the big story in the first half of 2012. The loss of its 824 personnel and the $55 million economic impact would be devastating to Niagara County and adjacent areas. A coalition of local, state and federal government officials were able to help remove the 107th Airlift Wing from the closure list and a new mission is forthcoming. The local Niagara Military Affairs Council (NIMAC) organization and two county consulting firms played an important role, along with strong support from the Niagara County government. NIMAC received a grant of $125,000 and Niagara County $300,000. The grant money is to continue the work toward guaranteeing the retention of the 107th Airlift Wing as part of Team Niagara at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station. The 914th Airlift Wing and the 107th Airlift Wing are certainly a dynamic duo at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station.
•The Niagara Falls International Airport and its emerging passenger service at the new air terminal was seriously impacted on March 13 when Direct Air, one of the three airlines operating out of Niagara Falls, shut down operations, which in one week led to the bankruptcy of this air service. This was a serious setback for passenger service at Niagara Falls, and all agencies led by the NFTA have worked to overcome this serious setback.
The two other airlines, Spirit and Allegiant, are doing well and have promised new destinations in the near future. The Niagara Falls International Airport complex with its surrounding shovel ready sites is considered the "Economic Engine" of Niagara County.
The last few calendar years were tough for everyone. The staff of the Niagara County Economic Development Center was challenged to keep economic development in Niagara County moving forward, despite the economic climate. The Niagara County Economic Development Center focused on five areas during the last three years, which included:
•Creating and capitalizing on opportunities in these difficult times.
•Strengthening N.C.E.D.C. outreach initiatives.
•Closing deals and seeing tangible results in terms of capital investment and job creation.
•Securing funds for local projects through earlier stimulus funds and other sources.
•Always planning for the future.
The following are the Niagara County Economic Development 2012 accomplishments and 2013 priorities.
•Niagara County Brownfields Program - $525,000 in grants were awarded for environmental assessment and cleanup work ongoing at nearly 30 brownfield sites.
•Shovel-ready development sites - The Cambria Technology Park and Niagara Airport Commercial Park were certified as "shovel-ready" by Empire State Development and are now actively being marketed to businesses.
•Business Growth and Retention Program - Sixty Niagara County companies were contacted with information about available business programs. The Business Growth and Retention Program operates under the premise that 80 percent of all new jobs are created by existing companies.
•Empower Niagara Program - Seven companies are now receiving Empower Niagara low-cost power. These companies will invest nearly $18 million, retain 379 jobs and create an additional 175 new jobs in Niagara County. A startup company, Niagara Envelope, was awarded an Empower Niagara allocation in 2012. The company will invest $424,000 and create 18 new jobs over the next couple of years.
•Business Enhancement Awards - More than $40,000 in grants were awarded to 20 Niagara County business associations to support new marketing efforts and business district improvement projects.
•Tourism - Direct support continues to be provided for sport fishing promotion, restoration of the Erie Canal "Flight of Five" Locks and other tourism initiatives.
•Western New York Regional Economic Development Council - Niagara County continues to participate on the regional council, providing input on key economic policies, priority projects and other initiatives.
•Niagara Falls International Airport - An economic impact analysis was prepared in support of military and civilian operations at Niagara Falls International Airport. In addition, the Niagara Airport Commercial Park is "shovel-ready" and actively being marketed for development, planning continues for reuse of the former Niagara Falls Army Reserve site and the Niagara Falls Stakeholders Group is marketing NFIA for expanded passenger service.
•Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station - A $300,000 Military Base Retention Grant was secured from Empire State Development to support base retention efforts.
•Niagara County Brownfields Program - Another $180,000 grant will be awarded to assist brownfield cleanup efforts.
•Shovel-Ready Development Sites - New sites are being examined to add to the inventory of state-certified shovel-ready development sites, expanding development opportunities.
•Business Growth and Retention Program - Another 60 Niagara County companies will be contacted with information on business programs to support their retention and expansion in Niagara County.
•Empower Niagara Program - The remaining 1.2 megawatts of low-cost power available through the Empower Niagara Program will be marketed to companies to help them locate or expand in Niagara County.
•Business Enhancement Awards - Another $35,000 to $40,000 in grants will be awarded to Niagara County business associations to enhance local business districts.
•Niagara Falls International Airport - Tourism packages are being created to market Niagara County tourism destinations through existing passenger airlines.
•Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station - The $300,000 Military Base Retention Grant secured from Empire State Development will be used to communicate the importance of the air base and to enhance its competitiveness by promoting the retention and expansion of missions.
The Niagara County Legislature will be addressing many issues in 2013, which can be identified as goals. Many of these goals occur on an annual basis. I am listing 10 goals for 2013, but that list is subject to change as the Niagara County Legislature moves through the 2013 calendar year.
1. Annual budget - The proposed budget should always be working in the direction of less spending, smaller government and lower property taxes while still providing county residents with vital services and working to remain within the boundaries of the New York state 2 percent property tax law.
2. State-imposed unfunded mandates - Continue work with our local state legislators and the New York State Association of Counties to create a roadmap to mandate relief.
3. Economic development - The Niagara County Legislature strongly supports economic development as one of the best ways to reduce property tax and provide employment (Niagara Falls International Airport, Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station and shovel-ready sites).
4. Consolidation of various functions of county government - The consolidation of various functions of county government is feasible and shared services with other public sector entities can reduce county taxes.
5. Retention of the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station - The 914th and 107th airlift wings at the base are the number one employer and the number one payroll in Niagara County. Niagara County must retain this strategic and highly valuable venue.
6. Agriculture and tourism - Agriculture and tourism remain important keys to Niagara County's economic growth. Niagara County provides funds to Cornell Cooperative Extension for the promotion of county agriculture, the 4-H program and agricultural information for Niagara County residents.
7. Niagara County Community College - Niagara County is the main sponsor of this "jewel" of post-secondary education. There are more than 7,000 students who attend NCCC at reasonable tuition fees. The opening of the new Culinary Institute in downtown Niagara Falls is an outstanding addition to NCCC.
8. CWM and Lake Ontario Ordinance Works (Niagara Falls Storage Site) - The Niagara County Legislature through resolutions to our state government will be against any further expansion of the CWM hazardous waste site and support for the removal of radioactive waste at the NFSS, formerly known as L.O.O.W.
9. A.E.S. - The Town of Somerset coal burning energy plant came back online with retention of its workforce. Niagara County government will lose 75 percent of the new property tax assessment with A.E.S.
10. Public safety - The safety of Niagara County residents is a prime mission of the Niagara County Sheriff's Office road patrols. A Silver Alert has been in place for two years to protect senior citizens with dementia who wander off. Niagara County Public Safety includes the Sheriff's Office, district attorney's office, public defenders, probation, conflicts attorneys, domestic violence, and of course, the mandated Niagara County Jail.
The Niagara County Legislature faces an extremely difficult 2014 budget year. The county knows that Medicaid costs will rise $475,000, pension fund contributions will increase by $1.2 million and the county will lose $858,000 from the restructuring of the tax assessment for the Town of Somerset coal burning power plant.
Niagara County government will work to counter a difficult 2014 budget year with its Niagara Team. The Niagara Team begins with Niagara County employees who provide excellent services to the residents of Niagara County. The county legislature realizes the wage freeze has been painful, but these employees deliver everyday and are one of the county's great strengths.
The Niagara County Legislature has the responsibility of providing essential county services to the residents of Niagara County. The current legislators are a talented and diversified group who believe in teamwork, compromising when necessary and on most occasions limiting discussion to legitimate issues related to county business.
The Niagara County Legislature using the resources listed below and its 1,385 employees can provide effective, efficient and fiscally responsible county government.
•A county manager whose professional experience and expertise is fully utilized.
•County manager's team (budget director, human resources director and risk management director), along with department heads and commissioners.
•County attorney's team
•The Niagara County Administrative Code
•The 2009 Niagara County Comprehensive Plan
The Niagara County Legislature realizes the importance of communication for our constituents. The legislature will continue to support the public comment periods at our scheduled meetings. The availability of the county website, published phone numbers of the county legislators, legislator involvement in community meetings and events and in some cases scheduled county legislator district meetings all help promote effective communication in county government.
I will continue this open door policy at my office in the courthouse at Lockport for any Niagara County resident.
A Niagara County legislator understands good communication can lead to better understanding of county government.
The Niagara County Legislature will continually work toward making Niagara County a better place to live, raise a family and support more prosperous times in our Niagara community.
May God bless America.