Resurgent Erie County economy adds to "Foundation for our Future"
Hundreds in attendance as county executive highlights successes of past year, issues call for action on challenges facing Erie County
On Thursday, Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz was joined by elected officials, business and community leaders, and concerned citizens as he delivered his 2015 State of the County address at the Mason O. Damon Auditorium in the central branch of the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library System.
Speaking before a crowd of nearly 300 people in a sweeping 45-minute speech, Poloncarz highlighted successes of the first three years of his administration while also acknowledging the challenges facing the community and proposing actions to address those challenges and "lift all boats."
The county executive described Erie County's growing economy, record of fiscal responsibility, efficient delivery of programs and services, and robust provision of public health and safety as "Foundations for our Future" while giving numerous examples of growth in these areas over the past three years.
"Today, there are possibilities and opportunities in place here in Erie County that our forefathers could never have imagined and, in some ways, maybe we could not have imagined just five years ago. Over the past three years, my administration has been putting in place a foundation for our future that builds on the strengths we have, reinforces successful programs and partnerships, and allows ample room for growth so that all may share in Erie County's renaissance," Poloncarz said. "Government, at its core, is a representation of its people. It should be aspirational in nature - a manifestation of our better angels - and be the captain of our communal ship setting the course for all.
"Now is the time for action, to give those at the lowest rung of our societal ladder the tools they need to climb higher and provide for their families. We cannot let this incredible 'New Erie County' just benefit the select few. I know, if we work together, we can lift all boats as Erie County's tide rises."
Poloncarz enumerated several of his administration's achievements from the past three years, including:
•Successes in many of his administration's "Initiatives for a Smart Economy," the 64-point economic development plan Poloncarz unveiled in June 2013. Among these successes are the redevelopment of the Bethlehem Steel site, the establishment of a WNY Sustainable Business Roundtable, the creation of a smart growth fund for use in the community development block grant consortium area, and the creation of the new North Youngmann Commerce Center Park in Tonawanda;
•The creation of a "one-stop shop" for economic development at 95 Perry St., bringing major local economic development agencies together under one roof to streamline the process for potential businesses exploring an Erie County location;
•The passage of three on-time Erie County budgets, including the 2015 budget that contains a modest tax decrease;
•The opening of the Erie County health mall in 2014, which has seen more than 10,000 visitors for the physical, dental and mental health services offered there;
•Erie County's reinvigorated credit rating, the result of prudent fiscal stewardship from the Poloncarz administration, has risen to its highest level in a decade;
•The settling of contracts with public sector unions representing Erie County workers, which has resulted in long-term retiree health care savings to taxpayers of at least $136 million; and
•Robust investment of $60 million in the past two years to repair roads and infrastructure around Erie County, with plans to allocate an additional $25 million in 2015.
In addition to successes with the "Initiatives for a Smart Economy," Poloncarz also spotlighted his administration's goals for the future, including the full implementation of his recently released health and human services plan, "Initiatives for a Stronger Community." The 49 initiatives in the plan address community-wide issues in promoting lifelong health; strengthening children, families and schools; building economic and financial independence; and providing help where and when it is needed.
The initiatives are as varied as:
•Educating employers about the benefits of employing disabled workers to creating a volunteer-based poverty committee to advise health and human service departments on how best to address the community needs;
•Strengthening families by co-locating mental health and substance abuse counselors in the child protective service division to help parents cope with the stresses that often lead to child abuse;
•Supporting microenterprise opportunities in rural communities to increase the number of child care facilities and create more respite care opportunities for adults who are taking care of loved ones in need; and
•Establishing a new Americans advisory council that will report directly to Poloncarz so the county can better address the needs of a rapidly expanding immigrant population.
Among the initiatives are the already-established and successful PIVOT program, which matches public assistance clients to local employers searching for particular skill sets. The program received national attention as a successful model last year when two employees from the Erie County Department of Social Services provided testimony to a congressional sub-committee on PIVOT's accomplishments.
When talking about his health and human services plan, Poloncarz said, "We know, as a community, we are only as a strong as are our weakest members. This time, among all recent times, is a propitious one to take on the task of addressing the great need in our community. If we do not do so now, when the sun and tides are both rising, we will never do it. Providing a strong foundation for our citizens will strengthen the entire foundation of our community."