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State of the County: McNall says redouble budget efforts

Wed, Jan 18th 2017 09:40 am
Niagara County Legislature Chairman Wm. Keith McNall, R-Lockport, delivers his 2017 State of the County address. The speech focused heavily on goals for county government, and urged the county stay the course with a fiscal agenda that cut spending over the previous year and lowered property taxes to their lowest rate this century.
Niagara County Legislature Chairman Wm. Keith McNall, R-Lockport, delivers his 2017 State of the County address. The speech focused heavily on goals for county government, and urged the county stay the course with a fiscal agenda that cut spending over the previous year and lowered property taxes to their lowest rate this century.

Tells county manager to continue push for lean budgets, low taxes after 2017 budget that cut spending, brought taxes to lowest rate of 21st century

Warns against Cuomo's mandates, calls for plans to fight opiates, rein in employee health care costs

By Christian W. Peck

Niagara County Public Information Officer

The chairman of the Niagara County Legislature directed the county's administration to redouble the efforts that led to passage of a budget that trimmed more than half a million dollars in spending and set Niagara County's lowest tax rate of the 21st century on Tuesday in a State of the County address that clocked in at under a half hour and was interrupted by applause six times.

Comparing County Manager Rick Updegrove to a marksman, Legislature Chairman Wm. Keith McNall, R-Lockport, praised the 2017 county budget while making clear he expects a continuation of fiscally conservative policies.

"Refocus and fire again!" McNall told Updegrove to applause.

The legislature chairman offered at least one suggestion for achieving that goal, urging the county government to implement an "Employer Group Waiver Plan" for its retiree health care, a Medicare coverage device that projections show would save the county hundreds of thousands of dollars. Legislative leaders would "support any measure that protects our commitments to our employee bargaining units and simultaneously reduce the costs borne by our taxpayers. EGWP does that," McNall stated.

McNall offered criticism of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's plan to require counties to place consolidation plans on November's ballot, noting the county already had a number of consolidation and shared service efforts underway, including two recent efforts spearheaded by Legislator John Syracuse, R-Newfane, that had examined ways shared services could be applied to road maintenance and employee health care. The county has also undertaken a study of restructuring the coroner's office as a possible vehicle for cost savings.

McNall noted that none of those things would impact county finances as favorably as addressing unfunded state and federal mandates.

"We must recognize and realize that the real cost-driver in county budgeting is the millions and millions of dollars passed down to us from state mandates," McNall noted. "To pay for just nine of the governor's unfunded state programs, we spend 99 percent of our local property tax levy."

Coming in for particular criticism from McNall was the state-mandated safety net welfare program, which was formally funded at a 50-50 split. Under Cuomo's 2011 executive budget, the state raised the local county obligation to 71 percent while dropping the state contribution to 29 percent - an action county leaders have long protested.

"That's an additional $12 million that local taxpayers have been forced to spend on a state-mandated program that we must now fund, since 2011," McNall said. "How many times can you shift the costs of state government to us, and then tell us we need to reduce the costs of local government?"

The line drew loud applause in the normally staid legislative chamber.

Some of the heaviest applause of the night came after McNall named first-term lawmaker Rebecca Wydysh, R-Lewiston, to chair a county committee devising a strategy to fight opioid abuse -something he called one of the "gravest of challenges to public safety" facing the county. Wydysh, who also chairs the board of directors of the Mental Health Association in Niagara County, is also married to the county's chief drug crimes prosecutor - a unique set of qualifications McNall praised.

The 28-minute speech wrapped up with McNall breaking news to his colleagues: He was briefed earlier in the day by Public Works officials that the county had just secured a pair of state grants focused on bridge construction. The $2.5 million in grants will allow the county to replace the Griswold Street Bridge over Mud Creek near Middleport and the Niagara Road Bridge over the Bergholtz Creek.

McNall's 2016 address was frequently cited by Updegrove and county lawmakers in decisions made that impacted county operations, and was credited as having served as the guidance that led to the spending cuts in the 2017 budget.

The 2017 speech was no less ambitious in laying out a series of policy goals for the county administration.

"This legislature must be an advocate for our region's success, and for our people's quality of life," McNall reminded colleagues. "The people we represent, the people footing the tax bill, deserve a positive return on their investment. It is their hard-won earnings that finance this government; we must spend those tax dollars even more cautiously than if they were our own. ... In the year ahead, there will be many ... conversations. I would implore my colleagues to keep such conversations civil, and to respect each others' viewpoints, but above all, to stand up for their beliefs, and the mandate our taxpayers have given us to serve them."

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