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Christina Bruner-Sonsire

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  1. Most people connected to Chemung County are aware there is a serious contamination issue on the grounds of Elmira High School and potentially in the school’s surrounding neighborhoods as well. First identified more than 25 years ago, the problem remains largely unmitigated, placing scores of students, teachers, staff, residents and community members at risk for exposure to hazardous chemicals. Industrial Background Jim Hare, Elmira’s former mayor and a local historian, recently published an article in the Star Gazetteabout the industrial background of Elmira High School’s property on South Main Street, an area sits in what is now a largely residential area. The 1988 Preliminary Site Assessment, referenced by Hare above, provides an incredibly detailed overview of the area’s history. It also includes a table describing the waste produced by Remington Rand in 1967, just ten years before the Elmira City School District purchased the property. Public Outcry To the best of my knowledge, concerns about the environmental safety at Elmira High School (formerly Southside High School) were first raised in the late 1990’s by a group of parents and students over what appeared to be an unusually high number of serious illnesses, including cancers, in young people who attended the school. Indeed, an article published in the New York Times on on December 27, 2000, entitled “Specter of Cancer Haunts a School; Industrial City of Elmira Confronts Environmental Legacy” detailed the concerns that were raised at that time. Interestingly, Hare’s recent article included a quote from Dr. Paul Zaccarine, Elmira City School District’s Superintendent at the time the high school property was purchased from Remington Rand, who stated in 1976 that “the positive aspect of having that building put up there does outweigh the negative aspect of using that particular area as an industrial site.” However, when he was interviewed in 2000 by the USA Today, Dr. Zaccrine had a much different outlook. An (Unfulfilled) Promise to Clean Up As a result of the push by community members, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYDEC) began taking soil samples from the high school’s grounds in 2000, a process that continues today, and has taken some steps to protect people who enter the property from coming into contact with what it concedes are toxic subsurface contaminants and vapors. In 2014, Unisys, company that owns the property and is the responsible for paying all clean-up costs, began investigating the site itself. Based on what it found, Unisys chose to enter New York State’s Brownfield Cleanup Program. Last summer Unisys worked with the DEC and New York’s Department of Health to remove below ground PCB contaminated soils. However, the work is nowhere near completion. According members of the DEC at a public forum I attended last month, Unisys plans to remove 28,000 tons of contaminated soil from Elmira High School this summer, as outlined in the DEC’s powerpoint slides. This project will require the use of 35-40 trucks per day/6 days a week starting the day after school ends and finishing just before it resumes again next year. Workers will wear fully protective clothing, the trucks will be sprayed down each time they leave the premises, and the materials will be hauled to a hazardous waste dump. Of greater concern is the amount of work that will remain uncompleted at the end of the summer. The Brownsfield Clean-Up Program is notoriously slow, and it allows liable parties such as Unisys to delay remediation – i.e. paying for it – for years as the process drags on. The Brownsfield Program also allows companies engaged in remediation to receive tax credits each year, lessening the incentives liable businesses have to complete their work as soon as possible. Specifically, at last month’s public forum DEC officials stated the investigation into the extent of contamination at the school – a process that started almost two decades ago – will take at least 2 more years to complete, and Unisys will need an indefinite amount of time to mitigate the areas they acknowledge need to be addressed, as shown below. What about the Residents? Unfortunately, the contamination problem at Elmira High School is not likely limited to the school’s grounds. Although to date there has not been a large-scale inspection of the surrounding community, some evidence has begun to emerge that raises serious concerns. Specifically, John and Joann Siedman, residents of Raecrest Circle in Elmira, recently received a letter from Geosyntec Consultants, a company that is working with Unisys to assess the scope of contamination. The letter states that environmental samples from the Siedman’s property show toxic contamination, and warns them to take precautions on their property including “washing your hands, avoiding incidental ingestion of of soil during play, cleaning any soil covered tools and minimizing digging or relocating soil in areas where routine flooding occurs…(and keeping) livestock/pets from these areas as well.” Incredibly, neither Geosyntec, Unisys, NYDEC nor any other entity alterted the Siedman’s neighbors about their findings. Potential Legislative Actions This issue highlights why our community desperately needs a strong legislative body. The grounds of Elmira City School District’s only high school are admittedly contaminated, and many of its residential properties may be as well. As such, a full, immediate clean-up must be a top priority for all elected officials in our county, and the legislature can do a lot to put things in motion. There are three ways the Chemung County Legislature could make an immediate impact on this issue: Pass a Strong Resolution The goal for our community should be an immediate completion of the DEC’s investigation, followed by and/or in conjunction with a full remediation by Unisys. Continuing to implement “interim remedial measures”, i.e. piecemeal clean-up acts that could span a decade or more, is simply not the answer. The legislature introduced a resolution last month, but tabled it after members of the community – including myself – stressed during public comment period that it doesn’t go far enough. Last night the resolution passed unanimously. Specifically, the resolution reads as follows: The language of this resolution should be contrasted with a letter signed by nearly 1,100 people affected by this issue – including several sitting Chemung County legislators – that urges New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to go much further. Indeed, the letter asks Cuomo to take the remediation effort out of the Brownsfield Clean-Up program altogether and instead pursue a far more proactive approach. Continued participation in the Brownsfield Clean-Up Program is too slow, and far too much is at stake to allow further delays. Whether the approach outlined in the letter is the most appropriate response remains an open question, requiring the sitting legislators to dig deep in order to figure out what our community needs. What we all should be able to agree upon is that waiting two more years for the investigation alone to be to completed is an absolutely unacceptable way to go. Conduct an Investigation As I described in a prior blog post, Chemung County’s charter is riddled with untapped potential as it relates to the legislature. Specifically, the charter provides that the legislature has the power to: What does this mean in terms of the contamination situation? It means the legislature has the power to take the lead in protecting our community. It can hire experts to conduct testing, appoint a commission of local citizens with specialized knowledge in this field, place members of NYDEC and Unisys under subpoena and have them testify under oath at a hearing, and/or demand NYDEC and Unisys produce documents and records that will help our community begin to understand what is happening and how big this problem really is. This approach is very similar to what is happening at the federal level with respect to injuries and deaths related to Takata airbag inflators. U.S. senators have stated they are undertaking the investigation and hearings to examine the “current manufacturer recall completion rates, the Takata bankruptcy and transition to new ownership under Key Safety Systems, and what all stakeholders including NHTSA are doing to ensure this process continues to move forward.” That is exactly what the sitting legislators can and should do here. A local entity needs to take the lead in this matter, and the legislature has the requisite power to do it. Create a true Council of Governments This issue highlights the need we have for a Council of Governments (COG), with representatives from all levels of local government including the county, towns and villages, the school districts, the sewer district, various public safety and public works entities and others. If we had a COG in place right now, it would be the logical place to take a massive issue like this, as the contamination problem overlaps many different governmental bodies. Unfortunately, Chemung County’s COG disbanded many years ago, and recent calls for a “quasi-COG” are so riddled political posturing that its hard to imagine it getting off the ground anytime soon. The legislature should act now to create a true COG that is unentangled by unnecessary components I have described in prior blog posts here and here. The legislators to do need to wait for approval from the Executive’s office. To the contrary, they can – and should – act now. There has never been a greater need for genuine cooperation than there is at this moment. Chemung County is facing a very serious problem. We need a legislature that is ready and willing to face it head on. Christina Bruner-Sonsire is a local attorney and candidate for Chemung County Legislature
  2. Once again, a Chemung County official has accused a local candidate of distorting facts for political gain. In an article published online today by the Star Gazette, Deputy County Executive Mike Krusen criticized Sheriff Chris Moss, one of Krusen’s opponents in the county executive race, for failing to be honest with the community: I have no involvement whatsoever with Moss’ campaign, and don’t offer this post as support of his candidacy. Instead, the post’s purpose is to point out what seems to be an unfortunate emerging theme. An unprecedented number of people are running for local office in Chemung County this year. In an attempt to drill down the issues, these candidates – including myself – are discovering things our county government does really well, along with ways the county could improve. Indeed, this type of scrutiny is the essence of what it means to live in a democratic society. People who feel they can help out learn about the issues, share what they learn with voters, and let the voters decide who is best suited to serve. The way Chemung County does business has not faced this type of scrutiny in a long, long time, as a small number of people have held most of the county-wide elected positions for many years. However, instead of addressing the issues that are being raised and considering whether or not there are new and better ways to do business, some Chemung County officials have chosen to attack the credibility and veracity of the people raising them. It is easy to chalk this up to “politics as usual”, and there is some truth to that. But this type of behavior is one reason so many people have lost faith in government and avoid running for office, outcomes that run directly contrary to building a strong, successful community. By way of example, after hearing Chemung County Budget Director Steve Hoover state that the county will likely be forced to raise taxes in 2019 among other concerns about the county’s fiscal health, Tony Pucci, a candidate for legislature in the 1st District, and I both wrote Your Turn editorials about the matter, found here and here. In response to what we wrote, Chemung County Treasurer Joe Sartori countered by stating: Sartori used similar language to refute a "Your Turn" piece I wrote last month about the county’s newly proposed plan for a Council of Governments, stating: This kind of rhetoric is extremely disappointing – and exhausting. Distorting facts in order to mislead friends and neighbors so that I can get elected to the county legislature is an outrageous mischaracterization of what my entire campaign is about. In fact, the reason I created this blog in the first place is to have a place to share ideas about how to improve the community. Each post contains many links where readers can go to view information and data themselves, and I welcome any corrections to things that I say or do so that the ideas we discover are rooted in fact and as accurate as possible. Change is hard, and can be uncomfortable – but it is also necessary and inevitable. It is too bad that some of our local leaders are choosing to attack those looking for solutions rather than work together to find out how we can make Chemung County a better place to live. Christina Bruner-Sonsire is a local attorney and candidate for Chemung County Legislature
  3. A Brief History Of The Chemung County Legislature

    Without question, 2018 is shaping up to be a historical year in Chemung County. With more than thirty people running for seats in the legislature, and four candidates for county executive, our community will have a unique opportunity to fully evaluate how local government functions, and consider whether there are new and better approaches for us to undertake. Yet, envisioning what the future might hold requires we first have at least a cursory understanding of how our system developed. Prior to 1974, Chemung County was governed by a board of supervisors comprised of town supervisors and other municipal leaders. The board members’ votes were weighted on the basis of each municipality’s population in an attempt to allow all county residents to have as fair and equal representation as possible. According to Tri-Counties Genealogy, the first board of supervisors consisted of Samuel Minier, of Big Flats; Timothy Wheat, of Catlin; Jacob Swartwood of Cayuta; John G. Henry of Catharine; Green Bennitt of Dix; John W. Wisner of Elmira; Albert A. Beckwith, of Southport; Asahel Hulett of Veteran, with John Wisner of Elmira serving as chairman. Photograph of the 1920 Board of Supervisors. Image from the Chemung County Historical Society. On January 1, 1974, Chemung County residents voted to adopt a county charter, replacing the board of supervisors with a county executive and a 15-seat legislature. In doing so, Chemung County became one of 17 (out of 62) counties in New York to operate under a charter. Two additional counties subsequently adopted charters, bringing the total number of “charter counties” to 19. Table from New York’s Division of Local Government Services. As our current form of government is still in a relative state of infancy, we have just begun to test the boundaries of what the charter allows for in terms of local governance. At the outset, only a small number of people have served in the executive and legislative branches due to our lack of term limits and very little turnover in these positions. Indeed, as shown below, the position of county executive has only been held by five individuals since it was created. And, in the 7th District where I live and am running to serve as legislator, the legislative seat has been held by one man and his son from the time the legislature was created in 1974. In other words, no one outside of a single family has ever represented the 7th district in the legislature. Exploring what Chemung County can do to bring about positive change under our current charter is, however, about much more than who sits in the elected seats. The charter itself is riddled with untapped potential, specifically as it relates to the legislature. Indeed, it says the legislature – not any other branch of local government – shall be the policy-determining body of the county. The charter further provides that the legislature has the power to: Understanding where we came from is a critical part of determining where we are headed. When our community decided to adopt the charter in 1974, it deliberately included provisions to allow for a strong, proactive legislative body to act as a balance and check on the executive branch. There are many smart, dedicated people who desire the opportunity and honor to serve on the legislature. It would be great to see what a fully utilized legislative branch could do toward helping to restore our community. Christina Bruner-Sonsire is a local attorney and candidate for Chemung County Legislature
  4. In 2010, John Burin was well into his tenure as Manager for the City of Elmira. Asked to provide Chemung County with fiscal data, Burin created a document entitled “Every Number has a Story“, found here. Although many things have changed regarding the economic situations in both the City of Elmira and Chemung County since Burin created the document, it nonetheless provides many insights into the obstacles facing Elmira. It is necessary reading for anyone trying to figure out why Elmira is in such a tough fiscal position and, more critically, what can be done to help fix it. Photo of John Burin from the Star Gazette. In his cover letter to the document, Burin, who has also served as Elmira’s assessor and is a past member of Southern Tier Economic Growth and the Chemung County Industrial Development Agency, encouraged Chemung County to give him an opportunity to participate directly on a task force created to analyze municipal income and expense: Burin is now a candidate for Chemung County legislature in the 9th district, as described here, in part because he recognizes the critical need for improved relations between the City of Elmira and the Chemung County. Of note, I met Burin for coffee recently to talk about his experiences as manager and to get a better sense of why he wants to serve on the legislature. While we were talking, he asked why I, a candidate for legislature in the 7th district that encompasses most of the Town of Elmira, am so interested in what happens in the City. It’s a fair question, and one I have been asked numerous times over the past few months. The answer is straightforward and quite simple: *Elmira is our county seat and the center of our community. We are never going to move forward Chemung County forward until we improve its financial condition, which will in turn lead to increased jobs and reduced crime throughout the County. *Nearly all of the children who reside in the 7th Legislative district will attend school in the City of Elmira at some point, and a substantial number of adults work there. The Town-City border is an artificial line most of us cross every day. Improving conditions in the City benefits everyone, not just the people who live there. *As I have begun talking to residents of the 7th Legislative district about the issues, the thing I hear most frequently is a concern about increased crime, something people tend to relate to conditions in the City. Whether the data supports this so-called “crime creep”, the perception that problems in the City adversely affect the Town is real. This perception impacts everything from quality of life to real property values, and can be addressed by making improvement of the City a priority. *Finally, if the City of Elmira is forced to outright dissolve – something that would require a vote by the City’s residents – all property north of the Chemung River would revert to the Town of Elmira and property south of the river to the Town of Southport. As such, residents of those municipalities have a heightened incentive to work toward improving the City’s situation, as its problems would not simply disappear if it dissolves. Fixing this mess will take a team approach, as we all have a lot to gain. Christina Bruner-Sonsire is a local attorney and candidate for Chemung County Legislature
  5. The Chemung County Legislature’s meeting on April 9, 2018, was far from mundane. What appeared on the face of the agenda to be a typical meeting of the full legislature, where most issues have been ironed out in committees ahead of time, instead began with a nearly hour-long presentation by Chemung County Executive Tom Santulli. One of the purposes for Santulli’s presentation was a proposal by him and Deputy County Executive Mike Krusen for the re-creation of a Council of Governments, an inter-municipal body that existed more than a decade ago to help encourage and facilitate cooperation among elected officials and other local leaders from Chemung County’s various municipalities. Santulli’s proposal is ostensibly a good thing, as increased governmental cooperation is something our community desperately needs. In fact, re-creating a Council of Governments is something I have written and spoken about on numerous occasions over the past six months. In an Op-Ed published in the Star Gazette on February 2, 2018, entitled “Cooperation is Crucial for Solving Elmira’s Fiscal Crisis“, I wrote: I made a similar suggestion in Chemung County Matters blog post from March 8, 2018, called “Economic Issues Spur Interest in Local Government“: The re-creation of a Council of Governments is without question a necessary step toward fostering the cooperative spirit we need to allow our community to flourish. However, tonight’s proposal unfortunately came with a catch. Unlike nearby counties that utilize their Councils of Governments for the sole purpose of cooperation (the mission of Schuyler County’s council is to “provide a forum for discussion and negotiation leading to agreements for increased efficiency, fiscal responsibility, and improved quality of government services”, and the Tompkins County’s council is “organized to provide a forum for discussion and negotiation leading to agreements for more efficient and fiscally responsible delivery of government services), the version proposed by Santulli includes numerous barriers to participation and a set of fixed rules municipal leaders must accept in order to come on board. At the onset, Santulli stated tonight that leaders from the City of Elmira will not be invited to participate. This aspect alone is enough to render the plan flawed, as cooperation among county and city leaders is one of the things our community needs most. Excluding Elmira – our county seat and the center of our community – from participating in county-wide governorship reveals that this plan is unlikely to succeed. Moreover, the proposal sets forth a number “rules”, as Santulli calls them, that participants must agree to in order to participate. Some of the requirements regarding financial transparency and public disclosure of municipal financial statements make a lot of sense and are not likely to be met with substantial pushback. However, other rules involve specific governing decisions such as the way to fund capital projects or to insure against financial calamity – things that arguably fall squarely within the discretion of elected municipal leaders rather than county officials. This top-down approach must be contrasted with Tompkins County’s Council of Governments, a group that has produced a long list of cooperative initiatives described here. Although the suggested participatory rules may be based on sound economic rationale, leading off a proposal for cooperation with things potential members must do or agree to in order to partake is a tough way to start out. Chemung County has a lot of great things afoot right now, yet it is apparent that many others demand our immediate attention. Elmira’s fiscal crisis, ownership of the Arena and the increasing pressure on many towns and villages to do more with less are not going to simply go away. Instead, these issues require genuine leadership and cooperation from all levels of government. Nothing less will do. This is a video clip of some of Tom Santulli’s remarks at the April 9th meeting. Discussion of the Council of Governments begins around 6:35. But, the entire clip is important, as it demonstrates why fostering true cooperation may be a lot more challenging than it sounds. Christina Bruner-Sonsire is a local attorney and candidate for Chemung County Legislature
  6. Originally written March 16th, 2018 On Thursday Chemung County Executive Tom Santulli and Deputy County Executive Mike Krusen released a statement through the county’s website, blaming Elmira’s fiscal crisis on a “failure of leadership on the part of the Mayor and City Council.” This is their statement: This approach is unfortunate for many reasons. We need legitimate cooperation, not political gamesmanship. Elmira is the center of our community, and any path forward requires us to find ways to work together in order to finally figure out how to address its issues. Elmira’s mayor and the members of its city council are like most people who run for local office. They have chosen to invest a lot of time and energy toward helping make our area a better place to live, and they don’t earn a lot of money – $10,600 for Elmira Mayor Dan Mandell, as opposed to $253,108 earned by County Executive Tom Santulli, and approximately $7,500 for councilmembers – to do it. The decision by Tom Santulli and Mike Krusen to continue engaging in this kind of vitriolic rhetoric only results in further division between county and city government, and does nothing to help address the number one problem facing our community right now: a largely empty downtown. Indeed, an ad-hoc group called the “Committee for Elmira” was created last year to address the lack of cooperation between the county and city, urging both entities to find ways to work together. It is made up of local leaders and retired officials including Elmira Councilmember Jim Waters, Elmira Mayor Dan Mandell, Chemung County County Legislator Marty Chalk, retired Elmira Public Works Commissioner Charlie Shaffer, retired Elmira Police Chief Scott Drake, retired Elmira Fire Chief Pat Bermingham, former City Council member Dan Royle and Marc Monichetti, owner of the Elmira Fitness Center. The Committee issued a statement in December: I also addressed this issue in an Op-Ed published by the Star Gazette in January entitled Cooperation is Key to Solving Elmira’s Fiscal Crisis, wherein I argued that “any meaningful remedy to Elmira’s fiscal crisis is going to require genuine cooperation and creative problem solving to discover a new way of doing business.” We expect our elected leaders to be able to find ways to work together, particularly in times of crisis. Unfortunately, the statement released yesterday by Chemung County’s top administrators is yet another step in the wrong direction. Sales tax redistribution has undoubtedly harmed the City of Elmira. Chemung County faces a tough economic climate. Mandates from Albany are heavy, and upstate areas have struggled to rebound from major losses over the past several decades in the manufacturing sector. It makes sense that some of the county’s financial burden trickles down to the city, town and villages – but there is no reason for Elmira to be treated in such a harsh manner. Two key factors are critical to this discussion: *38 percent of properties in Elmira, including large entities such as Elmira College, Arnot Ogden Medical Center, St. Joseph’s Hospital, Elmira Correctional Facility, the Elmira Psychiatric Center, numerous churches and schools and all of the Chemung County’s administrative buildings and courthouses, are exempt from taxation. *Even though Elmira does not receive any revenue stream in return for its services, it is required to provide police and fire protection to these properties. This means that 62 percent of Elmira’s property owners pay for 100 percent of the services it provides. In other words, Elmira not only gives up a huge portion of its property tax base in order to provide medical, educational, correctional and other services to Chemung County – something helps bring huge numbers of people and jobs to our community – but it also has to pay a tremendous amount of money to to keep these tax-exempt properties safe. Chemung County Executive Tom Santulli and Deputy County Executive Mike Krusen continue to argue that that sales tax redistribution did not harm Elmira because any losses to the city were made up by increased shared service agreements with the county. This logic is flawed, as shared service agreements could have been reached without forcing the City to give up such a large portion of sales tax revenue. As I stated in my Op-Ed referenced above, Elmira was able to overcome a similar financial crisis approximately a decade ago. Between 2008 and 2013, Elmira moved from the brink of bankruptcy to a healthy and stable fiscal position, with an average yearly property tax increase of just 1.86 percent. However, in his overview of the 2013 budget, John Burin, Elmira’s city manager at the time, warned of difficulties to come, stating that “the state tax cap legislation, static aid to municipalities, excessive employer pension contributions as well as legislation restricting a city’s ability to receive revenue for services rendered on a variety of not-for-profit organizations will overtime deplete reserves and bankrupt cities.” Later that year, the Chemung County Legislature passed a financial restructuring plan that changed the way sales tax revenue is distributed among Elmira and its local towns and villages, adding to Elmira’s mounting financial obstacles. As a result of the restructuring plan, Elmira’s share of sales tax revenue dropped from a little over 12 percent in 2014 to about 9 percent in 2018. Although the combination of shared-service agreements and sales tax redistribution works for some areas that are not burdened by tax-exempt properties and public safety obligations, it is clearly not working for Elmira. We must find a new path forward. Strangling the City of Elmira makes no economic sense. The two greatest sources of revenue for Chemung County are property tax and sales tax, accounting for most of the county’s operational budget. The decision to take a greater share of sales tax revenue from the City of Elmira and other municipalities has allowed Chemung County to go thirteen years without raising property taxes. This is ostensibly a good thing, as the last thing upstate New York residents need is a bigger tax bill. However, that metric is just the start of the analysis. First, the City of Elmira is not the only municipality to struggle after the sales tax redistribution plan was passed in 2013. Facing economic stress, both the Village and Town of Horseheads levied taxes in 2017 for the first time in more than 30 years, the Village of Van Etten voted in December to dissolve, the Town of Southport reports increased challenges impacting its ability to provide basic services, and most other local municipalities face critical decisions of how to continue to cope with dwindling resources. Second, and arguably more importantly, investing in Elmira is critical to generating more sales tax revenue. Every dollar people spend in our community is one less dollar we need to raise through property taxes in order to fund local government. Having a vibrant, bustling downtown would encourage people from outside of the county to come here and spend money. By contrast, creating an economic structure that results in city officials needing to either raise property taxes by 17% or take a 20 million dollar state bailout is a great way to scare potential investors away. Forward thinking on this issue is a must. We have great infrastructure in downtown Elmira, and infinite potential to turn its fiscal picture around. However, doing so will take full buy-in and cooperation from all levels of government. We simply cannot allow this division to deepen any further.
  7. Economic Issues Spur Interest in Local Government

    The political climate in Chemung County is very interesting right now. At last count nearly 30 people have either announced their candidacy for Chemung County Legislature or are giving it very serious consideration, and there are at least three – possibly even four – candidates for Chemung County Executive. This injection of people and energy into local politics means our community will have an excellent opportunity to learn about the issues from a diverse set of perspectives. Despite each candidate’s individual concerns and ideas, one common theme has already begun to emerge: Chemung County’s struggling economy, and the way our county government goes about addressing it, has to be the top priority. For too long our area has been dogged by sluggish economic growth, prompting more and more people to seek ways that they can get involved and make a difference. Although we are incredibly fortunate to have an outstanding Chamber of Commerce run by innovative, creative thinkers who go a long way toward making our area attractive to both established and prospective economic investors, as well as numerous strong economic development agencies such Elmira Downtown Development and Southern Tier Economic Growth (STEG), we clearly have a long way to go. Indeed, recent measures of Chemung County’s fiscal health are sobering: *A report last summer by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York showed Chemung County was the only area in New York State with declining job growth. The entire report is found here. *Elmira’s 2.8 percent private-sector employment decline was worst in the state, and placed it among only three other metro areas in the state to record job losses. The rate of job loss here is the highest in New York state – nearly 3 percent over the past year – with a 6 percent drop since 2008 (link here.) *Personal income growth since 2008 in Elmira was half the United States national annual average for metro areas of 3.2 percent, according to numbers compiled by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (link here.) *Chemung County’s reserves decreased from $30 million in 2011 to a projected level of just $19 million in 2018, and are expected to drop below $10 million by 2021 if no changes are made to the way county government approaches the budgeting process. This decrease in reserves stems from an average yearly budget deficit of approximately $2 million that started in 2011. (Note: this metric was provided by Chemung County Treasurer Steve Hoover during last November’s Legislative Budget Workshop. It is possible the projected loss in reserves for 2018 is now somewhat less severe given an unexpected increase in sales tax revenue generated last year, a figure that was released after the budget passed.) *Chemung County’s debt has risen by 25 percent, from roughly $40 million in 1999 to over $50 million in 2017, as its expenditures have far outpaced revenues each year. A link to an Op-Ed I wrote in November on this issue is found here. *Numerous local municipalities are facing hard economic times, including the Town of Horseheads that levied a property tax in 2016 for the first time in 30 years (link here), the Village of Van Ettan that voted last December to dissolve, a measure that will relieve residents of heavy tax burdens (link here), and the Town of Southport that will likely have to raise taxes over the next year or two as it has controlled expenses while seeing revenues its dry up (link here.) *The City of Elmira was forced to impose a 17% (!) property tax hike at the start of this week, leaving Elmira residents with one of the heaviest tax burdens in New York state (link here.) *The First Arena – an entertainment venue located in the heart of downtown Elmira – is (a) currently without an prospective; (b) owned by the Chemung County Industrial Development Agency; (c) saddled with considerable debt; and (d) its future is unknown (link here.) *Town and Village officials expressed their concerns about finding addition ways to deal with dwindling revenue stream to the Center for Governmental Research last year: The reasons for Chemung County’s economic hardship are plentiful, driven in great part by a weakened (yet still relatively vibrant) manufacturing sector along with more and more directives from Albany that account for a tremendous portion (roughly 80%) of our county budget. Last night someone asked me what my vision is for addressing these economic issues, i.e. what are the solutions? In general, I think there are two core principles that can go a long way toward helping: cooperation and empowerment. With respect to cooperation, we need to find ways to solicit genuine input from all levels and all types of government. Some of the issues that are certain to be discussed in coming years – further municipal consolidation, sales tax distribution, countywide public safety (i.e. police and/or fire) agencies – affect everyone who lives in Chemung County. Many years ago there was a group called the Council of Governments. It included representatives from county government, city government, town and village boards, school boards, the library district, etc. Unfortunately that group no longer exists, nor does the cooperative spirit it fostered. Bringing back COG or something similar could be a great first step toward big-picture thinking on these matters. Closely related to cooperation is the need for empowerment of the governing infrastructure we already have, particularly the county legislature. Chemung County’s Charter envisions the legislature as a proactive body, stating: *”The County Legislature shall be the governing body of the County and shall be the legislative, appropriating and policy-determining body of the County…”, and *The Legislature shall have the power to…”make such studies and investigations as it deems to be in the best interests of the County and in connection therewith to obtain and employ professional and technical advice, appoint temporary advisory boards of citizens, subpoena witnesses, administer oaths, and require the production of books, papers and other evidence deemed necessary or material to such study or inquiry.” (Emphasis added.) A link to Chemung County’s Charter is found here. However, several people who have served on the Chemung County Legislature express concern that the opportunity for it to effectuate positive change is not being fully utilized. This concern has led several current legislators to undertake a study of their own rules in order to find ways they can have a bigger impact on policy decisions. At this time it is unclear what, if any, changes will be made. Every four years we elect 15 legislators to serve our community. It only makes sense that we take full advantage of the ideas and initiatives they bring to the table. Cooperation and empowerment, along with a frank exploration of the issues, can go a long way toward helping our community really begin to thrive. Christina Bruner-Sonsire is a local attorney and candidate for Chemung County Legislature
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