Debate Focus: Cost Vs. Benefit
By JIM KEVLIN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
COOPERSTOWN – The Otsego County Board of Representatives voted in 1993 to create a county manager position. The result was a 7-7 tie, but the weighted voting system blocked the move.
A quarter-century plus a year later, a resolution is again headed to the county board, on Wednesday, Nov. 6, and with at least two Republicans, the one Conservative and all but perhaps one of the Democrats favoring it, it appears likely to be approved.
Since the creation of a top manager’s job would require enactment of a law, the Nov. 6 vote would be to set a public hearing for the following month’s meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 4.
After the hearing, the county reps could vote on creating the position, or delay for further study and adjustments.
A first vote, 3-1, happened last week at the county board’s Administration Committee, chaired by Meg Kennedy, C-Mount Vision. She voted aye, and said county Reps. Peter Oberacker, R-Schenevus, and Gary Koutnik, D-Oneonta, the board’s vice chairman, joined her.
Voting nay was county Rep. Ed Frazier, R-Unadilla. Keith McCarty, R-East Springfield, had to leave early. And Andrew Stammel, D-Town of Oneonta, was absent.
The idea, said Kennedy, is “to better serve the constituents.”
“The position will allow Otsego County to create short- and long-term plans to meet emerging and already existing needs,” she continued. “And also to oversee day-to-day operations to allow greater efficiency in county government. Communications is also a biggie.”
“It’s extremely significant,” said Koutnik, who is retiring from the board at the end of the year. “It’s going to change things more than anything in the past eight years, most all of it for the better.”
Frazier said concerns about the expense caused him to hold back. “They aren’t showing the full costs,” he said. “It’s going to be a quarter of a million dollars by the time it’s implemented.”
The former board vice chairman, Frazier said he doesn’t see how a county manager could close that gap through savings or new revenues.
Kennedy, who also chairs the Budget Committee, said $75,000 has been included in the prospective 2020 budget to fund the position for half a year, thinking it will take until June or July to fill the position.
County board Chairman David Bliss, R-Cooperstown/Town of Middlefield, was at the Admin meeting ex officio, but said he also voted to move the manager position forward.
He acknowledged Frazier’s concerns, and said the county board will have to be vigilant, “or it quickly will become a million” if a county manager finds he or she needs an assistant county manager and other support staff.
But, Bliss continued, “if we can keep it to a single individual, a day-to-day contact for the county, overseeing things in general,” then costs can be controlled.
The resolution and job description approved by the Admin Committee weren’t available as of press time – they were being reviewed in the County Attorney’s Office – but Bliss said he would like the job requirements to be less specific, to give flexibility in who to hire.
He pointed to what happened in the City of Oneonta: the educational requirement of an MPA – a master’s in public administration – limited the applicant pool, City Hall went through two city managers before achieving some stability under George Korthauer, the current applicant.
Bliss said he’d like to avoid that.
None of the reps said they were counting noses, but Koutnik said he expects all the Democrats, except perhaps Stammel, to support the new position.
With at least Republicans Bliss and Oberacker joining them, and Conservative Kennedy, that adds up to 3,850 weighted votes, a healthy margin beyond the 3,115 needed to pass a measure.
Asked why a county manager is necessary, Koutnik said, “Ask a $116 million company” – that’s the county’s annual budget – “what they would do without their CEO.”
He pointed out three big construction projects pending: current and future renovations at the county jail; security upgrades at 242 Main, Oneonta’s former city hall, and replacing the highway garage on Cooperstown’s Walnut Street with a more central facility.
“We’ve got cost overruns in the jail renovations that no one seems to be in charge of. We’ve talked about that a number of times,” Koutnik said. “If we had a county manager who could clear that up, figure out the chain of command in terms of change orders, I think he or she would save us a lot of money.”
Kennedy said she could mention a number of instances where having a county manager would help, but she focused on the decline of the county’s rural emergency squad, who are losing volunteers due to outmigration and longer commutes. A county manager could be tasked to find out how other counties are tackling the problem.
“There are other issues,” she said. “The person is not going to be Superman or Superwoman. They can’t solve our broadband problems, they won’t be able to solve our energy problems. But they will be able to network with other counties’ leaders.”