Chamber Kicks Off 2023 with
‘State of the State’ Breakfast Event
By CASPAR EWIG
It was a sellout crowd last Friday, January 20, as the Otsego County Chamber of Commerce hosted its annual “State of the State” networking breakfast. The conference, which took place in the Otsego Grille of SUNY Oneonta’s Morris Hall, was introduced by Sean Lewis, president and chief executive officer of the chamber, as a vehicle to “allow the panelists a chance to express their view of where we are and their vision of where we are heading.”
The panel of eight public figures included New York State Senator Peter Oberacker and Assemblymen Brian Miller, Chris Tague and Brian Maher, whose constituents reside in various portions of Otsego County.
The county itself was represented by County Administrator Steve Wilson and Treasurer Allen Ruffles. Oneonta Mayor Mark Drnek and Village of Cooperstown Mayor Ellen Tillapaugh rounded out the panel.
A thread running throughout the remarks of all the panelists as well as the question-and-answer-session that followed was an emphasis on practicalities as opposed to an espousing of ideals and recounting talking points. In fact, a criticism by many on the panel was that the state is often much too quick to translate policy positions into legislation without having the necessary infrastructure in place.
Senator Oberacker set the tone of the conference when he bemoaned the population exodus due to “self-inflicted” problems of over regulation, over taxation and under appreciation of the criminal justice system. He urged New York State governance to concentrate on the practicalities of improving the infrastructure and, along with Assemblyman Tague, expressed the opinion that we must get away from reliance on fossil fuels, but without becoming captive to a green energy policy plan that is only destined to fail if it tries to push the envelope too far, too fast.
Assemblymen Miller and Tague echoed the overriding importance of keeping all New Yorkers safe, with Miller further urging the state to continue to address the need for good roads, good schools, and a budget that should limit itself to strictly financial issues and leave out policy statements. And, although both assemblymen sit on the New York State Assembly Standing Committee on Agriculture, it was Tague who decried the lowering of the overtime threshold as applied to farmers, and who advocated aiding dairy farmers by making whole milk an essential part of the school lunch programs. In short, Assemblyman Tague concluded that, in creating policies, the state should recognize the truth of the saying “no farm, no food.”
As the newbie on the block, Assemblyman Maher stated that his passion in his first legislative session will be on stopping the youth drain. And, prompted by his own experiences as the father of two toddlers, Maher said it is his intention to act as a driving force urging the state to turn its attention to providing affordable daycare.
Mayor Ellen Tillapaugh succinctly described the predicament Cooperstown faces. Thanks in large part to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, the village is looked to as the driving force for the tourism dollars from which Otsego County derives its revenue, Tillapaugh said. However, she noted that the village does not reap financial benefits equal to shouldering the costs associated with providing that service. In particular, she pointed out that $1 million in retail sales made in Cooperstown only netted $363.63 as the village’s share of sales tax revenue. Tillapaugh said Cooperstown should take pride in that—despite having a $6.3 million annual budget—it was able to secure many grants to improve the village so that property taxes have held steady, and are expected to remain set at $5.20 per $1,000.00 valuation.
Oneonta Mayor Mark Drnek ascribed the city’s ability to tackle its challenges on the close working relationship that exists between Oneonta’s governing body and its various commissions. These challenges include projects for developing housing for the elderly and the homeless and renovating lofts and other empty spaces for living accommodations, as well as creating a greater college presence in the downtown area. As for his vision of the future, Drnek remarked, “We have to reimagine and reinvigorate Main Street.”
He then added, “We have some developments on the drawing board, but it’s too early to talk about them at this time.”
The present state of affairs in Otsego County was described by County Administrator Wilson and Treasurer Ruffles.
Since the position of county administrator is relatively new, created in 2019, Wilson described his initial efforts to install a management system and adopt a strategic plan to establish efficiencies and control costs in Otsego County.
Contrary to his introductory promise that number recitations are always dull, Ruffles gave an interesting historical account of the pandemic’s effect on the county’s budget and the challenges Otsego County faces going forward.
While Ruffles admitted that planning a county budget is difficult due to the fluctuations in sales tax collections—which amounted to 43 percent of the total income in 2022—he reported that, at present, Otsego County is financially healthy, has $20 million in reserves and is ranked as the third lowest tax imposition in New York State.
The question-and-answer period was led by Korey Rowe of Otsego Media, who stated his frustration at the state’s inability to follow up on its legislative roll out of the cannabis industry. Many of the panelists agreed that the regulation and operation of licenses was in total disarray.
Another issue raised in the question-and-answer session was adequate housing as a necessary ingredient to increase the commercial viability of the area. Both Alan Rubin of A&D Transportation and Jen Gregory, executive director of Southern Tier 8, advocated for greater government partnership with businesses to rehabilitate “zombie” properties and agreed more should be done to explore the availability of grants from such entities as the Mohawk Valley Regional Economic Development Council.