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Enough Cuts. Let’s Rebuild Otsego County To The Gold Standard

Editorial for the Edition of Thursday-Friday, Nov. 20-21 2014

For the past few months, Maria Ajello, a Town of Richfield widow – her husband, Ken, who died in 2008, was a decorated Vietnam veteran – has been tearfully appearing before the Otsego County Board of Representatives, begging that the tax sale on their home be overturned.

County representatives and the county Treasurer’s Office have pointed out, convincingly, that all the procedures were followed, all the notices given, and they were ignored until it was too late.

So last Aug. 20, as she wept in the audience at the privately run county tax sale in the Holiday Inn/Southside, Mrs. Ajello’s property was sold for $75,000, covering her $7,500 tax bill; the balance went into county coffers.

Again, to listen to officials, there’s little doubt that everything was done by the book. Still, it’s hard to watch a $111 million enterprise throw a woman out of her home over $7,500 and feel any pride in being an Otsego County citizen.

As Christmas approaches, be merciful: Let the widow pay her back taxes and give her back her home. And make sure future communications in these matters are so crystal clear there needs be no turning back.

In the past 18 months, the county board has gone on a binge of privatization and retrenchment where there are winners and losers, and many stories no doubt as dramatic as Mrs. Ajello’s.

Otsego Manor was sold, converting more than 200 public jobs with excellent benefits to more than 200 lesser private jobs, (and saving $5 million a year, now being devoted to roads, a long-awaited emergency communications system, and delayed maintenance and repairs.)

MOSA, the three-county garbage-processing authority, was sold off, the function privatized, and hours significantly reduced at the transfer stations. (This resulted in a one-time $800,000 boon to the county.)
County bed-tax revenues, some of which were spent locally, were diverted to a private entity, all to be spent outside the county in hopes of generating more “heads in beds” and more bed-tax revenues. (A positive report is expected soon.)

In themselves, these steps were good. Each, separately, was endorsed by this newspaper.

But all of them resulted in job cuts, less money in the local economy (privatization moves profits to corporate headquarters) and less service to county residents. Taken to the extreme, this approach contributes to hollowing out the local economy and local community.

The latest debate, over saving $20,000 in the county Department of Motor Vehicles by laying off two employees and either reducing both offices – Oneonta and Cooperstown – to half-time or closing Cooperstown altogether, suggests things are going too far. (A decision was due at the county board’s budget hearing Thursday, Nov. 20.)

The DMV situation is part of the same piece. The two paychecks at risk – $100,000, salaries and benefits – would typically go through the local economy 2.5 times a year. That means that saving $20,000 will cost the local economy $250,000, not to mention the inconvenience (and costs incurred) by auto dealers and drivers.

The other area of current debate is whether to merge Oneonta’s “Gathering Place,” a senior-citizen nutrition and hospitality site at Elm Park Methodist Church, with one at Nader Towers. It’s not a terrible idea, but it’s $13,000 in savings, or one-10th of 1 percent, in the $11.2 million tax levy.

Enough. Yes, The Manor had to go; the world of healthcare had changed. Yes, MOSA had to give way to efficiencies. Yes, some privatization of county tourism promotion was prudent. But cutting is only half the challenge, and enough’s enough.

The county Office of the Aging, where squeezing has gone on for a while now – last year, hot meals were replaced with frozen dinners – is probably a good place to start the turnaround. Instead of figuring out how to save a nickel on everything, it’s time for the county reps to start thinking again what services the county should provide, services that private enterprise can’t or won’t.

What’s the Gold Standard in service to the elderly? How can our Office for the Aging provide it? How can we pay for it? It’s time for the county board to invest in an optimum way of life instead of simply cutting.

It’s part of the larger question: What’s the Gold Standard of county government? Let’s achieve it.

County Treasurer Dan Crowell pointed out a couple of years ago that Otsego County taxes are among the very lowest in the state. Separately, you hear county reps say if taxes go up $40 on a typical property, people will lose their homes.

That combination shows that too much county government isn’t the overriding problem. The overriding problem is too little money in the local economy.

By refusing to participate in “single point of contact” economic development – happily, that seems to be changing now – the county has delayed what should be its primary goal: Getting more money and more jobs into the local economy, and more help for those of our neighbors who need it.

On this edition’s front page is a report that school district in the ONC BOCES may lose 18 percent of their students in the next decade. The answer isn’t pushing people away, but creating a more welcoming and prosperous Otsego County, a magnet.

Sure, the county representatives are right to be prudent, but let’s stop devouring ourselves. We aren’t going to cut our way out of the mess that is Central New York.


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Putting the Community Back Into the Newspaper

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