ISSUE & DEBATE
Editor’s Note: This commentary from County Representative Martini was in response to County Representative Frazier.
By ADRIENNE MARTINI • County Representative City of Oneonta
I am about to complete my first term on the Otsego County Board of Representatives as the District 12 representative for Wards 3 and 4 in the City of Oneonta. A few weeks ago, I was re-elected and will serve a second two-year term. Like my colleague Edwin J. Frazier, Jr., it has been an honor and a privilege to serve the people who live in this district, regardless of whether they chose to vote for me.
Representative Frazier and I agree on many of the challenges that face our county. We also agree that our department heads and county agencies provide the best services they can to our residents, given the fiscal constraints imposed on them, both by our low property tax rate and by the unfunded state mandates continuously heaped on them. During the last two years, there have been dozens of moments where I have been in awe of what our dedicated employees can do with so little.
I have also been in awe of how much time, taxpayer dollars, and energy could be saved if there were one person in charge of coordinating the vital work our departments do. Take, for example, the efficiency of moving some county services into 242 Main in Oneonta. In order to relocate or create satellite offices for the Office of the Aging, the District Attorney, and Social Services, at least four committees have had to be involved.
While more engagement seems like a good thing, it frequently means four times as much work-time spent in meetings about logistics, rather than time spent providing tangible aid to our more challenged residents. This is not what these department heads have been hired to do, yet they have taken it on because they care about who they serve. These are the kinds of costs that are hard to show on a balance sheet. That does not make them less real.
Representative Frazier would like to see a reduction in the salary and staff of any department head who has had duties reassigned to a county administrator. What he does not account for is that many of these duties don’t belong to any one person or department. Currently, 14 people are responsible for inter-departmental coordination, which effectively means no one is responsible for it.
Still, as Representative Frazier suggests, $250,000 is a lot of money, even if you consider that the county’s budget hovers around $117 million. While we could (and likely will) debate the assumptions made when producing that number, it is a nice round one to use for the sake of argument. Representative Frazier suggested other uses for this amount, including a new 10-wheel dump truck/plow or increased treatment and prevention services to those affected by the opioid crisis. Which, on their surface, are all good things.
What he failed to account for are line items like the cost for maintaining that new dump truck, as well as the salary and fringe benefits for the person hired to drive it. Given the difficulties the county has had hiring people to drive trucks we already own, the assumption that truck could be put in use is large one. The same staffing problem is evident when discussing increased services for those affected by substance use disorder. There are currently funded lines in the budget for social services that we can’t find qualified workers to fill because surrounding counties and the private sector are willing to pay them more.
Representative Frazier and I agree if a county administrator position is created and filled, the structure of the board and its committees should be re-evaluated. Some committees could be eliminated, including Negotiations, Performance Review and Goal Setting, and the Strategic Planning and Technology Committee. If the county administrator position works as drafted, the current number of representatives could be reduced.
While we can make predictions about what might happen once a county administrator is in place, we won’t know until we begin the process, assuming we can find a qualified applicant who will be effective at her or his job. However, we do know now that we are not safeguarding taxpayers’ money as expertly as we could, nor are we allowing our hard-working employees to thrive in the jobs they were trained to do. Simply buying a new truck will not solve those fundamental problems.