ONEONTA – In an average week, Alan Sessions, CDO Workforce disability resource coordinator, might field 25 calls about unemployment insurance.
“In the last week, we’ve received 25 calls a day,” he said. “Sometimes the wait to talk with someone is an hour.”
The majority of the calls, he said, are waitstaff, kitchen help and retail workers suddenly jobless as Governor Cuomo ordered stores and restaurants closed in to facilitate “social distancing” and reduce the spread of COVID-19.
“It’s early still, but these are the businesses that were immediately affected,” he said.
COOPERSTOWN – As the State of New York begins to assess the impact of Governor Cuomo’s emergency declaration, issued Thursday, the chairman of Otsego County’s Emergency Task Force is fearful of the impact on the county budget.
An initial assessment by state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, posted in letter form on his website, estimates revenues will be “$4 billion below projections in the Executive Budget of $87.9 billion.” That figure is in addition to the $6 billion deficit the governor has been projecting, mostly due to Medicaid overruns.
“If the state comes in and swipes that from us, that a million bucks right there,” county Treasurer Allen Ruffles, who also chairs the local task force, said this morning.
COOPERSTOWN – The County of Otsego is seeking, first, to understand today’s “New York State on PAUSE” executive order directing a wide range of businesses to close by 8 p.m. Sunday and, second, to helpfully collaborate where it can.
That was the message that county board Chair Dave Bliss, R-Cooperstown/Town of Middlefield, and Allen Ruffles, who chairs the county’s Emergency Task Force, delivered after this afternoon’s twice-daily task force meeting ended shortly before 4 p.m.
As of 3 p.m. today, no Coronavirus virus case had yet surfaced in the county, Bliss said.
In announcing the “New York State On PAUSE” today, Governor Cuomo said that, if necessary, the state National Guard and state police would be used to enforce the closures, but Bliss and Ruffles said they had received no direction in that regard.
They referred people to the Empire State Development Corp. website to determine what businesses are exempt from the directive to close, and have directed that a link be placed on the county’s home page, www.otsegocounty.com
COOPERSTOWN – Following Governor Cuomo’s directive, Otsego County’s government and Oneonta’s City Hall took steps Tuesday, March 17, to send half of their workforce home.
Cooperstown Mayor Ellen Tillapaugh Kuch said, because of the size of the village’s workforce, only “One or two” employees will be sent home.
“We’re required to do this,” said county board Chairman David Bliss, R-Cooperstown/Town of Middlefield. “We’re not making it up on own. Every county in the state is doing the same thing.” He added, “the health and safety of our employees and citizens is our top priority.”
In Oneonta, Mayor Gary Herzig said “our focus right now is keeping people safe. Party of that will be to reduce our workforce, to protect our employees.”
Following a Tuesday meeting of the county’s Emergency Task Force, Bliss and task force Chairman Allen Ruffles gave particulars.
Starting on the 18th, 197 Main St., Coopertown, The Meadows in the Town of Middlefield, and Old City Hall in Oneonta will be open to the public “by appointment only.” People who cannot connect by phone should dial 211, and will be directed by an operator to the right person.
The DMV office in Cooperstown will be available only to auto dealers; the Oneonta DMV office will close completely.
In Oneonta, Herzig said a decision on “all non-essential services” would be made at Common Council’s Tuesday. “We will allow as many staff as possible to work from home,” he said.
A number of Oneonta Public Transport routes are being eliminated for now as part of this, Herzig said. “However, if somebody urgently needs to get someplace, they will be able to dial, and we will come and get them.” Many transactions will City Hall will be done by mail, for the time being, he said.
Emergencies will be handled. For instance, the Department of Public Works may not be filling potholes, but it a water main breaks, city crews will fix it.
In Cooperstown, Tillapaugh said she has been participating daily in conference calls with Samantha Madison, the governor’s regional representative, where she learned about the 50-percent reduction mandate.
She and Village Administrator Teri Barown have been discussing implementation, and they are looking to identify employees who are candidates for “self-isolation,” working from home. Any employees sent home will receive full salary and benefits.
The question was, “Do you think THEY will let the county administrator do the job?” They, of course, being the county Board
But the question misunderstands how the new county administrator job is envisioned.
Judging from discussions surrounding the new job’s creation, the county representatives aren’t looking for someone to tell them what to do. They’re looking for someone who will allow them to do what THEY want to do more efficiently.
The control of county government will remain in the hands of the 14 elected representatives, elected every two years from their districts, who are entrusted to act on their constituents’ behalf.\
Not such a bad idea.
For the past few weeks, a name has been circulating as a prospect for the county’s first administrator: Allen Ruffles, the Republican county treasurer who has just returned from a year-long assignment in East Africa with the New York State National Guard.
The position must first be advertised, candidates vetted and a vote taken. A better candidate may emerge. Regardless, he or she might benefit from at least a few Ruffles-like characteristics.
First, he had a varied background as a school teacher, insurance agent, banker (Key Bank’s former branch manager in Cooperstown), as well as a soldier, and the discipline that connotes. That should give him sympathy and understanding of a range of people.
Two, he’s a county native, with a family: wife Amy, daughter Mia and son Cooper, so he has a stake – a personal stake – in the middle- and long-term prosperity of the county. Being a native is not a requirement, but a candidate should have a plausible reason for coming here.
Third, he holds an elective office, so he would likely be sensitive to pressures county representatives feel, having to represent a varied voter base.
Fourth, he’s developed collegial relations with the county’s 20-some department heads, a group that – according to a survey county Rep. Meg Kennedy’s Intergovernmental Affairs Committee conducted – is most resistant to the idea of reporting to a single boss.
That’s understandable: Most of us would prefer less supervision to more, but things are going to change. Ideally, he will develop the department heads into a team, focused on meeting the board’s directives.
Fifth, he has led preparation of two county budgets, and participated in two more as deputy to former County Treasurer Dan Crowell. It’s going to be a central function of the county administrator. Short-term, anyhow, his able deputy, Andrew Crisman, would ensure good relations with the Treasurer’s Office.
Sixth, Ruffles is not just experienced, but agreeable. Hard and soft skills, in whichever candidate is successful, is most important to ensuring the success of the new position. Put another way, building confidence, credibility and trust with all constituencies – the board, the department heads and the public.
Seventh, the county board, meeting Feb. 5, set the administrator’s salary at $100,000, considerably less than the $150,000 recommended to entice an out-of-county professional – $100,000 though, would be a nice raise for the county treasurer as he learns the new job.
That’s a lot of pluses.
Asked Monday about the chatter, county Rep. Andrew Marietta, the ranking Democrat, said he’d heard county board Chairman David Bliss mention Ruffles’ name in a meeting. “If Allen applied, it would be great,” Marietta said. “But it’s not a done deal.”
“I think a lot of Allen,” said Kennedy, whose IGA committee is handling the recruitment. “But it would be shortsighted of us to stop looking. There’s a lot to be gained by examining different candidates as they come forward.”
For instance, another potential candidate, former Cooperstown mayor Jeff Katz, has been mentioned for the job, and brings an impressive, albeit different, skill set.
“It’s going to be a county board decision,” Marietta said. Not a Republican or Democratic one.”
That’s exactly right. Still, thinking about someone like Ruffles helps focus on what qualities would help our county’s first top executive succeed.
COOPERSTOWN – Only once did Allen Ruffles feel he was in any danger.
A sergeant in the 403rd Civil Affairs Battalion, Army Reserves, he was living in a small wooden house in Uganda, training local wildlife rangers in anti-poaching techniques.
One morning, Ruffles – Otsego County treasurer in civilian life – heard a rumble and looked out the window at a herd of a few dozen elephants. Grabbing his cell phone, he slipped outside to capture a video.
He must have made a sudden noise or movement, because suddenly the video is flailing as Ruffles scrambles back into the house.
Eventually, the herd settled down and went sedately on its way.
Other than that, Ruffles’ 12-month assignment – he returned Sunday, Jan. 19, from Camp Lemmonier in Djibouti to his Beech Street home and wife Amy, daughter Mia, 11, and son Cooper, 6 – was uneventful.
Except everything was eventful, he related in an interview the following day: the people, the food, the weather, and his forays from his home base to conduct anti-poaching training in Tanganyika, Uganda, Burundi, “the second or first poorest nation in the world,” and a short stint in Ethiopia.
The house in Uganda was a luxury. Mostly, Ruffles and his team lived in tents.
“Everything’s so simple,” he said. “There’s no electricity,” and when in the bush, Ruffles would have to charge up a generator to power his laptop so he could confer with the Otsego County. The latrine – a hole in the ground.
The wildlife rangers his unit was training “know their stuff. They can tell you everything about the animals,” but mostly lacked education and basic skills. For instance, they would fire off their rifles randomly, and part of the training was in basic marksmanship.
Ruffles’ tent mate was a medic, training the rangers in how to treat a wound or tie a tourniquet.
For his part, Ruffles focused on “land navigation.” For instance, if a path is winding back and forth, you can make better time by going forward in a straight line.
If you come upon a gang of armed poachers, don’t confront them head-on. Sending out a flanking movement, and when they move toward the main unit, surprise them from the side.
Another area of instruction was what Ruffles characterized as “ethics” or “human rights.” Stumbling upon poachers, the wildlife rangers’ first instinct was to shoot them dead. The goal was to give the rangers a sense of due process – that not every offense was a capital one.
Coming from a culture where fruits and vegetables are treated to last for days, even weeks, on grocery shelves, Ruffles experience the real thing for the first time.
Once, in Burundi’s Kibira Mountains, stopped at a home surrounded by fruit trees – mangoes, bananas, berries – and the owner put together a salad bowl for the visitors. “It was like candy,” said Ruffles. “The fruit was so juicy.”
In Tanganika, the unit had a local cook, Grace, who would whip up a fresh chapatti for breakfast, or a salad – flavor-filled, like the fruit – with Pili Pili dressing, made with hot Habanero peppers. “When Grace made salad, that was the whole meal,” he said.
Back at Camp Lemmonier, the food was like your typical college dining hall.
There was little to do at headquarters, so Allen played a lot of basketball and worked out. With that, and his assignments in the field, he left weighing 238 and returned a trim 205, some 33 pounds lighter.
More moderate on assignment, the heat and humidity back in Djibouti was something to watch for, with the mercury rising into the upper 120s. When that happened, a “black flag” was flown, cautioned the soldier from any exertion. “Just walking to where we worked, I was drenched with sweat,” he said.
Ruffles was interviewed amid a family giddy with delight on his first day back. He, Amy and the kids went out to lunch on Monday the 20th, and then took off to Utica on a shopping trip that afternoon.
And absence did make the heart grow fonder. “Cooperstown is an amazing place,” he said. “I just wanted to get back to Cooperstown.” CCS school board President Tim Hayes lives up Beech Street, and made sure Amy and the kids’ driveway was shoveled every time it snowed.
While Ruffles’ commitment to the Army Reserves continues until mid-2021, he’s fulfilled his overseas responsibilities. (In the last few days, Ruffles predecessor, Dan Crowell, also a reservist, returned from Somalia, and has fulfilled his military commitment.)
Ruffles is taking a couple of weeks R&R, but expects to be back in the county treasurer’s office Monday, Feb. 3, to get acclimated before the county board’s February meeting on the 5th.
He’s already issued an invitation to the three new county board members who took office Jan. 2 – Rick Brockway, Jill Basile and Clark Oliver – to brief them on county finances.
“I met a lot of good people,” he concludes, “and it was a really good experience to see what we have here compared to what they have there.”
COOPERSTOWN – The 2020 tentative Otsego County budget is done, by way of Uganda, Burundi and Tanganyika.
It is under New York State’s tax cap, and Otsego County continues to be “one of the lowest taxed counties in the state,” County Treasurer (and Sgt.) Allen Ruffles reported Monday, Nov. 18, in a Zoom-enabled videoconference from his quarters in Djibouti, where he is stationed until early next year with the New York State National Guard.
Ruffles, who was assigned to the Horn of Africa last spring, participated in all budget meetings from 11,466 miles away in Camp Lemmonier via Zoom, a videoconferencing software being introduced throughout county government.
As it happens, the eight-hour time difference has worked well, as Ruffles gets off work in the evenings just as the Budget Committee is convening in the mornings, said Deputy Treasurer Andrew Crisman.
According to County IT Director Brian Pokorny, a large screen has been installed in the second-floor conference room at the county Office Building at 197 Main St. It was used to communicate with Ruffles, but will be used increasingly for less exotic communications.
For instance, instead of bringing department heads up from offices in Oneonta’s Old City Hall (242 Main St.) or The Meadows Complex to answer a question, they will be able to talk face-to-face with county board committees through this new tool, he said.
The total tentative 2020 county budget is $120,200,165, up from an approved 2019 number of $116,805,295.
The tax levy – what local property owners pay – rises to $12,144,437, up from an approved 2019 number of $11,707,812.
That increase is $3.73 percent, but state allowances – unpaid taxes, for instance – brings it under the Cuomo Administration’s 2 percent cap, Ruffles said.
The public hearing on the budget will be at 6 p.m. next Tuesday, Nov. 26, at the county courthouse in Cooperstown. The county board will be asked to approve the document at its monthly meeting Wednesday, Dec. 4.
In reviewing the tentative budget, Ruffles, Crisman and county Rep. Meg Kennedy, C-Hartwick, the Budget Committee chairman, discussed these areas of interest:
So far, the expected impact of the state Legislature’s judicial reforms hasn’t been felt. A new prosecutor in District Attorney John Muehl’s office, for instance, was covered by savings discovered by the new public defender, Michael Trossett, in his office.
Spikes are evident across the board in spending on county buildings. Old City Hall renovations went from $48,000 to $126,000, for instance. Much of this results from a contract with Trane, the Fortune 500 HVAC company; upgrades in heating, air-conditioning and energy efficiency are expected to save money long-term, Kennedy said. Asbestos, common when the county Office Building was erected in the 1960s, is being removed across the board, she added.
The Office of Emergency Services budget drops from $621,000 to $411,000, but is still double the $237,000 in 2018. Lately, the department has been investing in an e911 system that allows ambulance squads to stay connected even while responding to rural areas of the county that lack service. Much of the expense is being made up from grants, Ruffles said.
Overall, Kennedy said, the county board was committed to fully funding the M/C salary increase that grew of out a Personnel Department study last year aimed at keeping supervisors’ salaries at a par with similar counties.
Ruffles, who said he’s run into Dan Crowell, the county treasurer before him, who is also a National Guardsman on assignment in Djibouti, expects to be back in the U.S. in the latter part of January.
Beyond long-distance budgeteering, Ruffles has had other adventures, including spending four weeks in Tanganyika, hunting poachers during the day and sleeping in a tent at night.
One night, he awoke to an orange glow, and discovered his camp with in the path of a roaring wildfire. “I’d never seen anything like that,” said the Edmeston native.
COOPERSTOWN – The Otsego County Treasurer’s Office today released a tentative budget for 2020 that, if adopted as is, will cross the $120 million mark for the first time, by $200. If approved, the tax levy would rise 3.73 percent to $12,144,437.
The public hearing on the budget is at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 26. The budget must be adopted by mid-December.
I saw your article (“Treasurer Warns Of Overages, But Chair Unruffled,” Sept. 20 on www.All- OTSEGO.com) on the budget gap. For what it is worth, in some ways the county treasurer and county board chair’s perspectives are portrayed as divergent. However, from my experience, they are both right.
There is no black magic that can resolve the gap (treasurer), but it is not time to panic (chair).
For the eight years I was engaged in the budget process, there was typically a gap at this time of year, ranging between $2 million to $12 million depending on the year.
September, October and November are busy months with methodical and detailed review, reduction and adjustment, ideally in deep consultation with the departmental leadership.
There is no magic and there is no silver bullet expenditure to cut.
It is a compilation of scrutiny on hundreds of line items across the spectrum of operations and magnitude of cost.
They have good people on both sides of the aisle working on it and I am sure they will address the gap.
A former county treasurer, Crowell is deployed to Somalia with the Army Reserves.
COOPERSTOWN – Saying he has no “black magic” to fix it, County Treasurer Allen Ruffles has advised the county Board of Representatives it is facing a $12 million gap in the upcoming 2020 budget.
“I hear every year that Dan (Ruffles predecessor, Dan Crowell) used to work his ‘black magic,’ and always reduced the budget somehow last second,” said Ruffles in an email from the Horn of Africa, where he is on assignment with the Army Reserve. “There is no magic: We will be using the fund balance to help offset this gap.”
However, county board Chairman David Bliss, R-Cooperstown/Town of Middlefield, said a budget working group has already reduced that to $7-8 million, and he’s aiming to produce a budget that will be under the 2 percent state-mandated budget cap.
For years now, Otsego County’s annual auction of foreclosed-on tax-delinquent properties has eaten up a lot of oxygen at the county Board of Representatives’ monthly meetings.
It’s the Whack-A-Mole of county government, which suggests: There are unresolved issues.
So a take-charge presentation by the new county treasurer, Allen Ruffles, at the November meeting was welcome, if partial.
First, he declared, having studied the issue, giving delinquent taxpayers four years to pay back bills is counterproductive. In the fourth year, the fees and interest that accrue just make it all that more likely property owners won’t be able to catch up.
Three years is the standard among New York State counties, and Ruffles – as he can within his treasurer’s duties – has implemented it, effective 2022.
Second, he encouraged the county board, as a companion measure, to pass a law enabling property owners to “buy back” their own homes.
Himself a former banker, Ruffles said most delinquent properties aren’t mortgaged and contain more-than-sufficient equity to qualify for bank loans to cover what’s owed.
The county board should promptly pass the enabling legislation.
While Ruffles didn’t need the county reps’ blessing, Rep. Danny Lapin, D-Oneonta, made a motion of support and it was approved, although three county reps – Kathy Clark, Michele Farwell and Andrew Stammel – abstained, uncertain about some of the particulars.
Ruffles’ presentation spurred a debate – of course, the Whack-A-Mole – on a related issue: Should county employees be allowed to bid at the annual delinquent-property auction.
There was general agreement that employees in the Treasurer’s and the County Attorney’s offices, who are elbows deep in preparing the annual tax sale, should be prohibited from bidding – elected officials, too – but beyond that there were divergences.
County Rep. Ed Frazier, R-Unadilla, objected to any restrictions, even on himself and the other reps, saying anyone who thinks a property is worth more could bid against him. The board vice chair, Gary Koutnik, D-Oneonta, called a ban “100-percent optics.” Iffy. .
Farwell, the freshman Democrat from Morris, had a more textured view: “We’re the government, and government has lost the people’s trust. I think if you take an extra step to ensure the public’s trust in government, there’s a payoff there worth more than the opportunity for any employee in the county to bid.”
She summed up: “If you are an employee of McDonald’s, you cannot participate in those sweepstakes.”
Readers, ask yourself and fellow employees: In 10, 20 or 30 years on the job, has buying property at public auction ever come up in office conversation? Most of you would say, not at all; not once. It’s just beyond most people’s consideration.
The problem here is county employees swim in a sea where delinquent property-tax sales are dissolved oxygen. Everybody breathes that air. It’s conversation
in coffee breaks, where the treasurer’s and county attorney’s employees are sipping and sharing in the conversation.
There’s simply too much of an opportunity for inside knowledge to be acquired; for county employees, if you will, to prey on the rest of us.
Of course, it’s hard to listen to any discussion about tax sales without putting it in the context of the August 2014 auction, where Maria Ajello lost her Town of Richfield home to a neighbor who happened to be a county employee.
Another wrinkle: under a then-new policy, Ajello and a Town of Butternuts property owner, Bob Force, were denied the right to buy back their properties on the day of the sale.
They still feel that injustice, and anyone who hears Maria’s monthly plea for mercy feels it too. Injustice left alone festers, with unintended consequences: Fearful, the county board feels it must have a deputy sheriff on duty at all its monthly meetings.
To sum up, Treasurer Ruffles has taken a business-like step in shortening foreclosure from four years to three. Any business owner knows: If you let a bill go unpaid for even a year, the chances of getting paid are miniscule. But he and the county board, hand in hand, should continue to pursue not a best practice or two, but all THE best practices:
• One, pass the buy-back legislation, so captured value can be freed and people can stay in their homes.
• Two, ban every county employee from bidding on delinquent properties. Steady work, plus good health benefits and a secure retirement are recompense enough.
• Three, begin negotiations to make Maria Ajello and Bob Force whole – the properties they lost were worth many multiples of the taxes they owed.
Due to the snow, perhaps, no member of the public appeared at the public hearing on Otsego County’s 2019 budget, which began at 6 p.m. this evening in Courtroom #1 in Cooperstown. Above, county board Chair David Bliss, left, gave the floor to Clerk of the Board Carol McGovern to officially convene proceedings. The budget keeps the tax increase under the state tax cap, and includes $500,000 in raises for 104 “M&C” (management and confidential employees) following a two-year, 16-county study to determine “average” wages. This county’s wages, it turned out, are 20 percent below the average. The study also recommended the county reps receive a $3,000 raise to their $10,500 salaries, the first increase since 2008. Inset at left are county Personnel Director Penny Gentile, whose office conducted the salary survey; County Attorney Ellen Coccoma, County Treasurer Allen Ruffles, and Deputy Treasurer Andrew Crisman. Seated in the jury dock, in top photo, are, from left, County Reps. Andrew Marietta, Gary Koutnik, Danny Lapin, Peter Oberacker, Michele Farwell, Keith McCarty, Andrew Stammel and Ed Frazier. Seated next to McGovern is her deputy, Jenna Utter. (Jim Kevlin/AllOTSEGO.com)