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News of Otsego County

Allen Ruffles

In COVID Year, Leaders Did Step Up
Editorial

In COVID Year,

Leaders Did Step Up

The choice of Heidi Bond, “General in the Fight Against COVID-19,” as we put it, has been seconded by many since the “Citizen of the Year” edition appeared last week. She and her team at the Otsego County Department of Health rose to the challenge.

All of us thank her for her tireless contributions in 2020.

Otsego County has been lucky in leadership this year. Here are four other individuals who shone, and there are many others who, unheralded, have as well.

Many county leaders stepped up during the COVID Year, among them, from left, County Treasurer Allen Ruffles, Bassett Healthcare Network CEO Tommy Ibrahim, SUNY Oneonta President Dennis Craig and SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras.

One, County Treasurer Allen Ruffles, who returned Jan. 20 from a 12-month deployment in Djibouti with the 403rd Civil Affairs Battalion, Army Reserves, expecting to settle back into civilian life with wife Amy, daughter Mia, now 12, and son Cooper, 7.

Instead, he went from one foxhole to another.

By the end of March, he was in the midst of COVID-19, and county government found itself in a financial crisis, laying off 58 FTEs, and looking ahead to a hefty tax increase.

Then came the Ruffles Plan, which the first-term treasurer developed in consultation with colleagues in similar-sized counties: one, cuts; two, borrowing; three, chase limited money still flowing from Albany.

The plan reduced the deficit from $13.5 million to $5.4 million; borrows $4 million over 20 years at a historically low interest rate (1.0033 percent), and front-loads road work next spring (CHIPS money is still flowing from Albany).

This kept the county 2021 budget under the 2-percent tax cap.

Ruffles could have been buried under county-budgeting minutiae, but was able to see the big picture: COVID isn’t going to last forever – it could be at bay in weeks, certainly months. Then, tourism will return, sales tax will return – and the county will be able to fulfill its obligations.

Two, Tommy Ibrahim, recruited from nine-hospital Integris in Oklahoma with a goal of elevating quality and efficiency at the eight-county Bassett Healthcare Network, and returning it to profitability.

He arrived in June, and by December announced implementation of “OneBassett,” flattening the five “silos” – the five hospitals – and managing them horizontally, by discipline.

It’s hard to wrap one’s brain around, but Google “Bassett Hospital HR” and see how hiring, formerly scattered across the system, has been unified, a one-stop shop to getting a job at Basset, if you will.

Think it through. You can see how organizing and managing Bassett services individually – enabled by technology that wasn’t there a few years ago – could raise efficiency and lower costs across the board.

This isn’t just theoretical. Bassett has lost money for four years. Ibrahim – “call me Tommy,” he’ll say when you meet him – expects “OneBassett” to put the system at break-even by the end of 2021 and in the black after that.

A prosperous Bassett is essential to our aggregated health, prosperity and quality of life. Important stuff.

Three and Four: SUNY Oneonta’s new president, Dennis Craig, and the new SUNY chancellor, Jim Malatras.

A “super spreader” event on Friday, Aug. 21, the first weekend students returned, had pushed on-campus “positives” to 107 within a week.

Sunday, Aug. 30, the new chancellor was at SUNY Oneonta, trying to figure out what went wrong. And he acted, suspending classes for two weeks. As positives went over 300, he closed the campus for the semester.

By mid-October, campus President Barbara Jean Morris had resigned and, to succeed her, Malatras named Dennis Craig, who as president of SUNY Purchase kept a campus outbreak to seven cases in New Rochelle.

Craig’s action team came up with a plan of reopening within two weeks, and he successfully quelled a faculty revolt, and lined up enough support to aim at reopening on Feb. 1.

This is leadership.

In crisis, leaders emerge. And that happened here. Happily, identifying Heidi Bond and four other high-profile leaders doesn’t take anything away from the many others.

County Board chair David Bliss, R-Cooperstown/Middlefield, as he does so well, brought together the talent around him – Ruffles, Meg Kennedy, Bond, Brian Pokorny and many others.

The mayors of Oneonta and Cooperstown, Gary Herzig and Ellen Tillapaugh Kuch respectively, Bill Streck in his final weeks at Bassett’s helm, and his COVID team, were all great.

And this doesn’t mention all of our fellow citizens who soldiered on – businesspeople and non-profits alike – and church, and schools, and police, and …

The point is, there are a lot of people we can thank as Otsego County begins to come back to life in 2021.

Public Hearing Held On ’21 County Budget

PLAN STAYS BELOW TAX CAP

Public Hearing Held

On ’21 County Budget

County Treasurer Allen Ruffles answers one of only two questions on this evening’s 11-minute public hearing on the 2021 proposed county budget, which – despite the state withholding reimbursements due to the COVID-19 crisis – keeps the tax increase at 1.41 percent, under the state’s 2 percent budget cap. Behind him in the Otsego County Courthouse are, at left, county board Chairman David Bliss, R-Cooperstown/Town of Middlefield. At right is county Rep. Andrew Marietta, D-Cooperstown/Town of Otsego.  The total level is projected at $12,315,213, up from $12,144,437.  The total spending plan is $112,197,480.  The county board must now schedule a formal vote to approved the document.  The budget is based on the Ruffles Plan, borrowing at historic low-interest rates, upfronting activities that will still generate state reimbursement, and paying off the low-interest debt over 20 years.  (Jim Kevlin/AllOTSEGO.com)
1,500 Revelers Evoke COVID-Spread Fears

1,500 Revelers Evoke

COVID-Spread Fears

By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com

George Knarich.

NEW LISBON – County Treasurer Allen Ruffles arrived on the scene Thursday, Oct. 8, to issue a friendly advisory to organizers of the 23rd annual NY Harvest Fest & Freedom Fair/Political Rally.

“We told them they couldn’t stay there,” said Ruffles, who was accompanied by county Sheriff Richard J. Devlin Jr.

The day before, the county had seized the 144 acres for back taxes, he told owner George Knarich and Rob Robinson, of Damn Sam Productions, the festival’s organizer.

To no avail.

The pro-pot legalization party, billed as a music festival featuring vendors, speakers and acts, including Oneonta’s Cosmic Karma Fire Troupe and attracting an estimated 15,000 revelers, went on as planned, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

“They ignored the warnings, so we had to take action,” said Ruffles. “The complaints were just rolling in. The music was too loud. There were hundreds of people. And no one was wearing masks.”

Finally, Monday morning, Oct. 12, Knarich was arrested for trespassing and criminal nuisance, and was issued a hearing notice for promoting a non-essential gathering in time of COVID, a state health code violation.

A warrant had also been issued for Robinson, who was still at large as of Tuesday the 13th. “We haven’t been able to reach him,” said Devlin. “He has ties in Florida and we believe he might have left the area.”

The state violation alone carries a fine of up to $15,000; the criminal charges, a violation and a misdemeanor, respectively, could draw fines or up to 30 days in jail, according to District Attorney John Muehl.

According to Real Property Tax rolls, the 144-acre property, at 278 Allen Road, is owned by Kelly Haitt, Laurens, but Ruffles believes the property has been abandoned for some time.

The Eventbrite listing had Knarich’s address, at the corner of Route 15 and Allen Road, as the venue, “but when you arrived, it directed you up the road to the other property,” he said. “We posted signs, we told people to disperse, but it didn’t happen.”

Though the event was billed as adhering to social-distancing guidelines and asked attendees to wear masks when not in their camping area, the state’s public health law currently prohibits gatherings of more than 50 people.

When they event continued after Ruffles and Devlin departed, the sheriff and his deputies returned to
the property on Saturday evening with a notice of violations.

The attendees were angry, said Ruffles. “The sheriff and state police were parked outside the entrance, monitoring the situation, but they didn’t want to get too close.”

“There were 1,500 people there,” said Devlin. “Going up there with a handful of deputies was not a realistic option.”

According to the sheriff, Knarich disobeyed the order and continued hosting the event, and warrants were issued by New Lisbon Town Court.

For Ruffles, the biggest issue was liability. “We’re not trying to pick on people, but if something did happen, who would be liable?” he said.

With the county having taken control of the property, “if someone were to fall in that pond and drown, it’s county property, and the family could sue us. Then we have to go to the taxpayers and ask them to pay it.”

Meanwhile, county Public Health Director Heidi Bond, was receiving complaints and feared the event could become a super-spreader, much like the SUNY Oneonta parties that infected more than 700 students and one employee.

“Most of the people were from out of state,” she said. “But we’re concerned that local people attended too, and if, for instance, their kids are in school, it could become a big problem very quickly.”

It’s too early to tell if that will happen, she said Monday, Oct. 12, but the Department of Health is prepared to host more free testing sites if cases begin to rise.

“We’re still seeing cases related to the wedding in Oneida County,” she said. “It takes a couple of weeks to see the spread.”

The property, which includes a modular-style home, is listed on the Absolute Auctions website through Thursday, Oct. 15, when bidding closes. The current high bid is $79,000.

County Treasurer Has Way Out Of Crunch

County Treasurer Ruffles

Has Way Out Of Crunch

At 194 Main St., Cooperstown, the seat of Otsego County government, there’s been wailing and gnashing of teeth since COVID-19 arrived six months ago.

Revenues dried up. Fifty-nine jobs were chopped. The county board waited fearfully as state and federal mandarins declined to pay back money spent on mandated programs in 2019. The county reps pondered raising taxes above the 2 percent state cap, political hari kari.

County Treasurer Allen Ruffles cut through all that in a preliminary budget he presented to the county board’s Budget Committee Thursday, Oct. 1.

It balances. It provides cash flow. And it won’t raise taxes.

In consultation with county board Chair Dave Bliss, R-Cooperstown/Town of Middlefield, and Budget Committee chair Meg Kennedy, C-Hartwick, Milford, New Lisbon; Ruffles prepared a budget that:

• One, squeezes the prospective 2021 deficit from $13.5 million to $5.4 million; he cut wherever he could.

• Two, he’ll borrow $4 million at a historically low interest rate – 1.0043 percent – due in 12-24 years.

• Three, Highway Superintendent Rich Brimmer’s crews will get as much road work done as early next summer as possible, freeing up $6.7 million in CHIPS money, road funding that is still flowing from Albany.

He’ll use the $1.0043 percent loan money to pay for road-repair supplies, and pay it back whenever. And he’ll use the $6.7 million to pay short-term bills on everything else.

With a little luck, a vaccine and new treatments will wrestle COVID-19 to the ground in the next few months. Blessed tourists will return in 2021 – hosanna! – and sales tax and bed tax coffers will overflow. Happy days will be here again.

If the COVID threat continues for 5-6 years, we’re all sunk anyhow. But, chin up, America. That’s unlikely to happen.

As the sign at Schneider’s Bakery says, “This Too Shall Pass.” That’s as good a prediction as any.

The Ruffles budget is a preliminary spending plan county treasurers are required to submit to Albany by mid-November.

Bliss, Kennedy and the Budget Committee appear to like the Ruffles formula. So, right now, Ruffles’ formula may carry the day. The result: stable taxes, cash flow to get through ’21, and low-interest debt to pay when the economy rebounds.

Well done, Allen. Why not?

County Sales-Tax Loss Largest Across NY State

County Sales-Tax Loss

Largest Across NY State

‘Baseball, College Students’ Among Culprits

COOPERSTOWN – Only two counties in New York State saw their sales tax drop in the most recent report – Hamilton in the Adirondacks and Otsego, county Treasurer Allen Ruffles reported to the county Board of Representatives this morning,.

“It was very disheartening,” said Ruffles.

Ruffles 2021 Budget Uses Low-Cost Debt, CHIPS To Balance

CLICK FOR TODAY’S PRESENTATION

Ruffles Uses CHIPS,

Plus Low-Cost Debt,

To Balance ’21 Budget

County Treasurer’s Model May

Provide A Roadmap For Reps

By JIM KEVLIN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com

Ruffles at today’s Zoom meeting. (AllOTSEGO.com photo)

COOPERSTOWN – Otsego County’s roads are paved with gold, County Treasurer Allen Ruffles has discovered.

And that gold can balance the county’s 2021 budget and keep the tax-rate increase under the state-mandated 2 percent next year, Ruffles told the county board’s Budget Committee today.

In unveiling a preliminary county budget that county treasurers are required to submit to Albany by mid-November, Ruffles said the prospective budget gap has already been reduced from $13.5 million to $5.4 million through cuts and anticipate efficiencies.

County Treasurer Ruffles Set To Unveil His Version Of  Tax-Hike Free ’21 Budget

CLICK TO WATCH VIDEO LIVE

County Treasurer Ruffles

Set To Unveil His Version

Of Tax-Hike Free ’21 Budget

Posted by Otsego County, NY on Thursday, October 1, 2020

Follow County Treasurer Allen Ruffle’s presentation of a proposed 2021 Otsego County budget, including recommendations for how to avoid a tax increase, when the county board’s Budget Committee convenes in a few moments.  Click on video to listen live.

County Board Moves Toward Lifting Tax Cap

County Board

Moves Toward

Lifting Tax Cap

Action Possible At Sept. 2 Meeting

County Board Chairman David Bliss, R-Cooperstown/Town of Middlefield, proposes lifting the state’s 2 percent tax cap during deliberations on the 2021 county budget. At right is county board Vice Chair Meg Kennedy, C-Hartwick, Middlefield, New Lisbon.

By JIM KEVLIN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com

Freshman Rep. Clark Oliver, D-Oneonta, seconded Bliss’ motion, which must now go to public hearing.

COOPERSTOWN – Facing a fiscal crunch, the county Board of Representatives today took the first step toward freeing itself from the state’s 2 percent property-tax cap in preparing its 2021 budget.

At its August meeting, county board Chairman David Bliss, R-Cooperstown/Town of Middlefield, “put the law on the table,” and freshman representative Clark Oliver, D-Oneonta, seconded it.

As County Attorney Ellen Coccoma explained it, a public hearing must now be set before the county board’s next meeting, on Sept. 2, to enable the legislators to act at that point if they wish to.

Reps Updated: All Financial News Bad

STATE HOLDS ON TO MONEY

Reps Updated: All

Financial News Bad

County board Chair David Bliss and Vice Chair Meg Kennedy, upper left, were joined in the 197 Main board room by Keith McCarty.  Others are, top row, from left, Andrew Marietta and Jill Basile.  Second row, from left, are Danny Lapin, Andrew Marietta, Rick Brockway and Ed Frazier.  Third row, County Attorney Ellen Coccoma, Treasurer Allen Ruffles, Adrienne Martini and Clark Oliver.  Bottom row, Peter Oberacker, Michele Farwell and Dan Wilber.  (from screen shot)

By JIM KEVLIN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com

COOPERSTOWN – As at every meeting since the coronavirus threat arrived, all the financial news was bad when the county Board of Representatives met this morning.

County Treasurer Allen Ruffles told reps the government is in a holding pattern, awaiting decisions from Albany.  Assisting is Meiko Rowley, a 29-year accountant with the county.

As state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli emphasized when he spoke to the county board last month, the state has yet to decide what funds will be sent out from Albany this year.

Reporting on a presentation by NYSAC budget expert David Lucas, County Attorney Ellen Coccoma said a 20 percent cut in state aid to counties is still anticipated. However, if Albany decides to keep education, Medicaid and public assistance “whole,” the rest of county government would face a 50 percent reduction, Lucas estimated.

May Sales-Tax Check Here: 26% Lower Than Last Year

RUFFLES REPORTS:

May Sales-Tax Check Here:

26% Lower Than Last Year

By JIM KEVLIN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com

Allen Ruffles

COOPERSTOWN – The May sales-tax check arrived at 197 Main St. today, and County Treasurer Allen Ruffles reports it is 26.9 percent lower than last year’s May check.

That is a reduction of slightly less than $600,000, he said, but higher than the 25 percent NYSAC estimated.

The sales-tax allocations are issued every other month, and Otsego County’s largest ones will be known in July and September, reflecting summer business –- or the lack of summer business.

2nd May Meeting Planned To Decide Extent Of Layoffs

OTSEGO COUNTY BOARD, 5-6-20

2nd May Meeting

Planned To Decide

Extent Of Layoffs

NYSAC Expected We’ll Lose

Equivalent Of Twice Tax Levy

While briefing the county board today via Zoom, County Treasurer Allen Ruffles received an update from NYSAC: State cuts in revenue and reimbursements are expect to be double what was originally expected. 

By JIM KEVLIN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com

COOPERSTOWN – Today started with bad news for Otsego County’s 14 representatives and ended with worse.

When the county board’s May meeting convened at 10 a.m. via Zoom, the county reps thought they were struggling with an $11 million deficit from coronavirus-related cuts.  When it end, that had doubled to $22 million, double the county’s property tax levy.

To keep current levels of service, the property tax levy – and hence the tax rate – would have to be doubled.

The discussion was focusing on whether to freeze one promotion and two potential hires in the Department of Social Services when County Treasurer Allen Ruffles looked up from his cell phone.

“I just got the latest from NYSAC,” the state Association of Counties, he said.

It included a worst-case scenario, a 50 percent cut in sales and bed tax revenues, and reimbursements from the State of New York, amounting to $11 million.  “It could be even worse,” said Ruffles, quoting the new report.

20% State Aid Cut Possible, Ruffles Tells Towns, Villages At Weekly Telephone Briefing

20% State Aid Cut Possible,

Ruffles Tells Towns, Villages

At Weekly Telephone Briefing

By JIM KEVLIN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com

County Treasurer Allen Ruffles.

COOPERSTOWN – The county, town and village governments are facing a possible 20 percent reduction in state aid/reimbursements from Albany unless the federal government steps in to help, County Treasurer Allen Ruffles, county Coronavirus Task Force chairman, said today.

Ruffles included that news in a transcript he prepares each Monday to brief local officials on impacts of the continuing coronavirus threat.

“As of now there has been no aid coming from the federal government and (state Budget Director Robert Mujica) put out a release saying to expect at least a 10 percent decrease in State aid/reimbursement,” Ruffles wrote.  “But we won’t have any actual details until May 1.”

Jobless Claims Soaring; Sales-Tax Dip Expected
LOCAL FALLOUT FROM EMERGENCY

Jobless Claims Soaring;

Sales-Tax Dip Expected

By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com

The state Association of Counties has found the coronavirus emergency will cost Otsego County millions in sales-tax revenues. (AllOTSEGO.com)

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.

State Could Raid Counties’ Coffers To Fill Budget Gap

DiNAPOLI: ADD $4B TO NY DEFICIT

State Could Raid

Counties’ Coffers

To Fill Budget Gap

Medicaid Shortfall Alone May

Cost Otsego $1M, Ruffles Fears

By JIM KEVLIN •  Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com

Allen Ruffles

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.

CUOMO ORDERS ‘NON-ESSENTIAL’ BUSINESS  SHUT

HERE’S LIST OF ‘ESSENTIAL BUSINESSES’

HERE’S ‘STATE ON PAUSE’ PRESS RELEASE

CUOMO ORDERS

‘NON-ESSENTIAL’

BUSINESS  SHUT

Cutoff Set For 8 p.m. Sunday;

Soldiers, Police May Enforce It

By JIM KEVLIN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com

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.

County Board Chairman Dave Bliss (AllOTSEGO.com photo)

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

Bliss and Ruffles also reported:

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