Despite the chilling toll – 3,483 COVID-19 cases and 54 deaths – Otsego County people, our neighbors, friends and family, have a lot to be proud of as we ended The Year of The Pandemic on Monday, March 15, we found in revisiting the last 52 editions of this newspaper.
Throughout, there was worry, dismay and grief in the face of the implacable and mysterious foe, but little panic. In reviewing the newspapers, there was, and is, much determination, focus and purpose among our neighbors and our community leaders.
At the county level, board Chairman David Bliss promptly issued an emergency declaration on Friday, March 15, 2020, that outlined many of the steps that have marked our lives since then. Going forward from there, the county board was tough and visionary in the face of disappearing sales- and bed-tax revenues.
The reps laid off 59 FTEs, no fun for anyone. Then – guided by county Treasurer Allen Ruffles – they assembled a plan based on historically low-interest loans and fast-tracking roadwork, which the state CHIPS program still reimburses, to ensure solvency. When President Biden’s $11 million stimulus allocation was announced in recent days, it was appreciated at 197 Main, but not essential.
On a parallel track, county Health Department rallied under Public Health Director Heidi Bond, doing the COVID testing and contact tracing that – along with masks and social distancing – have been central in controlling the disease to the extent we have.
She was already heralded as this newspaper’s 2020 Citizen of the Year, but not enough appreciation can be expressed to her team’s hard work and accomplishment.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.