COOPERSTOWN – The tallying’s been done, and it determined the county DMV office in Oneonta generates $500,000 in sales-tax revenues annually, a fraction of the $4.5 million equivalent generated in the Cooperstown one, county board Chair David Bliss, R-Cooperstown/Town of Middlefield, said today.
The county keeps only 12.7 percent of those revenues, but the proportion generated by each office shows the relative amount of activity.
Regardless, said Bliss, the state has withheld permission to reopen the county’s Motor Vehicle offices, although all other county offices may reopen, subject to social-distancing restrictions, on Monday, June 8.
COOPERSTOWN – County board Chairman David Bliss has announced shortly after 2 p.m. that Otsego County businesses and industry have been included in Phase One of the state’s reopening from the coronavirus lockdown, effective this Friday, May 15.
“This is the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Bliss. “But we’re still in the middle of the tunnel. We have a long way to go.”
Bliss spoke after just completing a regional telephone briefing with Oneida County Executive Tony Picente, on behalf of the Mohawk Valley Regional Economic Development Commission (REDC), which includes Otsego County.
COOPERSTOWN – Otsego County shouldn’t be waiting for Governor Cuomo’s permission to reopen as the coronavirus threat wanes, says county Rep. Peter Oberacker, R-Schenevus.
Oberacker, who is also running for state Senate, was the sole “nay” vote as a resolution asking the governor to reopen the county “safely and as soon as possible” passed the Board of Representatives today by a 13-1 vote.
“Why can’t we go to our governor and tell him: We understand it. We need to open. Here’s our plan to move forward,” said Oberacker in an interview after the meeting. “Let’s put together a structured plan to reopen Otsego County.”
The resolution the county representatives passed was less specific.
ONEONTA – Citing the domestic violence and homeless shelters “essential services,” the Otsego County Board of Representatives and the county’s Department of Social Services have reopened both buildings.
“We’re happy that they have reopened and that they are helping these vulnerable populations in our community,” said county Rep. Adrienne Martini, D-Oneonta, chair of the county board’s Human Services Committee. “It’s so important that they be open and operational.”
COOPERSTOWN – If your phone rang in the last few minutes, it may have been Dave Bliss with this message:
“This is David Bliss, Otsego County Board chair, with a reminder that we all must take personal responsibility to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The Governor has ordered only essential businesses can be open. No social gatherings for any reason. Wash hands and limit trips to essential activities only, keeping 6 feet of physical distance from others. Fines may be imposed for violations. Stay home, save lives, Stop the spread. Call 2-1-1 or visit our website or Facebook page for more information.”
The message was distributed via the phone by Hyper-Reach®. Click below to listen.
COOPERSTOWN – While “deeply troubled” by Governor Cuomo’s announcement that Upstate ventilators will be seized for downstate patients, county board Chairman David Bliss today said he’s been assured local health-care believe they can participate without jeopardizing local care.
“We have been assured that if those circumstances begin to change, health-care leaders will inform the board and we will collectively take the necessary actions to insure the levels of service required for the residents of our region,” Bliss said in a statement released this afternoon.
COOPERTOWN – While is hasn’t come to that, county board Chair David Bliss said today that SUNY Oneonta could be converted to a coronavirus hospital if necessary.
Responding to a question from county Rep. Michele Farwell, D-Morris/Butternuts/Pittsfield, Bliss said that’s “part of the reason SUNY dorms were cleared and sanitized – in preparation for potential need for more space.
“It’s under consideration already; that’s been discussed,” said the Republican, who represents Cooperstown, Middlefield and Cherry Valley.
SUNY Stony Brook and SUNY Westbury are already being prepared for use as hospitals, under a directive issued by Governor Cuomo. SUNY has 67 campuses.
COOPERSTOWN – Saying “most people understand HPPA and privacy implications,” county board Chair Dave Bliss told his colleagues today Otsego County residents will only be given gross numbers about the coronavirus infestation.
However, he said, individuals and families may “self-disclose,” he said.
Some larger counties are releasing data by town, but “guidance from the state is that smaller counties with smaller population have the right not to disclose, which is what we’ve decided to do,” since people might be able to determine who the individuals are.
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.
COOPERSTOWN – At 10:54 a.m. today, county Board Chairman David Bliss issued a State of Emergency for Otsego County, effective immediately, and remaining in effect for the next 30 days.
Also issued was an order in support of the state and county Health Departments’ recommendation on Friday to close schools, which local school superintendents have already announced.
Public Health Director Heidi Bond and her staff have “been working overtime to keep up with the latest information,” Bliss said, and he encouraged citizens, if they have any questions, to first check www.otsegocounty.com/
COOPERSTOWN – Governor Cuomo’s plan to close the state’s $6 billion budget gap includes passing more Medicaid costs on to the counties, county Rep. Meg Kennedy, R-Hartwick/Milford/New Lisbon, told her colleagues at their March meeting this morning.
It could cost Otsego County a maximum of $1.9 million, she said, having been briefed as a member of the state Association of Counties board of directors.
That would require an “immediate 15-20 percent property tax hike in the county,” board chairman David Bliss, R-Cooperstown/Town of Middlefield, observed.
COOPERSTOWN – Otsego will now have a county administrator. Now, the question is how to fit the new job into the current system, and how to adjust the system for the new job.
“We have a few things to iron out,” said county Rep. David Bliss, R-Cooperstown/Middlefield/Cherry Valley, in an interview as he enters his third one-year term as Otsego County board chairman.
For instance, who’s in charge when the county administrator is out of town or sick? Perhaps the board chairman, the chairman said.
Now, county Treasurer Allen Ruffles, due to return at the end of this week from a year’s National Guard deployment in Djibouti, and his assistant, Andrew Crisman, have put together two county budgets now, and well, Bliss said.
The new administrator – “we have an optimistic timeline: six months” – will take the lead on budget preparation, but should take advantage of Ruffles and Crisman’s experience and expertise, Bliss said.
The position of clerk of the board, now held by Carol McGovern, provides services to the county reps that must be meshed with the county administrator’s.
Foremost, Bliss said, the county board has only added one single job, no more.
During the county administrator debate, county Rep. Ed Frazier, R-Unadilla, issued a letter to the editor reporting that Greene county executive’s budget quickly ballooned from one person to a $350,000 staff.
That’s not going to happen here, and existing clerical staff and others will be repurposed to avoid budget creep, the chairman said. As needs arise, “maybe somebody would be transferred,” he said. “We’re not anticipating any new positions.”
He affirmed he is assigning the task of recruiting the first person to fill the $150,000 job to the Intergovernmental Affairs Committee, chaired by Meg Kennedy, C-Hartwick, the board’s new vice chairman.
Perhaps IGA will seek a consultant to assist the search, but maybe not, Bliss said. He expects Kennedy, who is on the board of directors of the state Association of Counties, will be able to tap into NYSAC’s expertise as the job search ensues.
He cited other issues he expects to pursue:
• The Energy Task Force: “If we keep the politics and activism out of it, there’s a lot of room for common sense.”
• The county jail, now undergoing extensive repairs: the question of replacement, renovation or building an addition will be studied. And bail reform must be taken into account. “If the population stays low,” Bliss said, “maybe we can get along.”
• A consolidated highway garage: The county is in talks with BOCES to replace the building on Linden Avenue, Cooperstown, with a new one at the Area Occupational Center in Milford. It would be more centrally located, and BOCES mechanics students could be trained to keep the fleet in repair.
• Trane: The county has contracted with the national HVAC company for $2.3 million in energy-efficiency upgrades on all its buildings, from headquarters on Main Street, Cooperstown, to 242 Main St., Oneonta, the former city hall. The deal was structured so that savings would cover the costs.
HARTWICK – Leadership gravitated toward Meg Kennedy, to hear her tell her story.
She first realized that was happening at an Oneonta Farmers’ Market vendors’ meeting in 2008 or 2009, where a difficult issue was being debated.
As the point of decision approached, Tom Warren, who runs the Stone & Thistle Farm, raising meadow-fed lamb and other natural products in East Meredith, spoke out: “Whatever Meg thinks we should do, that’s what we should do.”
To hear her tell it, Kennedy was as surprised by Warren’s comment as anyone.
“You suddenly have this reputation,” she reflected the other day in an interview in front of a roaring fire at her family’s Pleasant Valley Road home on being named 2019 Citizen of the Year by Hometown Oneonta, The Freeman’s Journal and www.AllOTSEGO.com. She added with a grin: “You have to make sure you aren’t saying anything stupid.”
Just starting her third term, Kennedy, the sole Conservative Party member of the Otsego County Board of Representatives, represents Hartwick, Milford and New Lisbon. The facts: but they just scratch the surface.
Warren reiterated his respect for Kennedy the other day: “She stays calm in the storm. She’s very reasoned about how she thinks and talks. If she reaches a decision, it’s done with a great deal of consideration.”
County Board Chairman David Bliss called Meg Kennedy’s selection as Citizen “a very good choice.” He singled her out for key roles because “she’s intelligent and hardworking, and has a lot of common sense: Intelligence and common sense don’t always go together.”
He was confident she would approach difficult issues “with an open mind. She didn’t prejudge. I could trust her to do good work.”
All those qualities – and the woman who personifies them – were front and center in 2019, The Year of Meg Kennedy, if you will, which can be defined in at least four ways:
►ONE, COUNTY ADMINISTRATOR
Opposed to the idea of a county manager/administrator/executive when she first ran in 2015 – she considered it “another layer of government” – she gradually changed her mind on experiencing the complexities of county government.
She grilled Gerry Benjamin, SUNY New Paltz vice president, when that local government expert keynoted a community meeting locally in December 2017, soon after election to her second term.
Named the next month by the new chairman, Dave Bliss, to chair the Intergovernmental Affairs Committee (and the key Administration, the ways and means committee), she scheduled a second monthly meeting for the IGA – every month for 24 – dedicated to studying the optimum managerial option for this county.
On Dec. 4, the Otsego County Board of Representatives voted 11-2, with one absence, to create the job of county administrator, moving Otsego with its $120 million budget out of the last half-dozen counties statewide that lacked professional management.
► TWO, THE ENERGY TASK FORCE
In the year’s first month at the Otsego Chamber’s Energy Summit at The Otesaga, she announced the formation of the county board’s Energy Task Force, 21 members in four “work groups” – Building & Efficiency, Energy Supply & Distribution, Environmental Development, and Environment – plus 14 technical advisers.
The goal: to bring a range of sometimes warring advocates – renewable purists on one side and fossil-fuel bridge builders on the other – together behind a coherent,
workable energy future.
After a year of fact-finding, the group received a $50,000 state grant Dec. 19 – the county’s anteing up another $50,000 – to hire a consultant to pull together this year’s fact-finding into a Community Energy Plan by the end of 2020.
This year, she was also elected to New York State Association of Counties’ board of directors, the first Otsego County representative to receive that honor. That puts her in touch with cutting-edge ideas in county governance, which she can then use for the benefit of the rest of us back home.
►FOUR, THE FULCRUM
In the run-up to this year’s Nov. 5 county elections, when Democrats talked about winning a majority, and some Republicans may have worried about losing it, the arithmetic became clear – it’s a Meg Kennedy majority.
Six Republicans command 3,421 points in the board’s weighted-voting system; seven Democrats, 3,433, a difference of 12 votes. That means Kennedy, on partisan matters, Meg – her dad, Paul Kennedy, is Otsego County Conservative Party chairman (and founder) – controls the outcome.
Meg Kennedy rules! (But given her record to date, it’s unlikely she would do so without deliberation, discussion and reflection.)
She was born in 1967 at Stamford Hospital; her parents, Paul and Margaret Kennedy, had moved up from Long Island and bought a farm in Roxbury. As Kennedys multiplied, the parents moved to Laurens in 1974 so the kids, eventually 12 in all, could get a Catholic education at St. Mary’s School in Oneonta.
In conversation the other day, Bliss’ sister Patty, herself a former St. Mary’s principal, recalled her girlhood, seeing the Kennedy clan each Sunday filling a pew at St. Mary’s “Our Lady of the Lake” in Cooperstown. (The Bliss family, with eight children, would be arrayed nearby.)
Paul and Andy (a decorated Marine colonel) are older, but – after Meg – came Betsy, John, Tricia, Owen (Owen Jr. was star center on last year’s CCS state championship basketball team), Jim (vice president of the international Chicago-based Ball Seed Co.), Susan (a Dominican nun with a Ph.D., now based in Nashville), Katie, Joe and Anne.
As third eldest, and eldest daughter, Meg’s leadership skills were soon required.
“I always got the young kids to do what we needed to do at home,” she recalled.
Growing up in the family’s Federal-style home – painted green, appropriately – that may date back to the 1700s, she wanted to do what her older brothers did, playing outside – in particular, riding horses. Of many horses raised on Pleasant Valley Road property over the years, the family still has seven, all born on the farm.
Meg credits St. Mary’s School with giving her an ethical grounding, from the 10 Commandments, the Rosary and the church’s other teachings and rituals. “It was a small school, I knew all the kids,” she said. “The teachers were very kind, and made sure everyone lived up to their potential.”
At CCS, “the teachers expected a lot of us.” With sister Betsy, a year behind her, she played field hockey and volleyball, and ran track. An indication of her future career in elective office, she was president of her sophomore and junior class, and was elected Student Council president her senior year, staging fundraisers for famine relief in Africa.
“I always could coalesce a group,” she said, again seemingly surprised. “You don’t see these things as you are moving through them.”
Graduating from high school in 1985, she followed brothers Paul and Andy to Cornell, the College of Agriculture & Life Science, studying horticulture and greenhouse management “with the idea I could come back and work in the greenhouses” – the family’s greenhouses on the Hartwick farm – “to do what needed to be done.”
Early on, her father had taken over his father’s Andrew R. Kennedy Seed & Bulb Co., selling to grand estates in the Hudson Valley and around Philadelphia; at its height locally, the family had 27,000 square feet of greenhouses – and Meg took over office functions after graduating from Cornell in 1989.
In addition to running Kennedy Seed, the family began selling flowers at the Oneonta Farmers’ Market, expanding to Cooperstown’s, Delhi’s and Callicoon’s, in Sullivan County. As the seed and bulb business changed, the farmers’ markets became a much larger part of her family’s operation.
In 2010, soon after Tom Warren made his pronouncement, Meg was approached by Fred Fields, the former Hartwick Town Board member, and asked to fill a vacancy on the Planning Board, (where she still serves.)
That set the stage for 2015, “one of those years where there were going to be a lot of open seats,” recalled Republican County Chairman Vince Casale. Held by Democrat Ed Lentz, District 5 “was one of the districts we knew we had to win. We were having a hard time finding the right person to commit to that seat.”
As he scanned the town boards and planning board in the three towns, he saw Meg’s name. Bingo.
“I picked up the phone and called her. I knew there had been some hot issues she had contended with on the Planning Board,” Casale said. Within a few minutes, “it was obvious she was up to the task. You knew she was one of those people who had instinctive leadership qualities. We talked for two hours.”
He added, “We never think of her as being from another party. She fits right in. She aligns with the values Republicans hold.”
Even though their father established the Conservative Party in Delaware County in the 1960s, then brought it here, her brothers and sisters are a mix of Conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, Kennedy said.
Conservatism fit her, she continued: “I take a more careful approach to change. I have to get it proved to me.”
As it happens, she was asked about a county manager in 2015 during a candidates’ night with Lentz at the Hartwick Community Center on Route 11. He supported the idea; she was unconvinced. Fracking was also an issue.
That fall, she won, 813-590, including 99 Conservative votes. “I won because I was more neutral on the issues,” she believes, adding, “I know a lot of people.”
Hearing the news, Tom Warren said something she still reflects on: “Meg won because of who she wasn’t.”
In 2017, she turned back a challenge from the former Hartwick town supervisor, Pat Ryan, 1,055 to 524. This year, she was unchallenged.
Joining the board in January 2016, she only knew Dave Bliss, also a freshman, and – just a bit – Oneonta then-rep Craig Gelbsman. “I wanted to get to know the people, to get an understanding of what they were doing.”
She was assigned to the IGA, Solid Waste & Environmental Concerns, and the Human Services committees.
Asked about a defining moment, she paused, then spoke of an executive session involving a personnel matter. “I believe my contribution saved the situation from escalating to the point where there could have been a very different outcome,” Meg said.
Since executive sessions are confidential, she couldn’t get into details, but said, “I was really glad I was there that day.”
What happened that day? Her approach coalesced into what we’ll call here, “The Kennedy Method” of problem-solving. One, listen. Two, hear. “They aren’t the same thing,” she said. Three, “what’s the fairest thing to do?”
“Then,” she concluded, “we could stay within the box of appropriateness.”
The 2017 campaign was a vigorous one – Democrats fielded candidates in 13 of 14 districts – and more of a consensus approach emerged from the organizational meeting, with Bliss, who represents Cooperstown and the towns of Middlefield and Cherry Valley, elected chairman, and Democrat Gary Koutnik, D-Oneonta, as vice chairman.
“I knew when I voted for Dave” – his predecessor, Kathy Clark, R-Otego, had been a mentor of sorts toward Kennedy – “I was voting for more work.”
He appointed her chairman of the IGA and Administration committees – the two most challenging – and, later, to the committee that built the 2020 budget. Plus, she served as vice chairman of the Greater Mohawk Valley Land Bank, tasked with rehabilitating or razing blighted buildings to get property back on the tax rolls.
In 2018, amid a general energy debate, 150 XNG natural-gas tankers were criss-crossing the county daily, and activists were protesting plans for a gas-decompressing station at the Oneonta Commerce Park.
A Democrat, Michele Farwell, representing Butternuts, Morris and Pittsfield, joined the board, and eventually approached Meg Kennedy with the idea of forming an Energy Task Force, as Tompkins County had done. “Maybe we could get everybody seated at the table and talking to each other and past each other,” Farwell said.
Kennedy, by then chairing the IGA, agreed. “What that shows about Meg is that she’s very open to hearing new ideas and talking,” Farwell said, adding, “As a leader, she is very happy to let other people play as much of a role as they may like.”
Meg had observed an impasse in the energy debate, and was concerned it would prevent much-needed economic development. “We need to do something,” she told herself. “If we do nothing, nothing will ever happen. We need to get started, and see where it takes us.”
Coming out of Benjamin’s December 2018 presentation at Springbrook, “County Manager v. County Executive,” Kennedy’s IGA Committee also took on the task of exploring that choice.
“People who voted for Dave to be chair, they also wanted to talk about a county administrator,” Meg said, adding characteristically, “We started with a clean, blank slate.”
A first key decision was not to pursue an executive, which would have been an elected position and require the county to develop a charter and take it to referendum. If the vote was nay, the effort would be back to the beginning.
The IGA’s study – it included inviting in top executives from similar counties, and such experts as Steve Acquario, NYSAC executive director – also found an elected executive can elevate politics in county government, vying with a county board for primacy.
“An executive was not a good fit for a rural county with a small population,” Kennedy said. “Sometimes, lower population centers are overlooked.”
And so the county administrator option was pursued. In the New Year, the challenge of filling the job begins, and Bliss has said he plans to ask Meg to lead the search.
At one point during the process, Meg Kennedy was waved over to a table to join a conversation. Looking back, she followed her internalized tick list: Listen, HEAR, what’s fair…
“Wow,” she said to herself as she got up, “we just had a very productive discussion!”
COOPERSTOWN – If – as is anticipated – Dave Bliss is reelected chairman of the Otsego County Board of Representatives at the organizational meeting Thursday, Jan. 2, one of his first acts will be to name a committee to recruit the first county administrator.
In an interview, he said he sees no reason why county Rep. Meg Kennedy, C-Hartwick, who led the effort to create the new position, shouldn’t chair the search as well. “She’s done an excellent job,” said the Cooperstown/Town of Middlefield Republican. “I don’t see any reason to make a change there.”
Serving on the board of NYSAC (the state Association of Counties) gives her contacts and easier access to information that will help guide the recruitment process as it did the two-year study that preceded the county board’s 11-3-1 vote Wednesday, Dec. 4, to create a professional position at the top of the organizational chart.
The county board included $75,000 in the 2020 budget, also approved Dec. 4, with the idea it will take until mid-year to fill the $150,000 position, ($100,000 salary plus benefits and expenses.)
For her part, Kennedy called the vote “monumental,” adding, “it’s exciting – and a little scary at the same time.” That excitement was echoed by long-time supporters of the concept.
Former county board chairman David Brenner (and later, Oneonta mayor) said he was “very pleased” at the vote, and he praised his current successor: “This fellow Bliss, he’s been outstanding.”
Noting the current chair’s 25 years as Middlefield town supervisor, Brenner said, “He’s an old hand, and this looks to me like a skilled hand at work. He’s selective about what battles he cares to discuss. He’s picking the right priorities.”
Also expressing satisfaction was Kay Stuligross, formerly of Oneonta, now retired in Lansdale, Pa., who ran for the county board in 2007 specifically to see a professional administrator hired. The next step – hiring the right first person – is critical she said: “If we get someone who can’t do the job, it will set us back 10 years.”
At the Dec. 4 meeting, former county board Chairman Kathy Clark, R-Otego, held up Allegheny County’s failure – it has had three county managers since 2016, and the job is again vacant – as one reason for her nay vote.
And her former vice chairman, Ed Frazier, R-Unadilla, who didn’t attend the critical meeting, has argued $150,000, the estimated cost of the cost, will become double that and more at a county administrators adds a deputy and support staff.
County Rep. Keith McCarty, R-East Springfield, also voted nay.
On the first point, Kennedy said much depends on the success of the hiring process and how the county board welcomes the new hire. “I don’t want to micromanage the new administrator,” she said. “I want to pave their way to establish their authority within the county dynamic.”
She said “our action as a board” will determine success, and anticipates the county reps “becoming a stronger legislative body,” more firmly setting priorities to ensure the county’s best future.
Bliss said he anticipates periods of stability and periods of turnover. “Find one that works, and they end up staying for a long time. Then there may be two or three more before they find the right fit again,” he said.
Both representatives said the ballooning of county manager budgets can be misleading, often simply reflecting how existing resources are adjusted to fit the new model.