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.
COOPERSTOWN – Three decades of striving ended today as the Otsego County Board of Representatives, 11-2-1, created the position of county executive.
In a half-hour of give and take, it was clear that, despite and lopsided vote, starkly contrasting outlooks remain.
“You talk about planning,” said county Rep. Keith McCarty, R-East Springfield, and longest-serving board member. “You can’t plan when you’re going to get a flood. You can’t plan when a bridge is going to go out. You can’t plan when a road washes out – we’ve had two of them on the east side of Otsego Lake. You deal with it.”
Danny Lapin, D-Oneonta, who is finishing his first term, took on the rebuttal: “Our talents are hamstrung by a lack of coordination, a lack of planning, a lack of overall coordination.
COOPERSTOWN – The Otsego County Board of Representatives voted in 1993 to create a county manager position. The result was a 7-7 tie, but the weighted voting system blocked the move.
A quarter-century plus a year later, a resolution is again headed to the county board, on Wednesday, Nov. 6, and with at least two Republicans, the one Conservative and all but perhaps one of the Democrats favoring it, it appears likely to be approved.
Since the creation of a top manager’s job would require enactment of a law, the Nov. 6 vote would be to set a public hearing for the following month’s meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 4.
After the hearing, the county reps could vote on creating the position, or delay for further study and adjustments.
A first vote, 3-1, happened last week at the county board’s Administration Committee, chaired by Meg Kennedy, C-Mount Vision. She voted aye, and said county Reps. Peter Oberacker, R-Schenevus, and Gary Koutnik, D-Oneonta, the board’s vice chairman, joined her.
Voting nay was county Rep. Ed Frazier, R-Unadilla. Keith McCarty, R-East Springfield, had to leave early. And Andrew Stammel, D-Town of Oneonta, was absent.
The idea, said Kennedy, is “to better serve the constituents.”
“The position will allow Otsego County to create short- and long-term plans to meet emerging and already existing needs,” she continued. “And also to oversee day-to-day operations to allow greater efficiency in county government. Communications is also a biggie.”
“It’s extremely significant,” said Koutnik, who is retiring from the board at the end of the year. “It’s going to change things more than anything in the past eight years, most all of it for the better.”
Frazier said concerns about the expense caused him to hold back. “They aren’t showing the full costs,” he said. “It’s going to be a quarter of a million dollars by the time it’s implemented.”
The former board vice chairman, Frazier said he doesn’t see how a county manager could close that gap through savings or new revenues.
Kennedy, who also chairs the Budget Committee, said $75,000 has been included in the prospective 2020 budget to fund the position for half a year, thinking it will take until June or July to fill the position.
County board Chairman David Bliss, R-Cooperstown/Town of Middlefield, was at the Admin meeting ex officio, but said he also voted to move the manager position forward.
He acknowledged Frazier’s concerns, and said the county board will have to be vigilant, “or it quickly will become a million” if a county manager finds he or she needs an assistant county manager and other support staff.
But, Bliss continued, “if we can keep it to a single individual, a day-to-day contact for the county, overseeing things in general,” then costs can be controlled.
The resolution and job description approved by the Admin Committee weren’t available as of press time – they were being reviewed in the County Attorney’s Office – but Bliss said he would like the job requirements to be less specific, to give flexibility in who to hire.
He pointed to what happened in the City of Oneonta: the educational requirement of an MPA – a master’s in public administration – limited the applicant pool, City Hall went through two city managers before achieving some stability under George Korthauer, the current applicant.
Bliss said he’d like to avoid that.
None of the reps said they were counting noses, but Koutnik said he expects all the Democrats, except perhaps Stammel, to support the new position.
With at least Republicans Bliss and Oberacker joining them, and Conservative Kennedy, that adds up to 3,850 weighted votes, a healthy margin beyond the 3,115 needed to pass a measure.
Asked why a county manager is necessary, Koutnik said, “Ask a $116 million company” – that’s the county’s annual budget – “what they would do without their CEO.”
He pointed out three big construction projects pending: current and future renovations at the county jail; security upgrades at 242 Main, Oneonta’s former city hall, and replacing the highway garage on Cooperstown’s Walnut Street with a more central facility.
“We’ve got cost overruns in the jail renovations that no one seems to be in charge of. We’ve talked about that a number of times,” Koutnik said. “If we had a county manager who could clear that up, figure out the chain of command in terms of change orders, I think he or she would save us a lot of money.”
Kennedy said she could mention a number of instances where having a county manager would help, but she focused on the decline of the county’s rural emergency squad, who are losing volunteers due to outmigration and longer commutes. A county manager could be tasked to find out how other counties are tackling the problem.
“There are other issues,” she said. “The person is not going to be Superman or Superwoman. They can’t solve our broadband problems, they won’t be able to solve our energy problems. But they will be able to network with other counties’ leaders.”
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.
More than 250 kids presented 650 animals as part of The Farmers’ Museum’s 72nd annual Junior Livestock Show‘s Parade of Champions, showcasing the best of the best in livestock at the end of a weekend of trials and judging at the Iroquois Farm Showgrounds in Cooperstown. Above, Gus Mason, 14, holds Gummy Bear’s Grand Champion Jersey award and the Best Jersey Bred and Owned award . The Grand Champion silver plate award was made in memory of Howard Curry Ainslie by his family when he died in 1999. Flanking Gummy Bear on the left is Howard Ainslie’s youngest daughter, Darcey Ainslie Schilling, and on the right, his granddaughter, Jennifer Griffith. Harold Couse, Griffith’s father and husband of Howard’s daughter Carla Ainslie Couse, stands next to Gus, with family friend Addilee Lutz, 8. At right, Farmers’ Museum board member David Bliss presents the Dairy Cup Best in Show award to Lance McClure and his cow, Jericho-Dairy Baracuda-ET. (Jennifer Hill/AllOTSEGO.com)
MILFORD CENTER – Oneonta and Cooperstown’s League of Women Voters chapters are planning “A User’s Guide for Local Democracy: Skill Building for Active Organizations and Individuals,” 8:30 a.m.-12:45 p.m. Saturday, April 27, at Springbrook’s Family Engagement Center on Route 28.
Panelists will include Laura Ladd Bierman, executive director the League of Women Voters of New York State.
The workshop is designed to build attendees’ skills and confidence in planning and holding successful public and organizational events and meetings, according to a press release. “We will look at ways to be more effective in listening to divergent opinions, and contending with stridency, in the search for meaningful consensus,” the release said.
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)
BURLINGTON – The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation cut the ribbon this morning on the revamped Basswood Pond State Forest recreational area. The $100,000 project added several features to the site, while making the pond fully accessible to handicapped visitors.
“With the completion of these new accessible features, visitors with mobility impairments can enjoy the natural beauty and recreational opportunities at Basswood Pond,” said DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos.
“These improvements, through Governor Cuomo’s Adventure NY initiative, are just a sample of the recreational upgrades that New York has underway to better serve everyone who wants to enjoy our state’s great outdoors,” he said.
COOPERSTOWN – After a 15-month standoff, Ros Devlin’s fate as a correctional officer is now in the hands of the chairman of the Otsego County Board of Representatives.
With one abstention and two absences, the county reps voted a few minutes ago to accept Sheriff Richard J. Devlin Jr.’s proposal to turn over authority for investigating and possibly removing his son from his job to county board Chair David Bliss, R-Cooperstown/Town of Otsego.
In a short discussion, county Rep. Ed Frazier, R-Unadilla, first thanked Bliss for moving matters forward, but he asked the county labor attorney, Matt Ryan, “Does this get us where we need to be?”
In a press release sent out this morning, Otsego County Director of 911 Communications Robert O’Brien announced that the county’s 911 dispatch department had secured $842,330 in New York State grant funding. The total sum is divided between two seperate grants: $157,687 under the New York State Public Safety Answering Points Operation Grant Program for upgrades to the call center, and $684,650.00 under the New York State Statewide Interoperable Communications Grant Program which will be used to build three additional communications towers to improve coverage for the dispatchers.