Remember - blog posts migrate downward, so the most recent post is at the top; the oldest at the bottom.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Raises: Slip-Slidin' Away

We got some bad news recently regarding our proposed salary study, which should institute a salary scale and an orderly progression of raises for our Management and Confidential (M&C) employees.  But first, some background.

Last summer, the Performance Review and Goal Setting Committee (PRGS) developed a one-year raise plan (details here) in order to begin the work of salary justice among our M&C workers.  In September, a special meeting of PRGS was held, with all Board members invited, to hear Ronni Travers, from Public Sector HR Consultants, outline the consultant services her company could provide in this regard:  a comprehensive salary study including recommendations for an ongoing salary scale, including comparisons with other similar County scales - not just salary, but benefits, hours, working conditions, job titles and descriptions, etc.  They would also fully integrate a County Manager into the study.  To most of us, it sounded like the best approach to an ever-growing problem.

The County can't just decide to contract with a consultant - we have to send out a Request for Proposals (RFP) and invite a wide variety of consulting organizations to respond with their plans and pricing.   The RFP for the salary study finally went out early this year (after a completely unnecessary delay), and because of the way it was written - by 'our purchasing department,' which is the Onondaga County Purchasing Department - Ms. Travers' company did not respond.  The two organizations which did respond really weren't qualified, primarily because they had no experience working with Counties.  One, it seemed, had no experience at all, and the other wanted to charge us twice the rate noted in the RFP.

So after further unnecessary delay, a second RFP was "put out on the street" in July, this time written with more care and clearly encompassing what PSHRC had offered to do.  However, just last week, we received a response from PSHRC, informing us that they were not able to take our project on at this time.  

We will see if we get any other responses this time that are any better than the ones we got last time.  But the truth is, we will have spent an entire year in a fruitless attempt to solicit a professional salary study that a respected organization had offered us at the beginning of that year.  This seems incredible to me, and suggests that there are major problems in the way we do government.

What makes this even worse is the fact that the salary study was our single, focused initiative for moving forward on the County Manager.  So - unless we get a wonderful proposal out of thin air in the next few weeks, we have no plan for establishing an M&C salary scale, and no plan for moving forward with a County Manager.

This does not mean that plans will not emerge.  They will, and, given the timing, they will be substantially affected by the results of November's elections.  But for now, this does not look like the way to run a County.

To the Heart of the Matter

...and here is the rest of the letter begun below.  Andrew uses the difficulties in managing the NTS closing as an example of the real inadequacy of County government, as it is currently structured, to manage large numbers of these types of issues in a coordinated manner.  We are largely working in silos, semi-independent Committees made up of a handful of laymen, operating without clear lines of communications or procedural guidance, trying to oversee twenty-some-odd departments without providing any overall direction or coordination.  We're a $110,000,000 organization without a CEO.

I don't agree with everything that Andrew says here, but our disagreements are minor and often just a matter of scale.  I believe that a County Manager is part of the solution to these fundamental structural problems, but only one part - we have quite a bit more to do even after a manager is in place.  

In reflecting on these recent developments about the upcoming closure of NTS and the notification process, I
have come to realize the situation facing Otsego County government operations is a true crisis. Otsego County
government is dependent on an ineffective committee and leadership structure, and immediate action is required to
strengthen and improve the County for success to result. First, it is important to remember that the County’s operating
budget is well over $100 million and hundreds of people are employed, and yet, the County has no central authority,
manager or administrator. Thus, all operating decisions are funneled through a group of committees carrying out a
duplicative approval process where a home committee votes on actions like a new hire or purchase request first, then
this same action is voted on and approved by the Administration Committee, and finally the full Board votes on this
resolution at a Board meeting. This system of management by committee is significantly limited by committee and
Board meetings that are held once a month. The end result is that the Otsego County Board is mostly approving
operating transactions. Hiring a new employee, making a budget transfer, carrying out a purchase of supplies, or
attending training are common examples.

The County Board’s focus on transactional decisions limits the opportunity to address other policy
considerations. Committee meetings require Department Heads to provide detailed background information on actions
like a budgeted new hire, while leaving little to no time for other policy considerations and discussions. Compare this
situation to most other companies or organizations of similar size (or smaller) where a manager can move forward with
this hire based on approval by budget or from the company president or organizational executive director. Overall,
many County committee meetings are lengthy, lasting hours.
Another challenge resulting from the County’s committee structure is the micromanagement of general
operations. Over the last year and a half (and longer in some cases), committees have struggled to complete various
projects, like a workplace violence investigation, compensation study of department heads, fleet management program,
the management of tower site leases, and even the Onondaga purchasing partnership. Where committees have
specifically taken it upon themselves to carry out general operations, the structure and limitations of the committee
system have been obstructions to decision making and taking action. Ultimately, Department Heads, who are the
experts and carry out the day-to-day operations, are the key to successful implementation of policy decisions the County
Representatives approve. Thus, when the County decided to repair and renovate the Northern Transfer Station, the
implementation of this decision rests with the Director of Planning, Karen Sullivan, and the Planning Department. If the
SWEC Committee were to have taken a direct operations role in managing this process, the construction decisions would
have been clearly limited and slowed or even not completed in timely manner.
Finally, the County’s leadership structure is insufficient to support County operations. There is a County Chair,
who is elected annually by the Board, but the Chair is not a full-time position. The County Chair is not positioned as a
County manager or administrator, nor does the Chair supervise Department Heads on a daily basis. The County Chair
also does not convene any management meetings with all Department Heads. There is no coordination of the
committees or committee chairs either. Committee chairs are not convened as a group, and there is not a standard
committee operating approach. The County Chair position exists more so as a mechanism to set the committees, make
appointments, run Board meetings, approve contracts and serve as a point of contact. It is a position offering
coordination, but there is no primary focus on policy development, nor focus on management. Thus, the current
position structure creates a shortfall in both areas negatively impacting County operations.
The future success of Otsego County depends on embracing change. The current system is failing us, and we
must take immediate action. First, the County should not delay any longer in approving a County manager or
administrator position. Otsego County needs a central point of contact who will supervise and convene Department
Heads, while supporting them in their positions. A County manager will also guide the implementation of policy set by
the County Board of Representatives and bring it into action. Committee meetings can be streamlined and focus more
on policy discussions. The County Chair position will be improved and allow more focus on policy setting. The County
Chair can also better coordinate the committee chairs and provide more direction. Overall, these changes will allow the
County to be more effective and achieve greater success with its committee system and County Chair position.


I need to make it clear that none of these problems is the result of any failing on the part of our Department Heads or management staff.  In fact, it is they who have held us together as County leadership kind of stumbles forward from crisis to crisis without a way to truly lead everyone.  I give them all - what did we do to deserve such talented leaders? - enormous credit for the hard work and ingenuity they exhibit day in and day out to keep the County moving in the right direction.

Northern Transfer Station

Andrew Marrietta, County Rep from the town of Otsego, recently prepared this letter in order to clear up the confusion, created primarily by a political opponent, regarding the closure of the Northern Transfer Station, outside of Cooperstown on Rt. 28.  The facility, which has been deteriorating for years and was, originally, poorly designed, leading to safety and traffic issues, will be updated and improved, resulting in a much better experience for all concerned.  The renovation will, however, required a six week closure, which is, naturally, of concern to residents.
     For the last year and half, I have received many phone calls about the disrepair of the Northern Transfer Station
in Cooperstown. I have had local Cooperstown residents call me about punctured car tires, and they have related how
they no longer visit the Transfer Station or bring their recycling because of the poor quality of the entrance road and
paving around the building. I’m a frequent visitor to the Transfer Station myself, going there weekly. There is no
question that the Transfer Station is in need of significant repairs and shows the impact of years of deferred
maintenance.
     Since being appointed to the Solid Waste and Environmental Concerns (SWEC) Committee in January of 2016, I
have continuously learned about the County’s solid waste management operations, including the significant repairs
planned for the Southern Transfer Station in Oneonta and the Northern Transfer Station in Cooperstown. The SWEC
Committee received updates on these construction plans and coordination between Casella Waste Management and
Cobleskill Stone, including that the general rollout was to occur sometime in 2017. This construction information shared
with SWEC also made clear that the scope and scale of the work at the Northern Transfer Station would require some
limited closure. Although the question was raised about trying to allow some kind of access during the repair and
renovation, the safety and logistical challenges were stressed and outweighed any such option.
     I also have learned through the SWEC Committee that the County supports a number of Drop-Off Centers, which
are listed on the County website (
www.otsegocounty.com/depts/sw/OCDropoffCenters.htm) , and include Cherry
Valley, Decatur, Exeter, Hartwick, Maryland, Morris, Oneonta, Pittsfield, Richfield, Springfield, Unadilla, Westford and
Worcester. Many of these Drop-Off Centers offer recycling and bagged garbage disposal options. More specifically, I
learned that the Drop-Off Centers in Exeter, Cherry Valley and Richfield Springs offer recycling and bagged garbage
options, while Hartwick offers recycling only.
     Otsego County’s solid waste management information and efforts are guided by the County’s Planning
Department Head Karen Sullivan and her staff. The SWEC Committee members are supported and informed by these
essential County employees. With this in mind, the July 31
st announcement that the Northern Transfer Station closure
would occur August 21
st and last until September 30th was not ideal. I myself actually learned on July 31st of the
Cooperstown Transfer Station upcoming closure first from a constituent, John Phillips, who called me from NTS about
notices being given. I then called Karen Sullivan about this notice, which she confirmed and explained the reasoning for
the action and her Department’s plans to notify residents and work to make the most of the 3 week timeframe. She
indicated Board notification and a press release were being sent, which all County Reps received that day (July 31
st).
     Overall, this news was unexpected, but regardless of the timing, I understood this was a difficult decision made by our
Department Head in the best interest of Otsego County, so I contacted the Town of Otsego Supervisor, the Mayor of
Cooperstown and my additional contacts about the closure on July 31
st. I emphasized the scope of the work being
carried out (relocation and replacement of 30 year old scale; improving the scale entry and traffic flow; new drainage
catch basins; removing the “mound” that exists adjacent to the existing scale house with a smaller unit; road
improvements; and new signage), and I pointed out the Drop-Off Centers. I also encouraged people to attend the
August 2
nd County Board meeting, including John Phillips, to share their feedback and concerns about the closure. It was
at this meeting that expanding the operating hours of Exeter to mirror the Cooperstown Transfer Station (Mon, Wed,
Friday 7am to 12pm and Saturday 8am to 2pm), which was already a County Drop-Off Site, was discussed and then
finalized the next day.

Friday, July 28, 2017

American History

History was made last night. The Republican Congress, after nearly seven months, failed, for the last time, to pass a tax bill that they called a healthcare bill, a bill that all of them were elected to pass. It was one of the most reprehensible, cynical and dishonest bills of our time, for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it would have had a devastating effect on a large number of the people of Otsego County, and their children and grandchildren.

Very few votes take place in Congress without the leadership knowing where every vote is going. It was clear that all Dems would vote against, with Linda Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) also voting against. That would result in a 50-50 split, and Vice President Mike Pence, also Constitutionally appointed President of the Senate, would vote to break the tie (the only time he can vote). But then this happened.

My take on this clip: The roll call vote is called alphabetically, and McCain was out of the room when his name came up. They're on the 'P's when he reenters (bottom right). He walks up to the desk and gets the secretary's attention, between Peters and Portman, and gives his vote. No. Mitch McConnell, Senate Majority Leader, hangs his head; his career may be over. Kirsten Gillebrand, in the black dress, one of our NY Senators, jumps up in astonished delight. Elizabeth Warren, already standing, in the blue/green jacket, applauds spontaneously. Bernie Sanders pokes the guy next to him in glee. The Republicans (left side of chamber) seem frozen in shock.

This is how history is made.

I am so grateful to John McCain and Linda Murkowski and Susan Collins and all the Americans who called and wrote their elected officials and crowded into Town Halls and spoke their minds. When we talk about America and freedom, that's what we're talking about: citizens taking risks in order to participate in their own government, without fear of reprisal. And 'thank you' also to all the Congressional Democrats who never wavered, never budged an inch, even those elected from red states and tossup districts.

I am grateful because millions of Americans, and thousands of Otsego County residents, can continue to hope that good healthcare is within their reach, and within the reach of their children and grandchildren. One vote would have taken that all away.


By the way, the failure of the Senate bill kills the Faso-Collins Amendment, which was attached to the House bill. The House bill, of course, goes nowhere unless there is a corresponding Senate bill to send to the Conference Committee, and that's what failed last night. Two or three of those bubbles rising from the ooze that the Republican tax-bill-they-called-a-healthcare-bill sank into are from the Amendment, and good riddance to it in its final resting place.  

Friday, July 21, 2017

Long Day

Lots happened yesterday.

It wasn't a surprise, as three of the most interesting and influential Committees met, all in the same room, one after another: Strategic Plan Implementation Committee at 8:30, Administration at 10:00, Budget at 2:00 (scheduled for 1:00, but Admin went on a little long...). I am on all three, so it was a long day.

The StratPlan and Budget Committees' purpose are clearly indicated in their names; Admin is like the Ways and Means Committee of the County, providing general oversight and approval for most actions to be considered by the full Board (it is also the policy-making arm of County government).

A quick dip into each meeting, to pull out one thing of consequence. The Strategic Plan committee is taking the Plan and moving it into the implementation phase, mostly by prioritizing issues and sending them off to the proper committees. However, yesterday the Committee decided to keep the issue of the County Manager and do some research into how to proceed, including inviting comment from officials working in similar counties. This is good news, as it is the first actual action on the subject, other than the fact that the Salary Study will include a slot for this position.

The Admin Committee has a widely-ranging agenda each month, and if you can only attend one meeting a month, this is the one to go to. It's as close to the place “where the sausage gets made” as any, although “the sausage” tends to get made, to at least some extent, behind closed doors. Transparency is a topic I hope I can explore in an upcoming post.

At any rate, the Admin Committee, at my request, had a conversation with County Attorney Ellen Coccoma about a series of suits that a number of other NY counties are bringing against pharmaceutical corporations regarding the opiod epidemic. New York counties are to a great extent responsible for public health, mental health and addiction services, so the cost to the county in dollars (not to mention the human cost) has been significant.

There has clearly been wrongdoing on the part of the pharmas, and they can clearly be faulted for a large part of the problem. The question is, can their culpability be articulated in the lawsuits in such a way that they are held legally responsible? That is still to be seen. There is some similarity to the lawsuits that the states brought against the tobacco companies all those years ago, although in those suits, victims were harmed while using the product for its intended purpose, whereas in the case of opiods, they were misued. However, the pharmas have cheerfully assisted victims to misuse their products for decades. The question for the Admin Committee was whether we want to consider joining the suits. Mrs. Coccoma will contact the law firm that is leading the initiative, and ask them to come and answer our questions.

And finally, Budget. I went into the meeting with two items to add to the budget before we even began: the M&C raises, and the financial partnership with the Susquehanna Animal Shelter. Long story short, the SAS request will go to the Public Safety Committee, who will find a department budget – perhaps the Sheriff – to put it in. And Len Carson, another Rep from Oneonta, along with Treasurer Dan Crowell, have developed a model for an M&C raise, costing somewhere around $150,000, which, although just a start toward parity, is a start. We'll shepherd the raise through Budget Committee and the Board. Count on it.

Monday, July 17, 2017

More Taxes

A follow-up, and some news, regarding our taxes.  I asked Treasurer Dan Crowell whether the data in the 2015 tax comparison chart I mentioned earlier was an apples-to-apples chart, and he said it was.  "...it is apples to apples AND there are some unique things about some counties to keep in mind.  We are third lowest in the state by milper rate and the lowest per capita."  He also noted that they're updating the chart, and will have it for us as the Budget work begins.  So stay tuned.

Also from Dan:  our tax cap information has arrived via State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli.  


After two years of tax growth being limited to less than one percent, inflation has crept up resulting in the highest allowable levy growth since 2013,” DiNapoli said. “This increase is offset by rising fixed costs and limited budget options. I continue to urge local officials to exercise caution when crafting their spending plans.”

The tax cap, which first applied to local governments in 2012, limits tax levy increases to the lesser of the rate of inflation or 2 percent with some exceptions, including a provision that allows municipalities to override the tax cap.  

Although the growth factor climbed noticeably from the 0.68 percent cap in the current fiscal year, the 2018 fiscal year will be the fifth year in a row that local governments have had their levy growth capped at less than 2 percent. 

By comparison, property tax levy growth for school districts was capped at 1.26 percent for the 2017-18 fiscal year.
 So we have a little more to work with this year and still stay below the cap.  Given that 1% of the budget is about $100,000, it's really not much, but it's something.  Stay tuned for budget updates - the first Budget Committee meeting is at 1:00 on Thursday, in the County Office Building, third floor conference room.

Ethics

It came as a surprise to many of the Board members a few months ago that the Otsego County Policy Manual requires the existence of a Board of Ethics, and that we do not have one, nor have we had one for some time.

Here's what it says about the makeup of the Board of Ethics:

The Ethics Board shall consist of three members. No more than two shall be of the same
enrolled party affiliation. All shall be approved by majority vote of the entire board. A
majority of the members shall not be officers or employees of such county or
municipalities wholly or partially located in Otsego county and at least one of whom
shall be an elected or appointed officer or employee of Otsego County or a municipality
located within such county.

It seems that in a county of over 60,000, three people could be found who would be willing to apply the Otsego County Ethics Policy, which is pretty clear and explicit, to the occasional case that might come before it. Dave Bliss, the Representative from Middlefield and Cherry Valley, is pursing it, as he repeatedly points out, on his own. He has to point this out because the Board, meaning the Board leadership, is not pursuing it, as far as anyone can tell.

This is one of the reasons we need a Democratic majority. I believe that following our own rules about ethics would be a slam-dunk, but apparently not.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Tax Rate

Something I've never gone into before, for some reason, is our tax rate (maybe because tax rate, assessments, equalization rates, etc., are not my strong suit). It's important, though and here's why:

According to 2015 data from the Treasurer's office, only two New York counties have a lower tax rate than Otsego County's 2.92 per thousand: Saratoga's 2.90, and Hamilton County's 2.23. Hamilton County, it must be noted, has a population of 4,268, which makes it a little bigger than the Town of Otsego without the tourists.

The other 54 counties (the analysis does not include the five NYC counties, although that wouldn't change much) have a higher tax rate than Otsego, from Essex County at 3.03, to Allegheny County at 14.4. Four counties – Montgomery, Cattaragus, Cortland and Allegheny – are in double digits. Chenango County, next door, is just below them at 9.97.

This low tax rate comes at a great cost, of course. We didn't find a magical way to continue to provide appropriate and meaningful services for less and less money. We provided less and less service. Our Highway Department has shrunk by half in the last ten years, as has our IT Department. Our M&C staff, as you're no doubt tired of hearing, has had only one raise in nine years. We've outsourced our Tourism and Economic Development Departments.

Some of this needs to be fixed.

My tax property tax bill, in January, contained a charge of $526.96 for County tax and nearly three times that for City tax. Statewide, that is what's known as a very low County tax. Given the 2% tax cap (which has been, in the last few years, substantially lower than 2%), my County taxes can go up a maximum of $10.54. I am one of the few people in Otsego County who know how much rebuilding we need, so the fact that I'm willing to put up with another ten or fifteen dollars a year in County taxes to address this problem doesn't mean much. But somehow, we have to find a way to rebuild Otsego County, and convince the taxpayers of Otsego County to be our partners in that work.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

County Manager vs. County Executive

You've probably read about the County Manager debate in the media. Long story short, I think we are moving to a point where a majority of the Board will, after lots of hand-holding and assurances, take the leap. Right now, we are seeking bidders for a salary study for M&C employees (see below) and the specs for this bid require that a County Manager position is included in the study. This seems, at this point, the best way to get through to a result.

There has been some noise about a County Executive, initially from Republican County Chair Anthony Casale, and I think this is dangerous. Here's the important difference: A County Manager is hired by the County Board, and works at its pleasure. A County Executive is elected. One of the things that this means – to me, the most important one – is that the County Board can require a certain level of experience and training before interviewing candidates for County Manager. Anyone – literally, any resident of Otsego County – can run for County Executive. Whoever wins becomes the CEO, so to speak, of a $110 million organization. That should give us all pause.

In addition, speaking in a partisan capacity, this is a Republican county, and any Republican candidate would have a big head start. The idea of an untrained Republican, beholden to the County Committee that got him/her elected, running our County should also give us pause. In fairness, I would not like to see the Democratic version, either.

Let's keep party politics out of the highest levels of County functioning. It's important to choose a County Manager, and not a County Executive.

A Different Perspective on Jobs

Just got home from a planning meeting of the Community Services Board (CSB), the “there's one in every county” organization that oversees mental health services, addiction services, and services to developmentally delayed individuals in Otsego County. I find this stuff fascinating and very important, and am happy to have been assigned as the County Board liaison to the CSB for each of my six years here.

The meeting was great – it was a vision and mission and goals kind of meeting; we began what will be a long conversation about issues and priorities and goals for the CSB and subcommittees in a wide variety of areas.

One of the areas was workforce development. Pat Knuth, Director of ARC Otsego, is on the CSB, and once again expressed their difficulties in obtaining and keeping staff. This is also an issue for Springbrook, one of the biggest employers in the County. I immediately thought of one of the priorities of the Otsego County Strategic Plan, which called for some kind of community college – not a bricks and mortar affair, as I think I've noted previously, but a more innovative approach to needs which are clearly and accurately identified in Otsego County.

Our conversation today was, I hope, the initial stage of further collaboration in the work of creating an institution which will reach out to High School students and High School, non-college graduates, beginning with marketing the direct-care field, then offering training, and finally providing incentives to work at local facilities and stay here for 'x' number of years.

That's a long way off. But it's important to know that, in all the noise about creating jobs, Otsego County is flooded with full time jobs with benefits which are not being filled. In a major occupational field, we don't have a jobs problem, we have jobs that go begging for lack of applicants.

Training is not the only reason for this situation – housing, pay scale, advancement, and other issues are also at play – but it is very important for us to keep this in mind whenever we talk about economic development or jobs. We've got jobs that go begging, and we need to figure out how to fill them with our young people, and how to encourage them to make a career here in Otsego County.