N.Y.’s fiscal woes not halting progress

Fulton County Administrative Officer Jon Stead discusses property taxes during his annual “State of the County” address Friday at the Holiday Inn in Johnstown. (The Leader-Herald/Michael Anich)

JOHNSTOWN — Fulton County Administrative Officer Jon Stead’s 26th annual “State of the County” breakfast address Friday illustrated positive area infrastructure and development initiatives in the wake of continuing destructive state mandates.

Stead used the first third of his speech at the Holiday Inn to decry state government problems impacting the county. But he said Fulton County continues to plow ahead in a progressive way, including a $100,000 marketing campaign.

“We’re planning for good things to come out of this,” Stead said.

Conducted by the Fulton Montgomery Regional Chamber of Commerce, Stead’s address was sponsored by C.T. Male Associates, PC, and open to chamber members as well as the general public.

Chamber President/CEO Mark Kilmer introduced Stead, and got a few digs in on the state early. He said state government’s 2018 starts with a $4 billion deficit.

“It’s just not going to be a positive year for anyone,” Kilmer said.

Stead indicated that unfortunately, “county-level government is an extension of state-level government.” Fortunately, he said the county has many “important” projects allowing it to stand on its own in spite of state fiscal ties.

He noted 76 percent of Fulton County’s $92.4 million 2018 budget is mandated program costs. He also listed some of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s priorities for 2018-19, including: sales tax on internet sales, new opioid prescription tax, cutting funding to community colleges, eliminating bail for defendants who cannot afford it; early voting, same day registration; requiring counties to have a Homeless Outreach Program, and a possible employer payroll tax.

“To me, these priorities don’t make a lot of sense,” Stead said. “They do explain why the state is in the shape it’s in.”

Meanwhile, Stead said New York state has over the years become a less desirable place to live. He said the state ranks 49th out of 50 in “business climate.”

“We have to make things work even though we’re working as an extension of this state government,” Stead said.

Fulton County’s sales tax revenue — fueled by automotive dealers and gas stations — used to grow an average of 3.5 percent prior to the recession. But Stead said that figure has tumbled to about 2.95 percent post-recession.

Still, Stead said Fulton County has been “outpacing its peers” in sales tax. He noted fourth quarter revenue was up by more than $500,000. Without mentioning President Donald Trump, Stead paid him a compliment for creating a better business climate.

“I think the new administration in Washington has changed the mindset a little bit,” he said.

Stead said the county has a plan — “Vision 2026” — to take it into the future. He said goals of this plan include: stressing that he county is an extraordinary place to live, continuing to build a strong economy, stressing the county has healthy communities connected to nature, and that there is bold leadership and progressive planning.

He said the county’s “strategic plan” pushes “three pillars” — financial stability, economic growth and community safety.

“Community safety has become an important component of our planning and our outlook,” Stead said.

Stead used raw numbers to point out that the county had to make more of a tax commitment in 2018. The county had an average 7.7 percent property tax increase this year — the highest in the county since a 10.3 percent jump in 2011.

“We really felt we had to stay in the middle of the road this year,” he said.

But Stead said Fulton County is using less than one percent of its constitutional debt limit. He called Fulton a “pay as you go county.” He said the county’s budget appropriations are at the same level as 2005, proving the county has been “stable and held the line.”

The payoff for the county has been, and will sometimes be, behind the scenes, Stead said. He said county officials and the Board of Supervisors agreed some time ago that the county needed a “smart” approach to development, including extension of water and sewer resources outside the cities. He said the Jump Start Fulton County initiative was launched with great success in 2014, and Smart Waters followed.

“Land development is needed in Fulton County to promote economic growth,” Stead said.

Stead praised the “primary” Hales Mills and Vail Mills development areas, as well as sewer initiatives and other “pro-growth actions.” The latter ones include Fulton-Montgomery Community College campus upgrades, County Office Building renovations, Telehealth pilot initiative, hotel/motel tax, interoperable radio communications, and New Neighborhood Plan initiatives.

He said the city of Johnstown and the village of Broadalbin recently signed “historic” water and sewer agreements with the county.

“Everyone says no one gets along here,’ Stead said. “There are now areas that are primed and ready for development. It’s all part of a planning process that’s coming to fruition.”

Stead concluded by listing some county projects “coming soon,” such as a winter lifestyle video, stressing how all municipalities, businesses and residents need to work together for growth.

Michael Anich covers Johnstown and Fulton County news. He can be reached at [email protected]

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