Montgomery County facing challenges, opportunities
FONDA Rising costs, dwindling reserves, outdated buildings and a workforce limited by drug abuse are among pressures employers in Montgomery County face in 2013, the head of county government told business representatives today.
Root Town Supervisor John Thayer spoke to members of the Fulton-Montgomery Regional Chamber of Commerce at the Winner’s Circle near Fonda and called on business leaders to consider playing a role in the county’s new government.
Voters last year approved a new charter that will put a nine-member legislature and county executive in charge starting in 2014, and he urged business leaders to consider running for office.
“You’re the kind of people that should be in government. You know how to run a business, you know how to make decisions,” said Thayer, who is the final chairman of the Board of Supervisors, the county’s soon-to-be extinct system of government.
“I think, with the right leadership, that’s our beginning of our climb out of what I like to call our county despair,” he said.
He said the new county government will inherit great challenges that have only escalated since he first joined the board in 2008.
Back then, the county had $21 million in reserve funds. That money has mostly been spent to buffer property taxes and stay within the state’s 2 percent tax cap. The fund balance now stands at between $3.5 million and $4 million now, leaving two options: cut services or raise taxes next year, Thayer said.
The county’s contribution to the state retirement system was about $800,000 a year in 2008 and more than $3 million now, he said.
“That’s not sustainable. We can’t do that because that cost is not borne from the fund balance, it’s not borne by the state, it’s borne by the property owners in Montgomery County,” Thayer said.
Another high cost county government is facing, he said, is social services spending that is greater than that of other major states like Texas and California.
In Montgomery County, social services spending costs about $25 million of the county’s $92 million budget, he said.
“Do we have people that are in need? Absolutely. Should we help them? You bet. But we can’t afford a system like that. It’s driving business out of New York state,” Thayer said.
He said the liberal outlays of social services are taxing not only government budgets but families as well.
“It’s a cost to your social fabric. It’s a cost to our communities,” he said.
Thayer said Montgomery County’s difficulty luring job-creating businesses extends beyond the high taxes seen throughout the state.
For one, business space being offered for possible relocation is neither modern nor attractive. He said the county has an inventory of structures and buildings to offer to businesses, “but realistically, can they use them?”
The Beech-Nut facility in Canajoharie, Thayer said, has been on the market for several years since the company moved to its new plant in the town of Florida.
The massive plant, he said, is “over 100 years old.”
“Can somebody use it that can come in and employ 100 people and pay them a sustainable wage? I haven’t seen a company yet that looks like they’ve been able to do that,” Thayer said.
He said county government needs to consider spending money to demolish unusable structures to free up business space.
“We need to make this an environment that business wants to come here and I don’t believe we’re going to accomplish that by trying to get them to take a building that’s 100 years old that they can’t afford to heat, that they can’t afford to put the power into, that they can’t, in today’s modern industries, facilitate their industry,” Thayer said.
The effort to making business space available has to coincide with more efforts to boost the capabilities of the county’s workforce as well, he said.
“We have people that are not employable because they can’t pass a drug screen. That’s a problem,” said Thayer, who operates an automotive transmission repair facility.
“I don’t want somebody working on a car in my garage and sending it out the front door that may be on the influence of drugs and have them get into an accident. We can’t tolerate that,” he said.
He said addressing this issue “starts with the family.”
Despite its costs, Thayer said he sees some “bright spots” coming from the Social Services Department — primarily, the welfare to work program.
The effort to get social services recipients into a workplace environment, he said, hasn’t been taken advantage of as much as it could be.
He said the program encourages those receiving social services benefits to do some work for a nonprofit or municipality or risk losing their benefits.
He said he’s currently in discussions with the county’s trash disposal agency, MOSA, where he serves as governing board chairman, to get some participants to the transfer stations to pick up litter.
“That’s a program that I think we really need to use more. Let’s try to get them into the program, try to get their confidence built up so they can hold a job,” Thayer said.
He said there’s opportunity in the future and welcomed the business community to take part.
“Is Montgomery County in great shape? Again, no it’s not in great shape. But we’re not in horrible shape either,” Thayer said.
John Lesniewski, a manager at NBT Bank, agreed the local business climate is difficult especially when property owners spend as much as $6,000 on property taxes compared with taxes in different states.
“You’ve got to have change, that’s key,” he said.
Gail Breen, director of the Fulton-Montgomery-Schoharie workforce development center, said the key word she heard from Thayer is “opportunity.”
“We need to look at things positively, to look at them as opportunities,” she said.
These include changes from a new county government, the economic development potential of properties that may hold unfit buildings and the opportunity for a public assistance recipient to gain needed experience and references to secure employment.