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Raise Hands For Better Representation

Editor's Corner

Chautauqua County legislators are sworn in during the January meeting. P-J Photo by Dennis Phillips

Chautauqua County Legislator Lisa Vanstrom’s prayer, offered Wednesday night to begin the monthly Legislature meeting via Zoom, has gone unanswered in Mayville for the last five years. “Strengthen (local elected representatives) with the wisdom and the grace for the heavy burdens they carry … as they work in the best interest of the people they are called to serve,” she said.

Can we get an amen?

Vanstrom and the 18 other county lawmakers, who last month approved a $262 million budget that included a tax increase during one of the most unstable economic times in U.S. history, are not working “in the best interest of the people” they represent. In fact, were they not so anonymous to the public, they would be facing severe criticisms for continuing to promote higher spending and massive tax increases for possibly the poorest county in New York state.

What’s the worst part in these debilitating practices? There is hardly any voice of opposition, other than Legislator Terry Niebel who did vote “no” in October on the 2021 plan.

Consensus, unfortunately, has been a consistency that has made this Legislature one of the most lackluster and reckless local government bodies that makes significant annual decisions without even considering the consequences. This practice has been taking place since 2015, when lawmakers debated whether to increase the sales-tax rate from 7.5% to 8%.

Despite some dissension then, the 19 lawmakers had spirited discussions, statements and discussed the pros and cons of this important decision. As is usually the case with this group, dominated by Republicans, they raised taxes.

Increasing costs — and putting an added burden on taxpayers — is the only choice this group wants to make.

Why? It is the easy way out.

For the record, there has not been a tough decision to reduce costs since previous members of this body approved selling the Chautauqua County Home in Dunkirk to VestraCare in 2014. Since that brave, but unpopular selection in the north county, there have been no spending reductions. Even worse, too many in this county of 127,000 residents seem unfazed.

How easy is it for the incumbents to maintain the position of county legislator? Of those currently serving, only seven were opposed in 2019. Those who were, no matter how bad a job they have done, are often re-elected.

It is a product of voters around here being indifferent. Many, especially those who lean to the right, are quick to blame the Democrats in Albany for state mandates, no discipline when it comes to taxes and poor gimmicks.

This is typical of any residential base. We’re always going to be more critical of those governing from a distance, rather than take on the bone-headed local decisions in our back yard. Consider just how poorly thought out some recent county deliberations have become:

¯ Despite decades of decline, legislators will not give up the two county airports. With one in Dunkirk and the other in Jamestown, air service is one of the things many could agree to going without. But no one, especially free-spending Republicans, want to take on this issue. When was the last time you flew out of Chautauqua County?

¯ Similar to federal and state governments, legislators are happy to fund health care. The party that fought the Affordable Health Care Act, led the charge for the local flycar effort. This program serves residents who chose to live in rural areas that are not in proximity to the county’s five major health-care facilities. Volunteer fire departments in the past often handled these situations at no charge. Now, the county hires medics and emergency medical technicians to fill these roles. More jobs, additional costs.

¯ They rarely, if ever, dispute any payment in lieu of taxes proposals. This is not to say this corner is against all the PILOTs that are being offered, but a lot of these programs often do not lead to more employment. If it keeps companies here, great. But if it allows for wind or solar companies to not be part of the tax base, where’s the outrage? Only Legislator Mark Odell is being vocal.

¯ They were worried more about rewarding county managers, who already receive compensation packages totaling more than $100,000, with pay raises during a major economic decline due to the pandemic rather than helping a large number of taxpayers and businesses who are suffering. Sure, pay the managers more. Just make sure we stick it to the taxpayer with a rate hike in 2021.

¯ In four years, the county budget has increased from $249 million to $262 million. If population keeps going down, why are costs still going up?

Unquestionably, county legislators have the easiest of all the elected jobs. For many, it has turned into a hobby that compensates them close to $10,000 annually — or $833 per monthly meeting — to keep increasing costs on property owners and those who do business here.

No other government representative, such as trustees, council members or town board members, receive that type of compensation. Town, village and city government officials are on the front lines. For county legislators, it’s easy street as they have consistently avoided and ignored important local issues.

Those include:

¯ No Dunkirk legislator ever said anything when the public wasn’t notified of the COVID-19 outbreak at Fieldbrook Foods or the social clubs.

¯ No Fredonia legislator took any interest in the September 20-day water crisis. What was their input? Absolutely nothing.

¯ How about the green energy projects in Ripley or Hanover that have been facing criticism? Nothing from the legislators there either.

So just exactly what do county legislators do? They stay anonymous and toe the company line: Albany bad, Mayville good.

Never mind our 18% county poverty rate or decades of decreasing population. Voters — through lack of interest and a flawed loyalty to the county Republicans who spend like liberal Democrats — are too forgiving of these officials who consider themselves “fiscally responsible” but have no record to back it up.

By the way, do you know who represents you in the County Legislature? It’s one of these individuals: Kevin Muldowney, Robert Bankoski, Bob Scudder, Christine Starks, Niebel, Thomas Harmon, Mark Odell, Pierre Chagnon, Charles Nazarro, Kenneth Lawton, Bob Whitney, Elisabeth Rankin, Daniel Pavlock, Paul Whitford, Vanstrom, John Davis, Frank Gould, William Ward or John Hemmer.

Before the Legislature was established, it was a board of supervisors led by those who ran the towns. They were, and still are, invested and responsible representatives who have some skin in the game.

Maybe it’s time to get back to that system. Right now, there is absolutely no accountability — from leaders or voters.

John D’Agostino is the regional editor of the OBSERVER, The Post-Journal and Times Observer. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 366-3000, ext. 401.

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