Good afternoon and thank you for the invitation to speak to you all. Happy New Year and on behalf of the residents of our great and growing county, I bring you all best wishes from Rensselaer County.
There is a great deal to be optimistic about in Rensselaer County. Despite challenges and complications, a long pandemic and economic uncertainty on the national level our county has seen significant success and important accomplishments. Some of these victories have been unprecedented and historic and show our county is reaching new heights.
In fact, Rensselaer County is emerging as a leader in the state in key economic areas and financial accomplishments.
Many of you here today have played a role in that good work and fostering a better future for our county. We are again looking to you to help Rensselaer County reach new success in 2022.
It is important to start the year by meeting with many of those who have contributed, conceived or supported these successes. Thank you to the members of the Rensselaer County Regional Chamber of Commerce for our growing and productive partnership.
Those gathered here are the investors, inventors, risk-takers, dreamers and doers. We work every day in Rensselaer County to support your efforts and your work, and forge a stronger tomorrow for all.
When I took office over four years ago, I made some promises to some of the same folks gathered here this afternoon. I promised we would take every opportunity to save taxpayer money, to support innovation and investment, to demand results and reject excuses and failed tradition. My team got to work, seeking to make every day and every opportunity count.
There have been unexpected challenges that we have all faced. We have been tried and tested in new ways. In Rensselaer County, we have stayed focused and on mission, working to fulfill our goals to provide better service for our residents, a stronger future for all and at a cost we can all afford.
Booker T. Washington said: “Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome.”
We have faced significant obstacles, but still continued to reach for greatness. That effort is paying off. Now is Rensselaer County’s moment.
Look at what was accomplished during these past four years: the continued expansion of Regeneron Pharmaceuticals to a major force in the region and the location of the Amazon center in Schodack. We earned the attention of these major economic forces through hard work: property tax reductions, service improvements, efficiencies in county government that reduce expenses and partnerships with those who grow our county in positive ways.
Our work and our shared efforts have poised this county for further greatness. The difficult choices made during the past four years, our commitment to stay on course despite the pandemic and other turbulence, and our willingness to go further and faster at times to reach our goal is paying off.
A look at our commitment to the future of Rensselaer County:
We have lowered taxes each of the past four years. Each budget has been approved unanimously by County legislators in a county known for rough and tumble politics. The four tax reductions combined total nearly 19 percent, bringing the county tax rate to a level comparable to what was paid by county taxpayers in 2002.
I want to acknowledge our County legislators for their effort, and want to welcome two legislators who are taking new roles in the county’s law-making body. Kelly Hoffman has been selected by her peers as Chairwoman of the Legislature, and Rob Bayly chosen to serve as Vice Chair for Finance. I look forward to a strong and productive partnership with Kelly, Rob and the other seventeen members of the Legislature during the coming term of office.
We are also joined by other colleagues, including County Clerk Frank Merola, Sheriff Pat Russo, Legislator Tom Grant, Legislator Bill Maloney, Deputy County Clerk Paul Santandera, and North Greenbush Councilman and our Director of Central Services Jim Gordon.
The tax reduction for 2022 was 10 percent, the biggest county tax reduction in history. We saw revenues increase beyond projections and made the decision to allow residents and property owners to share in the success. The 2022 tax reduction of 10 percent led to an interesting occurrence, with residents actually calling or writing us to thank us for the reduction.
Other taxpayers, including members of my staff, have reported receiving rebate checks for escrow payments because of our series of tax cuts. In Rensselaer County, the proof is in your tax bill.
We can be proud of one simple fact, that no other county in New York State has made the commitment and the investment to lowering property taxes and allowing our resident and taxpayers to share in our growth and success.
We have made our financial choices carefully and on a solid foundation. Rensselaer County earned a Zero fiscal stress score from the State Comptroller, all despite the pandemic and economic uncertainty in other areas. Earning the Zero fiscal stress rating was done each day, by taking extra care with purchases, with personnel hires and with careful planning and accurate fiscal forecasts. Many others across the state were not able to a Zero rating or even a rating that shows stability. We recognize the rating as an advertisement of our effectiveness in managing county finances and serving as a solid place for investment and growth.
A number of municipalities in the Capital Region were found by the Comptroller’s office to be exposed to significant or moderate stress. The report by the Comptroller shows the importance of making careful fiscal decisions so the mistakes of yesterday do not become the problems of tomorrow.
During the past four years, we have been able to reduce our debt by $35 million, all while improving services in important areas. To fund our efforts at building services and reducing taxes and encouraging investment we have focused on reducing expenses and not incurring new debt. Our care in not issuing new debt further positions our county for strong moves in the coming months and years.
Not issuing debt, making careful and informed choices, especially when estimating revenues and budgeting each year, have enabled our county to assemble a surplus approaching $100 million. These funds will be used to protect taxpayers, safeguard quality of life, ensure strong services and provide for the future while navigating future challenges.
We have expanded support for Hudson Valley Community College and strengthened our partnership with the college. Rensselaer County is proud to have sponsored Hudson Valley since the college was formed over 60 years ago. We are seeing the college continue to be a force for good, providing education and training to those starting their journey and those changing direction or improving their lives.
How many lives have been changed for the better by Hudson Valley and the generations of instruction provided. As we often say at Rensselaer County, our commitment is to keep education at Hudson Valley both excellent and affordable. We saw the college complete the Gene Haas Center for Advanced Manufacturing in 2019, just before the onset of the pandemic. The college has continued to expand its mission, launching a STEM high school that helps give students a head start. We are particularly proud to have partnered with the college in creating new support services for veterans.
Thank you to Hudson Valley Community College President Dr. Roger Ramsammy and the team at Hudson Valley for their leadership and effort to maintain the college’s education mission during some challenging times.
Recognizing the importance of our roads to economic development and quality of life, we also set a record by paving 170 miles of roads in four years. That amounts to paving over half the total miles in the county road network of 330 miles. This included 50 miles of roads paved in 2020, a record that was broken just last year when we paved 70 miles of roads in 2021.
Along with the 170 miles of roads paved over four years, the county also completed work to improve and replace seven bridges, including three bridges in 2021. We hear regularly from residents how much our work to improve roads and bridges is appreciated, and we intend to keep this work a priority in 2022.
We also provided needed updates to our county Highway equipment to ensure an effective response during snow storms and weather occurrences and our paving, repair and maintenance projects. And we did all those many miles of paving and purchases of new equipment without borrowing.
We recognize that a quality road network makes travel easier for our residents and those who work or study here, and encourages visitors and new shoppers. Well-maintained county roads send the message every mile that we are a county that welcomes new investment and growth, and is ready for the future.
The county also continued to earn good news and high marks across the state. We know of the economic turbulence caused by the pandemic, which reached a height in 2020. A recent federal report showed Rensselaer County as one of only three counties out of the 62 counties in New York State to have shown an increase in the GDP during 2020.
By comparison, the other 59 counties in the state saw a decline in GDP during 2020, and nationally, two-thirds of the counties across America saw a decline in GDP, according to the report compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.
We can be proud of this accomplishment, that during the worst of the pandemic, Rensselaer County was still viewed as a place to shop, spend, create and invest.
For our county to grow our GDP during a time of shutdowns and quarantines is proof we are on the right road to prosperity and better times. We hope this message rings loudly with investors, job creators and anyone else considering a home or business in our great county.
And the good news has thankfully continued.
Earlier this same month, Rensselaer County reached an important milestone, with our sales tax revenues for 2021 for the first time in county history breaking the $100 million mark. Never in county history have we received $100 million in sales revenues, but that was accomplished in 2021, and we expect to not only break the $100 million mark but finish the year with over $104 million.
Again, that shows great confidence in our county and economic vitality. During 2021, we still faced the pandemic, economic challenges and inflation, and yet, more shoppers came to our county and more residents made their purchases right at home. This is a major success and shows Rensselaer County has arrived as a retail force in our region.
What does our county breaking the $100 million mark for sales tax revenues mean for our county and our residents? It means more dollars are reinvested right here in the county. The added revenues help bolster already strong county finances and support our efforts to maintain and expand needed services. The revenues are also shared in by our municipalities, every city, town and village, meaning the good news is extended to every corner of our county. Everyone shares in the benefits. County taxpayers will see lower taxes and at the same time, towns and villages better able to maintain streets. This is a major accomplishment for our county.
We have been seeing encouraging success with sales tax in Rensselaer County during the past several years. In 2019, our county led the state in sales tax growth with an 8.4 percent increase. Since then, our county has performed strongly, exceeding budgeted estimates for sales tax revenues thanks to increased economic activity here. Through the pandemic, we have seen sales tax revenues remain strong and consistent and that is definitely a good thing.
We are working to strengthen services that improve the quality of life for our residents. Work has begun to establish a new senior center in the College Station complex in downtown, offering a safe and accessible space for our seniors and including modern upgrades for programs and services. Rensselaer County is unique among counties in that we directly provide senior services, including home-delivered meals and senior centers. We believe our seniors deserve support for all they have done to provide, protect and build for our county.
Our county now operates five senior centers, in Troy, Schodack, Grafton, Hoosick and Rensselaer. We are seeking to upgrade the services and the types of facilities, starting with the Troy center, to reflect on the more modern and active seniors of today. We hope to open the new Troy center this year, and then get to work assessing the future for our other senior centers.
Early in 2020, just days before the pandemic, we celebrated the delivery of our four millionth home-delivered meal, a significant accomplishment for all of us in county government. And during the pandemic, we tripled the number of meals delivered to seniors at home, to keep them safe. We ask everyone to stay tuned as we announce another important milestone for our senior services in the county.
Our commitment to providing and protecting our seniors remains as strong as ever. We are proud to have been the only county to refuse then-Governor Cuomo’s deadly order to place COVID-19 positive residents into nursing homes and will always defend and do what is right for our seniors at any time.
The county is also strengthening emergency services that work around the clock to keep us safe. The county fire training facility and tower was closed several years ago after years of heavy use, training generations of our first responders from across the county. Last year, work started on construction of the new tower and facility, at the same location on Macha Lane as the former site, and progress is continuing even during the winter months. The new training center and tower will provide state of the art training and instruction, and ensure the current and future generations of our first responders get the preparation they need to save lives when needed. We are joined today by Jay Wilson, who has capably served as the leader of our Bureau of Emergency Services and is guiding the training center project.
Just as we did by providing a meaningful tax break to our residents during a period of growth and increased revenues, we also provided important support to our fire and ambulance companies in 2021. The Rensselaer County Responds recognized the importance of our emergency services and the increased demand on fire and ambulance companies during the pandemic, along with a reduction in their fundraising ability. Our county generated a savings of $18 million in 2021, much of which was not forecast, and we decided to use a portion of that savings to provide $10,000 to each fire and ambulance company in the county, in every city, town and village.
The Rensselaer County Responds effort helped each of our fire and ambulance departments maintain facilities, purchase new equipment and prepare for the future. A companion effort helped reimburse departments for PPE expenses incurred during the pandemic. One of the features of Rensselaer County Responds was our effort to visit every single one of our fire and ambulance companies and on behalf of the people of Rensselaer County, say “Thank You” for their work.
The training tower was a priority project, one that I promised to achieve when running for this office in 2017. We did utilize bonding for the fire training facility and tower, in part because of our excellent financial position and because of the importance of the project. Our bonding position affords us great flexibility as we move forward, and the county currently has the best bonding rating in our history. Our A++ rating is just under elite status, and we recognize a strong bond rating is one of the best advertisements, along with our reductions in property taxes, to help attract new growth here.
One the major impediments to attracting growth in Rensselaer County has been infrastructure, and we are now working to change that situation.
The Amazon project in Schodack helped demonstrate that this county has arrived as a major force for job creation in the region. For years, Rensselaer County was often close or in the running for projects, but unable to seal the deal. Amazon helped change that view, along with Regeneron and retail projects in East Greenbush, North Greenbush and Brunswick. The Amazon project created 1000 new jobs, following creation of several hundred new jobs at Regeneron.
We are now looking at a second phase of the Amazon project in Schodack that will create another 200 jobs. And we are regularly fielding inquiries from other companies interested in the county.
Both Amazon projects show the need for an expansion of infrastructure in our county. The American Rescue Plan funds approved in Washington gives us an opportunity to get progress on the issue. At the end of 2021, the county joined with the Town of Schodack to announce an expansion of water lines on the Route 9 and Route 9 & 20 corridors, and possible expansion of sewer lines in the area. The project would open up southern Rensselaer County to better and safer quality of life services, and allow for job creation and investment to continue.
The service will be extended through utilization of funds received by the American Rescue Plan by the county, with the two projects expected to cost a total of approximately $13.1 million. The town will be covering engineering costs for the projects. The county will cover costs for the project, and the town will cover costs for engineering for the water and sewer lines on Route 9 and Routes 9 & 20, and total approximately $10.5 million.
This means that from the area near Exit 10 to Exit 12 of I-90 we will have more ability to attract and encourage growth in a vital and underutilized area. Traffic counts on Route 9 in Schodack in particular are below average and there is considerable property awaiting new uses, particularly in the area around Exit 12. We have had opportunities in this area before and lost them because of issues involving infrastructure and we look forward to reversing that trend.
We thank our partners in Schodack for their help with this issue, including former Supervisor David Harris, who worked hard to support this project, and Supervisor Charles Peter, who just took office at the start of this year. Schodack is working with the county to support the types of projects that will create employment opportunities and stable taxes for the future.
I would like to acknowledge new Schodack Supervisor Chuck Peter and thank him for joining us for this presentation today.
The pandemic continues to a major issue, and one that we are proud that Rensselaer County has responded to with common sense and compassion. Our motto as COVID-19 descended has been “Be careful, but not fearful.”
The county saw our first COVID-19 case in March of 2020. We are ready to enter our third year of COVID-19. We have taken stands when needed, and when it was right. We opposed Governor Cuomo when he tried to force COVID positive seniors into nursing homes. We have advocated for a rational, science-based approach. We have focused on results, rather than pronouncements.
Our county independently established a testing site and then a vaccination clinic during the peak of the pandemic. Today, we are continuing to provide vaccines and boosters to those who want them three times a week. Rensselaer County has been served by a dedicated and selfless team at our Health Department and volunteers with the Medical Reserve Corps, who for months worked long hours, seven days a week. I am proud to be joined by our outstanding Public Health Director Mary Fran Wachunas here today.
Just last month, Rensselaer County was the first county in the state to oppose the new state mask mandate. We said the reasons for the mandate were not detailed, the science unclear and reminded that county resources were already stretched thin. Our misgivings about the mask mandate were proven right when the state mask mandate was struck down by a Supreme Court judge in Nassau County.
The mandates and pronouncements on the pandemic are largely rooted in a response formed during the height of the pandemic in 2020. These responses failed to stop a rise in cases, and are also accompanied by almost no science or data. The reason these mandates are objected to in court and generally struck down are because there is no science or data backing the mandate.
The impact we have seen on business is considerable. We believe the state should allow for business owners to manage their facility as they see fit and for customers to interact with businesses as they see fit. We have lived with the pandemic for over two years and we will probably be continuing to live with COVID-19 for the foreseeable future. Ever-changing rules confuse the public and muddle the mission, and we advise the state and the federal government to adopt a consistent and clear policy as to how we will respond and stick with that plan.
We need residents to get out and get engaged again, shopping, dining and interacting. Now is the time to celebrate what we have here in our great county. Again, be careful, not fearful.
The pandemic response remains an issue. So too is the ongoing tragedy of bail reform, which has jeopardized the safety of every neighborhood in the state. It is crucial for the State Legislature and the Governor to undo bail reform without delay and allow police and judges to do their jobs and keep those who would do us harm locked away when necessary.
We have seen the damage caused by bail reform. Crime has gone up dramatically everywhere. Police are unable to make a difference on many quality of life calls. The number of shootings, stabbings and assaults is on the rise. The laws as configured only encourage more criminal activity.
The basic failing of bail reform has to be faced, as it is clear the safety of New Yorkers has been placed in jeopardy. The rise in crime affects neighborhoods often in need of attention. How can new investors be attracted to revitalize neighborhoods when the streets are unsafe at all hours? Can a developer maintain interest in an area when crime is increasing and now answer given to how threats and violence and thefts will be ended?
I am discouraged by the announcement just this week by Democrats who control Albany that they will not fix or amend bail reform. I believe restoring judicial discretion would address many of the problems caused by bail reform and improve public safety. Their announcement that they will not fix bail reform does not end the need for action on this issue.
As we discuss the idea of justice, we can turn our attention to the historic Rensselaer County Courthouse, located in downtown Troy. Over twenty years ago, our county reversed decades of neglect and restored much of the Courthouse to a condition comparable to when it was opened in 1898. We were fortunate to have the project guided by a Troy native who has gone on to international acclaim as an historic architect, John Waite. We are revisiting the Courthouse to complete exterior work and update infrastructure at the facility. We are again privileged to work with John Waite on this important project and ensure the Courthouse remains a vital part of Troy’s downtown and our county.
The Courthouse and other properties in downtown Troy were among those featured in the HBO historical drama The Gilded Age. Viewers around the country and the world can see the architecture and history that we are blessed to have among us each day. We hope this spurs some new visitors to our county, and our Tourism office has worked hard to support or sponsor community and county-wide events. We were particularly glad to see the county’s summer tradition, the Schaghticoke Fair, come back strong and have big crowds on each day.
From restaurants and breweries, to small shops, boutiques and craft places, retail establishments, riverfront parks and walking trails, our county is expanding the recreational opportunities and attractions available to county residents and visitors. Later this year, our county will begin work on establishment of a new county park off Brookview Road in Schodack. We are continuing to pursue the idea of a bike trail along the Hudson River to showcase even more of our county.
To give you an idea of what our county offers in a convenient setting, we recently launched an improved and expanded version of our county website, www.rensco.com. You will find a listing of the services we are proud to provide to our residents, a look at convenient ways for residents to access county departments and functions, and news and updates about our county.
The website is just a small picture into our county, a place where we have created a strong foundation for future success and brought about historic achievements. During the past four years, we have remained committed to our goals and our vision of a county reaching full potential and promise. There have been challenges and obstacles, many unforeseen, but we have persevered. Better days are ahead.
When we set a course for lower taxes, improved and expanded services, major job creation and a more efficient and open county government, there were many doubters. We moved past that negativity. When the pandemic arrived two years ago, there were other doubters who believed our progress would be derailed by COVID-19. We set to work proving them wrong.
They forget the people of Rensselaer County, and members of my team also, are tough, resilient and focused on the future. When I was elected to this office, in my initial State of the County, I said: “I fought hard to get to this office, and I will fight even harder for the people we serve.”
Our commitment does not waver, and the fight goes on. We will achieve great things for this county.
There will be difficult moments, just as there have been during the past few years. We have shown we are ready to take on new challenges, resolve old problems and find new ways to success. Our resolve is strong.
Legendary college basketball coach Jim Valvano summed up this approach: “Don’t give up, don’t ever give up.”
We look forward to a year of accomplishment and excellence and achievement that will make us all proud, and give us cause for celebration when we reach 2023 together.