NEW YORK CITY–He started out with a witty story about his wife and his political mentor, the late Mayor Ed Koch, then Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) got down to the business of talking about the state.
The forum was the annual meeting and training school run by the Association of Towns of the State of New York held at the New York City Hilton each February. I had traveled to the city with another Taghkanic board member, Joyce Thompson, who has attended the event each of her four years in office.
The senator, who has spoken to town officials at the association’s meeting for the past 16 years, was energetic and upbeat. Using the metaphor of spring, he said the state economy “is showing small green shoots,” saying that he has seen growth in the small business sector, and his staff is working to help small businesses secure the grants and loans they need to grow. He businesses in need of such help should call his office.
He serves on the Senate Finance Committee and said he is standing firm on keeping the embattled property tax deduction as well as deductions for state and local taxes as part of the federal income tax law. He also said he is working to ensure that municipal bonds remain tax free.
As a board member for a town that is hoping to build a new town garage, I was glad to hear that he was working to find more money for infrastructure. He praised President Obama’s proposed Fix It First program and urged the audience to talk to their congressional representatives about supporting the bill.
Several thousand bridges in New York need repair, and the state’s senior senator said he and fellow lawmakers would try to restore the program under which state and federal funding covers 75% of town infrastructure costs. The federal government offers more loans than grants these days, he said.
After being battered by Irene, Lee in 2011 and Super Storm Sandy last year, many towns are owed reimbursement by FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “We are still due about $215 million,” he said. He urged towns with problems collecting what is owed them to call one of his offices for help.
“The number of cows is going up even though the number of farms is going down,” he said. The Greek yogurt industry has unexpectedly brought 200 new jobs to Fulton County and Europeans are now coming here to open yogurt making businesses. Mr. Schumer said he had convinced the Department of Agriculture to put the product on a list of foods approved for school lunches. He urged us to call our local schools to make sure the product is availability and boost the yogurt business.
He also suggested the audience support New York business by buying local products and mentioned two: Nirvana Water and Sweet & Low, which employs 1,200 state residents.
Air service is an important reason that businesses locate here… or don’t, he said. On the American Airlines/US Air merger, he said, “I told them as a member of the antitrust subcommittee of the Senate Finance Committee that I have four conditions: They must grow jobs, keep prices down, maintain current service, and keep a hub at JFK Airport.”
He described a good news/bad news employment situation, which has seen high tech jobs coming to New York because the state has a highly skilled work force, adding, “the work is highly concentrated; 500 get jobs, not 5,000. But many kids don’t have the skills they need and positions are often hard for employers to fill.” He cited two examples, saying, “Welding is now a complicated job that requires math skills. Auto repair requires computer skills.”
The good news is a new program at the state’s 23 community colleges, which have begun to survey local businesses so that they can tailor their course offerings to teach skills that are needed. In the Finger Lakes that means courses in viniculture that led to 60 graduates a year finding jobs in the wine industry. “We’re going to replicate that around the state,” said the senator.
The program is called TEAM, Training and Education in Advanced Manufacturing, and a bill to support it is in the state Assembly. “It’s going to turn New York around. I see bright days to come,” said Mr. Schumer.
Before leaving, the senator shook my hand and promised that Columbia County would be on his schedule soon. He visits every county in the state every year. Our county was represented at the luncheon where he spoke by apples from Kinderhook.
For $100 each Joyce Thompson and I were able to get advice from experts from around the state on problems we might not even anticipate. While many experts come armed with solutions way beyond the scope of our small town, we are able to learn from the experience of people who are light years ahead of us and we come back to our town with new ideas and energy.
During two days I learned about planning for and financing new infrastructure, cyber-security, town websites, personnel evaluations, confidentiality and fracking. Last year I attended three conferences and right after my election took an online webinar that prepared me for my for my town’s organization meeting. The courses are invaluable. Without them, I’d be flying blind.
(The writer is a regular contributor to this newspaper and a member of the Taghkanic Town Board. She attended the conference in her official capacity as a Town Board member.–Ed.)