GREENPORT–All four people who represent the county in the state legislature, plus the chairman of the county Board of Supervisors and a spokeswoman for Congressman Chris Gibson emphasized the positive as they spoke to the annual Legislative Breakfast of the Columbia County Chamber of Commerce last week at Columbia-Greene Community College.
State Senator Kathy Marchione (R-43rd) and the three members of the Assembly– Didi Barrett (D-106th), Pete Lopez (R-102nd) and Steve McLaughlin (R-107th)–each of whom represents different part of this county, all discussed the recently adopted state budget and what it means for their constituents. At the top of the list was the impact the $1.1 billion in additional spending will have on local school districts. The school aid package is considerably higher than Governor Cuomo originally proposed in his executive budget proposal.
Ms. Marchione, whose district covers all of this county, called the overall $138-billion state spending plan a “very good budget–good for job creators, good for New York.” In addition to school funding, she cited funds to help farmers and an increase in the estate tax exemption, which will be phased in over the next five years until it matches the federal level of $5.2 million. Before this budget was adopted New York’s estate tax exemption ended at $1 million. She also mentioned the increase in the budget for assistance to local highway department projects under the CHIPS program.
Mr. Lopez represents the towns of Stuyvesant and Stockport, which are part of his cobbled-together district with serpentine borders reaching into seven counties. The senior member of the county’s state delegation, he was more restrained in his praise for the budget, reminding the audience, as did some of his colleagues, that this is an election year for all state representatives.
He said he has a “favorable” view of the budget, which he described as a far cry from the deficits that were “crippling” the state just a few years ago. But he said he did not agree that the state has the $2-billion budget surplus projected to materialize over the next three years, though new budget begins spending the surplus in the current fiscal year.
Mr. Lopez said that the new state budget has more funding for Coarc, the non-profit agency that faced severe cutbacks last year. And he mentioned conversations he’s had with Columbia-Greene Community College President James Campion about the prospects for starting new businesses on and around the college campus to take advantage of tax reductions for corporations. But overall, he said, the state budget reflects “urban priorities” because urban areas have more political power in the state.
Ms. Barrett continued the focus on education in her remarks, saying the budget had found “new money” for public education but that the state has been too slow to end the program that diverts some funds designated for schools and credits the money instead to the state’s general fund. She said that rather than continue to gradually reduce the amount for this procedure, called the Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA), the state should eliminate the GEA and give the districts all that they have been promised.
She said the increased exemption in the estate tax would be a boon to farmers because it encourages them to transfer farms from one generation of farmers to the next instead of selling the land piecemeal for development. “We want our farmland to be farmland,” said Ms. Barrett, whose district covers central and southern Columbia County including the City of Hudson.
Ms. Barrett also brought up two controversial electric power line projects proposed for parts of her district: a backup line through the center of the Town of Ghent that opponents say could be built in a much less disruptive way and the proposals by three companies to run new high voltage lines through several towns in the county as part of the governor’s Energy Superhighway plan to bring power from upstate suppliers to the metropolitan New York area and Long Island.
Assembly member Barrett said the projects, as currently proposed, would “destroy the local economy” and take local land.
Mr. McLaughlin’s district takes in much of northern and eastern communities in the county and reaches north from there. He agreed with Mr. Lopez about the money designated to pay for election year projects, saying, “We have the essence of a surplus…. If everything goes perfectly, we’ll have a surplus of $2 billion in 2017. We’re spending that money now.”
He said he is happy that the budget blocks a plan by the state Education Department to have a private organization collect and process data on students statewide. “We clipped the wings of inBloom” he said, referring to the organization that would have handled the student records without oversight by parents or school districts. “Data should stay in the school, not be sent to Bill Gates in the cloud,” he said.
He also expressed support for bigger push to end the GEA, and he criticized the budget for using $400 million in funds that he said should have gone to schools and will spend it instead on an “election eve tax rebate.” And he agreed with Mr. Lopez and Ms. Barrett on the importance of the inheritance tax exemption to farmers.
County Board of Supervisors Chairman Pat Grattan (R-Kinderhook) touched on economic highpoints, starting by reminding the audience of businesspeople and politicians that county government is the second largest employer in the county after Columbia Memorial Hospital. He also said that county government acts as an insurer, paying schools districts $7 million annually for their unpaid school property taxes and assuming responsibility for collecting those taxes. And the county voluntarily shares a portion of the sales tax with the towns.
Mr. Grattan said tourism was up 6.8% last year and the unemployment is down. The county’s Columbia Economic Development Corporation made $300K in small business loans last year and there are several large projects in the planning stage, including Catamount’s Berkshire Resort and the new Ginberg’s food storage facility. “The outlook is very, very positive for Columbia County,” he said
Ann Mueller, deputy district director for Congressman Gibson read a letter from the congressman then emphasized his involvement with the county and the district to improve broadband access to the Internet, especially in underserved areas. She said Columbia County has more underserved areas than any other part of the region and Mr. Gibson and county officials are seeking funding for improvements here.