EDITORIAL: Is our economy newsworthy?

IT DEPENDS ON your definition of news. At couple of gatherings in Columbia County this month leaders and government officials spoke about economic growth here and statewide. They believe good stuff’s happening and they can make it even better.

Skeptical?

Jerry Boone, commissioner of the state Department of Taxation and Finance, was among several high officials of the Cuomo administration who traveled around the state to praise the new state budget. It wasn’t a tough sell when he spoke to a small gathering at Columbia-Greene Community College. Gone are the days when the only good thing to be said about a state budget was that it got done.

This year’s budget holds the overall rise in state spending to a piddling 1.4% and delivers a 6.5% boost in funds for education. There’s a tax cut for individuals, too, and a lower corporate tax rate, plus billions for upstate road and bridge repairs, half a billion for better broadband Internet service and a third of a billion for clean drinking water…. But wait, there’s more.

How about the new, longest-in-the-nation (12-weeks) paid family leave benefit funded by employee contributions estimated to be 70 cents/week. And there’s a phased-in increase in the minimum wage to $12.50/hour (around here) within five years and maybe going higher after that. A higher wage promises some help for the many people who can’t make it on the current minimum. But it also leaves essential non-profit agencies like Coarc wondering how they will manage without state aid to offset this new mandated cost.

Mr. Boone, who has had a long and distinguished career in government service, didn’t address concerns about the new minimum wage in his prepared remarks.

There was a line item in one of his slides that showed the state budget has allocated $25 million for “poverty” in the new budget year. But with total state budget spending at $154 billion, it wasn’t clear why someone decided the unexplained $25 million was worth mentioning.

There was some grousing from local folks, who said that this county hasn’t received its fair share of the state regional economic development funds. Others in the audience said that’s not true and if you add up the funds for local projects, we’ve done well.

A week later the Columbia Economic Development Corporation, the non-profit public authority charged with fostering economic growth and expanding employment in the county, held its annual meeting at Kozel’s restaurant in West Ghent. More than 125 people showed up to hear what’s new with an agency that was in crisis a year ago.

The CEDC has a new strategic plan and, while that may generate as much excitement as dry toast for some folks, it does underscore the organization’s remarkable turnaround and its efforts to redefine itself in public as something other than a club for economic insiders.

The plan has four “pillars,” (Entrepreneurship & Innovation, Infrastructure, Quality of Life & Sustainability, and Workforce & Education) each with four objectives followed by a handful of bullet points, and this is only the executive summary. Adopting such a broad mission is both a strength and a weakness.

The strength is that the CEDC has listened to many sectors of the community and heard what residents think we need for the county to thrive. The plan also repeatedly calls for specific research and analysis. This is a welcome departure from the past.

The weakness stems from the CEDC assuming so many tasks the it risks diluting its limited resources. It makes you wonder, which ones are the priorities? If the answer is: All of them are, then in practice it means that the hard decisions have not yet been made.

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