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“STRIVE VALIANTLY… WHILE DARING GREATLY”
2011 Chairman’s Address from Legislator Robert G. Rolison (R-Poughkeepsie)
My fellow legislators, good evening.
As we look forward to 2011, I would like to begin today with a quote from fellow New Yorker and our 26th President Theodore Roosevelt….
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is no effort without error and shortcomings, but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly.”
My colleagues I start with this quote as a tribute to you – all of you. The people of our respective districts select us to represent them, choose us to govern, ask us to make tough decisions, and request us to “strive valiantly” in an effort to make their lives better as part of our unending “worthy cause.”
Fiscal realities continue to haunt Dutchess County making our job as legislators even more difficult. A prolonged national economic recession and a deluge of state mandates have placed significant constraints on the County’s finances. We must continue to advocate policies that will revitalize our economy in hope that economic growth continues. Growth in the economy will enable us to revisit and revise fiscal priorities so that come the limited time the budget is in the hands of this Legislature the process can be a tiny bit easier.
Meeting the needs of the people in spite of fiscal constraints this Legislature adopted a 2011 budget that held the line on the property tax levy. The 2011 budget was a difficult process, at times contentious, but in the end this Legislature listened to the people and froze the levy while restoring what funding we could to essential programs and services. We successfully restored funding to worthwhile community investments such as Hudson River Housing’s homeless shelters, Dutchess County BOCES’ Wheels to Work program, Cornell Cooperative Extension, various domestic violence services, and critical public safety positions. Still, tough fiscal times forced us to make tough decisions requiring us to evaluate funding priorities and consolidate County departments and corresponding programs.
I, again, commend legislators for making those decisions without adding to the tax levy. Whether some admit it or not, taxpayers have made one thing perfectly clear… they expect a lean, less costly government. Taxpayers demand from us the same sacrifice they must make in learning to make ends meet with less. In this, we delivered.
The adoption of the 2011 budget was arduous and like many of you I recognize that without assistance from our federal and state representatives, decisions in 2011 and beyond will be even more difficult. That is why, as I did one year ago, I turn to our Budget, Finance, and Personnel Committee Chairman Dale Borchert – who did a yeoman’s job throughout the year with the 2011 budget – to again lead us as we look to the 2012 budget process that must begin in earnest now.
Our new Governor and state legislative delegation must help in addressing those nine state mandates that consume approximately 90 percent of the County property tax levy statewide. I know that state Senators Steve Saland and Greg Ball as well as Assemblymen Joel Miller and Marc Molinaro continue to advocate for mandate relief. The entire Legislature, regardless of party affiliation, must do whatever it can to assist them all in easing the burdens forced on local governments by the state.
As we did in 2010, 2011 will require us to take advantage of the talent and experience of those quality individuals who serve the people of this County along side of us. We must continue to rely on the two decades of experience found in County Executive Bill Steinhaus and seek counsel from his staff and department heads. We must also work with those elected officials who are always willing and able to advise us as to their respective offices including Sheriff Butch Anderson, District Attorney Bill Grady, County Clerk Brad Kendall, and Comptroller Jim Coughlan. The relationships we have created with the people in and around County government, such as with Jon Wagner of the Dutchess County Supervisors’ and Mayors’ Association and Charlie North at the Dutchess County Regional Chamber of Commerce, remain invaluable to us as we face old and new challenges in 2011.
Dutchess County is not an isolated island. We cannot, and should not, make decisions in a vacuum. Public input is vital to our success as legislators and that is why I will continue to host Dutchess County Government Brought to You forums throughout the County. The goal of these forums is to give residents the opportunity to meet their legislators while learning more about County government. Further, I am proud to announce that I was recently named vice-chairman of the Hudson Valley Regional Council, which allows us the opportunity to interact and share ideas with our neighboring counties. In that spirit I will continue to join fellow legislature chairmen from Orange, Putnam, Ulster, Greene, and Columbia counties as we host regular regional summits. Fundamental to successful governing is transparency, public access, communication, and cooperation.
To that end, cooperation among us all is paramount in the service of our mutual constituents. Last year I challenged you – my colleagues – regardless of party affiliation, varying perspectives, and geographic regions, to put aside your differences and work together to tackle the many challenges facing County government. Essentially, I asked my fellow legislators to lead, not criticize; be part of the solutions, not part of the problems. Today, I renew that call. We ought to have the dialogue and debate on the important issues so that consensus can be reached and bold initiatives can be found that will achieve our shared goal of improving the quality of life for every Dutchess County citizen and business.
Together we have accomplished a great deal and together we can do more. However, in order to do more we must “dare greatly” to meet the challenges found in three core County policy areas: public safety, fiscal oversight, and government reform.
Few would deny that the primary function of government is to protect its citizens from harm. At the County level we do this by supporting the many first responders that are called to the scenes of fires, accidents, medical emergencies, and crimes. Public safety is imperative to improving the quality of life for our citizens, but in order for them to succeed we, the policy-making and appropriations body of County government, must give them the tools they need.
Dutchess County is widely regarded as a national leader in the field of extensive Alternatives to Incarceration (ATI) programs. This Legislature should continue to encourage ATI programs via the Dutchess County Criminal Justice Council in an effort to reduce the number of people who must be remanded to our jail. Yet despite these efforts, the number of inmates at our jail continues to climb.
For 2009, the peak population was 414 inmates per day incarcerated at a Dutchess County jail facility designed to hold a maximum capacity of 292. This past year, 2010, with a peak population again over 400 inmates illustrates a serious problem that must be addressed. The policy of housing-out of inmates to other counties, as far away as Clinton and Erie counties, is not only costly to the taxpayers but dangerous to the officers and makes it more difficult for the rehabilitation and prosecution of these inmates. Housing-out inmates is a bad policy and we need to move away from it.
We accomplish this by constructing a jail that meets the needs of the people of Dutchess County. To do that I, along with Public Safety Chairman Kenny Roman, have taken steps to work with the Sheriff and his jail administrators as well as the state Commission on Corrections to initiate a feasibility study. This study will determine the capacity we need, and at what cost, so that we can consider all the options before breaking ground on a more modern and efficient jail facility.
Eliminating housing-out costs and associated risks as well as the potential to make the current jail facility more efficient with less staffing needs and lower payroll should be enough to gain support for the feasibility study. As such Public Works and Capital Projects Chairman Gerry Hutchings urged us to add it to the 2011 Capital Projects list so this study will, with your support, be advanced very soon so that expansion and modernization of the current jail facility can commence sooner rather than later.
Sadly, 2010 saw the tragic murders of three Dutchess County women at the hands of their partners. In October, the Citizens’ Advisory Committee on Domestic Violence, at my request, provided the Legislature with a “Comprehensive Review of Domestic Violence Services” for our County. In it they make several recommendations that should be considered in the near future but these are, in most cases, not measures Dutchess County can enact on its own. Again, collaboration between our state and local officials will be essential. That is why I have asked all parties involved, including the Citizens’ Advisory Committee Chairwoman Leah Feldman, and our legislative liaison Legislator Donna Bolner, to help me schedule a roundtable discussion on these recommendations so that policies can be vetted then adopted without delay.
At the request of Legislator DJ Sadowski, who serves as our liaison to the Dutchess County Fire and Safety Board, I have asked, and will ask again today, for people interested in serving as a citizen appointment to this board to step forward. There are many opportunities for those interested in getting involved in County government and we should continue to seek more ways for greater public participation. People interested should send their resumes to us so that we can consider them via our apolitical selection process.
Through this selection process we have staffed several citizen advisory committees that currently review our laws and seek new policy ideas including the Small Business Advisory Committee and Veteran Affairs Committee. I want to thank Jean Rebillard of the Small Business Advisory Committee and Alec Pandaleon of the Veteran Affairs Committee for chairing these committees and lending us their time and talents. These committees are actively searching for ways to make our County a better place for their respective populations and we should commend all who volunteer.
Citizen advisory committees are important to our duties as legislators, but vital to our function is our ability to provide oversight of departments within our jurisdiction that are not operating with the utmost efficiency and effectiveness. That is why this Legislature must serve the public with three oversight committees to monitor and improve the operations at the Board of Elections, Resource Recovery Agency, and Family Court.
In October the Board of Elections Oversight Committee issued a report, “Legislators’ Guide to Cost-Savings” that made several recommendations as to how to reduce expenses at the Board of Elections. Under Chairman Michael Kelsey this Committee did fantastic work and their cost-reducing policy recommendations were considered during the 2011 budget process. With BOE costs increasing by $2.5 million from 2005 to 2008 and personnel costs consuming almost 78 percent of its budget the call for action is apparent.
Protecting the integrity of the voter does not mean our Board of Elections has to sacrifice fiscal responsibility while rewarding friends and family with political appointments. With new management at the BOE, I am hopeful that together we can find ways to improve efficiency, save taxpayer money, and ensure that County anti-nepotism laws are adhered to by both Commissioners. I ask the Board of Elections Oversight Committee to continue its work, consider new proposals, and cooperate with our Election Commissioners to achieve its intended goals of greater fiscal and legal accountability at the BOE.
I have said it countless times in the numerous meetings I have had on the subject, this Legislature knows more about solid waste disposal than any other Legislature before it… I am proud of the legislators who stepped up and immersed themselves into this “mess” in an ongoing effort to reduce the County’s financial obligation to an Agency plagued by allegations of fiscal nonfeasance. Let me be clear, the RRA is its own independent public-benefit corporation and so our powers over the Agency are indeed limited. However, a multi-million dollar annual subsidy should not be used to keep afloat an Agency that is incapable of being financially self-sufficient.
Our gratitude should go to Chairman Jim Miccio and all the members of the Resource Recovery Reform Committee who continue to investigate ways to improve solid waste management and recycling efforts in Dutchess County. In meetings with the RRA my message has been absolutely clear… fix the internal problems at the Agency including the issues surrounding board governance and reduce the fiscal dependence on Dutchess County by reining in costs or the Legislature, as it created the Agency in 1984, will seek ways to “uncreate” it.
In the meantime we must continue to work with the Resource Recovery Agency to help them resolve their financial issues and other various challenges. To do that, this Legislature funded the position of a full-time Solid Waste Commissioner. This Charter position should be filled without delay so that greater oversight and assistance can be given to the RRA. To give us additional data and policy recommendations the consulting firm Mid-Atlantic Solid Waste will conduct a study of RRA operations and finances at no cost to the taxpayers. We should thank and commend the Dyson Foundation for its assistance and commitment in helping us resolve these challenges so we may move beyond them.
There will always be solid waste. The question is how we best – environmentally and economically – rid ourselves of nearly 250,000 tons of it annually. While we work to resolve the RRA’s issues, we must look to the future and find innovative ways to meet the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation solid waste mantra of “reduce, reuse, and recycle.” We do this through greater education efforts and laws like the one recently pitched by Legislator Jim Miccio that requires a recycling bin in front of your house or business upon pick-up or there will be no pick-up. I ask my colleagues, like Jim has done, to search and research these practical policies that look to preserve our environment.
When our Family Court Judges came before the Legislature to protest the dismantling of the Assigned Counsel list known as 18B we listened. What they told us was that together we can find a way to reduce the cost of Assigned Counsel at Family Court without eliminating the pool of attorneys and giving the responsibility to our County’s Public Defender. Seeing as the judges had little input into the creation of a new unit that directly impacts their court, this Legislature offered them an alternative that I reiterate today…
We will give Family Court a year to work with the Legislature to find a better, more affordable way to make certain people thrust into the complexities of Family Court have competent, knowledgeable legal professionals to assist them in their cases. It is my understanding that the Family Court judges have already begun to create this committee to which we shall appoint the appropriate number of legislators. If in a year there seems to be no progress toward a reasonable cost-saving measure at Family Court then we should reevaluate the proposal to hand the Assigned Counsel responsibility to the Public Defender.
While the Legislature looks to make operations more efficient and effective saving taxpayer dollars, it continues to seek other areas to consolidate or share services to trim our County spending even more. Assistant Majority Leader Angela Flesland along with Assistant Minority Leader Dan Kuffner will continue to lead this charge in 2011 as they explore areas for local, county, and state government to share services as well as other consolidation opportunities within the County. Another example of how the 2012 budget process begins now.
With the recent consolidation of Youth, Aging, and Veteran services into one department we should be mindful that these three segments of our population touch every family, in every corner of our County. Under the guide of Legislator Ben Traudt this Legislature is searching for innovative ways to attract and retain young people to our communities through the Stay Dutchess Commission. More needs to be done to assist our aging population and initiatives such as a Silver Alert system should be adopted that will notify the community when a senior citizen struck with dementia goes missing. And I trust the Veteran Affairs Committee is already well at work with Assistant Minority Leader Dan Kuffner and Legislators Rob Weiss, Joe Incoronato, and Alison MacAvery in making certain our vets get the services they need and deserve.
The consolidation of departments requires the Legislature to amend the document that sets the structure for Dutchess County government – the County Charter. Recent years have seen some disagreements over the powers invested in the Legislature versus that of the Executive as well as that of other County offices. As such, I believe it is time to review our 40 plus year-old County Charter and make revisions as necessary.
We begin with the task assigned to the Legislature every decade of redistricting. To perform this measure I will ask one member from each Caucus to join me in crafting a process and implementing a reapportionment plan before May so that should we alter legislative districts due to population changes the electorate will be aware of them in time for the 2011 election. The last thing any of us want is to disenfranchise voters.
Upon completion of reapportionment and in the spirit of government reform, I will create a commission to review our County Charter. This commission will consist of legislators, academics, and others familiar with the structure of County government. The goal of this commission will be to evaluate our County Charter and make recommendations to this Legislature as to how best to make our government more efficient, more balanced, and more responsive to the needs of the thirty municipalities and over 290,000 people who reside within Dutchess County. This will not be a quick or simple process, nor should it be, but by asking the right questions it is my hope we can improve County government from within by asking people from outside to critique its guiding document.
People elect us to represent them, to listen to their needs, and to take action. They expect us to act in a fair, nonpartisan manner and to do our job by making tough decisions. We will not always agree on what is best for our constituents, but we can have those dialogues and debates in a constructive, professional manner that will produce results and not stalemate. We must continue to “strive valiantly” in our “worthy cause” and I know that together we can do just that….
So far, under my tenure as Chairman this is what has happened; I give a lot of credit to Majority Leader Gary Cooper, Assistant Majority Leader Angela Flesland, Minority Leader Sandra Goldberg, and Assistant Minority Leader Dan Kuffner for helping us, helping me, conduct the people’s business in such a manner. Also credit must be given to the Clerk of the Legislature Patricia Hohmann and her staff – Carolyn Morris and Leigh Wager – as well as to legislative Counsel Scott Volkman and my Assistant Michael Ellison for providing the support we need to be the best public servants we can be. Never once have I, nor will I, lose sight of the fact that while I conduct our meetings this is a team effort with common goals. We will not always get along, but with level heads and passionate hearts we can make this a better County for all those who wish to call it home.
I thank you for your continued confidence in my leadership by once again selecting me as your Chairman. It is a humbling yet rewarding position; one I do not, and will not, take for granted. I recognize that I am elected to serve all of you regardless of party affiliation or differences. Thus, I wish to end by assuring you that my door remains open to any of you regardless of which Caucus room you sit in.
Thank you again and I look forward to a productive 2011.