December 5, 2021

Legislature’s balance of power at stake Nov. 5

17 seats, 9 races, 1 county

Todd R. McAdam/contributing photographer

The U.S. flag flies over downtown Cortland on in this Cortland Standard file photo.

Nine of 17 Cortland County Legislature seats are contested for election this year as voting begins Oct. 26 and continues through Nov. 5.

Shenandoah Briere/Staff Reporter

Christopher Newell, the Republican incumbent running for Legislature District 11 in Cortlandville, talks Wednesday to Sarah Discenza, who lives on Cosmos Hill Road.

As the Republicans try to hold a 9-8 majority and Democrats look to flip at least one more seat, candidates are focusing on three key issues they’ll focus on in the coming two-year term: county finances; the need for a county administrator; and reforming criminal justice and the county jail.

Shenandoah Briere/Staff Reporter

Pamela Jenkins is running as a Democrat against Newell in Cortlandville. On Thursday, she places pamphlets for all Democrats running for Cortlandville seats in a door on Fisher Avenue.

Democrats are assured of five seats because of uncontested races; Republicans will get three. Of the nine contested races, the two major parties each have three incumbents. The incumbents hold third-party nominations for two, and one race has no incumbent. Some background on the issues:

Finances

Legislature Chairman Kevin Whitney (R- Cortlandville) has announced a 7% increase in the property tax levy for the 2019 tentative budget, which would require a 60% supermajority to approve. Whitney, who is not seeking re-election also said the county will become insolvent in five years if it doesn’t fix its financial practices. Other legislators say three is more likely.

County administrator

The county has been without a full-time administrator since 2014 following clashes between legislators and the former two administrators. In October 2018, a candidate was brought before the Legislature, but wasn’t hired. In December 2018, legislators created an advisory committee to seek an administrator. The group was down to two candidates, but couldn’t agree. The question remains whether the position will be filled by the end of the year.

Jail and justice reform

The Cortland County Jail has been crowded since 1997. County policy makers have sought ways to reduce the crowding, including consideration of a new jail. New state justice-reform laws taking effect in January may reduce population, but may add costs elsewhere in the process. Legislators will need to consider what to do with the jail and how to proceed with criminal justice reform.

District 2 (Cortland)

  • Beau Harbin, the incumbent Democrat, said the biggest issue the county has been facing for many years is a budget crisis that has led to the legislature raising taxes, cutting services and taking from saving accounts. Harbin said the county must grow its economic base “by encouraging development,” hire a county administrator to help “bring focus to our budget,” look at implementing shared services to decrease costs and “undertake a serious, transparent and prolonged look at our budget.”
  • Thomas A. Larson, the Republican, said the biggest issue is also the county’s financial situation, noting Cortland’s economic health “is near the bottom.” Larson said the county must look at economic development that brings in “higher-skilled, higher-paid businesses that aren’t in the public sector.” He said the Cortland County Business Development Corp./Industrial Development Agency must meet with people at the state level to help the county succeed in getting more economic development. “There is just no reason that we can’t have skilled labor here,” he said.

District 5 (Cortland)

  • Laurie J. Comfort, on the Republican Party and Voice of the People Party lines, said the county’s core issue is the “lack of accountability when it comes to the budget.” The solution is getting a county administrator “who would oversee each department and hold them accountable for their spending.” “This position is already in the budget for 2020 so let’s hire this person and let them do the job,” she said.
  • Chad Poli, the incumbent, is running on the Conservative Party line. He did not respond to several attempts to contact him.
  • Susan M. Wilson, the Democrat, said the county’s core issue is its financial instability, caused by a “lack of oversight and planning.” She would look at creating a strategic plan geared toward growth and development. However, she also said a county administrator would be effective in providing “oversight and strong management of facilities,program and services.” “Cortland can be an attractive place for business, and we can bring innovative industries to the county if we have a progressive legislature,” she said.

District 6 (Cortland)

  • Paul A. Lorenzo, the Republican, said the main issue is making sure the budget is balanced. He said he was an accountant for four years and “could bring a lot to the table and express to them what they can do to balance the budget.” Another issue is being more environmentally friendly, while also generating revenue through avenues such as solar. His third issue was the jail and said the county should see how new criminal justice reform laws influence the jail before making any decisions. “We better come up with some ideas on how to better utilize the jail we have or on ways to expand our jails at a much less cost,” he said.
  • Richard Stock, the incumbent Democrat, said the county’s biggest issues are finances and interaction among legislators. To resolve the budget issues, he said any time a department requests a budget change, the department should provide the account balance and requested amount and should also give a monthly account balance “so any problem can be identified immediately.” He also said legislators should learn to work together by “compromising rather than working against each other.” He said legislators should be appointed to a minimum of three committees but no more than four and no legislator should serve as chair or vice chair of more than one committee.

District 10 (Homer)

  • Julie C. McChesney, the Democrat, said the biggest obstacles in the county is financial mismanagement and a lack of transparency. This was particularly seen with the county sales tax agreement, she said, which hurt “local economies at the village and town level” and made no difference in the county budget. If elected, she said would push for committee meetings to be held at times in which the public could better attend and listen to the feedback of her constituents.
  • Kelly L. Preston, the incumbent Republican, said the biggest issue for the county is the lack of a county administrator. The county should “appoint a five-member panel, the Legislature chair, the majority leader, the minority leader and two local town officials, to bring forward a candidate.”Once the person is hired, legislators should let that person do the job.” District 11 (Cortlandville)
  • Pamela Jenkins, the Democrat, said one issue is being “more careful with our tax dollar” and allowing the public to be more included in decisions regarding spending. She said the county also should develop more programs including job training and affordable housing. It also needs more programs for people with substance use disorders and mental health issues, “instead of placing these people in jail.” She said funds should be expanded for such programs. “The public needs to be valued as a respected partner in decision making,” she said.
  • Christopher B. Newell, the incumbent Republican, said the county’s main issue is with the health and human services departments, which “are saddled with New York state unfunded mandates.” Legislators need to continue reaching out to state representatives “to pressure Albany into rescinding some of these mandates.” He also said the county should partner with adjacent counties to hire lobbyists and continue to look for “additional sources of revenue to help offset these huge expenses that the HHS (Health and Human Services) department has.”

District 12 (Cortlandville)

  • Michael K. Barylski, the incumbent on the Democratic and Just the Facts party lines, said the biggest issues facing the county is “in the area of fiscal management, specifically planning and budgeting.” Now that positions in the finance department have been filled, getting a county administrator is crucial to fixing the financial problems. “A new search is under way for a county administrator, and I am optimistic that this search will be successful,” he said. With the position filled the county can look at long-term planning.
  • Joseph L. Nauseef, on the Republican and Conservative party lines, said his biggest concern is the “extreme debt we’re facing and the spending that’s happening.” To solve that, legislators must “prioritize their needs over their wants” and look at comparison studies to see how other counties similar to Cortland spend money and generate revenue.

District 13 (Cortlandville)

  • Adrianne J. Traub, the Democrat, said the core issue is fiscal mismanagement that stems from “ineffectual budgeting that lacks long-term planning and transparency,” which was made worse by the “elimination of key fiscal leadership positions in county governance that are only recently being refilled.” The county must get an administrator who is able to prepare a “ fiscally responsible budget that meets our most pressing community needs, while mindful of future needs.”
  • Eugene P. Waldbauer, the Republican, said one of the core issues is the budget and taxes and to solve that the county must hire an administrator or other professional to “manage finances and day-to-day operations.” “It is a necessity the county can’t afford to continue to debate,” he said. He also said the jail was a core issue and he looks forward to seeing what other people’s perspectives are considering the current financial situation, “but given our financial situation I have not found how we can afford $30M+ for a new facility.”

District 16 (Cuyler, Solon, Truxton)

  • Paul Heider, the incumbent Republican, said the main issue is “getting the appropriate county administrator in there that has dealt with reorganizing business because the county is a business.” He would continue working with legislators to seek the right person for the position. “That’s what I’ve been working on this year,” he said.
  • Richard J. Nauseef Jr., the Democrat, said the biggest issue is the county’s financial situation, including the mismanagement of the finances, reserve accounts, spending and the use of sales tax revenue to “ease the county budget issues.” He would look at ways to get more businesses into the area, fight for fair sales tax revenue distribution, be transparent on problems and “push to hire a qualified, strong county administrator that will work with our nance departments and the Legislature.”

District 17 (Cincinnatus, Freetown, Taylor, Willet)

  • Joan I. Coombs, the incumbent, is running on the Conservative Party line. She said the biggest issue is the lack of unity amongst legislators when it comes to figuring out financial issues. “We need to become one united group and focus on what’s best for the county,” she said. That issue could be resolved by having everyone caucus together to discuss topics before they reach the Legislature floor. She also said legislators need to stick to the budget once it’s set.
  • Mitchell Eccleston, the Republican, said finding a county administrator is a main issue and the Legislature should strive to hire one. Once the person is hired, he said, legislators should “tell them what you want them to do and oversee him to make sure he’s being held accountable.” He also said the jail is a big issue. “What do you do?” he said. “I want to see what the tax rate is going to be, if it’s too high, I’m not voting for it.”
  • Heath A. Phillips, the Family Values nominee, said one of his concerns is drugs and crime in the county. He would work with county officials, the sheriff’s office, district attorney and county mental health services, to address the problem. “I would like to see the Angel Project promoted more,” he said. He also said “wasteful spending on continual studies” has been a big topic in his district and he would be available to speak to people via phone and social media.