January 21, 2022

Working for Cortland, the state

McCabe reflects on one year at Rural Resource Commission

Todd R. McAdam/managing editor

Homer Mayor Darren “Hal” McCabe stands at his favorite place in the area -- Durkee Park in Homer. McCabe’s day job as executive director of the state Legislative Commission on Rural Resources has given him tools to pursue a number of efforts for the greater Cortland area, including rural broadband, public transportation and Medicaid reforms.

Last summer, Homer Mayor Darren “Hal” McCabe brought state Sens. Rachel May and Jessica Ramos to EZ Acres Farm in Homer. That visit — and visits to other farms — helped reinvigorate a conversation regarding overtime pay for farm workers.

“He definitely was the voice that we needed,” said Mike McMahon, an owner of the farm.

McCabe took over as the executive director for the Commission on Rural Resources a little over a year ago and one of the biggest accomplishments in that time, he said, was helping to change a bill that would have required farm workers to be paid overtime after a 40-hour work week.

Doing so would have hurt farms in Cortland County and upstate New York, McMahon said.

McCabe lobbied to change the bill so overtime would be paid after 60 hours, not 40.

“That was a pretty tremendous change and a pretty big win for the agricultural community because this is a bill that they’ve been worried about for at least a decade, if not more,” McCabe said. “I like to think I have some influence, but I don’t know that we would have reached that 60-hour mark without Hal’s input,” McMahon said. “He continues to be a strong voice for agriculture. … It’s really important to have a strong voice to speak on behalf of upstate New York and that is Hal.”

What it does

The legislature Commission on Rural Resources is a clearinghouse for policies to preserve and boost New York’s agricultural sector, protect the health and well-being of rural residents, develop affordable housing and safeguard rural New York’s infrastructure.
— Source: New York State Senate

McCabe said it’s important to him that he be a voice for farmers.

“I am one of the only people who works with the Legislature who has experience working in the agricultural community,” he said.

Seven years before working for the commission, McCabe worked for NY Farm-Net, which offers free consulting services for farms.

“Having direct knowledge of how the agricultural system works, how farms work and some of the challenges, what some of the programs out there really do — I was pretty much the only person in the legislature that had that experience, so people kind of relied on me and I realized it was incumbent on me to do it because no one else was going to be able to do it,” he said.

McCabe has also been instrumental in trying to figure out what areas in the state — including many parts of the greater Cortland area — need broadband internet service.

Paul Hess’ 13-year-old daughter must travel to the family’s restaurant, Little Italy, to work on homework because the internet service at their home on Sweeney Road is poor.

Now, his son is taking college classes online classes and faces the same issue.

“Their internet access is really sketchy, it’s always buffering,” Hess said, although a new provider has been expanding internet services to the neighborhood.

“Hopefully, in two to three months it will be a much better picture, as with everything it takes time,” Hess said.

That’s just one story that’s been shared with McCabe that he has brought to the Legislature. Now he is working to figure out a way to gather data on who has rural broadband and its quality to fully understand where improvements need to be made.

“There are a lot of places in Cortland County who do not have access to rural broadband,” he said. “Clearly, there is no time that we’ve ever faced where people in rural communities having access to broadband is more important than now.”

Being the mayor of the village of Homer has helped McCabe at the commission because people will share stories with him that he then shares with the commission, and vice versa.

“I have the real-world experience to tell them what their legislation does to municipalities,” McCabe said.

Next year, McCabe plans to continue work on legislation regarding rural public transportation in relation to Medicare, where current travel reimbursement tends to favor individual cabs over public transportation.

He’s also going to focus on farm-to-school legislation to bring upstate food production to New York City consumers.

He also wants to see passed next year — if it’s not dealt with this year — changes to the adult-use cannabis bill, making recreational marijuana legal.

One of the changes removed the opt out decision from the counties because “I don’t think that the county should be able to make the decision for the municipalities housed within it,” he said.

The other change would enable municipalities that have a dispensary to get an impact fee between 1% and 3% of the dispensary’s revenue to pay increased costs in areas like policing.

“Our stuff made it into the Senate and Assembly bills, but they were so different from the governor’s bill that there just wasn’t enough time to reconcile the two within the budget process,” he said.