Legislators hash out details of their work

Gwen Chamberlain
The current Yates County Legislature (2014-2015) From left (front): Administrator Sarah Purdy, Chairman Tim Dennis (District 1), Clerk Connie Hayes; Middle: Gary Montgomery (D1), Bill Holgate (D4), Jim Multer (D4), Elden Morrison (D1), James Smith (D2), Leslie Church (D3), Mark Morris (D3); Back: Margaret Dunn (D1), Douglas Paddock (D1), Bonnie Percy (D3), Robert Clark (D2), Leland Sacket (D3), Daniel Banach (D3).

Yates County Legislators spend hours together in committee meetings, executive sessions, workshops, hearings and legislative meetings over the course of a year. They share thoughts through email, fax and phone calls. They pass hundreds of resolutions each year, adopting budgets, hiring employees, setting policy, entering agreements and spending tax dollars and grant funds.

Yet, after more than a year of working together, some say they don’t hear about issues and developments until long after others have been made aware of details.

Monday, they used most of a two hour meeting for a workshop to talk about priorities, the way the board functions, and to begin long term planning.

In the end, they had a list of priorities, some agreements on ways to communicate with themselves, to department heads, and to the public. They also had the baseline for long term planning for after bond payments of $1.4 million per year end in 2020.

Legislative Chairman Timothy Dennis noted, “We’re only a few years away from having the bonds paid off on major projects, and we’re painfully aware of where the needs are.”

Those needs include catching up on highway improvements that have been put on back burners to keep tax levy increases down in recent years; bridge repairs and replacements, and a new jail.

Administrator Sarah Purdy says the debt payments in 2015 declined by $42,000, and that savings was used to keep the tax levy within the cap. She and Legislator Bonnie Percy (formerly county treasurer) recommended the legislature consider putting those annual savings into a capital reserve fund. Purdy said when a project is identified, having a reserve fund will help keep loan rates lower if bonds are necessary.

She recommended an ad hoc committee be established to begin planning for a capital project at the beginning of 2016. “That planning process will take at least three years,” she said.

Dennis said he planned the workshop as a way to align legislature goals with goals set by department heads and Purdy. At the end of the session, Dennis said it was a “worthwhile effort,” because it helped identify priorities and challenges.

Dennis faced silence in response to a good deal of his comments and observations, and while there wasn’t a sense of combativeness, there were times when people did not appear comfortable being in the discussion. At one point, Mark Morris of Milo used the term “tension” to describe some of the board’s interactions.

Dennis, who has been a legislator for eight years, said he has never experienced the type of discussion they were having, “We’re struggling, but it’s a learning process,” he said.

When the 14-member board was elected in 2013, seven new members were added, with two replacing long time legislators Robert Multer and Taylor Fitch.

At times during the discussions, Dennis deferred to legislators Douglas Paddock and James Multer for historical perspective, since they have both been on the board since the 1980s.

One of the comments legislators often hear is about the lack of open discussion during legislative meetings. Most issues are discussed in greater detail at committee meetings, and while decisions from the committee level come from a smaller group of legislators, usually, all 14 attend the committee meetings and have opportunities to comment or ask questions. Multer said many years ago, the committee meetings were only attended by a few people, and full legislature meetings lasted several hours due to discussions. But those discussions were limited to issues put on the agenda through the committees. He said he feels the current system is more efficient.

Earlier in the day Dennis compiled responses from nine of the 14 legislators who responded to his questions about task-oriented priorities, how they function, and long term plans.

The areas that rose to the top of the priorities list were:

• Completion of the broadband fiber project: This project was identified as the most important by a considerable margin, noted Dennis. “It appears while there may not be universal agreement on the final iteration, we see that as one of the main things we want to see done.”

• Budget issues: State requirements for demonstrated savings and sharing services efforts will be ramped up in the coming years.

• Complete the Penn Yan Marine project, and insure the environmental remediation is complete by the deadline: Dennis says a tentative date to close on the real estate transaction has been set.

• Settle two labor contracts that are in negotiation. They both expired in December 2014. Dennis declined to give details about the status of negotiations.

• Get resolution to the use of overtime: Dennis said most of the comments referred to the use of overtime in the Public Safety departments. Legislator Bill Holgate, chairman of the Public Safety Committee, said the county has been getting new employees into training in an effort to reduce the need for overtime.

• Continue working on shared service opportunities: Legislator Jim Smith pointed out that finding shared services opportunities is an important part of staying with the state-mandated tax cap.

When the discussion turned to how the legislature functions, the priorities were:

• Communications and interactions: Dennis said perhaps he needs to do a better job of getting information to legislators, and suggested sending a regular memo with updates. “I fully agree that legislators deserve to know what the issues are and what’s going on and sometimes you get caught by surprise,” he said.

“If you’re willing to do it, I’m willing to read it, said District I Legislator Gary Montgomery.

One of the more lively exchanges of the session revolved around communicating with and engaging the public. Purdy suggested the legislative chambers could now be set up to broadcast or stream video of meetings held there.

Addressing the overall functionality of the legislature, Bill Holgate said, “What it comes down to is pride in Yates County. It really does come down to what can we do to make every situation better. The board is starting to function better, but we need to keep on track.”