Congress reps hear region’s worries

Frustration over grant applications, low milk prices and looming health insurance issues were among

Frustration over grant applications, low milk prices and looming health insurance issues were among topics discussed when federal officials toured the Capital Region Saturday.

A small gathering of local officials from Fulton, Montgomery and Schenectady counties met with U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, as the two made quick stops in Johnstown, Amsterdam and Schenectady.

In Johnstown, Gillibrand and Tonko answered questions from local officials including Fulton County Board of Supervisors Chairman John “Jack” Callery, who expressed frustration at how his county had recently applied for seven state grants and received only a blanket denial from the state without explanation.

“They didn’t even tell us which ones they denied or why,” he said.

Gillibrand said she wasn’t sure what happened but would gladly advocate on behalf of the county if asked for help. She said of the $25 billion in federal stimulus money allocated for New York state only about $7 billion to $8 billion has actually been spent. She wants local officials to contact her staff to get help in applying for federal money.

“There’s a lot of funds out there that most people don’t know about and some are too intimidated to apply because they say ‘Oh, I don’t have a grant writer in my office.’ You do not need a grant writer. We will teach you what to do. Some of these applications are just a few pages long,” she said.

Tonko, who long represented the region as an assemblyman, said he wants officials from Fulton Montgomery Community College to remain in close contact with his office and Gillibrand’s because he thinks the school is part of the education, technology foundation for economic growth that he promotes.

“I believe this area is poised for growth … which may be sparked by hi-tech. It’s so great to see that the FMCC campus is looking so intently at taking that tech center and adding its curriculum growth to that of clean room science,” he said.

milk prices

John Bender, a member of the Fulton County Democratic Committee, asked Gillibrand what she could do to help local dairy farmers with falling milk prices, which are regulated by the federal government.

Gillibrand said she is the first New York senator in 40 years to serve on the Senate Agriculture Committee and the state has suffered from lack of a greater voice in agricultural policies like milk prices. She intends to fight for a more rational milk pricing system and greater subsidies for dairy farmers when the price of milk remains chronically below the cost of production.

“I think there is some manipulation of the system that results in the price of milk being below the cost of production. It’s costing our dairy farmers between $16 and $18 per hundred pounds of milk, called a hundredweight, and they are getting reimbursed between $10 and $12 per hundredweight,” she said. “There’s no industry in the world where the price is set chronically below cost of production and at the price it was paid in the 1970s. It’s absurd, and so our dairy farmers are barely surviving and many of them have gone out of business.”

Gloversville 3rd Ward Supervisor Michael Gendron asked Gillibrand and Tonko to help with a meeting between Walmart officials and government officials in a controversy over sewer connections that threatens to end a project to develop a Walmart Supercenter in Gloversville. Gillibrand and Tonko said they would try to help arrange a meeting.

She said she views federal investment in sewer upgrades and high-speed rail to be two areas where jobs can be created.

After speaking in Johnstown for about 30 minutes Gillibrand and Tonko traveled to Amsterdam City Hall and briefly spoke with officials there and then went to Proctors in Schenectady for a news conference.

many worries

Amsterdam Mayor Ann Thane was among Montgomery County officials that met with Tonko and Gillibrand. She discussed some of the challenges facing the region.

“We are beset with problems. We have infrastructure difficulties and we have looming health care difficulties,” she said.

Some municipalities and school districts in Fulton and Montgomery counties are obligated by public employee union contracts to offer health insurance plans priced above the $21,000 level; those are termed “Cadillac” health insurance plans by some federal officials. The debate over health care reform has included ideas to tax these plans.

Tonko said the House version of the health care reform bill does not include taxing benefits, but he knows some in the Senate favor doing so. He said he isn’t sure how such a tax might affect not-for-profit, self-insured entities like the Fulmont Group Health Trust, a collection of school districts in Fulton and Montgomery counties. Fulmont provides the high-priced Blue Cross Blue Shield Indemnity plans to some school districts.

“If I had my druthers I would move forward without a plan that utilized taxing insurance benefits as a revenue stream to provide for the health care reform,” Tonko said.

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