Facing off Nov. 3 to secure longtime state Senator Jim Seward’s vacated seat in the 51st Senate District are Jim Barber, D-Middleburgh, and Peter Oberacker, R-Schenevus.
As a sixth-generation farmer who has been involved in policy development for various agricultural organizations, Barber said that he can contribute to the creation of a renewable energy economy in New York State which rewards farmers for their contributions. Barber — also a longtime business owner — would additionally like opportunities to fix the state’s broken tax system and expand broadband service.
Oberacker has served Otsego County in several official capacities. The chief executive officer and owner of Formtech Solutions Inc. said he would like to work toward safely opening the state, hear abut the needs and opinions of small business owners, retool bail reform, and expand broadband and cellular service.
As a lifelong farmer and business owner, Barber has employed hundreds of people in New York state over decades. “I know what it takes to create jobs,” said Barber. He brings a strong work ethic to the position, he said, and added “that’s what I bring to every job that I do — that dedication to serving whoever I’m working for.”
He also has experience as an elected official, formerly having served on the Middleburgh Central School District Board of Education.
Barber served eight years as state director for the USDA Farm Service Agency, a presidential appointment made in 2009. To do that job, Barber left his farm and family to move to Syracuse weekdays. “If you’re going to serve the farmers — the taxpayers — that’s the kind of dedicated service they expect,” he said.
As USDA state director, Barber learned about government efficiency, and was able to reduce the budget by 20 percent without making layoffs. While at the USDA, he focused on finding ways to deliver better services to farmers more efficiently. In addition, Barber facilitated several changes to federal farm programs with the goal of benefiting New York agriculture — at times standing up to his own administration to prove that the needs of farmers aren’t uniform: “New York is different, and what they need is different.”
Barber served as state director of the New York Farm Bureau where he focused on developing policies and laws aimed at making the state a better place for farming. He helped found an organization called NY Farms, which brought together diverse stakeholders (some that were in active opposition to one another, but all passionate about farms, food production and access to food), to develop the first national farm-to-school organization — bringing fresh, healthy farm-grown food directly into school district classrooms and cafeterias.
Oberacker, also a business owner, criticized the top-down decision-making processes at the state’s capitol. “It should be the reverse,” he said – lawmakers should assemble small business people and listen to their needs and concerns.
His work as a past acting supervisor and former member of the Town Board in Maryland has prepared him for the job. As a town council member, he said, “I really learned how to work with municipal budgets,” he said. “One of the things I’m proudest of … was the ability to use my business background” to secure financing to update the town’s fleet of plow trucks, which were consistently breaking down.
As a county legislator for Otsego County, where he also was chair of the Public Works Committee, he was able to do the same, securing 13 new plow trucks and vehicles.
The investment in new equipment served as a morale booster for employees in the Town of Maryland and Otsego County, by supporting “our warriors on the road,” Barber said. The updated fleet also cut down on the necessity for constant repairs, saving on downtime and overtime.
Oberacker is a volunteer firefighter and member of an emergency squad. Serving in this capacity, he’s repeatedly seen “stifling” state mandates being handed down regarding regarding the amount of training required. Such mandates, commented Oberacker, are holding back these organizations from securing volunteers. “They are inhibiting good people wanting to come in and do the service,” he said.
This was proven, he pointed out, when his son was injured in a farm accident and waited an inordinate amount of time for an ambulance due to the lack of qualified drivers.
“We need to address this and bring that service to the constituents,” Oberacker said.
One of his opponent Barber’s main goals, if elected, will be to fix the state’s broken tax system. As such, he has detailed a plan that outlines ways Albany can take the burden of unfunded mandates off the backs of upstate home- and business-owners.
If all citizens are fairly taxed, he pointed out, including those in NYC’s financial district and big corporations — and stock transfer tax rebates are halted — New York State can pay for their own mandated programs, removing the burden from counties while reducing the property tax burden.
He called property taxes “the most regressive, unfair tax there is,” with no relationship to income or ability to pay. This fact was made clear by the recent pandemic. He explained, “Even if your business is shut down for six months — if you have no income — your property taxes don’t change.”
His tax plan, he added, would also free up money for counties to invest in local infrastructure, first responders, law enforcement and local services, “so counties can decide what they need to be successful instead of asking Albany to make those decisions for us.”
If the tax system is fixed to be fair and provide a revenue stream, the state could additionally pay for Medicaid, Barber said. As he pointed out that hospitals profit from elective procedures — which weren’t being done during the pandemic — the act of providing health care became a struggle.
Both candidates stated that the expansion of broadband access is an important goal, especially now, when students and educators rely on internet service for virtual schooling.
One of Oberacker’s goals, “first and foremost,” will be to expand broadband and cellular service. Without Broadband service at his home, Oberacker said, “I know the frustration of not having that.” Also, he said, “COVID has brought to light that distance learning is so important,” with broadband service being essential in connecting educators and administrators with school families.
“We have to get serious about it,” he said of expanding broadband and cellular service. “We really have to find a way to energize and incentivize … broadband carriers to bring that service.”
In traveling around the 51st senate district, logging well over 10,000 miles across nine counties, Oberacker has discovered that cellular service is not available in a significant portion of the 51st senate district. As such, he’s mapped out specific dead zones.
He feels that he will be able to use his experience as a county legislator to negotiate with cell carriers to bring service to currently-unserviced sections of Otsego County.
Barber also feels that expanding broadband service is essential. “Everyone needs broadband,” and cell service throughout the state “to make sure every household and business can compete in the modern world,” he said. Building broadband, Barber added, can work hand in hand with expanding the educational system to provide training on multiple tracks — trade school, apprenticeships, vocational — in building a skilled workforce throughout the state.
Another of Barber’s goals would be to move toward a renewable energy economy, while making sure that “upstate actually profits from that.” He would like to empower municipalities to form municipal power authorities, so local governments can decide where they want energy-providing solar facilities, with local jobs being created in building and maintaining the installations, and power bill money remaining in the local economy.
Said Barber, “Let’s make sure that we benefit from it and we’re not just the staging ground for where these things go.”
Barber also explained that farmers should be rewarded for adhering to environmentally sound practices, being made real partners in assisting with environmental issues facing the state and world — climate change, clean water, healthy soils.
He explained, “Farms are struggling to survive, but we need farms in the state. So, reimburse them for doing good environmental work,” — which many are already doing, he pointed out — “then, we can help them survive and have a clean environment the entire community can benefit from.”
He also noted that COVID has proven that the current food system relies too much on a centralized structure, stating, “there’s no way to recover if they collapse.” As such, Barber said, “In New York, we can build a much more robust food shed made of small scale farms and processors.”
While Oberacker stated that during the onset of COVID, New York State “really felt like it had its act together,” it has since “gone off the rails.” At this point, he feels, “We need to start to open up — We need to have a plan in place.” With its residents now versed in masks, social distancing and hygiene, Oberacker said the state “needs to start looking at the numbers everywhere,” with the goal of opening. “I think it’s really starting to have a huge effect on all of us,” he said, “as far as our mental health.”
The loss of sales tax revenue, Oberacker said, will negatively impact counties. “The general health and welfare of our economy and small business folks,” are currently suffering, he said.
Another of Oberacker’s goals is to retool bail reform. He stated, “We all make mistakes. Part of that is just realizing what was thought out and put into place in this procedure didn’t really work. The current bail reform model creates, he said, “unintended consequences from great intentions.”
Bail reform, he continued, “really took the authority out of judges hands.” Judges, said Oberacker, understand the situations and people coming before them “far better than somebody in Albany.”
More information on Jim Barber can be found at: jimbarberforsenate.org.
More information on Peter Oberacker can be found at: peterforsenate51.com.