Matt Ossenfort has announced his bid for a third and final four-year term as county executive.
Ossenfort said he intends to run for re-election in November on the Republican and Conservative Party lines.
“Even in a time of great challenges, we’ve been able to chart a solid financial path for Montgomery County and stay under the tax cap for seven straight years,” Ossenfort stated in his “Victory 2021” campaign announcement. “We’ve secured and pushed forward numerous transformational economic development initiatives such as the redevelopment of the former Beech-Nut site. Our work is never done and I’m excited to continue the many exciting initiatives underway while also laying out our vision for the next four years.”
In his campaign announcement, Ossenfort received the endorsement of Sheriff Jeff Smith and Chairman of the County Legislature Michael Pepe.
“It has been a pleasure to experience the leadership provided by County Executive Matt Ossenfort,” Smith stated. “Having worked for the county in different capacities since 1988, it has been a breath of fresh air to have Matt managing the day to day operations of county business. Executive Ossenfort is always accessible, always willing to listen and is always willing to work towards the best solution for Montgomery County. The stability of county staff, new buildings, upgraded equipment and stabilized budgets are a welcomed addition to how we operate. I enjoy working with Matt and he has earned and deserves to be our County Executive.”
Pepe said Ossenfort deserves another four-years.
“Matt has established a no nonsense standard of professionalism, cooperation and hard work at Montgomery County that has resulted in tremendous success in his first two terms,” Pepe said in the release.
Ossenfort, a city of Amsterdam native and resident, was elected Montgomery County’s first county executive under the county’s new form of government in 2013 after defeating former St. Johnsville Supervisor Dominick Stagliano, a Democrat. In 2017 Ossenfort was unopposed for his first reelection bid. The county’s charter limits the county executive to a maximum of three terms in office.
Ossenfort’s first term in office included two major long-term intermunicipal agreements with neighboring Fulton County, but his second term included the collapse of both agreements and a refocusing of the county’s efforts toward economic development projects with more local support.
When he first took office in 2014 Ossenfort faced two major problems: the dissolution of the Montgomery-Otsego-Schoharie Solid Waste Management Authority, which left the county with no place to dispose of its garbage and chronically high unemployment rates — 9.2 percent in 2013 — stemming from the lingering effects of the financial crash in 2008.
In his debate with Stagliano, Ossenfort had argued the county needed to look towards a long-term solution for the garbage problem and had to consider the possibility of siting a landfill, a politically arduous process that would likely take longer than a decade.
In his first year in office Ossenfort led the county to ink a 10-year intermunicipal agreement that allowed Montgomery County to haul its garbage to Fulton County’s landfill at a reduced tipping fee price. The tipping fee was $37.95 per ton in 2018, which ended being the last year of the deal.
After only 4 1/2 years Fulton County unilaterally pulled out of the deal, accusing Montgomery County of taking in waste from other counties, charging those garbage haulers Montgomery County’s tipping fee of $72.50 and pocketing the difference, raking up an alleged $2 million profit over the course of the deal since 2014. Montgomery County disposed of 202,204 tons of garbage in Fulton County, at a cost of $7.6 million.
Lawsuits were filed by both counties against each other, but were ultimately settled in June 2019 with Montgomery County agreeing to pay Fulton County $450,000, with $225,000 up front and the rest by the end of 2020.
Ossenfort said Montgomery County did come out ahead with a “net positive to the county budget” during the duration of the agreement, taking in more money in tipping fees than it cost to run the county’s transfer station, but was never intentionally “profiting” from the agreement. He said the extra revenue was put into reserves and used for repair and maintenance of the county’s transfer stations, including replacement of a $100,000 scale at one of the transfer stations.
The garbage scandal drew the attention of state Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, who in October 2019 called on the state Comptroller’s Office to investigate the collapse of the intermunicipal garbage disposal agreement, arguing city of Amsterdam and county taxpayers have been unfairly penalized with higher tipping fees caused by Montgomery County being forced to dispose of its garbage 130 miles away at the Seneca Meadows Landfill, in Seneca County.
Seneca Meadows actually has lower tipping fees than those being charged by Fulton County, but the added cost of taking the garbage to western New York has made the real costs closer to $80 per ton.
In 2019 Montgomery County raised the tipping fee at its transfer stations to $81 per ton of garbage. In September 2020 the county legislature approved a three-year contract extension with Seneca Meadows that increased the 2021 tipping fee from $30.36 to $31.19 per ton and adds 2022 at $32.75 per ton.
To date, the New York State Comptroller’s Office has issued no reports regarding the collapse of the garbage deal.
Ossenfort has argued that although the intermunicipal agreement between the two counties prohibited out-of-county waste Fulton County officials either knew, or “should have known” that some out-of-county waste was included in the garbage hauled Montgomery County’s transfer station. There were requirements in the intermunicipal deal between the counties for detailed reports to be filed at the Fulton County landfill by Montgomery County’s private garbage hauler GottaDo Contracting, which should have provided the origin of the garbage being delivered to the landfill.
Ossenfort was an advocate of hiring GottaDo in 2014, opposing a plan supported by District 6 Legislator John Duchessi and District 3 Legislator Roy Dimond who preferred to hire county employees to run the operation. Ossenfort has said he stands by that position.
Garbage totals from Montgomery County increased each of the four years of the agreement, starting with 35,536 tons in 2014, then rising to 48,049 in 2015, 46,695 in 2016 and 53,044 in 2017, but after Fulton County warned Montgomery County in 2017 to stop delivering any out-of-county waste, the pace of the garbage volume seemed to drop from January to May 2018, during which 18,880 tons of garbage were delivered. Fulton County then announced it had discovered Montgomery County was still hauling out-of-county waste and terminated the deal.
Ossenfort has said he stands by his decision to support hiring GottaDo and the county’s private hauler and extending its contract with the county several times since then.
He said the collapse of the agreement with Fulton County was a disappointment because he feels the deal should have continued.
“That was one of the biggest disappointments,” he said. “Ultimately we picked ourselves up, found an alternative solution and moved on. It certainly, in my opinion, would have been in the best interests of both counties if we could have worked it out, but that didn’t happen. I learned that you can’t always win them all.”
Ossenfort said Montgomery County still has a lower tipping fee at $81 than most of its neighboring counties. He said all municipalities in upstate New York will need to reckon with the issue of landfill capacity.
“We still have the lowest tipping fees in the area, which helps keep the cost down for our municipalities, but in the long term over the next 10 to 20 years, everyone in New York state is going to have a challenge because the capacity just isn’t there,” he said.
Regional Business Park
In 2015, during a mock groundbreaking ceremony, Ossenfort stood with Montgomery and Fulton counties officials to celebrate the signing of an 80-year, 50/50 property tax sharing agreement for a potential Regional Business Park to be built on 263 acres of land in the town of Mohawk.
But, over the course of the last five years, support for the project in Mohawk waned after it became clear that the city of Johnstown in Fulton County would not support extending water and sewer services into the park unless the land was annexed into the city. Mohawk officials and city of Johnstown officials negotiated for years over a tax sharing agreement that could enable the deal to go through, and even appeared to reach a deal in 2018, but ultimately the project has languished, stymied amid opposition from Mohawk officials who New York state placed in charge of the State Environmental Quality Review process for the annexation.
Although the business park had long been planned by both counties as the potential location for one game-changing employer capable of creating thousands of jobs, a strong anti-development backlash built up during the years of haggling over the project’s details, including from groups like Citizens Against Local Landfills (CALL) and a group called Saving the Town of Mohawk (TOM).
In his 2019 state of the county address, Ossenfort publicly pulled his support for the project. He said the tax-sharing deal remains in place if the project ever happens, but he’s done advocating for it.
“I will not ask the Legislature for a penny related to the Regional Business Park project or annexation. It’s not something we’re going to support,” he said in 2019, arguing the county was then at “full employment” and his focus had turned to workforce development issues.
Ossenfort said the wrangling over the Regional Business Park taught him the importance of having local support for economic development projects.
“I came into office with a lot of big ideas and hopes, and, I think, over time you start to realize what’s manageable, and I think I’ve started to focus more on things we can achieve,” Ossenfort said. “The Regional Business Park was something that I really felt strongly was a good idea, but you need to create partnerships to get big challenges and big ideas done, and the Town of Mohawk did not want that to happen, so I backed off and focused my energy elsewhere.”
Exit 29 Project and local support
In 2017 Montgomery County was one of six local governments in New York state awarded $50,000 to compete for a $20 million state grant to promote government consolidation, shared services and efficiency. The grant money paid for a year-long process during which Montgomery County, with the assistance of graduate students from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, crafted a plan for consolidation, dissolution, service-sharing and other cost-saving measures, which would have included, among other ideas the creation of a $5.6 million joint town courthouse and municipal center to be built on the western portion of the former Beech-Nut baby food plant and proposed abolishing the village police departments in Fort Plain and Canajoharie, replacing them with Montgomery County sheriff’s deputy road patrols, and for consolidating the village and town of Canajoharie.
Montgomery County ultimately lost the contest, and without the $20 million state grant the consolidation and dissolution proposals fell flat, amid stiff local opposition.
During the same year, however, Montgomery County led the way in helping the city of Amsterdam win the $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative state grant, and obtained a $6 million grant to help with the demolition and debris removal for the eastern part of the former Beech-Nut baby food plant, which became the beginning of the county’s Exit 29 redevelopment project.
Ossenfort said he still favors big solutions to problems, but his experience as county executive has taught him that local support is the most crucial element to success.
“Seven years ago, I had a meeting with the [then] owner of the Beech-Nut property, and he made it clear he was never going to pay the taxes owed on it,” Ossenfort said. “We were stuck with either doing nothing and leaving it there, or taking ownership of the property and redevelop it and clean it up.”
Montgomery County foreclosed on the old plant in 2017 after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agreed to release $4 million worth of liens on the property in exchange for 50 percent of the ultimate proceeds of the sale of that location. Montgomery County Economic Development Director Ken Rose said the county is only obligated to “make the EPA whole” for the money it put into the site, including the cost of an environmental study, which he estimates to be about $500,000.
Ossenfort said the deal with the EPA enabled Montgomery County to gain control of the property without having to fear the cost liability of the environmental cleanup. The county and the village were then able to apply for and receive a combined $6.8 million in New York state and National Grid grants to help redevelop the site.
“We took this ball, and we ran with it, and now, we’re at the point where we’ve done over $6 million worth of demo and clean-up, and we’re having very real discussions about development at that site that could happen in the very near future,” Ossenfort said. “So, that local partnership is huge, and there’s not hard feelings in some of the areas where ideas may not have worked out, but you have to respect local control and not try to push things on municipalities that aren’t part of their vision.”
Ossenfort said the economic development at the county business parks on Route 5S is another example of working with local governments because the development has fit within the comprehensive plan of the Town of Florida.
“We were able to secure the Vida-Blend facility, the Dollar General project and there’s potentially another big project in the works that could be like Dollar General,” he said.
Ossenfort has received praise from both local Republicans and Democrats for his approach to dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. He has conducted weekly video briefings, streamed-live to the county’s Facebook page, on the status of the virus, number of confirmed COVID-19 positive cases in the county and the many issues related to the state mandated restrictions put in place to curb the spread of the virus.
Unlike some Republican-led county governments in New York state, Ossenfort has consistently emphasized the seriousness of the pandemic and mostly refrained from criticizing the state and federal government’s response to the crisis.
“Certainly the pandemic is the biggest challenge that we have faced in my time serving as executive, beyond a shadow of a doubt,” he said. “The uncertainty, the anxiety among the residents of the county, especially in the beginning when it was even more unclear than it is now — it has dominated everything that we’ve done. We wanted to make sure we were out front and always communicating and being transparent and honest with the public about what was going on.”
Ossenfort said his approach to the COVID-19 crisis has been emblematic of his philosophy toward government in general.
“I never wanted to make it about politics and blame,” he said. “I wanted to just try to do the right thing and help our county navigate through that, whether it was dealing businesses and reopening guidelines, whether it was dealing with municipalities having COVID-positives in the workplace or dealing with legislators concerned with sales tax [receipts] — we’ve tried to confront everything with a calm and steady hand, with transparency at the top of our list.”
Ossenfort said he believes too many politicians, particularly on the national level, have allowed political campaigning to overtake the importance of governing effectively.
“The blaming makes for great headlines, and it can be good politics, but it has never been something that’s a priority for me,” he said. “Because I am much more interested in governing than I am politicking.”