During his eighth State of the County address Tuesday, County Executive Matt Ossenfort laid out his vision for how the county is poised to prosper in 2021 as the economy recovers from the coronavirus pandemic.
He said his financial concerns for 2021 have shifted from fears of “devastation” to “optimism.”
He praised the efforts of Montgomery County Economic Development Director Ken Rose and the county’s business development center, which has helped economic development projects such as the Microtel by Wyndham Hotels along Route 5S (10 new jobs), the Amazon “last mile” distribution facility (100 new jobs), the Vida-Blend expansion project, as well as new business growth on Route 30 in Amsterdam, including new retail, food options, and a new housing project with 52 two-family, and 102 multi-family units.
He said the county’s business development center also helped promote small businesses with its “Buy it in Montgomery” campaign, as well as providing assistance to businesses through the county’s Capital Resources Corporation, which bought 10,000 masks and gave them to businesses to help facilitate reopening and staying open and a COVID-19 loan program to help businesses pay for personal protective equipment.
“From where we’ve been, to where we are now, we really have grown stronger,” Ossenfort said. “The important thing is these growing retail and housing projects are a sign of a strong and prospering economy throughout Montgomery County.”
Ossenfort delivered his speech from the county’s Emergency Management Center, the same location he has led weekly COVID-19 briefings since the onset of the pandemic.
He began his speech reflecting on the tragedy and turmoil of the past year, praising the efforts of the county’s staff, including County Public Health Director Sara Boerenko and her staff, as well as Sheriff Jeff Smith. He said the death of retired Amsterdam Fire Department lieutenant Dave Swart on April 3 from COVID-19 drove home the deadly seriousness of the virus during the early days of pandemic in April.
“This was early, really early, before wearing masks, social distancing and frequent hand washing were widely practiced,” he said.
Ossenfort said Dave Swart’s wife, Pam Swart, provided the residents of Montgomery County a great service by allowing the public to have access to the personal tragedy of her husband’s death, information normally withheld from the public due to federal health privacy rules.
Ossenfort said Pam Swart’s willingness to provide a human face to the pandemic legitimized the efforts of Boerenko’s public health staff, whom Pam Swart dubbed “Sara’s soldiers,” in a way nothing else could have.
Watch Ossenfort’s address:
“We had shirts made with those words on them for the staff,” he said. “In the beginning, our nurses would call people to talk about the virus and people would actually hang up on them, or think it was a prank, or start screaming at them because they didn’t believe the whole thing was real.”
Ossenfort said during the county’s 2021 budget process his administration had been preparing for the economic impact of the pandemic, fearing 20 percent reductions to sales tax revenue and 20 percent cuts to state aid, which combined might have caused the county to look at reducing expenses through layoffs.
But, despite coronavirus state mandates that shut down and restricted customer traffic at many small businesses, Montgomery County still saw substantial growth in sales tax revenue, receiving about $4.1 million over what the county’s 2020 budget anticipated.
“That’s good news for the county and its residents, but it’s also good news for the municipalities because 40 percent of that, in the ballpark of $1.5 million of additional [sales tax revenue] will be distributed to the city of Amsterdam and the towns in Montgomery County,” he said. “That increase, along with the efforts of our sheriff and along with the efforts of our team trying to conserve and save money throughout the year, while having a soft hiring freeze, doing [temporary] furloughs when we did not know what was ahead of us, I expect for the second year in a row I believe we will be able to build our fund balance and really strengthen the county’s finances as we move forward.”
Ossenfort said he hopes the county can grow its current fund balance of unspent tax revenues — estimated to be about $7 million — by between $1 million and $2 million using the increased sales tax revenues.
Ossenfort talked about future economic development, including a plan to establish a child-care facility on 5S through a public-private partnership between the county’s Industrial Development Agency and the businesses in that area.
“We’ve heard from local businesses, through the business roundtable that we do, that that night shift is really difficult for businesses to find workers for because of the barriers related to childcare,” he said.
He said one of the projects he’s most excited about is the redevelopment of the former Beech-Nut baby food plant property, known as the “Exit-29” project because of its closeness to the Thruway exit.
“We just finished the asbestos abatement last year, and the bids for demolition for the buildings on the western side have been completed, we just recently reviewed those,” Ossenfort said. “It looks like we’ve got about $3 million to go, and we’ve got $1.5 million, so we’re going to continue to build on the success that we’ve had bringing in funding for the Beech-Nut site, about $7 million to date.”
He said he anticipates being able to announce a business moving into the eastern half of the property within a month.
“After seven years of work, we are actively right now, the eastern side of this site, in negotiations on a development project that will most likely get done within the next month, bringing a lot of new excitement to the village of Canajoharie,” he said. “To go from where we were, to the point where that can be a place where that can be a place that can once again employ people and build up Canajoharie going forward. There is nothing better, or more rewarding about this job.”
Ossenfort also noted the county secured a $300,000 grant to help redevelop other brownfield areas across the county, including the 5 corners strip mall in Amsterdam and the Medical Linen Systems Site in the Village of St. Johnsville.
“This is work that will continue for many, many years, this cleaning of our brownfields, and it will also provide development opportunities in the future, once that good work is done, just as it has at the Beech-Nut, Exit-29 redevelopment site,” he said.
Ossenfort concluded his remarks by discussing the $1 million worth of asphalt the county has laid onto its bike path from “one end of the county to the other” and the county-owned Burbine Forest, which will now feature the “Burbine Memorial Forest Disc Golf Course.”
“Not many folks even know Montgomery County has its own forest, and what we’re trying to do through initiatives like “Be a Tourist in your own Hometown” is to remind people of the great assets that we have,” Ossenfort said.
He said there is a grand opening planned for the disc golf course sometime in the spring.
Ossenfort’s speech was live-streamed to the county’s Facebook page and broadcast on the WCSS radio station. The live-stream format enables members of the public who watch the presentation to submit questions, which normally occurs during the county’s weekly COVID-19 briefings, but Tuesday no one submitted any questions.
Pam Swart and her son Dave Swart Jr., however, both posted comments thanking Ossenfort and the county’s employees for the work they’ve done during the pandemic.
“Thank you Matt for all your hard work,” Pam Swart said. “Your Health Department has been amazing under all this pressure and unknowns over the months.”