The impending loss of more than 40 employees shouldn’t affect the state Canal Corp.’s ability to prepare the canal system in anticipation of severe weather, Canal Corp. Director Brian Stratton said Wednesday.
Stratton fielded several questions after giving a presentation on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s agenda for the 2013-14 fiscal year in SUNY Cobleskill’s Bouck Hall.
During an hour-long presentation, he outlined programs and spending cuts aimed at pulling the state out of fiscal distress.
Following his talk, he got an earful from Schoharie County Board of Supervisors Chairman Phil Skowfoe, who wondered where the mandate relief is and criticized the state’s new law restricting guns.
Stratton is among several state officials traveling to communities to reiterate the governor’s message and budget plans.
During his talk, Stratton highlighted core elements of Cuomo’s agenda, including fiscal discipline, a focus on providing world-class education, keeping the Empire State progressive and continuing the post-disaster rebuilding process.
An essential priority, Stratton said, is economic growth the governor hopes to foster by harnessing the capabilities of the state’s research universities.
Tying university efforts with those of businesses by creating “hot spots” where they can support one another would be one way to do that. “The governor wants to do more to attract venture capital,” Stratton said.
He recounted billions of dollars in damage to transportation, coastlines and housing wrought by Hurricane Sandy last year.
And he emphasized victims of tropical storms Irene and Lee in 2011 won’t be left out when it comes time to spend $30 billion in federal disaster aid approved for New York recently.
“That is not only targeted to helping us rebuild from Sandy but also to the communities impacted by Irene and Lee,” Stratton said.
Skowfoe, D-Fulton, questioned him about plans state officials have announced for years to rein in unfunded mandates that pressure local governments.
Stratton pointed to the state’s new pension tier and a measure that gives local governments a “cash flow” option by providing a means to finance the cost of pensions.
Skowfoe said that system, which he described as “smoke and mirrors,” simply pushes costs into the future.
In other states, he added, local governments such as counties don’t have to foot a portion of the Medicaid costs.
Stratton said the program is an option for municipalities with financial difficulties, not a requirement.
“If you’re completely strapped, it’s one of the options you have,” he said.
He said the state’s unfunded mandates “didn’t happen overnight” and the state government continues to work toward improvement.
Stratton highlighted Cuomo’s plan to make New York state the most “progressive” in the nation with goals including boosting the minimum wage and passing a Women’s Equality Act to ensure women get equal pay and work in an environment with zero tolerance for sexual harassment.
Another example of New York state’s progressiveness is the NY SAFE Act, Stratton said.
Skowfoe pressed Stratton on the new gun law, which restricts the amount of ammunition people can have in their gun magazines and outlaws some guns considered assault weapons, asking Stratton if he supported it, to which Stratton said “I do.”
“Well I don’t, and I’m a veteran,” Skowfoe said.
Stratton declined to debate the issue with him.
Though he fielded some criticism for the governor’s initiatives, Stratton also heard praise for economic development efforts.
Supervisor Thomas Murray, D-Cobleskill, said the state’s regional economic councils are “wonderful” and said he believes increasing business activity can help local governments avoid increasing property taxes.
Schoharie County Planning and Development Director Alicia Terry echoed Murray’s thoughts, and said the new format for requesting state economic development funding brings a “new level of accountability” to the process.
Plans to cut 234 jobs at the state Thruway Authority, including 42 from its subsidiary Canal Corp., drew criticism this week from the Civil Service Employees Association, which called the cuts a “bad idea” because of their impact on driving economic development to the waterway.
The layoffs come at a critical time, the CSEA said in a news release, when “major storms and flooding continue to threaten communities along the Mohawk Valley.” Stratton said all job cuts are difficult, but needed to meet the goal of cutting $20 million in spending.
Some Canal Corp. employees play a pivotal role in controlling the flow of water in the Mohawk River — as evidenced by the Canal Corp.’s success opening up all the movable dams last year prior to Hurricane Sandy’s arrival.
The job cuts, Stratton said, are being carefully selected to avoid cutting positions directly involved in the water control structures.
“We’ve tried to do that with the least amount of impact,” he said.
People can read all about Cuomo’s budget proposal on the Internet at www.openbudget.ny.gov.
More information on Cuomo’s 2013 State of the State address can be found at www.NYGetInvolved.com.