Republicans are challenging two of the city’s longest-serving representatives this week in a bid to strengthen the party’s voice on the Schenectady County Legislature.
Philip Fields, chairman of the Legislature’s ways and means committee, and Karen Johnson, the second in command to departing Chairwoman Judith Dagostino, are being challenged by GOP candidates Benjamin Wallach and Jason Planck. The challenges come at a time when the body controlled by the Democrats since 2004 is poised for change.
Democrats now hold 13 of the Legislature’s 15 seats, including Dagostino’s leadership post. But with Dagostino leaving office at the end of the year and eight seats on the Legislature up for grabs on Tuesday, there’s an opportunity for the Republicans to reassert a presence in county politics.
Since the departure of Robert Farley in 2011, Glenville Republican James Buhrmaster has served as the Legislature’s lone GOP and minority caucus member. And while it’s highly unlikely that the Republicans will seize all eight seats, the party has fielded candidates in seven of the eight races.
The incumbents believe there’s no need for a change in party leadership. Fields, who was the first black member of the Legislature, points to the county’s stable bond rating and the relatively small average annual property tax levy increase since 2009 as evidence of the county’s fiscal health.
Fields, who serves District 2, said the county is slowly weaning off from its use of fund balance and has achieved $45.4 million in annual savings from employee health care, position eliminations, social service reforms and other cost-cutting initiatives. To maintain this strong position, he believes that the county needs to grow revenues, maintain expense levels and remain within the framework of the state-imposed property tax cap.
“We have pushed aggressively to encourage new and existing businesses to develop in our county,” he said. “Our economic development team is focused and keenly aware that more business in our county increases the tax base and reduces our property tax burden.”
Fields also sees the new Glendale Home as an asset that will help the county’s elderly population later life. He said the home, which is expected to open in March, should also help reduce costs through energy efficiencies and maintenance savings and perhaps even help revenues through specialty care services.
Johnson, District 1’s representative, believes a key issue facing the Legislature is the increased poverty in the community. She said a coordinated effort is needed to spearhead solutions to the multitude of problems posed by the county’s impoverished population, which ultimately affects many different areas of life.
“It impacts social services costs, the schools and housing, fires and public safety, health care costs, among other areas,” she said. “It will take a community-wide coordinated effort to begin to address this issue.”
Johnson stressed the role the new Glendale Home will play in caring for the county’s growing senior population and supplementing support services for the elderly. She also believes the new home will cut expenses and increase revenues.
“We serve many severely disabled people and a higher percentage of Medicaid than private nursing homes and fill an important service niche not served by others,” she said. “However, we must remain vigilant that our costs and quality are controlled as we move into a period of significantly increased aged population locally.”
Planck, a critic of the Glendale project running against Fields, believes the county has no place owning a nursing home. He argues the new home with its 200 beds will serve less than one percent of the elderly population in the county yet will continue costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.
Planck said the best option for the county is to evaluate the elderly at Glendale that can be moved back into the community and stop throwing tax dollars into the nursing home sinkhole. He said the county’s finances are in “bad shape” and the Democrats have only done a good job of masking this deterioration.
“We are defunding critical programs that would help and lower the poverty rate in the county, defunding programs that would help make government more transparent,” he said. “We are relying too heavily on outside sources of revenue for helping with the county to make an appearance the county is balancing its budget.”
Wallach, who is challenging Johnson, advocates for the county consolidating operations and borrowing less from its reserve funds. He believes the Glendale Home should be sold to plug a major drain on the budget.
Wallach also believes the era of one-party leadership in the county must change. He said the county needs new leadership, or at least another voice to provide a second opinion on issues.
“We need to restore democracy with two-party checks and balances,” he said.