County Executive-elect Matt Ossenfort got a crash course Thursday morning in the many longstanding problems awaiting Montgomery County’s new government.
With just two weeks before the current town and city ward supervisors hand over the reins to Ossenfort and the new county Legislature, he assembled a transitional committee of 25 area business, education and government leaders to bring him up to speed and plan for the future.
“We have a lot of movers and shakers in this room,” he said to the group seated at Fulton-Montgomery Community College cafeteria tables.
Before the meeting, he said he hoped to talk big picture about where the county should go. At the meeting, county department heads said he should carve out some time to fix the issues they’ve dealt with for years under the old government.
“We’re dealing with outdated infrastructure,” said Daniel Colon, the county’s data processing director. “We’re supposed to switch out mainframes every three to five years. We use them for 10 or 12.”
The data processing department runs payroll for all county employees and processes tax information, among many other tasks. Old equipment slows everything down and complicates simple jobs. Colon said most of his machines are so old that the rare new piece of equipment isn’t compatible.
Even the buildings are in bad repair. He said wiring in the county Annex Building is old and unreliable.
“Our data hub is housed in the closest building we have to the river,” he said. “It floods over and over again.”
Colon wasn’t the only department head with a laundry list of issues. Sheriff Michael Amato said his department is critically understaffed. This year, the department reached 1,000 arrests with seven fewer deputies than were employed in past years with the same numbers of arrests.
“We’re burned out,” he said. “I don’t have enough people. We had that train derailment, then the flood in Fort Plain at the same time. Everyone worked overtime for weeks. Something like that happens again, I’ll have to call in help from other counties.”
Even regular operations are a strain on his personnel, he said. At the same time, the sheriff’s facilities are falling apart, with cracking foundations.
In charge of fixing those cracks is Public Works Commissioner Paul Clayburn, who said his department has lost 20 of its 75 employees over the last five years, while being expected to maintain the same level of productivity.
“I understand the economy,” he said. “We have to do more with less, but at some point we just can’t.”
Also at the meeting, Social Services Commissioner Mike McMahon said one out of every five Montgomery County residents is on some sort of assistance from his office.
He said jobs should be a top priority, even while Economic Development Director Ken Rose, the man charged with bringing those jobs to the area, said his department has been slashed to just himself and three other employees.
Despite the litany of problems, the tone of the meeting was hopeful. The group talked at length about economic development and how regional tourism could bring in dollars. Fulton-Montgomery Regional Chamber of Commerce President Mark Kilmer said millions of dollars are spent by tourists in Fulton County every year. If the new Montgomery County government put the chamber in charge of tourism promotion, as it is in Fulton County, he said, those dollars could grow.
Even industry seems to be doing better than in the past. Rose brought up the recent sale of the old Beech-Nut facility in Canajoharie, along with continued progress in the town of Florida Industrial Park. He expressed high hopes for the future, saying much of the growth happening in Saratoga County and Utica is built on state funding.
“We’re the ugly stepchild of the state,” he said. “Now we have a leader to go pound the drums for us in Albany.”
Economic growth, Ossenfort said, is an imperative for Montgomery County. Without more jobs, industry and tourism, many county projects will never be done.
“I hate to say no to you, Sheriff and Clayburn,” he said, “but if we don’t get some economic growth, you won’t get your people.”
The way to start that vital growth is by working together, Ossenfort said, and transitional meetings are a start.
“People look to us,” he said. “We need to be optimistic and to work together.”
Another meeting of the transitional committee is tentatively set for January.