Candidates don’t have much to say about Orleans County, rural NY

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 20 October 2014 at 12:00 am


Candidates for state offices are sending out glossy mailers, giving lots of stump speeches and interviews about their candidacies.

You’ll hear about being business friendly, cutting taxes and they’ll talk a lot about themselves – their records of community service.

You won’t hear much or anything at all that is specific to rural New York, including Orleans County. Our county needs some attention from our state leaders. We have high unemployment and poverty rates. While the state population grows, Orleans is on a downward trend for residents. The county’s population dropped 3 percent from 2000 to 2010, down from 44,171 to 42,883.

Some of our school districts have closed buildings recently because there are too few students.

Three of our villages – Albion, Holley and Medina – are some of the most oppressed communities in the region for taxes. Their overall tax bases are eroding while the need for services – police protection, street upkeep – increases with fewer people to pay the bill.

The county has the third lowest median home value in the state at $77,000, according to a 2012 report from the Empire Center. Of 57 counties, only Cattaraugus ($75,000) and Allegany ($62,750) fare worse, according to the report. Other southshore counties do much better: Wayne, $110,000; Oswego, $95,000; Monroe, $125,000, and Niagara, $97,000.

We have the lowest visitor spending in the state and our sales tax per capita is among the lowest. If more people visited and spent money here, it would generate more sales tax, easing some of the pressure on our property taxes.

I’d like to hear from our state legislator candidates if they have any ideas. Do the candidates for governor have any ideas? (Local officials at the village, town and county level are always welcome to put forth ideas and energy to address any of these issues.)

In a campaign devoid of ideas, here are few that are specific to Orleans County:

More state aid for the villages

We’ve written how grossly unfair the state is about doling out aid to villages, towns and cities (“State shortchanges villages with aid, leading to their demise,” Jan. 27, 2014). If you’re a city, you can count on at least $100 to $150 a person. If you’re a village, you get about $5 to $10 a person.

This aid disparity is a prime reason why our village tax rates are way out of whack compared to small cities such as Batavia. Batavia’s city tax rate – about $10 per $1,000 of assessed property – is about half of the combined village-town rate for Medina, Albion and Holley. Batavia gets $1,750,975 in state aid for 12,563 people ($125,41 per head) while Medina (which also has a paid fire department like Batavia) gets $45,523 for 6,065 people or $7.51 per head.

If I was Rob Ortt or Johnny Destino, the candidates seeking to succeed the retiring George Maziarz in the State Senate, this would be my top issue for Orleans County. But it’s not on the radar screen. Both should be pledging to fight for us, to get us a fair shake. Rob Astorino would score points across the state with villages if he made equitable aid a leading issue. But it’s not on his agenda.

Gov. Cuomo hasn’t touched this in his first term, but then again I don’t think a state legislator has pressed the cause.

Host community benefits package for prison towns

New York State provides hundreds of thousands of dollars for communities that have video gaming facilities, places like Batavia, Farmington, Hamburg. That money is to help the host municipalities keep up roads, improve the gateways to the facilities and help with some of the costs – police – that come with the casino-like destinations.

Landfill operators also offer host community benefit packages to towns that allow the sites. Waste Management offered Albion about $500,000 annually.

Photos by Tom Rivers

Two prisons, including the Albion Correctional Facility, consume about 500 acres of land just west of the Village of Albion.

Companies that build the mammoth wind turbines also pay several hundred thousand dollars to towns in Wyoming County to have the turbines, money that has reduced taxes and helped the communities keep up with government services.

If you allow a “noxious use,” you generally get money for it. But not with prisons. Albion has two of them that consume about 500 acres of tax-free land.

I wrote before that the state should provide $1 a day per inmate as a host community benefit package. (“Prison communities deserve host-community benefits package,”Aug. 7, 2013)

The two prisons in Albion combined have about 1,800 inmates. At a dollar a day, per inmate the community should get $657,000 in a host community package, money that would be shared among the village, town, school district and county.

State-wide there are about 55,000 inmates. If the state approved this plan, it would cost the state $20,075,000 annually and that money would go to places sorely in need of the revenue. (Why else would the state site prisons in these towns?)

The state spends about $4 billion annually for corrections. The prison-host aid would raise the corrections spending by a measly 0.5 percent – That’s half of 1 percent. Actually, Ortt or Destino are welcome to push for $2 a head per day.

People tell me the prison provides jobs for Albion. These are not Albion jobs. They are jobs for the region. We have a lot of people coming here from out of the community, yet Albion bears the full burden and costs of having these prisons. We deserve some money.

Free up the Parkway for development

Our best land for development is off limits up by Lake Ontario. The state really put us in a strait jacket along the lake when it created the Lake Ontario State Parkway about 40 years ago and designated it as park land. The Parkway stretches about 12.5 miles into Orleans.

We have low-valued real estate, but that could change if people could build houses off the Parkway. This is particularly relevant because the STAMP project in Alabama (across the county line in Genesee County) will bring high-paying jobs and those workers and executives would welcome the chance for a lakefront home.

The Parkway along Lake Ontario has little trafiic but lots of potential to help Orleans County.

Orleans Hub wrote about this before and it’s another idea that failed to galvanize any interest or action from local state officials. (Click here.)

It will be hard to convince the State Legislature to declassify state parkland, but if they knew how much the Parkway cost taxpayers and how underutilized it is, I think they could be swayed. I’d like to see Ortt and Destino make this an issue and fight hard when one of them gets elected. (They could at least push for a study on the costs of Parkway and potential windfall if the land was open for development. The whole thing doesn’t have to be opened up. It would be good to preserve wetlands and wildlife habitat.)

Extend the hydropower arc to Albion

If you’re 30 miles from the Niagara Power Project in Lewiston, businesses can seek low-cost hydropower. Medina falls within the 30-mile zone and the cheap electricity is a big reason why Medina still has a strong manufacturing sector.

State legislators and the governor could help a poor, ailing county by allowing the hydropower eligibility zone to spread 10 miles eastward to Albion. There are lots of sites in Albion that could be used for manufacturing. The village has ample water and sewer infrastructure.

Extending hydropower to Albion might be the most dramatic action the state could do to bring business to Orleans County. (Holley already has low-cost municipal electric at its business park.)

These are just a few ideas. Ortt, Destino, Astorino, Cuomo and State Assemblyman Steve Hawley are more than welcome to weigh in.