In the fall of 2019, I made the decision to run for Wyoming County Commissioner because of my deep concern with rising taxes and our county’s financial position. I was fortunate to be elected with a large majority and began serving Wyoming County in January of 2020. At our first meeting after inauguration, I was elected Chairman of the Wyoming County Commissioners and began my tenure setting policy for the county.
Hopefully, you remember my promise to do everything I could to stop the spiral of raising county property taxes that I attributed to mismanagement and lack of financial leadership. I just unveiled my third budget that I prepared working closely with my fellow commissioners and department heads. For the third year in a row your county taxes did not go up and services were not cut. This was done because of cost cutting initiatives that I introduced and successfully implemented. I have to thank county department heads and elected officials for their cooperation with making this possible. I'm proud to say that many told me that they never had the opportunity to participate so much when preparing the budget. Because of that camaraderie, they were all very cooperative in helping me present a balanced budget and I thank each and every one of them for their help.
I convinced my fellow commissioners that refinancing county debt would save us money and allow us to raise more funds that could be used for a buy out of retirement aged employees, to shore up our pension plan and for purchase or construction of needed county office space. Negotiations with Peoples Security were very successful and we financed almost $8 million in bond financing that cost the county 4% in annual interest to just shy of 2% saving $160,000 a year in interest expense. We also cashed out $3 million additional and extended the loan 5 more years. The annual payments were reduced by about $200,000 a year and even with the additional money we borrowed, the grand total works out to getting $3 million for about $1.5 million or 50 cents on the dollar over the life of the loan. I'm very proud of orchestrating this for the county and the huge effect it has on our current and future financial situation.
$1 million of this new funding was earmarked to offer early retirement for up to 15 long term and higher paid employees, eliminating some positions and replacing those not eliminated with new, less expensive employees. We are still in the midst of the early retirement option with quite a few opting in already. The savings are expected to be at least $400,000 a year when fully implemented. We have already achieved about half of those savings with our early buyouts and will see the complete benefits in the coming years. When inflation, rising health care costs (about 5% increase coming in 2023), a fair wage increase offer to both employee unions and other rising costs, we needed to think outside of the box or raise taxes. I'm hopeful that the savings achieved will allow us to go forward and keep us in good shape for at least a few more years with little or no raise in taxes.
Several days after being inaugurated, we had our initial meeting with state Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) officials and quite frankly it was one of the most frustrating meetings I've ever been involved in. At that meeting, we were surprised to learn that a project to provide 10 to 13 housing units in Nicholson that started about 12 years previously had only ended up with 3 units completed. In addition, $700,000 in state funding for the project that was earmarked for infrastructure that had been spent in anticipation of those units was due back to DCED because of the huge cost overruns of the project. To say that we were blindsided is a huge understatement and we immediately went to work to come up with a solution.
We felt that the administration of large projects like this was putting a huge burden on the Wyoming County Housing Authority and they couldn't adequately administer DCED along with the responsibilities they already had managing the numerous housing complexes in the county. After a lot of discussion and planning, a decision was made to transfer DCED project responsibilities to TREHAB, a group that was already administering other projects in the county. After turning over that responsibility and asking for advice, we were approached by the director of TREHAB with an unorthodox proposal. Rather than paying back the overspent $700,000 that happened before any of the three commissioners were in office, why don't we approach DCED and ask for more funds that could utilize the overage and add more housing?
Although difficult for all three of us, we decided to tuck our tails between our legs and ask DCED for contrition. We then presented our plan for additional funds to construct low to moderate senior housing units and use the $700,000 overage that was used for infrastructure toward those units. It was a long tough negotiation, but state officials finally saw that this was a good thing for Wyoming County that needed more housing and this was a doable project. The good news is those 13 units are under construction in Nicholson and will be completed sometime this spring or early summer. Even better news is we do not have to return the overspent funds to the state, we received additional funding for the entire complex and it is within budget.
Out of the funds received from our refinancing, we put $750,000 into our pension plan. We also changed the financial advisors we had been using previously by getting rid of one, keeping one and hiring two others to give us needed diversification. We felt this was necessary when administering county pensions and meeting our fiduciary responsibilities. Until the downturn in the market, we were performing much better than ever and since then, our downturn is much less than most other pension plans in other counties. The recent upturn is taking us back to where we were and even with the buyout retirements, our pension plan is in much better shape than it was three years ago.
With the help of Representative Karen Boback, I orchestrated the purchase of the former State Agricultural building just out of town on Route 92. After negotiating price for several months, we finally settled on a purchase price of $125,000 for a building that is appraised for $900,000. Of course this was partially because the state gave us a break because we are another government entity, but it is still a great deal for the county. Closing hasn't occurred yet but a sales agreement is on file and closing should occur in the next several months. Our plans are to put an addition on the building funded partially from our refinancing funds and move all county personnel currently in the Robinson building into our new facility. We are also hopeful that other county employees housed in rental properties can be moved into that building saving us additional money. Finally, the Robinson building that is in need of hundreds of thousands in upgrades, is next to Aldi's and across from Walmart and will be put up for sale. We anticipate that this location will be attractive to a national chain looking for a prime location and willing to pay a fair price for a county asset in such a desirable location.
About 3 months after I took office, COVID started its ravaging path across the Wyoming County. Under my leadership, we administered almost $4 million in COVID funds with about 90% going to businesses and not for profits that were devastated by this scourge as businesses were forced to close or become take out only operations. The remaining funds were used to reimburse the county for expenditures such as deep cleaning, hazard pay, remote meeting equipment in all county locations, safety equipment for employees and testing equipment used for admittance to our buildings. Many other counties used their COVID funds for county uses and shoring up budgets, but we chose to help out hundreds of those affected.
We’ve been given another round of funding from the American Rescue Plan and are opting to help with municipal and not for profit infrastructure projects that could never happen without this funding. We are currently gathering information and requests with the plan of beginning funding for projects this spring. We are trying to be very careful on how we spend the money to get the most long-term impact for the county, municipalities and not for profits in Wyoming County. Our goal is to finance projects that will still be here long after the current board of commissioners is gone.
This is just a brief overview of some of the important things done to spend wisely and keep taxes down. It would be ludicrous to make a statement that your taxes won’t be raised as long as I’m around, but I once again promise to keep working hard and not raising your taxes unless there is absolutely no other option.
If you think I’ve done the job I’ve promised and feel that I will continue working hard to do that job, please vote for me on Tuesday May 16, 2023.