On, Wednesday, February 26, 2014, Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz delivered his second State of the County Address at the Buffalo & Erie County Central Library.
Remarks as prepared for delivery—
I would like to start by thanking Mike Weiner for that gracious introduction. Mike has been at the front lines of addressing issues related to the well-being of our citizens for many years; first as Commissioner of the Department of Social Services and now as the President of the United Way of Buffalo and Erie County, and I thank him for his efforts to create a stronger community.
I also want to thank our Federal, State and County officials and our leaders at the city, town and village levels for being here tonight and for your service to our community.
Thank you to Sgt. Touro for leading us through the Pledge of Allegiance and also for your service to our country.
I would also like to thank Reverend James Lewis for giving such a heartfelt invocation.
I would like to thank Mary Jean Jakubowski and the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library Board for being such gracious hosts in a building owned and maintained by the people of Erie County.
Finally, thank you to everyone in attendance here tonight and welcome everyone at home watching us on Time Warner Cable News or online at WNYMedia.net.
Before I begin, I would like to recognize those Erie County employees who are serving in the military. These individuals exemplify the best of Erie County and we thank them for all that they have done. For those currently overseas, including our Deputy Highway Superintendent Bill Geary, we wish you a safe and speedy return home.
Tonight, I stand before you for my second State of the County address. It was only a little more than 2 years ago that I gave my inaugural address where I shared with you my values and beliefs and outlined what I hoped to accomplish in the coming years.
When I came into office, we were following a period in which we were constantly told how dysfunctional government was, how it just couldn’t do anything right, and how the only way to save it was to run it like a business.
I reject that notion.
Government exists to take on precisely those tasks that the private sector can’t or won’t. We unite to care for the penniless and provide a safety net for those who have fallen; maintain common amenities such as parks, libraries and roads; and offer community and public safety services that provide value for the benefit of all.
Government is not automatically the problem; it can be part of the solution.
This all sounds great doesn’t it? Well, it isn’t enough just to say it. Results matter. Government without results is wasted effort, misplaced resources and empty rhetoric.
I am proud to say that here in Erie County, government is working and the results speak for themselves.
First and foremost, County government is the front line of defense in protecting the public’s health, safety and well-being. Tonight, I want to talk about the various ways in which we as government fulfill this responsibility, each and every day. Again, how government can be part of the solution to many of the problems we face.
While it is in our nature to hope for the best, a responsible government prepares for the worst.
And that’s just what we have done.
Erie County is now one of only a handful of counties across the state and the only one in Western New York to receive the National Weather Service’s StormReady designation.
What does that mean? Well, Erie County now meets a stringent set of storm preparation standards.
Receiving this designation is a testament to the work that Erie County’s Department of Emergency Services, led by Commissioner Dan Neaverth Jr., has done to prepare, educate, and assist our communities in developing flexible and multi-faceted plans in the event of severe weather, and in responding once that weather arrives.
For better or for worse, we are known nationwide as much for our weather as for our chicken wings. So, it’s a good thing that we are now also known for our preparedness and ability to respond to a winter weather emergency.
The alternative is to be unprepared and just cross our fingers and hope a storm doesn’t hit us. I think our counterparts in Atlanta and Charlotte have aptly demonstrated why that’s not a good idea. Unlike our Southern friends, when serious winter weather hit, we were StormReady.
As we all know, in January, we were hit by our first official blizzard since 1993.
We had been tracking the possibility of this storm for several days and when it began to come to fruition I mobilized our Emergency Operations Center in Cheektowaga immediately.
We checked our egos at the door and worked together as a team—local, state and federal officials—from the Emergency Operations Center. We were able to share information, coordinate response and inform the public with everything they needed to know to stay safe.
While there has been plenty of hype for previous “storms of the century” that never materialize, this one did. I thank the public for heeding our warnings and staying off the roads, which allowed our first responders and public works officials to quickly clear the roads and get us back to normalcy.
Two things told me we handled this storm as well as anyone could have handled it. First, thankfully, there was no loss of life as there had been in similar storms that have struck our region in the past.
And secondly, I was paid a complement—in writing—by a member of the new Legislature Majority. While by no means do we have a bad relationship, it was definitely a surprise to see. This may be the first one I’ve read since taking office. Hopefully it won’t be the last.
What was a dangerous and life-threatening emergency, turned out to be just another couple days in January in Buffalo thanks to the incredible response from our emergency services, Public Works, Health and Highway Departments and the numerous levels of law enforcement personnel. These individuals spent many hours in terrible conditions risking themselves to ensure the public was protected.
I would like to ask those individuals in the audience to stand so we can show our appreciation for all that you have done.
We saw with the blizzard that the key to a successful response was being prepared before there’s an emergency.
Just like we’ve prepared for a weather emergency, we are likewise preparing in the event of a public health emergency.
The National Centers for Disease Control & Prevention rate communities on an annual basis on their ability to respond to a public health emergency, including their access to an inventory of the Strategic National Stockpile of antibiotics, vaccines, chemical antidotes, antitoxins and other critical medical equipment and supplies.
When I came into office Erie County was failing. In 2011, the County’s average score was 65%. This was absolutely unacceptable.
I am proud to say that after a tremendous amount of hard work we were re-rated in 2013 with a score of 95%. In less than two (2) years, we went from an “F” to an “A+” and if need arises, we are now prepared to respond.
We owe our thanks to the Departments of Health, Emergency Services and Public Works for working to ensure the basic needs of our community are met to protect our all or our residents.
Please join me in thanking them for their efforts.
In addition to protecting against the possibility of a weather or public health related disaster, last year we were called upon to protect this community from a possible financial disaster.
We all remember the surprise October 2006 storm. Nearly seven years after the storm’s snows melted and the last tree limbs were cleaned up, we were still dealing with the storm’s after-effects.
In February 2013, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General blindsided us when it issued an audit claiming that Erie County should repay $48.5 million in storm-related cleanup costs.
$48.5 million is an incredible sum of money. That’s enough to fully fund our parks system for the next 10 years. Having to pay that back would have been devastating. It would have nearly drained the County’s fund balance and likely resulted in our credit ratings being downgraded by the rating agencies.
Furthermore, the control board would have probably entered a control period again. Something I was not going to let happen.
Immediately, we went to work refuting the audit and proving it included erroneous understandings of the law, incomplete information, and incorrect findings.
In late June, I joined Senator Charles Schumer and FEMA Administrator W. Craig Fugate in the Senator’s Washington, DC office to discuss the audit and review the findings. The meeting provided me an opportunity to present to Administrator Fugate the numerous reasons why Erie County should not be held liable for recoupment of the funds used during the extensive cleanup.
Thankfully, at the end of August, FEMA came to the same conclusions that both Senator Schumer and I did and rejected nearly the entirety of the flawed audit findings. In all, FEMA would only seek about $700,000 in funding be returned, a little more than one percent (1%) of the possible $48.5 million they originally recommended.
Now nearly a decade later, thanks to the hard work by many individuals including senator Schumer, we can all put that disaster finally behind us.
As a public official and the former Comptroller, I am ever-mindful of the need to be a careful steward of the County’s finances and I constantly work to ensure the residents get fair, transparent and honest budgeting.
The community has many needs, but we also understand that the taxpayers don’t give us a blank check. I believe that in order for our social contract to survive, we need to strike the right balance between what the government takes and what the people can afford to give, and we work on that balance every day.
This is a challenge to say the least. As every Erie County Executive has lamented before me, approximately 90% of our 1.4 billion budget is attributed to state and federal mandates—programs, services and other requirements we have little or no control over.
But, the public doesn’t want excuses, they want solutions.
A budget should be more than just dollars and cents on a bunch of spreadsheets, it should be common sense solutions to address the needs of our constituents and promote positive change for the entire community: whether it be used as an economic engine to spur job growth, a health and human services tool to address poverty and health care needs of its citizens, or the mechanism to increase our residents quality of life.
That’s exactly what we’ve done the past two years. This administration has risen to the challenge and found that balance.
We’ve done it by making targeted spending reductions across County government where we can, sometimes even holding back on approved spending when we knew we didn’t actually have the money to pay for it. And, in the end, we’ve been able provide the programs and services the people have mandated while holding the line on taxes.
In fact, we’ve been so conscious of our spending that we expect to see a modest budget surplus again this year as we close out 2013.
This was not an easy task and this will not always be the case, but I am glad we were able to do it during my first two (2) years as executive.
I look forward to working with the new majority in the Legislature later this year and beyond as we continue to craft fiscally sound budgets that meet the many needs of our citizens.
I think the average County homeowner would be surprised to hear that they will actually pay less in real property taxes to Erie County in 2014 than they paid in 1990.
How is that possible, you may ask? Well, Erie County isn’t the only government that imposes a real property tax…not by a long shot.
In all, Erie County has 1,044 special taxing districts. That’s 1,044 little governments, all of which have the authority to levy property taxes. And we’re not talking about just towns, villages, and cities.
These special taxing districts include lighting districts, fire districts, drainage districts, sewer districts, garbage districts, even insect control districts, and, of course, school districts.
We have so many special districts in Erie County that Governor Cuomo specifically noted our community as the poster child of government proliferation in his State of the State and Budget addresses recently and how we must reduce the number of these districts.
The Governor also said there are so many special taxing districts in New York there is even one district just to count all the other districts.
I think he was joking, but this being New York it might have been true.
1,044 out of 10,500 statewide.
Think about that for a second.
Erie County has 10% of the total special taxing districts in New York State – 10% of all governments statewide.
Do we have 10% of the population of New York State? No.
Do we have 10% of the tax base of New York State? Heck no. Not even close.
So, I ask, why do we have 10% of the governments?
Although Erie County has no control over any of these little governments, we can play a part in helping to reduce the tax burden they place on residents by developing cooperative agreements with them to cut the cost of duplicative services.
For example, just this past September, we hammered out a new snowplowing agreement with our towns and villages.
Erie County has more than 2,400 lane miles of roads. That is more than the states of Rhode Island, Delaware and Hawaii. And when it snows, we simply do not have the resources to plow them all ourselves.
So, we contract with 32 municipalities to plow those roads for us often on routes they’d be taking anyways plowing their own town or village owned roads. You saw the results during last month’s blizzard. Cooperating with the municipalities saves time, saves gas, saves salt—and all of that saves money. I want to commend my partners in the Association of Erie County Governments for reaching an equitable snowplowing agreement that keeps costs down and ensures roads are plowed. Thank you.
We’re also moving forward with a new and exciting initiative to protect and revitalize our communities across Erie County and reduce the blight that drains our community resources.
As you may remember, last year, in a display of inter-municipal cooperation like this community has never seen before, we came together as one (1) County to establish one of New York State’s first land banks. We were rewarded by being selected through a state-wide competitive process as one of only five communities to be selected in the first round of competition.
This project took a tremendous leap forward when Erie County was awarded $2 million in funds by the State Attorney General’s Office out of more than $12.4 million in grant funding set aside for land banks.
Because of this award, we’ve been able to accelerate our efforts to fight this blight. Right now we are rehabilitating our first property in order to get it back into productive use and back on to the tax rolls.
This is a perfect example of what happens when we work as one instead of trying to go at it alone – we win as a region.
These are just the most recent examples of cooperative agreements we have entered into to save you money, but Erie County can’t do it alone.
That’s why I am excited to hear that the state will now be championing this cause by creating incentives for municipalities to reduce costs through shared services and help fund studies to consolidate and eliminate these duplicative levels of government.
I worked as Comptroller with then-Attorney General Cuomo on the unnecessary myriad of local assessing units—half as many in Erie County as the entire state of California—and I will work with now-Governor Cuomo on not only reducing the number of special taxing districts countywide but also preventing new ones from being established.
I hope all of you will join the Governor and me in this endeavor.
Another way we are protecting our communities is by dramatically increasing the amount we have invested in our aging infrastructure. In 2013, we invested a total of $36 million on dozens of projects across the County.
Included in this investment are a few projects that seemed like they’d never get done but are, only, because of outstanding inter-municipal cooperation.
Despite being one of the most heavily traveled roads in Erie County, Kenmore Avenue was considered to be among the worst roads in the entire region.
The difficulty in getting this particular road repaired is that the County owns and maintains the westbound lane and the City of Buffalo owns and maintains the eastbound lane. For years, it sat in disrepair.
Last summer, working with Mayor Brown we were able get through the roadblock (pun intended) by developing a plan to repave the road from Main Street to Elmwood Avenue by the summer of 2015.
This is exactly the type of cooperative and forward thinking agreement the public expects from its government but rarely sees. I thank Mayor Byron Brown, City Streets Commissioner Steve Stempniak and County Public Works Commissioner John Loffredo for rolling up their sleeves and finding a way to, if you indulge me to say, “pave” a new way for the future.
Right here my speech literally says pause for groans.
While we cannot get to every road in need of repair as soon as we would like, I am moving forward to fix a number of roads that have been problems for years.
In 2014, we are investing another $23 million on our roads and bridges in all corners of our community. Included in that is funding to repair Goodrich Road in Clarence and Sowles Road in Hamburg, which are right behind Kenmore Avenue as two of the worst roads in Erie County.
In line with safeguarding the infrastructure of our communities and the safety of our residents is also protecting our natural resources and public lands.
And, when we think of economic drivers in Erie County, often we forget about our local agricultural industry.
Farms provide jobs, use less in municipal services than they pay in taxes, maintain wildlife habitat, highlight our cultural heritage, and offer fresh, local food to our residents.
However, sprawling development has pushed out further from Buffalo threatening the amount of farmland that exists.
Last year, I announced the completion of a new Agriculture and Farmland Protection Plan.
This plan was the culmination of more than 20 months of work—begun by my predecessor—and only possible through the incredible work and input of our local agricultural community.
I would like to take a moment to thank the members of the Farmland Protection Board, and everyone else involved with this process for working very hard to create a stronger tomorrow for our agricultural community.
In addition to protecting our farmland, we have continued in our duty to be careful stewards of the land to ensure our expansive parklands and public spaces are preserved for future generations.
2013 was a very busy year for our parks system and I’ve kept my promise to continually improve them to ensure our families have a safe and fun place to enjoy all year long.
The most significant improvements have happened at Chestnut Ridge Park, which included redesigning and repaving the main parking lot and tennis courts, upgrading accessibility and making the Casino disability compliant, rebuilding a number of shelters, and installing new lighting and electricity to all the main buildings.
At Como Lake Park we stabilized the Rich Marino Gazebo and several other shelters, which were in danger of collapse.
At Elma Meadows Park we rebuilt the main shelters and at the golf course repaired significant drainage issues and rebuilt every bunker.
We also switched the nines on the course to restore it to its original routing. This may not seem like much but, by doing this, we have reduced the amount of time it takes to play a round, increasing play and making many golfers happier, at least as it pertains to their length of rounds. I can’t do anything for their scores.
It says pause for groan here too.
Additionally, this year, our parks went to the dogs.
The award winning Black Rock Canal Park continued its resurgence and officially opened last May. As part of this park we have built the County’s first dog park and though a partnership with the Sheriff’s Office added a K-9 memorial honoring past and current dogs that have served in the Sheriff’s Office and other law enforcement capacities.
And just this winter, following the success of Black Rock Canal Park, we officially opened the County’s second dog park at Ellicott Creek Park with the assistance of the Friends of Ellicott.
Thank you again to the Black Rock Canal Park Steering Committee and the Friends of Ellicott for all of your work on behalf of dogs and dog-lovers in our community.
I also think it is government’s responsibility to help protect the American dream, one of the best ways we can ensure a better future for our citizens is by strengthening our local economy.
Government can help create the right economic climate conducive to job creation.
We all know about the economic turnaround for our region. All you have to do is look at the numerous construction sites across the County to see the more than two billion dollars being invested in our region.
This investment didn’t happen on its own. Government, particularly the state, county and local municipalities have played a strong role.
Millions of dollars were invested into Canalside by New York State and Erie County. Some people criticized the project. They said we were throwing money into a big ditch with no foreseeable future.
But just like how Governor Dewitt Clinton’s original ditch—the Erie Canal—panned out for our community, this public project is now leading to additional private investment and an economic boost that otherwise wouldn’t have existed.
Already we have seen the adaptive reuse of the old Donavan Building by Benderson Development and Phillips Lytle, and now a $170 million dollar Harbor Center project by Kim and Terry Pegula.
Each of these projects also benefitted from strategic tax incentives approved by the Erie County Industrial Development Agency.
As I have said in the past, we shouldn’t be supporting every project with tax breaks like the IDAs did in the past when the “old boys” network gave tax breaks to every project regardless of merit.
Every time ECIDA considers a project I ask, “how exactly will the taxpayers benefit from their investment?”
The return on their investment I demand is a legally binding commitment to retain and create jobs. Economic Development must mean job development.
And that is exactly what we are doing. Just in 2013, ECIDA provided financial incentives to 28 companies of every size located across Erie County.
More importantly there is a tangible return on the taxpayers’ investment into these projects. Specifically, more than $658 million in additional capital investment in our community, the retention of more than three-thousand-eight-hundred (3,800) existing jobs and the creation of nearly 1,000 new jobs.
Additionally, I am proud to say the ECIDA was the first local IDA to approve a local labor policy to ensure construction work associated with all of this development goes to our WNY labor force.
We are also the first to establish a Termination and Recapture Policy to “clawback” tax dollars from applicants who violate their basic terms of their contract with the IDA by not creating the jobs they promised.
This will ensure a new level of accountability in the system and that the people are getting the best bang for their buck with the development ECIDA participates in.
But the job is not done yet. The ECIDA cannot be the only local IDA to implement such a recapture policy.
In order to protect the public’s investment, each of the town-level IDAs must institute such a policy. Today, I am calling on their Boards of Directors to do so.
The time has come to protect the taxpayers by hold all companies who receive a tax break accountable if they do not create the jobs they say they are going to.
Additionally, the time has come to establish real pay equity between the sexes.
Statistics show that women earn only 77% of the salary as men do for the same job. This is discrimination at its most basic form and I demand that Erie County leads by example.
That’s why I am calling on the ECIDA and town-level IDAs to pass a new policy requiring all applicants to prove they pay their female employees the same as males in similar positions.
If you want a tax break from our community you will have to prove to the people you treat your female employees the same as your male employees; plain and simple.
Please join me in supporting such an effort and sending the message that Erie County does not tolerate discriminating against women, that we will not tolerate pay inequity.
Reforming our IDAs is only part of our effort to strengthen our regional economy.
Last June, I announced my administration’s economic plan “Initiatives for a Smart Economy.” This plan represents a comprehensive and innovative approach to economic development that effectively addresses our region’s challenges, while shaping a stronger future.
In formulating this plan we knew it did not make sense to start from scratch.
Instead, we built upon the framework and direction presented by the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council and Governor Cuomo’s Billion for Buffalo plans.
As a result, we have already made tremendous progress. Of the original 64 initiatives, we’ve begun more than 40, with some already completed and many more successes to be announced soon.
From establishing a one-stop shop for economic development in Erie County, to opening up for development the old Bethlehem Steel site, to creating a new task force to find ways to adequately fund Visit Buffalo Niagara, to building upon our successes of attracting Canadian businesses to this side of the Niagara River, each Initiative represents just one piece of a puzzle, or a gear in the overall machine that is our economy.
We’re beginning to see the fruits of our labor.
Since January of 2012, Erie County’s unemployment rate has dropped from 8.9% to 6.4%.
While this is definitely great news, percentages mean nothing if jobs haven’t been created.
That’s why the fact that, during that same period, 12,300 more people are employed in the county is the bigger news.
If you ask those 12,300 people and their families if they are better off today than they were in January 2012, I believe they would overwhelmingly say yes.
There is plenty of credit for this to go around, but I want to especially thank Governor Andrew Cuomo for his dedication to our community.
No Governor in modern times has focused as much attention and state money on Erie County as Governor Cuomo has.
He understands that there’s a lot more to New York State than just New York City.
After decades of neglect, because of his investment and our unified economic development efforts, our community is getting stronger every day.
In fact, Buffalo and Erie County’s renaissance is a national success story and one that we all can be proud to be a part of. So to all of you, including Governor Cuomo, thank you.
Now, when we talk about the turnaround of our local economy we have to remember not everyone has seen better days. Just as the state is only as strong as its weakest region, the county is only as strong as the most vulnerable among us.
As a County government, the role we play and responsibility I take most seriously is our duty to protect the most vulnerable members of our community.
It is government’s duty to be concerned with the welfare of those we represent, all of our citizens, not just taxpayers.
Sometimes that means our oldest adults, relying on government services like home delivered meals. Although many of us take something like hot meals on a daily basis for granted, for some in our community it’s not a given.
When the Federal Sequestration threatened funding for our Elderly Nutrition Services, at a time when demand for home delivered meals was on the rise, we understood that this program was a lifeline for those who need it.
So we made our dollars stretch further by streamlining and centralizing the county’s portion of the program, and restructuring our arrangement with Meals on Wheels of WNY which resulted in considerable savings.
This allowed us to purchase approximately 40,000 more meals across the nutrition programs, set aside money for ethnic meals and reduce the suggested voluntary contribution for meals served at local senior centers. Please join me in thanking the Department of Seniors Services and Meals on Wheels of WNY for making this happen.
In addition to protecting our seniors, government has a responsibility to protect our children.
The worst days of my administration have been when I learned about the death of a child.
The vast majority of these tragedies you don’t hear about and are due to unsafe sleeping practices. Already this year, six (6) infants have died, needlessly, because of co-sleeping with a parent or being placed in an unsafe sleeping environment.
Other children have also died, but violently, and at the hands of a family member or someone close to their family. You have heard media reports about some of these deaths, but probably not all of them. In fact, since January of 2012, six (6) children have been killed at the hands of an adult in our County.
Roderick “Manny” Geiger III was slashed to death by his mentally ill grandmother.
Austin Smith was beaten to death by his mother’s boyfriend.
Abdifatah Mohammed was brutally beaten to death by his stepfather.
Gage Seneca was beaten to death by his mother’s boyfriend.
The boyfriend of the mother of Eain Brooks is suspected to have caused his beating death.
And Mayouna Smith was murdered, though no arrest has been made in the case.
Six (6) young children struck down in what should have been the happiest times of their lives.
Six (6) children murdered by people who should have been there to nurture them, to mentor them, to protect them.
Some have advised me to not speak of their deaths in this address. To hide from it as if it didn’t happen.
But I cannot. We must learn from their deaths and try to create a better, safer society for others.
In each case, as County Executive, I demanded to know if there was any prior county involvement with the families and, if so, anything we should have done better.
After conducting a top to bottom assessment, we concluded that change was needed.
Caseworkers who did an inadequate job were fired. Their supervisors were suspended. We reassigned the head of Child Protective Services.
But, we did not stop there. I demanded much more so we can prevent these types of tragedies in the future.
So, we added more caseworkers and strengthened the supervisory support structure for them.
But we did not stop there. We are placing county social workers and mental health providers in all Buffalo public schools.
And we did not stop there because we are now placing caseworkers at the hospitals that do most intakes of children in need: Children’s Hospital and Sisters Hospital.
And we are doing even more because we are also improving relationships with the Buffalo Police and Central Police Services, to train our Child Protection workers in personal safety and forensic interviewing techniques.
These changes are making a difference. A little less than two weeks ago, the New York State Office of Children and Family Services, after doing a comprehensive review of CPS, issued a report noting the improvements we have implemented in CPS and that CPS is headed in a positive direction.
While this is a start, there is only so much we can do locally because there are systemic issues at the state level that need to be addressed to truly reform Child Protective Services. Right now we have a system stacked against CPS workers.
Pending legislation in the State Senate, that is no doubt well intentioned, actually makes it harder for CPS workers to do their jobs.
That’s why I am developing my own proposal, which will get to the root of the problems CPS workers face in effectively doing their jobs.
It is absolutely outrageous that CPS workers, trying to protect innocent children, do not have direct access to either police or vital medical records.
When responding to a call, they have no ability to determine if any member of the household has a criminal background. Instead, they have to wait weeks while navigating bureaucratic red tape to get such information – and by the time they get it, it could be too late.
My proposal would grant the Commissioner of Social Services access to the New York Statewide Police Information Network and authority to subpoena other vital records immediately giving caseworkers the information they need on the criminal past of any adults in the household.
Additionally, my proposal will seek to strengthen CPS’ ability to determine neglect by making two incidents of excessive corporal punishment of a child in an 18 month period a presumption of neglect. This currently isn’t the case.
It will also seek to establish a new felony crime of endangering the welfare of a child in certain aggravated circumstances. The current maximum crime is a misdemeanor and is insufficient.
Furthermore, it will seek to have all calls made to the state’s registry recorded and make those audio records available to CPS workers on a real time basis.
Lastly, it will make it a felony for making a false report of child abuse.
While we do not want to discourage family, friends and others from reporting suspected abuse, unfortunately, some people make false claims maliciously for their own personal benefit often as part of some dispute or child custody situation.
We hear from our caseworkers about how challenging it is for them to manage growing caseloads without having to waste their valuable time investigating repeated false reports. CPS Caseworkers should be focused upon helping families with real needs and children in real danger, not responding to what are often maliciously false reports.
While not the only changes I will seek to make, these will go a long way in allowing Erie County to better react to child abuse and neglect. But, I am not satisfied with just being reactive. The children of Erie County deserve a government that is proactively stopping abuse and neglect.
The best opportunity we have to stop child abuse is to address poverty.
In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson said, “Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope--some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity.”
Johnson went on to note, “It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest Nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it...”
It’s hard to believe it’s been 50 years since President Johnson launched his “War on Poverty.” Many of you here today, were just kids…or like me, not even born yet.
In the years since LBJ, his programs have lifted millions upon millions out of desperate situations. Unfortunately, we have lost the focus we once had.
While Erie County’s unemployment rate and levels of poverty are better than the state and national averages, not everyone is benefitting from our resurgent economy.
In fact, many at the lowest rung of the economic ladder are being left behind, and income inequality is now putting at risk the middle class.
Poverty plays a profound role in the educational challenges in a city where nearly one in two students does not graduate high school on time.
Poverty also contributes to high rates of adult illiteracy, poor health, criminal activity, homelessness, unemployment, and dependency on limited government services.
Poverty hurts us all – imposing high costs not just on those suffering it, but on government, businesses, and neighborhoods.
Poverty is also widespread; while the levels of poverty are more extreme in our urban areas, the suburbs and rural areas now contain more people, in total, living in poverty.
There is hope. We are beginning to see a convergence of innovative anti-poverty programs in our region, including a number of programs and initiatives where Erie County government is leading the way and forging strong partnerships.
We know that a person cannot advance themselves if they are suffering from a lack of high quality health care.
Recently the County’s Medicaid Inspector General Mike Szukala conducted a first of its kind analysis of Medicaid usage in Erie County.
The report revealed nearly one-quarter of all Erie County residents receive Medicaid, which includes three of every ten children in our community. Worse yet, the number of enrollees is increasing at an average rate of more than four percent (4%) per year.
Think about that for a moment.
Nearly one in four Erie County residents receives Medicaid as his or her primary insurance coverage, and that includes not just those who are unemployed but also many recipients who have jobs. People who are working full time and still cannot make ends meet.
For example, under new guidelines, in a one income household, the head of a family of four (4) still qualifies for Medicaid if he or she makes $15.00 per hour full time year round. That’s nearly double the minimum wage in New York State, yet still unable to get by without our help.
And, while many Medicaid enrollees do live in the City of Buffalo, a growing number of enrollees live in our suburban towns and in especially in our rural village centers.
Many of these individuals have no primary care doctor and only seek medical assistance when it is too late.
As we work to move our County’s economy forward, we cannot leave behind the health and well-being of those on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder.
I am proud to say we are only weeks away from the opening of the Erie County Health Mall—a new primary care, dental and mental health clinic located at the former Matthew Gajewski Clinic on Buffalo’s east side near the Cheektowaga border.
Erie County residents, whose only option may have been to visit a costly ER, or worse yet not even see a doctor, will now have access to a ”one-stop shop” for quality and affordable health care.
The investment we make today on this clinic will pay big dividends for our future by improving the community’s health, while reducing long-term healthcare costs. And that will benefit us all.
In order to make the next great improvements in our safety network, we must leap ahead of the largely reactive programs to get ahead of the problems before they come in the front door with desperate needs.
We know that the greatest tool to take a person out of poverty is to educate them. But for too long the Buffalo Public School System was failing in this basic task. Too many of our greatest assets – our children – are dropping out and becoming a drain on our greater community.
We have made a major breakthrough to end this cycle of failure by partnering with Catholic Charities, Buffalo Public Schools and the Say Yes program. This partnership features a significant expansion of social work, mental health services and clinics into Buffalo public school buildings so that students in need of these services can easily access them in a safe environment – their own schools.
This new role will strengthen the Erie County Department of Social Services’ ability to protect and serve at-risk youth.
Our task is to see that family and community concerns do not prevent students from graduating and taking advantage of the Say Yes scholarships. And, together we will.
To lift families out of poverty, we must also focus on workforce development to ensure we are training our citizens for the jobs that exist today.
I have led the call to address the workforce development needs of our community. We are collaborating with our partners at the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, ECC, the Workforce Development Consortium, the Buffalo and Erie County Workforce Investment Board, and New York State to effectively train our residents for the careers of tomorrow.
For example, just recently, New York State announced the next step towards the creation of an Advanced Manufacturing Training Center in our community, and Erie County and ECC will play a key role in making that happen.
We do this because we know if we can educate our population for the jobs that exist today we can reduce overall poverty in our community.
Unfortunately, poverty in Western New York has not yet received the sustained attention it deserves, and I believe the time is now to make a unified regional effort.
An effective anti-poverty strategy requires more than creating good-paying jobs. It requires economic development efforts and human services programs working hand in hand.
While economic growth will create the conditions necessary to lift many out of poverty, human services initiatives are needed to allow disadvantaged citizens to take advantage of these opportunities.
In support of these efforts, my administration is working on a health and human services plan, “Initiatives for a Stronger Community,” as a counterpart to our economic development plan, “Initiatives for a Smart Economy.”
As we develop this plan, we must strengthen our fragile families.
Often families come through our doors numerous times for a variety reasons. Maybe needing assistance to provide food on the table or heat for their home, or in need of a child-care subsidy in order to work and provide for their family.
They may even need us to enforce child support from an absent parent. Other times, these families find themselves in trouble and are coming through our doors for the wrong reasons, such as being on probation.
Whatever the reason someone may come through our front door, our goal will always be for them able to exit it ready, willing and able to take care of themselves and their family. If we fail at this task, our community will not and cannot be as strong.
We must provide better and more choices for our young people. We must create a sense of hope. That if they work hard and play by the rules, the sky is the limit.
One of the most important things we can do is help parents make good choices for themselves and their children. Our County has seen too many children’s lives taken or destroyed due to drug abuse, untreated mental illness, and family violence.
Too many single mothers in our community have chosen new partners who abuse drugs, and are abusive to them and their child.
We will be putting forward an initiative to inform parents about family violence, safe sleeping, stress management, and community resources available to them.
Additionally, many seniors who have worked hard their entire lives now find themselves living on limited retirement incomes and on the edge of poverty.
All too often our seniors are not aware of services and benefits that can help them make ends meet. As such, throughout 2014, we will be working to raise awareness of these benefits and assisting our seniors to get the help they need.
Many other residents are only one health event away from poverty. A stroke, heart attack, or even a fall can result in costly out of pocket expenses. In worst case scenarios, family members may have to choose between caring for their parents and keeping their jobs.
While not always preventable, we know that communities can reduce these kind of health care events by investing in good health promotion efforts that focus on preventing falls and controlling the chronic diseases that often lead to critical health events and Erie County will take the lead in doing so.
There are also many anti-poverty programs, funded by the federal government, which are being underutilized in our community.
Nationwide, about one in five people eligible for food stamps do not apply for them. And, about one in five also do not claim the Earned Income Tax Credit. We can assume there are tens of thousands of qualified Erie County residents not taking advantage of these vital programs.
Not only does this hurt those families, but it hurts our local economy. If we can increase participation rates for these programs, which do not impact local taxes, millions upon millions of more dollars can be injected into our local economy.
Erie County government needs to proactively tackle these challenges and aggressively pursue opportunities to improve the quality of life for all our citizens. And we will.
As Supreme Court Justice William Brennan noted 44 years ago, anti-poverty programs exist so we “can help bring within the reach of the poor the same opportunities that are available to others to participate meaningfully in the life of the community.”
We can give our citizens living in poverty the tools they need to carve out a brighter future.
We can give them hope for a better tomorrow not only for themselves but for their children and, as a result, strengthen our entire community.
While we may never eliminate all poverty in our community, we should never let the fear of failure stop us from trying.
As long as a significant portion of our community lives in poverty, we are all poorer for it.
It is our responsibility to protect those who cannot protect themselves, and to help lift up those who cannot do it on their own.
We hear so often from elected officials that they are “protecting taxpayers” but shouldn’t we also be coming together as a community to also protect those in need like our seniors, our children? Shouldn’t we be “protecting people?”
We must work together to address the roots of poverty. We cannot simply stand by and say it is someone else’s problem to fix.
As I have discussed with you tonight, government is not automatically the problem, it can be part of the solution.
If we are to succeed in reducing poverty and give each and every one of our residents the opportunity to live the American dream, as was the case in generations past, government must be part of the solution.
We are seeing it with our economy. Ten (10) years ago, even two (2) years ago, not many people could have dreamed of the successes we are seeing in our community; successes that only materialized because government worked hand-in-hand with the other sectors of our community.
By putting aside our old parochial ways to instead work together, we are witnessing a renaissance.
But, this renaissance will be a pyrrhic victory if many members of our community are left behind.
While it won’t be easy, we must work together to address the problems of poverty and income inequality in our region.
I know we can do it.
When I sat inside the Emergency Operations Center during the Blizzard, I looked around the table and saw representatives from state and county agencies while we participated in conference calls with those from the national and local governments.
We were not democrats or republicans. We were a community united to respond to the worst Mother Nature could throw at us.
And we prevailed because everyone, from those in that room, to those out in the field, to the citizens in our community, believed in each other and worked together.
That is the spirit of Buffalonians, those who call the Niagara Frontier home. We are not afraid to take on a tough task and we will succeed by working as one.
Let us roll up our sleeves and use that same ‘can do’ spirit to attack the problem of poverty.
It won’t be easy, but that’s why government is here: to lead when others cannot or will not.
Today, I promise you that Erie County government will lead, will be part of the solution, and the results will continue to speak for themselves.