State of the County Address 2021

Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz

2021 State of the County address

July 1, 2021

 

The ability of a community to overcome a crisis is dependent on one factor – its people.

Here in Erie County, we’ve learned to deal with what life sends our way.

It’s what makes us resilient and ready to tackle the next challenge.

This is the home of the City of Good Neighbors, but it’s also the home of the Blizzard of 77, Flight 3407 and Winter Storm Knife.

We’ve dealt with crises before, and together we’ve overcome them.

Our greatest asset is our people, and during the past year we jointly went through an experience unlike any we have dealt with.

Life changed for all of us in 2020, and, in many ways, it still is.

While I hoped the virus could be contained before it reached Erie County, when it began devastating New York City, I knew we would soon be dealing with a crisis unlike any other and we began preparing for it.

That crisis arrived on March 15, 2020 when the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in Erie County.

Doctors, nurses, and all health care workers became the faces of pandemic response, holding the front lines while infection rates increased.

They stood resolute against an unrelenting enemy, saving lives when possible, and comforting the dying when necessary.

Their strength and determination gave courage to us all.

The Erie County Department of Health joined their healthcare brethren in answering the call, along with many other county departments and offices, to ensure your government was there when you needed it most.

 

Working closely with others, the Purchasing, Public Works, and Homeland Security Departments helped get critical PPE here to Erie County, and into the hands of the people who needed it.

This included gloves, masks, gowns, face shields, and hand sanitizer for healthcare providers, nursing homes, municipalities, schools, and businesses.

We fought to get every swab and reagent of testing materials possible, and then coordinated with our Sheriff’s Office to send deputies to Albany to pick-up and then deliver these much-needed supplies for our efforts.

The Health Department opened testing clinics across the county, where our nurses and other staff put their lives at risk testing individuals they could tell were very sick.

Most people never saw their efforts, but I did.

I will never forget the strength they showed by confronting this invisible foe on a daily basis, and the compassion they offered for those who were suffering from the illness.

 

I know many of these men and women were afraid of getting sick themselves, knowing their job put them at a much greater risk than others staying at-home, but they came anyway.

None of us can ever truly repay all of our community’s healthcare heroes for their efforts, but we can thank them.

On behalf of a grateful community, I thank all in the healthcare world and other front-line workers, but especially those in our Erie County family, who put their lives at risk to fight the virus head-on.

You are our true heroes and we can never thank you enough.

While not everyone came face-to-face with the virus daily, others still worked to protect our community.

The Health Department built an army of contact tracers to track the virus as it spread in our community and protect others from being infected.

The Department of Environment and Planning created a COVID-19 Map Dashboard that soon became indispensable in tracking the virus’ progression and has been visited more than 3 million times since March 2020.

All county departments and offices became a clearinghouse for COVID-19 information and guidance.

Things were changing so rapidly in the first weeks of the pandemic that flexibility and adaptability in our response was required.

For example, we realigned the county’s workforce, adapting to work-from-home where it was appropriate, and expanding remote options for accessing county services to boost public safety.

Daycare became an immediate need communitywide for front line workers, so I empaneled a Child-Care Emergency Task Force to match front line workers with available child care slots near them.

As the Pandemic grew, we knew our region’s senior population, the most at-risk from the virus, also were at-risk in other areas, especially food insecurity.

Our Senior Services Department created a new temporary home-delivered meal service program that enrolled more than 2,000 new seniors, in addition to the 2,300 regular clients we serve. Working with our partners, the Program delivered more than 1 million meals countywide.

When Erie County received COVID-19 assistance from the federal government we shared those much-needed dollars with the greater community.

For example, as part of our Live Well Erie Initiatives, Erie County invested $40 million in U.S. CARES Act funding to support schools and child care providers countywide.

$14 million of it was used to help local school districts create Virtual Learning Support Centers (“VLSCs”), providing safe and supervised learning environments for students, the only county in NYS to do so.

$4 million was invested to directly support childcare providers to ensure they remained open for the frontline workers who needed it.

$7 million was used to expand the county’s childcare subsidy to include families who otherwise were not eligible for direct daycare assistance.

And a full $15 million dollars was provided by the County to all publicly funded schools to pay for the costs of safely returning students to school or virtual learning expenses.

Why did we do it? To help schools and families safely educate our most precious resource: our youth.

Too many families in our community found themselves juggling schooling and, for the first time ever, food insecurity.

We addressed this growing need by providing CARES Act funding to 20 local food pantries and to FeedMore of WNY.

No one in our county should go hungry, but some so. That’s why we will continue to work with our partners to address this important need.

Additionally, no one in our community should go homeless. That’s why Erie County also made $10 million in emergency funding available for tenants, landlords and homeowners affected by the pandemic. For many, this was a lifeline that ensured they would not lose their home.

Soon we will be expanding the program for renters as we’ve received an additional $19 million dollars to further help tenants and landlords, thereby preventing homelessness and stabilizing our economy.

While most of 2020 was focused on the direct response to the impacts of the Pandemic, in 2021 Erie County helped lead the community’s efforts to vaccinate our public.

Because of the great work of many, 50 % percent of our population has been safely vaccinated.

While this is good news, we can’t stop there. We need to vaccinate everyone.

The only way to return to the normal way of life we had before is to vaccinate all.

If you have not been vaccinated, I ask you to please do so.

Don’t do it just for yourself. Do it for your family, your neighbors, and for the team that is Erie County. If you do, we will all be better for it.

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As the pandemic grew, it quickly became apparent that some communities were more severely impacted than others.

Erie County partnered with the African American Health Equity Task Force to address the needs of these communities and afford them the same COVID-19 response as their more affluent neighbors.

In fact, Erie County provided the Health Equity Task Force nearly $3 million in CARES Act aid to provide direct care for those most at need, including even buying families healthy food if they could not afford it.

The Task Force also helped identify and schedule thousands of individuals for vaccination, especially those who were home-bound.

I thank the members of the Task Force and their partners for their incredible work. Their work was so impactful we are committing another $5 million for their ongoing efforts countywide. 

But we won’t stop there.  In the weeks ahead, my Administration will partner with Chairwoman April Baskin to directly confront health disparities and the underlying issues causing them.  Stay tuned for some important announcements to address this key issue.

 

Health related issues weren’t the only ones to be solved.

 

Our business community, itself stressed from the effects of the pandemic, was crying out for help.

We heard their cry and got to work right away.  

Just a few weeks into the crisis, I empaneled the Erie County Business Task Force, representing large and small companies, to come up with innovative ideas to help local business.

They recommended the highly successful Back to Business grant program that invested $20 million of Erie County’s CARES Act funding to aid nearly 1,400 hard-hit small businesses.

This program was a life-saver to many small businesses, and I thank 43North for their great work in administering the program.   

The highly popular Shop 716 gift card program, also recommended by the Task Force, generated over $1.1 million in sales for local small businesses. Thank you to the Amherst Chamber of Commerce for your partnership in this important endeavor.

The program was so successful I am proud to announce it will be coming back this year as well!

The County partnered with Visit Buffalo-Niagara to deliver a robust buy local campaign during the holiday season. The “Come Back to Our Comeback” ads were a huge success and resulted in millions being spent locally.

And the Erie County Agriculture Office, unveiled the Erie Grown website and passport to promote Erie County agriculture, connect residents with local farmers, and create an Erie County brand.

These were just some of the actions we took to help local business.

As I said during my first inaugural address, government exists to do the things that the private sector can’t, or won’t, do.

When business called out for help, Erie County answered. We will always do so to help our community in its time of need.

Even while responding to the pandemic, the business of government, and life, went on. While COVID-19 may have been slowing things down, it didn’t stop our progress.

Our Department of Public Works completed nearly $25 million in road, bridge, and infrastructure work. Mother Nature didn’t take the year off and neither did our crews!

Erie County continued the fight against the other crisis of our time, climate change.

Numerous county climate goals were advanced, our greenhouse gas inventory continued to drop, and we created the new Community Climate Action Task Force so that you, our residents, can help us address Climate Change.

We continued the renaissance of the Bethlehem Steel site by opening Dona Street, the first public street ever located there, which road supports TMP Technologies – the maker of the Mr. Clean Magic Eraser – new manufacturing facility, and sold 9 acres to Uniland Development for its new 150,000 square foot building, thereby creating new jobs for region.

This is just another chapter in the long-history of the site.

Today, after months of public meetings and discussions with the community, I am proud to announce the site will be known as the “Renaissance Commerce Park.” Soon new signage will be visible from Route 5, and the Park will be heavily advertised nationwide to prospective businesses. 

But we are not stopping there, we will connect the Shoreline Trail from Dona Street to Woodlawn Beach by constructing a new bike trail through the site and bring more new business to the site. 

Our partner in the Renaissance Commerce Park has been the board and staff of the ECIDA. Though the Pandemic stopped in person meetings, it did not stop the ECIDA’s work.

In fact, the ECIDA Board approved 22 projects, which spurred more than $500 million in private sector investment, and created 479 new permanent jobs and 1,970 construction jobs.

The ECIDA wasn’t the only agency very busy last year.

Our Erie County Parks exploded with activity as hundreds of thousands of residents visited our ten thousand acres of parkland for safe, socially-distanced outdoor activities.

Parks’ staff also completed millions of dollars of major capital investments at our parks and golf courses.  

That work will continue in 2021 and beyond. With support from the Ralph J. Wilson Jr. Foundation, Isle View Park will soon be dramatically enhanced to provide stunning new vistas and a new trail.

We will construct the “Playground for All” at Chestnut Ridge Park, where we also just relit for the first time in 22 years the tennis courts, and invest $1 million in restoration work to our historic 1930s era WPA structures in parks countywide.

This is all part of my administration’s commitment to make your park experience the best it can possibly be, one improvement at a time.

Improving Erie County also requires addressing the serious problems that plague our community and country.

None of us who watched the video of the murder of George Floyd will ever forget it. It is why people of all walks of life joined together on the streets of America to say “Enough is Enough.”

Thankfully, George Floyd’s murderer was convicted of his terrible crime; however, our nation cannot stop there if we are to truly root out the causes of it. We must address the systemic issues that led to his death, and the deaths of so many others.

Every community has a role in this endeavor. In Erie County we empaneled the Erie County Police Reform and Reinvention Task Force to review the policing practices of the Erie County Sheriff’s Office.

They produced a comprehensive report that recommended significant, substantive reforms to the Sheriff’s Office policing practices.

I thank the members of the Task Force for their diligent work, which was adopted in full by the Legislature.

The Task Force’s work may be complete, but it is just the start of the work needed by our community to truly address the inequities, or for that matter, racism that exists in our society today.

We all must play a role in that effort, and soon I will be making a major announcement about how we will address a key issue affected by racism countywide.

Inequities of a different kind were laid bare by the Pandemic when it also identified the stark need for equity in broadband infrastructure and the disadvantages that communities lacking such service have to face.

Using funding from President Biden’s American Rescue Plan, Erie County will build Erie Net, a 360-mile network of high-speed fiber across the county.

This will allow internet service providers to build out the “final mile” to those who do not currently have such high-speed service.

It will greatly expand tele-health opportunities, support evolving educational models and other virtual services, as well as let all stream the latest shows at the fastest speeds.

One of the sites that ErieNet will connect will be our new Agri-business Park in Angola. Work is underway to transform the site from an abandoned airport to a modern business park to support our local agriculture community, thereby furthering our “ErieGrown” brand.

While the Pandemic certainly changed the convention and visitor industry, we know we can’t sit back and wait to see what the long-term effect of it is.

That’s why we are making strategic investments in the Buffalo-Niagara Convention Center to keep it technologically viable and visually attractive for today’s modern meetings, including renovating the lobby and the old 1970s era facade.

93 events are already booked for the Center in 2022 and more are expected to be announced once these improvements are completed.

Our commitment to the community will continue in other important areas as well.

Erie County will invest $3.8 million in federal housing funds to assist developers and non-profit agencies construct new affordable housing units.

Finding affordable housing is not just an issue in the city of Buffalo. I thank Congressman Brian Higgins for fighting for this important aid so we can bring more affordable housing countywide.

2021 is an important year because it is also Erie County’s bicentennial. Erie County turned 200 on April 2, and the #EC200 celebration is underway. I hope you will partake in what will be a fun year of virtual and in-person events.

Celebrating our bicentennial reminds us it is important to remember the past, including our most recent history.

Sadly, 1,801 of our county neighbors were taken by COVID-19. We must never forget they were parents, grandparents, siblings, and all too often, the children of our neighbors.

We must never forget them, nor the tremendous effort of our healthcare heroes to save thousands more who could have perished from this terrible disease.

We have endured great adversity, but we are overcoming it.

Inequity does exist, but together we are moving to eradicate it, and build a more inclusive tomorrow.

While we may struggle alone at times, we overcome our challenges together.

Thank you to everyone who has helped and given of themselves to make our community better, stronger, and healthier.

You are the reason we are overcoming the challenge of our times, and I am very thankful for your efforts.

May God bless you, our country and Erie County. 

Thank you and be safe and well.