The county still wants the city’s economic development steering wheel


There were a few puzzling items in Montgomery County’s efficiency plan, which was submitted to NY State on June 1 and released to the public last week. One that stood out to me immediately was the inclusion of this entry on page 16:

Montgomery County will provide economic development services to the City of Amsterdam with a net annual savings of $40,000 to the city.

I first reached out to Mayor Ann Thane, but she did not know what entry was about. Next I reached out to Communications Specialist Andy Santillo at the county, who sent out the press release about the efficiency plan’s completion, and asked him for additional details. Santillo said he consulted with the county’s economic development department and sent me this response:

At the time that the local government efficiency plan was being submitted, it appeared that the City of Amsterdam was about to eliminate its economic development position. The understanding is that the circumstances have changed as the charter requires that the position be filled. As such, the point may be moot for the short-term anyway. The savings calculation assumed that [Montgomery County Business Development Center] would staff the position on a part-time basis and would have been likely closer to $30,000, after fully factoring in county costs of delivering the services and adjusting for benefits.

The county’s plan was officially submitted to New York State on June 1. Santillo’s response references the issue that came up last month during the city’s budget process. The four Republican members of the Common Council came to a non-binding, but on-record consensus at a committee meeting May 20 that they would reduce the salary for the Community and Economic Development Director to zero, effectively eliminating the position. Both Alderwoman Diane Hatzenbuhler and Alderman Ron Barone argued that the position was a duplication of services already provided by the Amsterdam Industrial Development Agency and the MCBDC. The council decided not to go forward with the cut just before they officially voted on the budget on May 29.

I reached out to MCBDC CEO Ken Rose directly to better understand why the item still found its way onto the plan. I didn’t get a response from Rose, but instead I got a call from County Executive Matt Ossenfort.

Ossenfort was forthright with his position. He said he would respect whatever decision the city makes as far as the CEDD position, but believes that economic development for the city would be better served at the county level and had requested the entry be put in the plan. Ossenfort also contradicted Santillo’s statement and said he was confident that the current county staff could handle the additional responsibilities without any new hires.

The executive rarely weighs in on city issues. The last time he did so was earlier in the year when he addressed the issue of the Concordia senior living development. So I think the fact that he is taking a stance on this reflects the priority he is giving the matter.

So while I appreciate Ossenfort’s clear position on the subject, I flat-out disagree with it and here’s why.

First, it’s a matter of principle. The city has unique assets, strengths, culture, problems and needs that set it apart from other localities in the county. To think that an administrative staff that has to answer to the entire region could devote the same level of attention and focus to the City of Amsterdam’s issues seems far-fetched to me. Additionally, the county will have to be very careful to remain neutral in cases where the city and surrounding towns or villages may compete for developers. It’s a free market out there and last I checked, competition is still the key to winning the game. It’s in those cases that I want someone who will unabashedly go to bat for the city.

Secondly, I have yet to hear any comprehensive plan or specific vision from the county on issues that pertain directly to the city such as waterfront development, downtown, or the two Brownfield Opportunity Area projects currently in progress in the city. Rather, the county seems focused on the larger, regional projects, such as the various industrial parks. If the county wants to take the wheel for the city, shouldn’t they at least tell us where they want to drive us? Until the county starts painting a clear picture of what they see for the future of our downtown and waterfront areas, I’m skeptical that these issues will be priorities for them. In my opinion, both the county and the city council were far too hasty in coming to the conclusion that the CEDD could be eliminated.

Third, it’s starting to become clear that given the city’s size and complexity, that sharing resources with the county isn’t always the most efficient way to go. One case in point is the city’s accounting system, which transitioned from the county to the city in 2011. No doubt the transition was rocky, but according to the county’s efficiency plan, the switch is projected to save the city $60,000 per year in the long run. This past year, based on the recommendation of the county’s information technology department, the city also switched to a private IT provider for software and hardware upgrades and support rather than to continue to rely on the county for those services. Due to increasing demands for support from the city, the move is projected to save about $16,000 per year for the city long-term over the alternative plan for the county department to add an additional part-time staff position.

I’m not saying that the county isn’t genuinely interested in helping the city. The MCBDC has had a hand in the Concordia senior living development and with the plans to rehabilitate the downtown hotel, both of which are great for the city. The county also handles larger regional projects that utilize the city’s sewer and water infrastructure. It’s for that reason I believe we should be concentrating on better coordination with the county, rather than ceding control. We should have an understanding as to what projects the city might be better suited to handle, and what projects would best be served by the county.

I believe the city has the potential to become a cultural and economic leader in the region, much like Schenectady, Albany or Saratoga Springs define their county, rather than the other way around. I wish more residents could see that potential rather than buying into the sad and myopic idea that Amsterdam is a failed city that is on its way out. I believe our most complained about problems – blight, poverty, crime, etc, are symptoms – not the root cause of – the lack of economic development in our city. Given its intrinsic importance to the city, we should be increasing our investment in economic development, not reducing it. We should be concentrating on, rather than diluting our focus on capitalizing on the unique assets of the city.

Certainly, the city and county can drive together along the road to regional success. But that doesn’t mean we need to hand over the steering wheel.

Tim Becker

Tim Becker is the owner of Anthem Websites Inc. which publishes The Compass. He serves as both editor and a writer.