When asked to name some highlights of his first term as county legislator, at a recent interview at the Walter Elwood Museum, Robert Purtell cited his involvement with construction projects on Midline Road and Miami Avenue.
“That was a drainage and road reconstruction project that was started before I got there and it was a mess,” said Purtell in regards to Midline Road. “The neighbors, the people living on Midline Road were up in arms. One of the first things I did was hold a meeting at the high school with [County Executive] Matt Ossenfort and [Department of Public Works Commissioner] Paul Clayburn, And we discussed the issues with the people and took notes, and corrected things that were going wrong there and then escalated the completion of the project.”
Purtell was appointed to the district 9 legislator’s position in October 2014 to replace Alexander Kuchis, who had won the position in the November 2013 election by approximately 40 votes. Purtell then ran unopposed in a special election in 2015 to finish the three-year term.
Asked what went well and what needed to be improved after the first three years of the new county government structure, Purtell replied, “I’m happy with the new form of government. As with any new project or organization, you have to work your way through things. One of the things we have to work our way through is financial management.”
Purtell said one of the challenges he faced when starting the position was getting a handle on the county’s financial situation and in the future would like to see concise, summarized reports available to all legislators before each meeting. Purtell said he has had plenty of experience with finances for the past 27 years with his real estate business, but added, “municipal finances are different than business finances.”
“We’re part time,” said Purtell. “I run a business. Fifteen minutes before a meeting, I’m out showing a house. I’d be more productive in my life if I showed up at the meeting and there was what I expected – here we are today, last month we were on budget, or we were off by 3%, or we were over budget on sales tax [for example]…where we are and where we need to go, so we can talk about it.”
Purtell said the legislature can take the initiative to establish a “process and a procedure” for the type of summary reports he envisions.
In regards to the county’s budget, Purtell said, “We need to stop relying on fund balance to balance the budget. Using fund balance is fine as long a you have the revenues to support it year by year.”
Purtell said he would like to see the legislature hold the county executive to a more conservative budget.
In regards to the budget approval process, he said, “I think that the legislature would be better to say, here’s what our target is, here’s what our assumptions are, it looks like we need to make up 1% [for example]. My recommendation is that everybody across the board reduce their budget by 1% [for example]. It’s fair and equitable. If [departments] aren’t able to because of constraints or mandates, then we can use fund balance. But if we plan from the beginning to use fund balance…it’s not a conservative approach.”
“We’re not experts in any one of those departments,” added Purtell. “Send the budget back to the executive saying we want a half a percent reduction [for example]. I don’t care how you do it. He’s the executive, he runs daily operations…he can better make those [cuts].”
As to the issue of salary increases, Purtell said, “Legislator salaries are never going to see an increase. It’s just not socially acceptable to vote for your own raise…even if it’s for the next [term].”
Regarding the executive’s salary, Purtell pointed out that there were at least two county positions with higher salaries.
“Would I support an increase for the county executive? Yes. Do I want to increase it to $110,000? No,” said Purtell.
When asked about the county’s economic development efforts, Purtell said the county is on the “right track.”
“We are attracting business,” said Purtell. “We are driving parts of the economy. Our unemployment is at 4.9% which is the lowest I’ve seen it in my lifetime. We’re at a point where we’re saturated as far as employees vs the need. Right now there is a need for more employees in the county.”
“Culture is often what attracts developers,” added Purtell.
He cited the Erie Canal Bike trail, The Mohawk Valley Gateway Overlook pedestrian bridge, and work on the waterfront and downtown areas in Canajoharie as examples of projects that he believes will help develop the culture of the region.
In addition to his real estate business, Century 21 Purtell Realty, Purtell has served on the Amsterdam Land Bank Advisory Committee, and as past president and board member of United Cerebral Palsy. He currently serves as board member at ARC Liberty and New Dimensions in Healthcare.
“The porridge is just right in Montgomery County for me,” said Purtell. “I’m comfortable here, I’m happy. I see a future, not just for myself but for the community. I like living here.”
Purtell will appear on the Democratic and Conservative lines for district 9, and will face challenger Tom Flanagan on the Republican and Independence lines.