Editor's Note: This is the complete text of Chairwoman Harriet Cornell's 2013 address to the Rockland County Legislature.
Harriet Cornell, Chairwoman
Annual Address to the Legislature
January 3, 2013
To my legislative colleagues, thank you for your continued trust in my leadership. We have literally had to face storms of historic proportions—some natural and some man-made—and I am honored to stand with each of you in service to the people of Rockland County.
Thank you, Michael, for your kind words of nomination; and Toney for your second. Thank you President Wood for being here. I take such pride in RCC and the wonderful education it provides our community. And Frances Pratt: thank you for your leadership and friendship—and your amazing hats!
To the entire legislative staff, thank you for your long hours and behind-the-scenes service and support to legislators and the public.
To Scott Vanderhoef, I look forward to working with you this year—a year you have announced as your last—to ensure strong, sustainable services, and a better understanding by the public of the unique work of county government.
I am delighted to welcome dignitaries . . .
I want to extend my heartfelt wishes to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for a speedy and complete recovery. How honored I was in 2005 when she flew from Washington to be here the first time I was sworn in as Chairwoman. She is an extraordinary public servant and I am privileged to call her my friend.
And finally, to my beloved family. Keith, Carrie, Robin, Skyler, Valerie, Kendall, Alison and Arthur: Ten years ago, in December of 2002, my husband Martin died. My family helped me persevere and continue this work I love. Thank you, my dears.
We are shaped in large part by our families, by the people who raised us, nurtured us and set us off on our journey through life. But we are also shaped by those who made it their life’s mission to influence and enhance the lives of children . . . teachers. Who among us does not remember the special teachers who sparked our imaginations through books, taught us how to diagram a sentence or gave us the confidence necessary to succeed at whatever task was at hand?
For most of us, the tragedy in Newtown last month reminded us how much we owe to the teachers we have known—and those we know now, such as the teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School who heard gunshots and quickly put her second-graders—and two third-graders she pulled in from the hallway—behind a walled-in area of the classroom. She told them all to be very, very quiet; and read stories and sang to them. One child said, "Teacher, why are your legs shaking?"
This teacher saved those children despite her terror and was able to tell the tale. Others died while trying to protect the students in their care.
Here in Rockland three and a half years ago, Dr. Ken Mitchell, a teacher and Superintendent of South Orangetown Schools, thought only of the safety of his staff and students when he tackled a gun-wielding man.
Ken, a leader on school education and financing issues, has joined with 77 other school superintendents in the Hudson region to call for tougher gun-control laws and increased government funding for mental health services. I have been in touch with him and with Dr. Mary Jean Marsico, District Superintendent of Rockland BOCES, offering my support for these goals and for the re-establishment of School Resource Officers, police officers who worked so well in building relationships with students and preventing problems before they ignite—in the schools and in the towns. I have also been in touch with Congresswoman Lowey to see if grants may be available to fund these positions again.
Nothing I have done has meant more to me than my work with schools on behalf of children and families. County, town, and village officials must work closely with schools to ensure their safety.
We never know what crises and challenges lie ahead. We never know what we are capable of until we are faced with these tests of character.
It takes a special kind of character to decide to devote your life to the education, health, and safety of children. It takes that same altruistic trait to choose to become a first responder, a person who cares for the infirm, a probation officer who helps people turn their lives around, or someone who provides compassionate assistance to the indigent.
Such character traits abound in county personnel. Every agency offers courteous, meaningful assistance to residents every day. And all of the services represent cost avoidance: the much greater costs to society and taxpayers in dollars and human capital when these obligations are not fulfilled.
I’ve heard people say, “I don’t use government services.” Not true! Government workers protect your children from online predators and bring evil-doers to justice. They inspect food establishments so you don’t get food-borne illnesses. They work with older people to teach ways to prevent falls that can lead to a helpless life rather than an active, independent one. They work to ensure that veterans get the benefits to which they are entitled. They ensure that buses run on time. They issue licenses and keep records. They ensure fair elections, give civil service tests, maintain county property and beautiful parks.
Our nurses, health educators, technicians go into the community, the schools, the senior centers, the wetlands to prevent mosquito-borne illness, sexually-transmitted diseases, polluted water, the deadly consequences of tobacco, and epidemics of childhood obesity leading to diabetes, the 7th leading cause of death in the nation.
The District Attorney’s Special Victims Unit supports victims of domestic violence, elder abuse, sex crimes, and crimes against children as they move through the complicated legal system.
The Sheriff’s Department runs the jail and coordinates the Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) and the Intelligence Unit, enabling effective prosecutions of criminals.
The Office of the Aging offers Respite services for family caregivers and financial counseling.
And residents of our Nursing Home come here in wheelchairs to bear witness to the excellent care and devoted staff.
The Department of Mental Health offers early identification of childhood emotional disturbances and creates care plans that involve the engagement of the entire family
The impact of Superstorm Sandy on the County was devastating. But the preparations made by Fire & Emergency Services and their swift coordinated actions with police and fire services and County Highway Department spared our residents even greater hardship and loss.
During these recessionary years, many families have needed help for the first time in their lives. The Department of Social Services has provided sensitive and swift assistance.
The work of county planners underlies everything we do, based on demographics, mapping techniques and appropriate land use.
And our Youth Bureau focuses on teen-age development and runs AmeriCorps programs and Project Turning Point, an emergency shelter for runaway and homeless youth, many of whom have suffered abuse.
The Healthy Moms, Healthy Babies program saves the county hundreds of thousands of dollars in the costs of care for babies who might otherwise have been born with significant medical issues. Dr. Joan Facelle has been the inspirational leader of a department which is the pride of Rockland . . . We will miss Joan, who is exchanging the care of all our residents to the care of one newborn grandchild.
There is a reason why these and so many others-- are called “servants,” public servants.
To our county workers: You work long hours with little recognition. You keep our residents safe in time of greatest need and support them year-round. In my estimation, that makes you heroes. Thank you.
Now in 2013, we will continue to tackle many challenges. The economic recovery has been painfully slow, and we have already taken a series of major steps to control costs and enhance revenues.
I am determined to eliminate the deficit which is an albatross around our necks. We have a well thought-out, well-developed plan—thanks to my colleagues led by Legislators Schoenberger and Grant, and the pro bono deficit reduction team I put together. It was passed by the Assembly in 2012 but the State Senate did not act to help us. We will again seek home rule authority to bond and eliminate the deficit. Assemblywoman Jaffee has already told me she will sponsor it.
But even with financial difficulties, county government must never waiver with regard to our legal and moral responsibilities to care for the most vulnerable: children, the growing elderly population, the physically and mentally challenged, and the poor among us.
We have a wonderful partnership with private, not-for-profit agencies that bolster the important work the county does. They are not under the same restrictions as government and deliver specialized services at a lower cost. The economic impact of these agencies that deliver health and social services, enrich the arts and cultural landscape, and protect the environment was more than $1 billion in one year alone. They too are under financial stress and we should help to strengthen them.
The work of government is not to produce goods and turn a profit; it is to produce services for the public in a cost-effective way. It is labor intensive. Virtually every elected official and every economic pundit in this country has talked about job creation as the key to economic growth. So I ask you, why are public sector jobs not as vital for the economy as private sector ones?
When a public sector worker is laid off, the impact on personal lives as well as on the economy is the same as if that person worked in the auto industry or for a small business. Without a job, you can’t pay your bills or mortgage payments. Without money, you can’t buy the goods and services that support the economy. Ronald Reagan—not someone I often quote—said “Recession is when a neighbor loses his job. Depression is when you lose yours.”
I am proud that a majority of the Legislature refused to lay off 70 more people as the County Executive’s budget required. We had already taken the workforce to the bone through attrition, layoffs and early retirements. We have 530 fewer positions than 30 years ago. We honored the union contracts that promised no layoffs for budgetary reasons—and overrode the Executive’s veto to continue necessary services with experienced personnel, to avoid costly lawsuits and the likelihood of greater costs.
When the State would not support our first proposal for a 3/8% sales tax increase to provide revenue for 2012 and thereafter go into a bank lockbox to pay off the deficit, the county was forced to take painful measures including chargebacks to the towns which led to strained relationships. I am determined to work collaboratively with towns and villages to present a united front as we seek state authority for a deficit bond this year.
While it is the Executive Branch that has the constitutional authority to manage the workings of government departments, I am directing each legislative committee chair to plan a review of every facet of operation in every department and to make recommendations by mid-year. This review will explore costs and revenue streams and whether there can be further consolidations of services across departments or with the municipalities. I ask the County Executive’s office to join with us and share the studies they have done so that we can benefit from any analyses already developed.
One area of concern is to ensure the speed and sufficiency of the county’s billing operations. This may be a perfect task to pursue for the Joint Legislative-Executive Task Force on Fiscal Improvement, co-chaired by Legislator Alden Wolfe and Deputy County Executive Sean Mathews. And this is a good place for me to thank Sean and Commissioner DeGroat for the assistance they and staff give the Legislature regularly.
We will immediately focus on the future of the Summit Park hospital and nursing home. The County Executive has recommended creation of a Local Development Corporation (LDC) for the sole purpose of a sale of the nursing home. I continue to have serious reservations and concerns in regard to this complex proposal.
We still don’t know exactly what is being proposed to be sold—and whether a sale would simply transfer millions of dollars in county costs to other departments. And we don’t know whether a privately run nursing home would leave out the sickest and those unable to pay.
We must not lose sight of the very valuable LTAC beds we have at Summit Park, which no other facility outside of New York City has—and which could be the key to a successful operation for us. And the very valuable Certificate of Need we possess to construct a smaller, more modern facility, 90% state funded. I plan to commence meetings of the whole Legislature with consultants who performed a high level operational assessment and pin down the facts so we can make a reasoned decision as quickly as possible.
Whatever our decision, it must be expedited. County government and the community have been in limbo since the County Executive first proposed a Public Benefit Corporation in 2010.
Another priority for 2013 is to draft a water conservation plan -- a key component of the Rockland County Comprehensive Plan.
This past year, Health Department Hydrologist Dr. Dan Miller and our Environmental Committee commissioned Dr. Stuart Braman and students of the Columbia University Sustainable Development Workshop to identify viable, long-term solutions to the County’s potential water shortage problems. The students explored the issues and searched the country for similar communities that have found practical remedies. Based on their study, the students recommend that new ordinances, while likely appropriate, must be tied to education and incentive programs that will lead to voluntary citizen engagement.
As proven by our recycling experience, some of our best water conservation ambassadors will be children. Many school educators will choose to include lessons about the impact of droughts and commitment to responsible water usage.
Our Environmental Committee will explore creation of odd-even day watering ordinances, even in times of abundance. This would conserve water in the long run and leave us well-prepared when short-term crises occur.
Water conservation is in the vital interest of every resident and business in the county. It should be given a serious chance—along with other recommendations already sent to the DEC-- before moving ahead with building costly and controversial infrastructure on the Hudson River.
We are very grateful to the Columbia students for their insightful work, and we will be considering their ideas in the days ahead.
As State Comptroller DiNapoli said this week, local governments all over the state are struggling with growing costs and declining or static revenues. This is not a surprise since NYSAC has warned for years about the burden of unfunded mandates and rising pension costs.
Governor Cuomo’s initiative in capping the growth in the local share of Medicaid is an excellent beginning to what I hope will be an accelerated process leading to the state’s assumption of these costs. The Governor’s Medicaid Redesign Team supported removing counties from financing this program—and what a difference that would make in our ability to fund our other responsibilities. Why should New York be one of only two states in the nation where counties are required to pay for half its Medicaid costs?
These mandated programs for healthcare and early intervention for children are vital, and I am proud of the role counties play in delivery of services, but the burden on local budgets is devastating. I ask that 2013 be the year when the state makes meaningful changes to address the burden of mandated costs and sluggish reimbursements.
Governor Cuomo has made a new Tappan Zee Bridge a top priority for both infrastructure improvement and job creation. I am extremely pleased to be serving on his new Regional Mass Transit Task Force. This represents an opportunity to explore ways in which Rockland County can address its long-term dependence on the automobile and the inadequacy of its public transit choices.
I want to end my remarks by talking about our future: children.
If children are our future—and of course they are—then we must ensure they grow to be productive members of society and capable of becoming the educated workforce of a global economy. This means we must understand that 75% of brain growth and 85% of intellect, personality and social skills develop before age 5. And this will not happen if we do not have children who are well nourished, with quality early childhood care, and parents who are guided in ways to be supportive.
In 1995, I played a role in founding a family-school-community-government collaborative, Rockland 21C. Its mission continues to be the optimal development of every child through a comprehensive support system, the recognition that every adult is responsible for every child and the dedication of community resources to our common aspirations. Family Resource Centers now exist in 40 schools throughout Rockland, and literacy-based home visiting programs for two and three-year olds have enabled low income families to send their children to school ready to learn, at the same level as their more affluent peers. 21C is considered a national suburban model of community schools—and I am extremely happy that recommendations I gave to the Governor’s Education Reform Commission have been included in their Report.
Thanks to research and proven programs we know how to ensure healthy development. But children can’t wait while government leaders argue over funding priorities. They keep growing! We know the importance of quality early childhood programs, of vocabulary development, of after-school programs, of education in the arts and music. These are not frills—they are facts.
We know that children learn better when they are not hungry. We know that after-school programs help increase grades, improve behavior and prevent youth violence. In fact our DA and police are part of a statewide effort, Fight Crime, Invest in Kids.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said “research increasingly has shown the benefits of early childhood education . . . to provide the lifelong acquisition of skills for both individuals and the economy as a whole. The payoffs …are especially high.”
Think of it: the ability to compete in the global economy depends upon the earliest education and support to infants and children. This is surely an investment in economic development. We can pay now to produce an educated citizenry—or we pay later for jails and anti-social behavior.
The work that we do to support children is real. Issues debated in this chamber have a direct impact on their lives. Each and every day, I wonder if we have done enough. Do our children have the support they need to learn and to grow? Are they able to see the blackboards and hear their teachers? Will they get enough exercise and eat healthy foods? Will the schools and local agencies have the resources to provide enrichment and after-school activities?
I’m the daughter of an accountant, and while I always seek annual balanced budgets, my bottom line is longer term--about developing human capital, and giving people the tools to discover the cure for cancer and to invent the next great thing. It does take a village, and county government is a big part of that village.
As Nelson Mandela said:
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
I wish for all of us, a caring and successful 2013. Thank you.