COLUMN: Sharing sales tax will only address part of the problem

Every little bit helps.

Creating a “Sales Tax Sharing Committee” in Seneca County to explore the feasibility, interest, and methods of execution was a logical first step. There were many questions, and many questions still remain today.

After the most recent meeting of that committee, the go ahead was given to move the issue to Government Operations, another standing committee within the Board of Supervisors, who could eventually push the issue of sales tax sharing to a full-board vote.

This isn’t a groundbreaking idea, though. The act of sharing sales tax dollars from the county down to individual municipalities is commonplace. It happens in almost every other county in New York state.

I like the principle behind sales tax sharing. It offers assistance to municipalities, especially small or unique ones that have extenuating circumstances.

Take Junius for example: It’s an incredibly small municipality, but one that generates a significant portion of that sales tax.

Another example: Several small municipalities at the southern end of the county could greatly benefit from any amount of money pushed into their local budget.

It all comes down to taxing. Having greater revenues — or at the very least, an additional revenue stream — helps keep local taxes down.

While no precise plan has been put forward, the broad strokes look something like this:

Seneca County would share a certain percentage (say, 50 percent) of additional sales tax revenue over the current, or expected average for sales tax revenue. If the county typically sees $23 million in sales tax revenue, and in 2018 it drives in $28 million, half of that additional $5 million would be divvied up and sent out to all villages and towns.

This discussion of growing sales tax revenue stems from the opening of the del Lago Resort & Casino in Tyre, which will bring greater traffic and more spending to the county.

While supervisors and mayors around Seneca County seemed to be mixed on how they’d like to see that money split up — whether it be by population, assessed value, or a simple, even split between all — there seems to be mild interest in the subject right now.

Ultimately, it will be a decision for the supervisors. Mayors throughout the county have skin in the game, but they won’t get a vote on the matter, which brings us back to one potential roadblock for this very idealistic plan.

For sales tax sharing to work, it seems that it would require two things to happen:

First, sales tax revenue has to increase. It seems like a forgone conclusion that it will increase to some degree. However, it isn’t entirely clear by how much. Most of those involved seem to just want the mechanism in place; even if it doesn’t yield a huge return in year one, or two, which is a positive sign.

In my estimation though, there is a second requirement to make this system work. Costs and expenses have to be shrinking at the county level. You can have an increase in revenue, but if there also is an increase in expense — whether it be because of a need for greater services in a growing economy or due to growing state mandated expenses — a seesaw effect will be created.

In other words, it comes down to this argument over who is more deserving of spending the money: If a town or village tax goes down, and the county tax is increased, how much is actually gained from the system?

There has to be a better way of addressing the problems that arise at the hyper-local level. Villages and towns are left to fend for themselves, while the county remains the primary beneficiary of sales tax revenue, which is driven by economic development and growth. Small municipalities around the county are stressed by development and growth, which has to be approached with the same big picture mentality that attracts that growth in the first place.

If the county had fewer mandates for which to budget, imagine the benefit that larger entity could be to municipalities within it. Infrastructure — such as water and sewer upgrades, services like fire and EMS and so many more — could all be part of a large, big picture solution that could help every taxpayer across the board.

This column originally appeared in the Finger Lakes Times. Read all of Josh’s columns from the Finger Lakes Times here.

COLUMN: Depot land “sale” deal stirs the pot in Seneca Co.

The former Seneca Army Depot property will be leased for a year, or two.

Late in December, municipalities hold meetings to wrap up the year’s activity, pay bills and take care of any outstanding issues that remain on the table. One practice that should be made regular is taking stock of the year. It should mean looking at everything that has happened, owning the decisions that have been made, and looking at ways the following year can be better.

Using the Seneca County Industrial Development Agency as a case study with its handling of the former Seneca Army Depot — all of those aforementioned board behaviors could have made next year a whole lot more certain.

The IDA voted nearly unanimously to lease the roughly 7,000 acres to bid process winner Earl Martin. The only problem was that the bid process was executed to find a buyer, not a renter.

Let’s not forget: When the Seneca County Board of Supervisors decided that they did not want the county taking on responsibility of the property, as was proposed by a few from the board, the overwhelming consensus was that they desired two things out of a deal.

1) A buyer should be found so that the property can go back on the tax roll.

2) The county should not get into the business of being landlords.

I realize some will argue that the IDA is, technically, the leasing body. However, the Seneca County IDA serves at the pleasure of the Board of Supervisors. That body holds the power to add individuals to the IDA at their discretion, and they appoint a representative from the elected board to sit on the IDA each year.

Over the weekend, the Auburn Citizen reported that the lease agreement was causing a stir among some of those bidders who weren’t selected. Additionally, there is disappointment among those represented in Seneca County who feel like the process was for naught.

That process was carried out behind closed doors. The bidders were not publicized until after one had been selected — and, throughout the entire process, that move was billed as a way to ensure the integrity of the process.

That integrity though certainly seems to be called into question by the decision of the IDA to bypass a sale, and go with a “lease” while the winner works on getting the tax assessment sorted out.

There are more questions about the process, result and actual plan Martin devised than has been publicized. The lease deal works out perfectly for the IDA, since they will be the chief beneficiary of the $900,000 price tag.

Taxpayers will not see a new, large property be added to the tax roll. Businesses and residents won’t see any more certainty in Romulus due to this lease. In fact, it gives all parties involved an option for an “easy out” if things don’t go according to plan. The IDA will get paid no matter what, Martin would only lose the money he paid up front, and everything else would effectively be reset.

Perhaps most important, the process seems to have removed accountability and placed the burden back on the taxpayer. Legally speaking, it’s a complicated item to discuss — the viability and success of an industrial development agency. However, the decisions they make have an impact on a lot of people.

In that Citizen story, Bob Aronson said that “not enough bids for bits and pieces” came in to the IDA to facilitate a complete deal. In saying that, the IDA is acknowledging that they didn’t want to get into the business of being “property developer” or “landlord.”

The statements and actions of the IDA run counter to their so-called mission. Frankly, they even run counter to the things they’ve said in the past. What Seneca County has been left with is a mixed bag of confusion, uncertainty and questions.

In Seneca County, it’s time for elected officials, appointed representatives, and residents alike to take stock and look forward for better solutions.

This column originally appeared in the Finger Lakes Times. Read all of Josh’s columns from the Finger Lakes Times here.

COLUMN: Skepticism is good for progress in the FLX

Economic development is possible in Seneca Falls.

I wanted to lead this column with that statement.

Parts of rural, Upstate New York have struggled for several decades, as jobs — particularly those in manufacturing — exited the state and country in search of less-expensive places to do business. Our problems are undeniably tied to a state that historically has chosen more government as a solution instead of letting solutions occur naturally.

Taxes have risen, businesses have left, and well, this isn’t news to anyone reading today’s edition of the Finger Lakes Times.

The decision by Seneca Falls to fund a development corporation that will be tasked with advertising and selling this expensive place to do business speaks to how deeply people want to see economic growth.

Born out of necessity, like an Industrial Development Agency, local development corporations sell a difficult-to-market business landscape. There’s no shortage of opportunity, but without the state changing how it does business and without having a team of people dedicated to the cause, selling these rural communities, and bringing businesses back through a variety of means, the development that is so desperately needed cannot happen.

Listening to those who are skeptical of development corporations like the SFDC offers an intriguing insight into the socioeconomic battle taking place in rural communities.

Several people rolled their eyes when they heard the news that the SFDC had “revamped” its marketing with a new slogan and logo.

A particular part of the SFDC’s new message received mixed reviews — the concept of branding and reaching beyond our current borders.

For some, it’s the concept of appealing to people and businesses outside their own immediate circle that’s worthy of an eyeroll. Many of those same people laughed at the idea of Seneca Falls, the birthplace of Women’s Rights, having even regional appeal.

Skepticism is an important part of any political process. It ensures that the ideas and policies being drafted can stand the test. The line between skepticism and cynicism, though, is razor thin.

Skepticism is constructive. Cynicism is destructive and oftentimes contradicting.

Being skeptical of a development corporation tasked with an incredibly difficult mission is one thing. Being skeptical of individual plans carried out by the organization is understandable. When it ultimately has an impact on the entire community — and even those surrounding it — the stakes necessitate a level of skepticism.

Cynicism is what I see out of some people who scoff at the prospect of growth in a place such as Seneca Falls. Their own cynicism for what the area has become over the last several decades has clouded their vision for what this community — and others like it — could ultimately morph into with the proper leadership.

Using the SFDC as an example, it seems incredibly cynical to argue “Who’s gonna wanna come here?!” — as many have over the last several years — while simultaneously saying, “We need [insert name of person/group here] to get out of the way so people and businesses will come!”

The irony is that these two sentiments are often spoken in a flurry together, as people and elected officials scramble to solve our economic and business development issues. The first question implies that no one wants to come to start a business while the second implies that businesses are lining up to come, if only it weren’t for those pesky political and community leaders getting in the way.

Both of those issues are very real things in small communities where nostalgia dominates. People look back at the days when manufacturing was king and all that was needed were a high school diploma and a good work ethic for a 30-40 year career at any dozen businesses in or around Seneca Falls.

That isn’t the case any more, but it’s equal parts unrealistic and misguided to expect a return to some past norm. “Our history. Your future,” the slogan reads proudly. The new plan includes innovation, change, and aggressive marketing. It encompasses old and new ideas — driving growth in the process and provides college graduates, as well as those just entering the work force. A diverse economy that doesn’t just rely on one industry, like in the past.

It’s the introduction of a new era for Seneca Falls: Skeptics welcomed and cynics — hopefully — converted into informed participants in a local economy that did them wrong in years past.

This column originally appeared in the Finger Lakes Times. Read all of Josh’s columns from the Finger Lakes Times here.

COLUMN: Local news needs engagement moving forward

Many were quick to call it an “upset” when Donald Trump won the presidency on Nov. 8. They were equally quick to point out how the national media failed to get it right, or as some point out, recognize the momentum Trump had built leading into Election Day.

These are the two subjects that have been whirling around since Donald Trump, the candidate, became Donald Trump, the President-elect. News networks have been trying to figure out where they went wrong. Meanwhile, over 48 million voters (a majority, in fact) were left saying, “How did this happen?”

In my mind, addressing those two points is easy because they’re connected.

While nothing is ever as open-and-shut as it may seem, the national media played a serious role in lulling Democrats into a false sense of security. As a result, Republicans — particularly a segment of the party that hadn’t been activated effectively in decades — turned out in force on Nov. 8.

The second part involves the media and its role and is a little more complicated. The core of the media’s failure to recognize what was coming with a Donald Trump campaign draws back to the data the organizations were relying on to make their projections prior to Election Day.

Forget about the process or who is being called when pollsters phone those “expected voters.” When you’re relying on data without human support, it can be very, very wrong. It wasn’t horribly wrong, though. Ultimately, if we use the “polls” as our measuring stick, the data was off only by a point or two.

Data doesn’t replace people. Newsrooms are not what they were 20 or 40 years ago, and as result, people in the media are left relying on data more heavily each day. While there are news organizations out there — such as the Finger Lakes Times — doing well for themselves and maintaining their operation without shrinking their newsroom by the day, that cannot be said across the board.

Make no mistake: News organizations that were thriving a couple of decades ago, those that were not broadcast organizations but local, print organizations, are trying every day to adapt to a new world.

Once upon a time, dedicated readers of this paper know that it was called the Geneva Times, a true reflection of what was once hyper-local, Geneva-only print news at its best. It was a different world, though, and now, the Finger Lakes Times is accomplishing the same mission on a regional scale. In fact, back 40 or 50 years there were daily and weekly newspapers for many of the communities served today by the FLT.

In simple terms: The game has changed.

Ease of access to information has made what newspapers do challenging. They adapt, and for those who still thrive, do an excellent job of making it happen. That said, these organizations are often left trying to do more with less.

That’s how this election was gotten so “wrong.” In the ecosystem of news, organizations of all shapes and sizes are required to make the whole system work. Information has to be available in all forms — whether that’s in print, online, or on social media platforms.

People have become passive consumers of information. There was a day when sitting down to read the morning paper was part of the culture, as much as it was part of a daily routine. An unfortunate reality is that people who aggressively consume information in the form of news are members of a dwindling crowd.

As local news organizations have failed to adapt or survive, it’s fed the above trend. As a result, people become less and less engaged, to a point where they rely on the same big data that was relied on by major news outlets throughout this presidential cycle.

The news ecosystem has been damaged by the disappearance of local, intensely scrutinized reporting, the boots on the ground, if you will, digging into important, relevant, and timely stories.

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Local news relies on people being engaged. Dialing up a national news organization, or worse yet, acquiring news through a source such as Facebook, exacerbates these problems, potentially jeopardizing the existence of local news.

This column originally appeared in the Finger Lakes Times. Read all of Josh’s columns from the Finger Lakes Times here.