Oneida County legislators hot over Climate Smart pledge

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UTICA — Oneida County will now be known as a Climate Smart Community, but becoming one came with some spirited debate among some county legislators over the sincerity and principle of the pledge it required.

The Board of Legislators voted Wednesday, Aug. 14 to adopt the New York State Climate Smart Communities pledge, a 10-point promise to promote action against climate change.

It’s a program run by six state agencies, and joining it can help counties and other local governments compete more favorably for certain state grants.

The vote at the full board’s main August regular meeting was uneventful with a simple roll-call vote.

But at the meeting earlier in the day of the board’s Ways and Means Committee, the adopting resolution led to intense debate after objections were raised by majority leader George Joseph, R-10, Kirkland, Rome and Westmoreland, who was joined by Richard Flisnik, R-8 of Marcy, Floyd and Whitestown, and Keith Schiebel, R-1 of Vernon, Verona and Sherrill.

The three later voted against the pledge both in the committee and at the full board meeting. The whole board voted 18-3 on the resolution, with two legislators absent.

Joseph said the pledge is mostly innocuous verbiage but said it could put restrictions on the county.

“I would much rather see them prove it by funding other things like stormwater management,” he said at the committee meeting. “There’s no doubt we’re experiencing more climatic change because of the severity of the storms. Let them show their good faith.”

In response, Kristin Campbell, principal planner with the county Department of Planning, said the pledge allows flexibility in how communities meet the goals, and the county is already doing so in many cases.

She said joining helps communities gain points on their state grant applications. When she recently made an application for a $350,000 grant, she could add no points while a top-level Climate Smart status would have added four points, she said. 

Flisnik termed the program “a feel-good pledge by Albany politicians,” and singled-out an element exhorting communities to “inform and inspire the public” as “malarkey.” Schiebel, often an advocate for agricultural interests, said the pledge seems to be another source of rules that can hurt the industry.

Ways and Means Chairman James D’Onofrio of New Hartford defended the pledge. Local governments have to put up with a lot from state government but do it if it’s in the community’s interest, and given the potential help with grants, this qualifies, he insisted. “All of a sudden we get principled over something like this, which quite honestly is going to really hurt us from a funding standpoint, and really there’s nothing to it,” he said.

Legislator Ed Welch of Utica said he has doubts that climate change is all bad but said making the pledge is pragmatic.

“Truth is, if we grow oranges here, what’s wrong with global warming? … The bottom line is we ought to be pragmatists here. Job one here is to take the money when it’s available because the state certainly picks our pockets ….”

The 10 elements of the Climate Smart Communities Pledge:

Pledge to be a Climate Smart Community

Set goals inventory emissions, plan for climate action

Decrease community energy use

Increase community use of renewable energy

Realize benefits of recycling and other climate-smart solid waste management practices

Reduce greenhouse gas emissions through use of climate-smart land-use tools

Enhance community resilience and prepare for the effects of climate change

Support development of a green innovation economy

Inform and inspire the public

Commit to an evolving process of climate action

In other matters, legislators approved adding $325,000 to the project expanding and updating the Rome Family Court building at 301 W. Dominick St. Legislators had added $275,000 in December to a project budgeted for $5 million.

The county was ordered by the state courts administration agency to add another family court judge in Rome, but the project has experienced delays blamed on having to work at night so the building can be used during the day and on an elevator contractor. A mathematical error was made in calculating the earlier cost increase, and county staff also anticipate having to pay contractors more under increased employee wage rates. The building is also home to certain other branch county offices, including the Department of Motor Vehicles.

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