UTICA — Democratic Oneida County executive candidate Michael Hennessy has decided against filing a lawsuit over how objections to his nominating petitions to get on the ballot were handled, instead saying he wants to focus on issues and debate incumbent Anthony J. Picente Jr.
Hennessy told local news organizations Tuesday he is dropping a threatened civil lawsuit against the Board of Elections and announced several points aimed at reducing county spending and ultimately lowering sales and property taxes.
“The first third of September is over and we’ve only got about six to seven weeks of the campaign,” Hennessy said. “If I dwell on that I’m going to look negative, I’m going to be cast that way. I want to clear the air, make this easier for the voters of Oneida County. They are what is important to this community.”
Hennessy said Aug. 29 he was pursuing a lawsuit over how he was initially kept off the ballot. He had said he was wrongly told he could not be in the room when commissioners considered objections brought on behalf of Picente to signatures collected to get on the Democratic Party ballot line for this year’s election, only to learn later he could have been. He also objected to a sister of Picente who is a staff member of the elections board sitting in while the two commissioners considered whether to invalidate challenged signatures.
Commissioners upheld objections to enough signatures to keep him off the Democratic ballot line, but Hennessy ultimately prevailed after going to court. Last week a five-judge appellate panel upheld Oneida County Supreme Court Justice David Murad’s May ruling revalidating enough signatures to put Hennessy over the 750-vote threshold.
With no further appeal planned, Hennessy is assured of a place on the ballot. He is also endorsed by the county Libertarian Party and the Serve America Party against three-term incumbent Republican Picente, who is also backed by the local Conservative and Independence parties.
Hennessy released a list of five
financial goals: Reduce county spending by 2 percent, or about $8 million, over the next several years; reduce the county sales tax by half of a percentage point, to 8.25 percent, over four years; cut property taxes 8 percent over four years; divert $5 million of the approximately $20 million the county gets annually from a settlement between New York state and the Oneida Indian Nation from the nation’s gaming operations and spend it on infrastructure; and use $3 million from the same revenue source and improve what the county shares with impacted areas in western Oneida County and $2 for local fire departments in the county.
Hennessy announced four main ideas to cut spending:
• Reduce the number of budgeted vacant positions to 100. He said the extra money typically budgeted ends up being used for other purposes, and county legislators would get monthly variance reports.
• End county funding for Mohawk Valley Economic Development Growth Enterprises Corporation, saving about $250,000, according to Hennessy. Known as EDGE, the non-profit organization coordinates many development projects and provides staff and support for the Oneida County Industrial Development Agency and related boards. Instead, Hennessy would have economic development be handled in-house, and he would keep the position of county economic development coordinator, a job Picente filled last winter with a veteran of state government under Republican governors and more recently a private-sector consultant, at a salary of $92,758.
“I think someone has to be responsible for economic development,” Hennessy said.
• Seek a 3 percent reduction in spending across all county departments for 2020 except for the Sheriff’s Office and district attorney.
• Hire an internal auditor to improve efficiencies and root out fraud.
Hennessy, a former county legislator and financial advisor from Sherrill, said Picente has had three terms to reduce spending, and is presenting himself as someone with private sector experience in contrast to Picente, who worked in state government before becoming county executive.
“I’m an independent Democrat running to save the financial foundation of Oneida County,” Hennessy said.
In response, Picente said Hennessy is engaging in “rhetoric versus reality” because 90 percent of the county’s budget is mandated spending with little room for reductions without affecting programs. Picente said his budgets have managed discretionary spending without increasing the property tax levy.
“There are people behind programs, and by ‘people’ I mean the people we serve,” Picente told the Daily Sentinel. “That’s the office for the aging the 911 center, that’s the youth bureau, some areas of child advocacy ....”
Picente said his budgets have managed discretionary spending without increasing the property tax levy.
As for defunding EDGE, “It’s not a time to defund economic development efforts,” Picente said. “Economic development doesn’t just happen. You have to have a team in place. We’re not equipped to do that. That’s why EDGE has been our economic development arm to a great extent and again with the addition of my director here we need to enhance it, not break it down.”
And he termed the idea of an internal auditor “ridiculous” saying the county comptroller serves that function and is independently elected.