Picente touts progress, eyes future growth
UTICA — Oneida County Executive Anthony J. Picente Jr. highlighted the county’s progress throughout the past 225 years, and outlined a plan for future growth during the 2023 State of the County address.
The address took place on Wednesday, April 5, at Munson in Utica, before hundreds of people in attendance, including State Sen. Joseph A. Griffo, Assemblywoman Marianne Buttenschon and the county Board of Legislators.
Picente began his speech by acknowledging 2023 is the county’s 225th anniversary, and mentioned just a few of the county’s hardships and accomplishments.
“From the Battle of Oriskany and the siege of Fort Stanwix, to the creation of the Erie Canal and the Industrial Revolution, to the Eastern Air Defense Sector’s actions during 9/11, this county has played a pivotal role in American history and we should all be proud of where we have been, where we are and where we will go for the next 225 years,” he said.
Picente said he often gets asked ahead of time if there’ll be any “shockers” in his annual speech.
“What I have always intended was to lead this community by being bold. By having vision. By standing for what I believe in, and for what will move us forward,” Picente said. “If that sometimes comes with a level of shock value, well, I’m okay with that.”
Among the accomplishments: Consolidating 911 services; eliminating four elected positions and creating a medical examiner system; fixing the county’s sewer issues; bringing the nation’s premier drone testing site to the county; bringing Wolfspeed and the world’s first and largest silicon carbide chip manufacturing plant to Marcy; settling historic land issues and becoming partners with the Oneida Indian Nation; and bringing the American Hockey League back to the Adirondack Bank Center at the Utica Memorial Auditorium.
In addition, Picente highlighted some of his administration’s achievements, which include steadily improving the county’s credit ratings, building the Innovare Advancement Center in Rome, creating a capital program to address flooding issues, creating an animal abuse registry, advancing the Opioid Task Force and more.
All of this has been done without increasing the property tax levy for the past 10 consecutive years.
Public safety/emergency services
Picente condemned decisions made by the state government without any input from local governments and agencies. He specially called out the bail reform law, and said that it must be changed immediately.
“There is no better example than public safety,” Picente said. “As we fight an opioid epidemic, combat homelessness, face a mental health crisis and protect our schools and neighborhoods, we are dealing with a bail reform law that simply doesn’t work. I’m not the only one saying it. Ask any DA (district attorney), sheriff or police chief. Ask anyone in probation or parole. It does not work.”
Gov. Kathy Hochul has acknowledged the backlash toward the law, and has included revisions in the state budget, which, as of April 5, has not yet been approved.
Picente said that in order to address issues like gun violence, the county will be installing security cameras at all county-owned or affiliated facilities, and on high-crime main streets in local communities.
The county will also create an inner-city outreach program to connect young adults with resources and opportunities offered by the county’s Workforce Development office.
The county is going to launch its Nurse Navigator Program soon, which will allow the 911 Center to transfer calls to a nurse if the call is a non-emergency. This will help reduce stress for emergency services.
Picente said the county is working to fight homelessness by working with community agencies.
“We know this problem is multi-faceted, and encompasses poverty, mental health, substance use disorder and other contributing factors,” he said. “We have seen some success. We have procedures in place for when the weather gets cold. We have processes and programs to get people the care they need.”
The Department of Family and Community Services (DFCS) helps place people who are facing housing insecurity in temporary housing and assists between 75 and 175 people per day, Picente said.
The county has also partnered with local groups like the Rescue Mission of Utica to create a drop-in center, and is working with ICAN to take care of outreach and case management.
The county will be expanding its HOMES initiative, which helps people who are experiencing homelessness or are at risk of becoming homeless.
“This is not just a Utica problem. It is a societal problem that spans municipal boundaries. And we have many,” Picente said.
Picente said the county is hoping to increase services offered in Rome, like by bringing a certified shelter and warming center to the area.
He also called out Hochul’s housing plan, which would mandate the construction of 800,000 homes over the next 10 years. Each municipality would be required to set housing goals, and the state would have the power to override local zoning ordinances. This proposal is included in the state budget.
The county will create a housing market inventory, assessment and strategic plan to determine housing supply and demand, and any housing market gaps, he said.
Picente committed to strengthening the county’s agricultural industry, by committing $50,000 to expand the 2018 Dairy Sustainability Action Plan by including all types of agriculture, with the help of leadership of the Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE).
“I know the hardships faced by our county dairy farmers,” he said. “They have constraints forced upon them unlike any other industry. They don’t set the price of their milk. They have very little room to negotiate and are left out of a market-based system while taking on many of the costs and risks associated with the selling of milk.”
In order to ease these hardships, the county will commission a study to determine the feasibility of opening more dairy processing plants in the county.
In addition, the county and its partners will create an emergency fund for dairy farmers, and to create a farm training program to match people who have disabilities with agricultural work.
Picente proposed a three-step plan to maintain growth in the semiconductor and electronics manufacturing industries in the county.
First, the county will formulate a work training incentive package that goes above and beyond the state’s for any company that chooses to invest in Oneida County.
Second, the county will work to ensure that any company that comes to the county will have access to the next round of CHIPS Act funding.
Third, the county will work with Randall VanWagoner, president of Mohawk Valley Community College, to create a one-year tuition stipend for studies related to the semiconductor industry.
“The goals are simple; you bring your semiconductor supply chain company here and you have a partner in Oneida County,” Picente said. “We will help you obtain the federal funding available, train your workers and educate new ones.”
Picente highlighted the Nexus Center and how it’s impacting the region. The county will be launching a visitor survey to gather data from people who visit the complex.
“Last week, Tallman’s Tires owner Tim Tallman called me to relay a casual conversation with recent visitors from California,” Picente said. “They told him they had come to Oneida County for a hockey tournament, they said they have traveled the country for youth hockey and that we had the best facility they had been to.”
Picente announced that the county will be holding a development challenge for potential developers to pitch their ideas, Shark Tank-style, and the county will provide funding for the projects.
The county is also creating an opportunity zone in the Bagg’s Square Improvement District that will provide property tax reductions and incentive packages to encourage business creation, Picente said.
Youth and children
Picente said the county is working to address the nationwide mental health crisis, which can be seen reflected in the Teen Assessment Project survey. In the survey, 37% of the junior and senior high school students surveyed reported that they felt so sad that they stopped participating in their usual activities, 25% reported they felt like they had no one to talk to, 22% reported that they engaged in self-harm and 13% reported that they have considered attempting suicide.
The county will work with school districts to recruit and hire more mental health professionals to work in schools, according to Picente.
“Our current mental health professionals, social workers and counselors are doing a great job, but they are simply overburdened,” Picente said. “We will also work together to determine what other actions we can take to improve mental health services for students in the short and long-term.”
Picente also announced that the county will expand its Childhood Hunger Initiative Power Pack (CHIPP) program, which provides free meals and snacks during weekends and breaks, for students enrolled at Watson Williams Elementary.
“No child should go hungry. No child should feel they have no one to talk to. And certainly, no child should feel they have to harm themselves or consider making a fatal decision,” Picente said. “Strengthening support systems for these children will create better opportunities in their lives and in this community long term. When that opportunity is not there, the outcomes are disastrous. Every child deserves a real chance to reach their potential.”
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