Montgomery County Executive Matt Ossenfort delivered his annual State of the County address today, but it wasn’t the speech he was planning to give even earlier this week.
A lot has changed since Ossenfort began working on his sixth State of the County earlier this year. With the spread of the novel coronavirus and its rippling effects on the local economy, Ossenfort gave a speech in Fultonville that was far different in tone than his previous addresses, which often brimmed with optimism. Today, the county is bracing for impact.
“We woke up today, I mean, literally today, in a very different world. 2020 is going to be a lot different than we all expected,” said Ossenfort.
Just a few minutes into his speech, the Republican brought up Montgomery County Public Health Director Sara Boerenko. She asked county residents to take steps to stay healthy as the novel coronavirus increases its presence in the Capital Region.
“We are asking that if you have someone in your life that has a compromised immune system or is in that age category, check on them frequently. Make sure that they have their medications that they take every day for their health conditions. Wash your hands,” said Boerenko.
Boerenko said no cases have yet been confirmed, but the county is monitoring one individual.
“The folks that we have tested for COVID-19, all of them have come back as having tested positive for the flu. So when you read on Facebook or social media that we are not testing people, I can guarantee you we are. They’re just not coming back positive. And that is good news,” said Boerenko.
Boerenko said if residents think they may meet the critera for contracting the virus, that they contact the county first. She said the county will assist residents in the process of getting the right testing.
“Because the last thing we want is our hospitals and our primary care doctors’ offices to be inundated with folks who think they may be carriers of the virus.”
The coronavirus pandemic has brought with it a plunge in oil prices. And Ossenfort warned that lower fuel costs will have an effect on county revenue collected through sales tax.
“As a county that has multiple rest stops on the Thruway, and your sales tax – a big piece of that – is the sales tax related to fuel, you know, it’s great for consumers. It’s great if you want to take a road trip. But for us at the county its concerning,” said Ossenfort.
The complications from the spread of COVID-19 come at a time when New York State faces a $6 billion budget gap Governor Andrew Cuomo is blaming on increasing Medicaid costs.
In New York, counties pay a share of the state’s Medicaid burden.
Ossenfort warned about the potential impact on county governments if a proposal from Governor Cuomo to reduce Medicaid spending is approved in the final state budget due April 1st.
“He’s saying and they’re saying, ‘If you stay under the tax cap and you control costs at 3%, then you’ll be able to keep your Medicaid cap. But if you don’t do either of those things, then you’re going to be responsible for all those cost increases.’ Which could be millions. So if this goes through, the thing I’m concerned about is, ‘How the heck are we supposed to control these costs?’ When, largely, these are not fully-funded program and we don’t have a whole lot of say about who is eligible and who is not,” said Ossenfort.
But despite the ominous forecast, unemployment remains low and jobs need to be filled.
With a growing Route 5S corridor, Ossenfort said he’d like to see the county partner to establish a 24-hour daycare center.
Montgomery County will continue to push the state to assist CDTA to bring public transit to the county, and Ossenfort envisions a veterans ride-share program with the county’s newly acquired electric vehicles. The county is encouraging residents to take part in the 2020 census.
A major looming expense, an estimated $10 million new county facilities building, is currently out to bid. Ossenfort says the county has secured about $2 million for the project, which will relocate critical infrastructure outside the flood plain.
“But I don’t think we should let the uncertainty of this year put this off any further. It’s probably 20 years overdue and we need to get it done,” said Ossenfort.
Some projects the county executive wants to see this year include improvements at the 330-acre Burbine Forest, including a disc golf course and seasonal events, and moving ahead with restoration of the Schoharie Creek aqueduct as a tourism destination.