With most businesses shuttered and unemployment claims rising, the North County Chamber coordinated a virtual town hall this morning with the leaders of four northern New York counties to discuss the response to and impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The leaders of Clinton, Essex, Franklin and Hamilton counties noted that the chamber forums are crucial to assure that the correct information is disseminated to businesses and the public. Republican Hamilton County Board of Supervisors Chair Bill Farber feels that can be difficult as information evolves rapidly. “We’re literally seeing executive orders that build on each other in a way that we have to strategically change course. And we went from an executive order that had us in the instances where we’re essential trying to figure out how to provide facial coverings for our people to seeing yesterday the broadening of that order effective Friday where it will apply to everybody individually that’s out in the public. And so that changes the way we have to react. We need to get our economy back and running but we have to do it in a way that manages public health.”
More people are working from home, schools are utilizing distance learning and there is an increase in telemedicine. Farber has been working for nearly a decade to get broadband service into the Adirondacks and says the last 45 days have highlighted the need and disparities in services. “This horrible circumstance has done nothing but point out and really elevate the obvious nature of some of the horrible gaps that we have in the Adirondacks and the North Country region. And maybe it’s the moment where we can turn the corner with some people and actually get action.”
The long-term fiscal implications of the pandemic weigh heavily on each of the county leaders. Clinton County Legislature Chair Mark Henry, a Republican, outlined a number of concerns including anticipated cuts in state aid that will hurt the county budget. “Our biggest revenue is through sales tax. Currently we are all being crushed by that. In addition to that as part of the state budget the counties are still required to pay the Aid to Municipalities from our sales tax. And then for state aid the Governor has the ability to cut state aid depending on the health of the state aid fiscal plan. For Clinton County I think we anticipate somewhere around a 12 to 15 percent cut. We’re also impacted by the loss of departmental revenue at our airport, the county clerk, the DMV. So we are concerned about our revenues.”
Democratic Franklin County Legislature Chair Donald Dabiew says they may have to borrow money. “Franklin County is a poor county as it is. We’ve been looking into borrowing money just to be able to provide the essential services in the mandates that are put upon us every day.”
Republican Essex County Board of Supervisors Chair Shaun Gilliland noted that their largest generator of revenue is the hospitality industry. “Those are taking a massive hit both in occupancy tax and in sales tax. So with these other warrants coming down from the state it’s going to be a very very tough year and a tough way to make a budget next year. So we’re really in the throes of coming up with a strategy at this point.”
Hamilton County’s Farber did offer a note of optimism. “As much as I think we’re in a dire situation right now around revenues, we really are as the Adirondacks-North Country region uniquely positioned as we start to come out of these days of COVID. I think there’s going to be a huge amount of pent up demand to get outdoors. Areas like ours have a lot of opportunities for outdoor recreation that doesn’t have to be people on top of each other. I think there’s going to be a really big economic opportunity for us.”
A recording of the Town Hall with the county leaders will be posted on the North Country Chamber’s website.