Montgomery County Executive Matt Ossenfort delivered his eighth State of the County address this week. As WAMC’s Southern Adirondack Bureau Chief Lucas Willard reports, the Republican reflected on the sacrifices made over the last year.
Ossenfort in his address reflected on those lost to COVID-19 – including former Amsterdam firefighter Dave Swart. The Dave behind the name of the Dave’s Dawgs food truck, Swart died of the virus in early April.
Ossenfort recalled watching the funeral procession alongside the county’s Director of Public and Mental Health, Sara Boerenko.
“The procession was kept private to mitigate the spread of the virus, but many attended, staying in their vehicles for the procession to pass by the Church Street location of Dave’s Dawgs. I was there, people were lined in that parking lot to watch. I was with Sara. Both of us were crying.
“Following her husband’s passing, Pam and her children – Becky, Jen, and Dave Jr. – became part of the Montgomery County family and now will forever be. Pam took to social media and referred to our Public Health Director Sara and the nurses as ‘Sara’s Soldiers.’
“We had shirts made with those words on it for the staff. In the beginning, our nurses would call homes to talk about dealing with the virus, and people would actually hang up on them. Or think it was a prank. Or start screaming at them because they didn’t believe the whole thing was real. The nurses experienced not only frustration, but anger. And at times, verbal abuse. It was a constant back and forth from talking with a family member with a sick loved one, to having somebody say, ‘Go scratch and stop bothering me.’
“The shirts reminded them that they were doing meaningful work,” said Ossenfort.
Ossenfort has held weekly briefings throughout the pandemic alongside Boerenko and Montgomery County Sheriff Jeff Smith.
The Republican said his greatest fear for the residents of the rural county is the pandemic’s continued impacts on mental health – amplified by a lack of transportation and easy access to critical services for many,
“At one point we had more suicides than deaths from the virus. Our domestic violence cases have been on the rise, so have incidents requiring the sheriff’s office to respond. Adding the challenges of students not being in school, where that may be the one decent meal they get all day, or the only situation where they can interact with a stable adult, we’re seeing drug overdoses, alcoholism, violence, and vandalism,” said Ossenfort.
But Ossenfort also touted the growth that Montgomery County has seen despite the pandemic.
Home to a cluster of regional distribution centers, development continues along the Route 5S corridor in Amsterdam. Commercial development is beginning to pick up along the Route 30 corridor as well. Though Ossenfort said the economic growth has pointed to the need for quality childcare, and many small business owners are continuing to struggle.
The county is reviewing bids for development at the former Beech-Nut site in Canajoharie, and using the tools it’s developed over the years to remediate the brownfield to explore other projects in the region.
A disc golf course at the Burbine Memorial Forest is already generating buzz, despite not even being open yet, and Ossenfort also laid out a vision to stabilize and possibly restore the Schoharie Crossing aqueduct to serve as a recreational and historic attraction, and a potential destination on the Empire State Trail.
With vaccine distribution now underway, county finances in good shape, and continued economic growth despite the challenges, Ossenfort embraced a term he admitted is often used to describe him.
“I’ve often been called an optimist. I get that a lot, but it’s a badge I wear proudly. And, as I said earlier, the issues will last long after this pandemic is done. But I am so proud in which the way we’ve handled it, and for the reasons today, really proud, excited, and optimistic about our future,” said Ossenfort.