Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz beat a familiar drum when he gave his 2018 State of the County address Thursday.
But those who were listening might have been paying closer attention this time around – because he now enjoys a slim Democratic majority in the County Legislature.
That means stalled agenda items – like his push for a fair housing law that doesn't discriminate against single parents and those receiving social services benefits – are more likely to move forward.
In a striking departure from his prior addresses, however, Poloncarz used his bully pulpit to demand school districts and other special districts began talks to merge and consolidate, to save money and spare taxpayers.
Undaunted by his limited authority over schools and other taxing districts, the county executive said it's time to push for change.
"Why is it that school and fire districts that were created in the days when horses shared the roads with Model Ts are still in existence today?" he asked. "I will tell you why – because there has never been the political will to take this issue on."
Poloncarz used his address to tout his successes over the past year, reminding his audience at the Buffalo Museum of Science that the role of government is not the same as the role of the private sector and that people who pay taxes aren't the only ones whose voices matter.
"Leading means taking the reins when there's no one who will do a job that's crying out to be done," he said.
Unlike Poloncarz's State of the County address from 2016, when he introduced a slew of new initiatives, Poloncarz focused this year on making progress with past proposals and mentioned in-house efforts that are gaining traction.
Aside from his call to bring school district leaders to the table to find ways to consolidate services or merge, Poloncarz announced several other programs Thursday.
Overdose follow-up program: The county Department of Health is working with the Cheektowaga Police Department so that when an overdose victim is revived with Narcan, the police and a peer counselor from the health department follow up with the person, to try and move the individual into treatment.
In many cases, someone who overdoses is unwilling to seek treatment immediately after they've been rescued from an overdose because they experience severe withdrawal symptoms. The goal of the new program, which the county plans to expand to other towns, is to follow up the next day when the drug user may be more stable and more likely to say yes to addiction treatment.
Closest police car initiative: In suburban and rural areas where State Police and the Erie County Sheriff's Office overlap coverage areas, the county has improved a software system to guarantee that if someone calls 911, the closest available police car will respond.
Prior to 2017, it was possible that a car farther away would be called to the scene of an emergency because county dispatchers were unaware whether a State Police car or deputy's car was closer to the site of the emergency. The county worked with software developers and the Sheriff's Office to make it possible for both agency vehicles to be visible to county dispatchers.
The initiative has already been in effect in the districts that cover Clarence, Marilla and Grand Island. The goal is to expand that program to all of Erie County by the end of the year.
First Amendment-First Vote: The Erie County Commission on the Status of Women is working with other organizations to develop a nonpartisan civic engagement program that encourages high school girls to actively participate in the political process, both in casting ballots and possibly running for future office.
Poloncarz called on the County Legislature, and state and federal governments to move forward proposals that have stalled, or to seek change or progress at higher levels of government.
Among his calls for change:
- County Legislature: Poloncarz called on legislators to pass a previously introduced Fair Housing Law that would prohibit housing discrimination based on marital status, disabilities, gender identity and source of income, such as social service income.
- State and federal government: He called on New York State government to require school and other special districts to sit on a shared services panel and provide more incentives for these districts to merge. He also called on congressional leaders to fight against cuts to roadwork funding and to enact a ban on assault-type weapons.
The audience offered some applause for Poloncarz's school and special district proposal. But school superintendents expressed dismay that Poloncarz would highlight the need for school districts to merge without knowing what has already been done to research the issue and consolidate services.
"I think the most disappointing thing about this is he didn't reach out to discuss this with us," said Cleveland Hill Superintendent Jon T. MacSwan. "We were completely blindsided by this."
He and other Cheektowaga school superintendents issued a one-page joint statement pointing out the issue of mergers has been repeatedly studied, that no tax savings have yet been found and that districts have consolidated services in other ways.
County Legislature Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo, C-West Seneca, said he thought Poloncarz's speech presented few groundbreaking initiatives compared with past addresses he's given.
"It's the least substantive one I've heard," he said.
Legislature Chairman Peter Savage and Majority Leader April Baskin, both Buffalo Democrats, said they were pleased to hear about the strides the county has made and intend to work with the county executive to pass his Fair Housing Law.
"That's something that's near and dear to my heart," Baskin said.