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Poloncarz in his State of the County address: 'We will steer our own course'

Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz used his State of the County speech Wednesday to warn about the proposed spending cuts and policy changes in Washington while also promoting new initiatives he plans to roll out over the next few months.

"We cannot afford to retreat into short-sighted mindsets that pit communities and peoples against each other, whether it is over immigration or addressing poverty," Poloncarz said at the Burchfield Penney Art Center.

Poloncarz railed against proposals by the Trump administration to drastically cut funding to Great Lakes pollution cleanup and heating assistance programs.

He also stressed the need to continue welcoming immigrants and refugees to the community.

"While ignorance, fear and xenophobia may dominate the toxic discourse of a vocal minority, in Erie County we will steer our own course," Poloncarz said.

Poloncarz talked about new initiatives he expects to carry out over the next year. Some are small, like a new "Passport to Parks" program. The program will encourage families to take special passport booklets to parks throughout Erie County and enter codes that will make them eligible for recognition and junior park rangers.

Others are much bigger, like a push for more affordable housing downtown and the second phase of an economic plan that includes new job training programs for veterans and women.

Here are the key points of his speech:

Economic plan

Within the next month or two, Poloncarz said will unveil new initiatives. They include:

  • A new job training program for veterans to receive lead-safe certification to do renovation, painting and repair work on homes to prevent lead poisoning in children.
  • A new Division of Planning Advisory Board, which will involve community stakeholders who will be expected to offer advice and input regarding county development, conservation and ongoing local planning efforts.
  • A training program designed specifically to assist women in getting "middle skills" jobs primary held by men. Truck drivers, welders and information technology specialists require more than a high school education but less than a college degree.

"There are other initiatives ... but I am not sure if they will be there in the long run due to the Trump administration's proposed elimination of all community development block grants," Poloncarz said.

Programs that would be affected include Main Street and facade improvement programs as well as rural transit programs, he said.

Poverty initiatives

Poloncarz proposed two modest efforts to help combat poverty:

  • Expansion of the "Help Me Grow" program, which screens children from birth to age 3 for developmental delays, and ensures children receive assistance before they enter school. The program currently serves more than 5,000 children per year. The expansion would offer more training to enable child care providers to recognize developmental delays and provide support.
  • Increase skills training through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Summer Youth employment program.

The 2017 budget already includes $500,000 to support these efforts, Poloncarz said. Both were recommended by the county's Poverty Committee.

"The men and women of the Poverty Committee understand that the only way to address the problems of poverty is attack its root causes," he said. "That is why they recommended to my administration to invest in two programs to reduce poverty through targeted investments in our youth."

Poloncarz also announced he will convene a poverty summit later this spring.

"Now, I am not naive," he said. "We won’t eliminate all poverty in our community. Yet I will not stand by, cold-hearted, and say we cannot do anything to address it. We can and must do more if we are to truly become the community we know we can be."

Affordable housing

Poloncarz wants to prevent developers who build apartments and mixed-use projects in downtown Buffalo from getting tax incentives unless they set aside some residential housing for less wealthy residents who can't afford to pay rents that now pushing close to $2,000 a month.

He referred to a study the ECIDA is doing this year to review the adaptive reuse policy for all the county's industrial development agencies. He expects that study will recommend policy changes and will affect the standards under which apartment and mixed-use projects qualify for tax breaks in the future.

"I believe the report must include an affordable housing component in the policy," said Poloncarz, who favors a certain percentage of apartment units being offered at lower rents. "Buffalo has a long, sad history of being segregated. Real estate agents, banks and others red-lined neighborhoods. We cannot allow further segregation of our community, now based on wealth."

Poloncarz opposes tax breaks for downtown lofts built only for the rich

Nursing home law

Poloncarz reiterated his support for new regulations on nursing homes.

Last week the county executive proposed "Ruthie's Law" to require nursing homes to inform a designated family member or guardian within an hour of when a nursing home resident suffers an injury requiring hospital treatment. The proposed local law would also give the county's commissioner of senior services the ability to subpoena and review nursing home injury reports to ensure compliance.

In August, Ruth Murray, 84, was fatally beaten by an 82-year-old fellow nursing home resident after she wandered into his room in the dementia unit of a city nursing home. Family members were not initially notified, and when they were, the injuries were downplayed.

Poloncarz is also partnering with Assemblyman Sean Ryan, D-Buffalo, to require nursing homes to pay a higher fine for procedural failures that result in a patient's death. The county is also listing county nursing home rankings on its Department of Senior Services website.

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