Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz proposed initiatives for agriculture, consumer protection, internet connectivity and health and human services Wednesday during his State of the County speech.
"Now is not the time to rest on our laurels but to work even harder to ensure this great new renaissance is felt by all," Poloncarz told his audience at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.
But criticism over the condition of county roads also put Poloncarz on the defensive.
"If my critics were honest, they'd acknowledge that the $419 million in combined capital and operating road funding we've invested in our roads and bridges since 2012 has had a significant impact," he said.
"Don't let anyone tell you we aren't fixing our roads," he added.
"The county executive can say whatever he wants," said Legislature Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo, C-West Seneca. "The fact of the matter is if you go out and drive the county roads throughout Erie County, you’ll see they are in deplorable condition.”
In what could be seen as an opening argument for his re-election bid this year, Poloncarz credited his administration with tax break reforms, workforce development programs and investment in the Bethlehem Steel site. As for public health and safety, he reminded his audience of his successful push to end the sale of tobacco and e-cigarette products at drugstores and other pharmacy retailers, investments to combat lead poisoning in children, the county's passage of the Fair Housing Law and its rapid emergency response to storms like the January blizzard.
Poloncarz pointed out that the unemployment rate was 8.9 percent when he took office in 2012 and is now 3.9 percent, the lowest end-of-year unemployment rate for Erie County in more than four decades. The number of jobs in the Buffalo Niagara region totals 578,700, which is 27,000 more since 2013, he said.
"While we can't take credit for creating all of them, we can take credit for putting programs in place that helped," he said.
He sought support for new endeavors that would "create the best Erie County we can be."
Among his key proposals:
- Create a "Live Well Erie" health and human services initiative to improve the health and wellness of children, working families and seniors. This effort will include programs to strengthen early childhood development; a mobile van to bring social services, senior services, health and veterans departments directly to residents; and an enhanced, free dining program for seniors.
- Return downhill skiing to Chestnut Ridge Park by reinstalling a tow rope to help interested park skiers get back up the Orchard Park sledding hill.
- Create an Office of Agriculture in the Department of Environment and Planning. This office would not require more hiring but would dedicate two staffers to protect farmland from encroachment; increase the accessibility of locally grown foods and products, especially to public institutions; promote "agritourism" and agribusinesses; and encourage a new generation of farmers.
- Borrow $20 million to establish a government-owned broadband network that would run 360 miles of fiber through every city and town in Erie County. The network would make it easier for outlying towns to attract businesses and foster competition among internet service providers who could lease and build out the county network at lower costs, he said. "If our region is to remain competitive, it must have a contemporary communications infrastructure that offers equal access to all county residents regardless of where they live," he said. "Because the private sector has failed us, we as a government, must act."
- Establish an Office of Consumer Protection, overseen by a director of consumer affairs, that would fold in the current Office of Weights and Measures, the county's primary consumer protection arm. The office would enforce a newly proposed county law to require stand-alone ATMs, like the kind found at convenience stores and bars, to pay an annual fee to keep their ATMs registered as an anti-fraud and law enforcement measure.
Erie County Legislator Lynne Dixon, I-Hamburg, said she is not sure Poloncarz's plan to restructure the Office of Weights and Measures into a new Office of Consumer Protection would do anything to protect consumers. Dixon, who is running against Poloncarz for county executive, noted that a recent county comptroller's report revealed the Office of Weights and Measures fined stores based on field inspections that were never conducted. The report also found state and federal inspection guidelines were ignored.
"Everyone is for doing more to protect consumers," Dixon said. "That being said, perhaps making a department that has previously failed residents the new division of Consumer Protection isn't the sharpest idea."
Dixon said she and other county lawmakers tried to cut this year's county tax levy.
"He wouldn't let us," Dixon said.
"I will say, however, that I am happy that he has discovered that there is a rural area in the county," she added, referring to the proposed Office of Agriculture. "Farmers are a very important asset to our region."
Poloncarz touted the county's preparations for the 2020 census. The county has identified nearly 3,000 residential addresses unknown to the U.S. Census Bureau, which could have cost the county $15 million a year, he said. He has also signed an executive order creating a committee to coordinate and promote awareness of the census, including outreach to Native American and immigrant populations.
News staff reporter Harold McNeil contributed to this report.