SARANAC LAKE — From the rural northeastern quarter of the state with the highest taxes in the United States and the most people leaving, a list of priorities for change is coming into focus.
Lawmakers from Albany asked for — and got — a barrage of questions during a Legislative Breakfast Friday morning.
The discussion critiqued an agenda for transformation issued by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in his inaugural State of the State address this week.
But the engaging question-and-answer session was prefaced with a warning.
"Change is in the air and change is difficult," Sen. Betty Little (R-Queensbury) told the nearly 80 business, civic and community leaders gathered early Friday.
"When you are on the bottom, there's only one way to go."
She suggested that the slim Republican majority in the state Senate would help balance government in Albany.
But the real question is where to start.
Little has been named to the Mandate Relief task force set up by newly sworn-in Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
The import of that effort seemed to emerge as the top subject of discussion Friday.
Little asked the group of community leaders for input.
"If you have ideas (for removing unfunded mandates) be sure you get them to us."
Streamlining government will look a lot different in the North Country, Little said, than it will in the larger urban and suburban areas with a bigger population base and therefore more voices in Albany.
Making a case for how change might play differently here, she focused on Cuomo's stated intention to eliminate more prisons.
"We are dependent on government jobs," she said.
And if those positions move or go away — as many did with two recent prison closures at Camp Gabriels and Lyon Mountain — then we not only lose the jobs, we lose the (economic) activity.
Streamlining the prison system or even school districts here might mean something other than closing them down, she said.
It could mean sharing administrative services, she said, in effect condensing oversight of two or three or more facilities under one director or superintendant.
"Decisions have to be made based on the economic impact of a closure," Little said.
And in streamlining government here, the impact of job-loss or closure has to be measured against opportunity for economic development.
"If we can streamline government and get our economy more dependant on public sector jobs, we will see some growth," Little said.
Assemblywoman Janet Duprey said getting rid of unfunded mandates is one of the most critical things New York State government has to do.
But the lawmakers agreed that what the North Country needs most is people, and what drives people and their businesses away, even more than high tax rates, are onerous regulations.
Adirondack Housing Development Corporation Chairman Allan Dunham asked legislators if housing to support job growth would remain a priority in New York.
Little and Duprey did not answer the question directly, but suggested there is little hope for new funding of any kind this year.
Cuomo has proposed 10 Economic Councils around the state and Duprey wants one of those to focus solely on the unique rural setting encompassing the Adirondack Park and the North Country.
"We really are unique with the park," she said.
Having less government, Little added, means getting the public sector involved and engaged.
"They are the ones who know the issues. And I don't think there's going to be a lot of money for new programs. We've got to use what we've got."
Harrietstown Supervisor Larry Miller asked if, as the state reorganizes itself, "are all the things they can't afford to do going to be pushed down onto towns and counties?"
"We have to stop the mandates," Little answered, saying local municipalities have to be given some flexibility to manage according to local needs if the state sheds management oversight.
"And we don't need to do the same (regulatory) things here that they do in New York City. We're saying, if you're going to give that to the towns (and counties), then give them the flexibility to do it."
Achieving mandate relief is a critical aspect of any Tax Cap program, Duprey said.
"We cannot tell our local municipalities that they cannot raise their taxes if we don't get rid of mandates."
How will all this begin?
Work at it
Little said it would take "people willing to do it; willing to try; willing to work at it."
Changing laws to admit reform involves rewriting them, for example, to allow towns to have fire departments, not just villages.
Little said school districts could all be coordinated under the same teaching contract through their regional BOCES and put on the same school calendar.
ANCA director Kate Fish asked lawmakers how they represent the rural point of view to the larger, urban body of political sway.
Urban areas are completely dependant on their rural counterparts in New York for raw materials, food and clean sources of water.
"How do you balance that in government?" Fish asked.
"We try," Little said.
Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward was unable to attend the session because she had an out-of-state family wedding to attend.
The Legislative Breakfast was coordinated by the Saranac Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, which plans to hold another session with Congressman Bill Owens Friday.
The breakfast will also be held at North Country Community College cafeteria starting at 7:30 a.m.
E-mail Kim Smith Dedam at: firstname.lastname@example.org