Workforce, related issues big topics at chamber breakfast

CARA CHAPMAN/STAFF PHOTONorth Country Chamber of Commerce President Garry Douglas) speaks at the North Country Chamber of Commerce’s annual State Legislative Forum in the Butcher Block’s Adirondack Room Friday morning. 

PLATTSBURGH — The North Country Chamber of Commerce’s State Legislative Forum featured much discussion on workforce-related issues, including child care, broadband and education.

The annual breakfast invites the area's state representatives — currently State Sen. Dan Stec (R-Queensbury) and State Assemblymen D. Billy Jones (D-Chateaugay Lake) and Matt Simpson (R-Horicon) — to speak and take questions on Albany-related affairs.

SURVEY SAYS

Drawing from the chamber’s recent survey, Chamber President Garry Douglas said area businesses’ number one priority at the state level is closing broadband and cell phone service gaps in the North Country, with 98% supporting renewed state commitment to addressing that issue.

Also high on the list were changes to workforce development programs that would make them more helpful. Ninety-six percent of survey participants want to make those programs more employer-driven, flexible and region-specific.

Douglas also noted that 60% indicated staffing shortages were limiting their hours and/or business activity, causing a loss of business even while they say they are having a good year.

That too many are leaving business on the table they would otherwise be able to do with more staff is one of the "real warning signs on the horizon," he said.

ELIMINATE FIBER OPTIC TAX

On broadband, both Stec and Jones stressed the need to eliminate the state's fiber optic tax. According to Stec's website, the state Department of Transportation charges internet service providers the fee, enacted in the state's 2019 budget, to build fiber optic utilities in the right of way of state highways.

Earlier this week, Stec organized a press conference calling on Gov. Kathy Hochul to eliminate the tax in her 30-day amendments to the executive budget, while Jones brought up its abolition during a budget hearing.

“This fiber tax is adding to the cost of expanding the broadband network which is important for our health care, which is important for our economy, which is important for telehealth, telemedicine, our education system now,” Stec said.

According to the senator, the fee increases the cost of installation from hundreds of dollars per mile to $5,000 to $7,000 per mile, and only raised $8 million in revenue over three years.

Jones said he is pleased with Hochul’s plan to invest $1.5 billion — close to $1 billion of which will come from the federal government — in broadband.

“But it is imperative that we make sure that those dollars stretch as far as we can make them go because as excited as we were about the last program (a $500 million investment), and we were, I think there could have been more done.”

Jones added that the tax only applies to companies who invest their own money, not those in the Broadband Connect All program who receive state funding.

“It doesn’t make any sense. It simply doesn't and it only hurts those smaller companies that are trying to get broadband out in the areas here in the North Country because their dollar will not be able to go as far as it possibly can.”

CHILD CARE CRITICAL

Plattsburgh YMCA CEO Justin Ihne said child care is a critical issue in the area, and that assistance is needed on the state and federal level to continue offering affordable options.

Across eight sites, the YMCA sees almost 500 kids per day, and could open up three more sites tomorrow based on waiting list numbers, he added.

Stec pointed to high demand for child care, but argued that universal child care, supported by some of his Senate colleagues, is not affordable.

He suggested creating an ombudsman-type office that would help facilitate the setup of at-home child care providers.

“We want our kids to be safe, we want it regulated, but we don’t want to put so much burden on this industry like we do everything else in New York state where now it’s financially not feasible.”

Stec believes broadband will help with the child care issue, as hybrid work models could make employment more feasible for people with kids.

RE-ENVISION, REWORK

Jones said there is a budget ask to ensure the North Country is considered a child care desert and receives money to help out local child care businesses.

He also stressed the need to make child care affordable.

“If it’s not affordable to people, they’re not going to be able to leave their homes and work, that’s just it.”

Jones suggested easing back on some regulations, but also professionalizing the child care field by providing incentives.

He pointed to how child care providers can make less than those working at fast food restaurants.

“They are taking care of our most valuable commodity: our children. Let’s think about that. We need to re-envision and rework it and make it a priority for us to make sure that child care is professionalized and make sure that they have the funding and incentives to do that.”

AFFORDABLE HOUSING

Simpson echoed Jones regarding the budget ask, and said it makes sense to raise standards and support providers to ensure quality child care.

He added that his conference is pushing to create a division of regulatory review to examine regulations’ impacts.

The Horicon assemblyman also touched on addressing affordable housing, speaking from personal experience about how he and his wife are considering a move, but cannot afford to buy because of current prices.

“It’s a very important component to, you know, providing a place for our workforce that we need.”

COMMUNITY COLLEGE FORMULA

Clarkson University Vice President for External Affairs Kelly Chezum noted the push by centers for advanced technology and centers for excellence to get a bigger investment from the state, while North Country Workforce Partnership Executive Director Sylvie Nelson advocated for workforce funding to be more flexible and readily available.

Stec agreed that much investment needs to be made to address workforce issues, and Jones said institutions of higher learning, like Clarkson and Clinton Community College, with its Institute for Advanced Manufacturing, need to be directly involved in workforce development.

Douglas said the chamber is pleased with the governor’s proposed actions to support community colleges.

He added that the aid formula for those institutions has been overly driven by the number of full-time students, when community colleges these days are as much or more about part-time study and employer-specific training programs.

There is a proposed formula to create a floor for aid to community colleges, which Douglas said would be a step in the right direction.

But the hope, he continued, is that the formula will be based on 2019 enrollments, not 2020’s as is proposed.

“2020 is an aberration. You don’t want to start a baseline on 2020. We need that moved back to 2019. Let’s get back to the last normal year and build a base from there.”

Email Cara Chapman:

cchapman@pressrepublican.com

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