Fulton County’s future is bright, official says

JOHNSTOWN – Fulton County Administrative Officer Jon Stead said Friday the county’s future is bright, with current economic stability, a multi-layered “jump start” development initiative, and potential for regionalization.

Stead delivered his 22nd “State of the County” address at the Hales Mills Country Club. About 110 people attended the annual breakfast event sponsored by the Fulton Montgomery Regional Chamber of Commerce.

“There’s still plenty of work to be done to get this county moving, and back again,” Stead said.

But county government’s top administrator said the “future is here” for the county and it is time to seize the moment.

Stead said the Fulton County Board of Supervisors adopted an $85.3 million budget for 2014 that allowed a more than 6 percent average tax rate decrease for county residents. He said the county has no debt. But he said things weren’t always good, and the recession of the late 2000s had a “dramatic impact” on the county.

“Our county departments have been cut and streamlined,” Stead said. “There was a lot of changes and a lot of difficult decisions had to be made.”

Part of the address dealt with proposals by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whom he called “governor steamroller.”

“Certainly, he completely controls the agenda in New York state,” Stead said.

The state continues to take up much of Fulton County’s budget, he said. Nine state mandates, the largest being the local share of Medicaid costs, continue to consume 81 percent of the county’s tax levy, he said.

But Stead said the county a few years ago launched a program to become more fiscally vibrant, which included cutting payroll by one-third, accomplished partly by selling the former county Residential Health Care Facility. He said the county now has a fund balance of $15 million – well within recommended state comptroller levels.

“We’ve worked very hard on this budget survival strategy,” he said.

Stead said the county also has taken economic development up a notch by initiating the “Jump Start Fulton County” initiative. It involves: a “Smart Water” plan to possibly combine all water and sewer services in the county, site selector assessment, branding exercise, finding shovel-ready sites, and marketing the former Tryon site for future development.

“We are very serious about it,” Stead said. “We have a lot of money in it. We need to take the opportunity before us the next three to five years. I think it’s vital to our survival.”

Meanwhile, Stead said the county has other projects, such as a possible regional business park with Montgomery County. He said the area needs a shovel-ready site in place in case a “game changer” company wants to site 500 to 1,000 jobs in the area.

As far as a “prescription for tomorrow,” Stead said county government needs to look at consolidation. Even though the county has “really pulled down expenses,” he offered a three-tier program over the next 10 years to also save on the cost of municipal services. They include joint police and fire departments in the Glove Cities, centralized county tax and garbage collection and county highway services, as well as county code enforcement, animal control and assessing.

Michael Anich covers Johnstown and Fulton County news. He can be reached at manich@leaderherald.com