Official says cooperation constructive for county

FONDA – Montgomery County Executive Matt Ossenfort said Friday the county has made a smooth transition to its new form of government and the county Legislature is working with him cooperatively.

Ossenfort talked about the county’s accomplishments in the past two months during his first State of the County address, which he gave at the Winner’s Circle restaurant during a breakfast event sponsored by the Fulton Montgomery Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Ossenfort, 32, is the county’s first executive and the youngest county executive in the state. He started working as executive at the beginning of the year after voters last year decided to change the county’s form of government from a board of supervisors to a legislature with an elected county executive. Voters elected Ossenfort and members to the new legislature.

Ossenfort told the more than 100 people in attendance at his address Friday that he’s been “working tirelessly, and there’s been no shortage of work ethic over the past couple of months.”

He said the county made a smooth transition to the new form of government, joking that the “sky didn’t fall” when the government changed. He commended the new Legislature for working so well with him since January.

“A lot of times in politics, you see back and forth [arguing], and you’d think with a new county charter that’s vague and there’s room for interpretation when it comes to powers and authority that that would happen,” he said. “But I have to say that we’ve worked very well together. The discussions we’ve had have been constructive, not destructive.”

He noted the intermunicipal solid waste agreement with Fulton County that will take place once Montgomery County’s contract with the Montgomery-Otsego-Schoharie Solid Waste Management Authority ends April 30. He said the next step is to figure out what the county wants to do with its transfer stations.

Ossenfort cited the county’s tax rate instability since 2001, which has gone up and down repeatedly. He said he thinks the instability was due to the former Board of Supervisors’ rotation of the chairman position.

“Every year a different chairman came in with different priorities,” he said. “It wasn’t a smooth, stable financial environment, and I think we can do better than [that].”

Ossenfort wants to modernize the county’s operations, specifically county buildings that are located in flood zones.

“We have spent over $2 million in remediation after the last two floods at the [county] annex building,” he said. “That’s costing the taxpayers.”

Ossenfort stressed the importance of working regionally, not only within the borders of Montgomery County.

He talked about a proposed regional business park that would be in the town of Mohawk and the city of Johnstown.

Economic development officials from both counties support creation of the park, which would be built on just under 300 acres of Mohawk farmland in Montgomery County. The site would be south of and adjacent to the Johnstown Industrial Park off Route 30A. Land would be annexed into the city of Johnstown to receive water and sewer services.

The park would then be shared by both counties trying to bring companies into the park.

The city of Johnstown and town of Mohawk have been unable to agree on a revenue-sharing plan for the park.

When talks broke off in early 2011, both municipalities were considering a 55 percent-45 percent split in revenue, with the larger share going to Johnstown. The duration of the agreement appeared to be a major sticking point, however. Johnstown wanted the agreement in place for 40 years, but Mohawk wanted a longer term.

Ossenfort said he thinks the park is a good idea.

“We need to communicate why this is so important, not only for the municipalities or the county, but the whole region,” he said. “I don’t think folks realize this potential site in the town of Mohawk could be the premier shovel-ready large lot rail siting site in the Northeast.”

He said the park will only be possible through collaboration with Fulton County.

“This is something we can get done. This is reasonable. We just have to work together to do it,” he said. “The days of trying to get into somebody else’s territory are over. Let’s stand up and be proud that we are Fulton and Montgomery. We have a lot to offer.”

After the speech, Johnstown Mayor Michael Julius commented on the proposed business park.

“[Johnstown is] still on board with the plan. We want to share the revenue with Montgomery County to make it fair for them,” Julius said. “We’re not trying to bully our neighbors. … I want to be as open as possible to people.”

Ossenfort also mentioned other economic development initiatives within the county such as the completion of the Hampton Inn & Suites in the city of Amsterdam, Canal Way improvements that will be completed in a year and a half and possible distilleries in the town of Florida and Fort Plain.

“Believe it or not, Montgomery County farmers are growing hops,” he said. “I dream of the day when I can have a beer that was grown and brewed in Montgomery County. Wouldn’t that be something? This is an industry that’s really taking off.”

He also talked about the county’s casino siting initiative, saying the county and municipalities involved are on board. There is a potential site for a casino in the town of Florida and city of Amsterdam. The state plans to allow several casinos to open in upstate New York.

Ossenfort said the county plans to move forward in the process to attract a casino developer to Montgomery County, but he said the county is not relying on a potential casino for its economic growth.

“We’re not putting our economic development eggs into a casino basket,” he said. “[The casino] could happen or it might not happen; it’s out of our control. We did what we needed to do and we’re open to it. … This is not the end all save all.”

District 4 Legislator Ryan Weitz said he thought Ossenfort got his message across in the address.

“This is a great day for Montgomery County,” Weitz said. “You can tell this is an optimistic time, not just for the county but for the region. This is such a great place to live and visit. We all need to portray that, and I think Matt [Ossenfort] did that in his speech.”

Weitz also said he agreed with Ossenfort regarding the economic development initiatives in the county, especially the distilleries.

“This area used to be the hop-growing area of the United States until there was a blight in the 1840s,” Weitz said. “To have hops growing in this county and distilleries here for the first time since Prohibition would be economically wonderful. They attract a lot of people.”

Ossenfort said after the address that he thought his speech went very well and he was excited about the response the crowd gave him.

“This feels great,” he said. “I think everyone in the room really bought into everything I was saying, and I hope we can keep this optimism going.”