By Joe Mahoney
The Daily Star
---- — COOPERSTOWN — Among New York counties experiencing a loss in population, Schoharie ranked highest, and Delaware was just behind it, according to an analysis of new U.S. Census data by a Cornell University researcher.
The new statistics, according to Cornell researcher Jan Vink, point to some worrisome trends, including the fact that 14,451 more people moved out of state in a two-year period than moved in.
The fresh census data came as the federal agency updated its last full national headcount, taken in 2010, by estimating the current populations in communities across the country as of July 2012.
For Otsego, Schoharie, Delaware and Chenango counties, the census numbers painted a picture of a region struggling with populations that have been in decline.
Statewide, Vink said some of the biggest population declines were in central New York and the Southern Tier.
Schoharie landed the distinction of being the state’s top population loser — on a percentage basis — by seeing its number of residents decline by 2 percent during the two-year window. In that same period, Delaware County lost 1.5 percent of its population, the second-highest decline of New York’s 62 counties.
The Census Bureau said Chenango County had a population loss of 1.1 percent in the 27-monoth period, while 0.9 percent of Otsego County’s population moved to other places.
Many experts interviewed by The Daily Star said that to attract people to move into the region, there must be a significant expansion of employment opportunities.
“We’re trying to provide a much more business-friendly environment here, and that is not something that can be done in 18 months,” said Sarah Blood, Schoharie County’s economic development specialist. “It takes an awful lot of working with state and federal officials who understand the needs of rural communities.”
Having an aging infrastructure, she noted, is a turnoff to companies that might consider locating in a particular region.
For Schoharie particularly, and for a number of other counties as well, the severe flooding that struck parts of the region in 2011 has brought lingering consequences. Scores of homes in the village of Schoharie were ruined, and numerous families have not returned to the community, causing some local businesses to shed employees.
“There just aren’t the number of folks around anymore to go shopping in the local stores,” said Dan Ross, a lawyer who has had an office in Middleburgh for more than 30 years.
The history of flooding has given some prospective home buyers pause about purchasing real estate in some towns, Ross said.
“People are definitely skittish about buying anything that isn’t up on a hill or elevated,” he said.
Even before the flood, though, Schoharie County has had a hard time attracting people, acknowledged the chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, Phil Skowfoe of Fulton.
“The issues are the high taxes and the unfunded mandates from Albany,” Skowfoe said. “I think this state is driving the people out.”
Skowfoe, a Democrat, didn’t mince words when he detailed his concerns with the most recent proposed state budget from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, also a Democrat.
“Their idea of mandate relief was smoke and mirrors,” Skowfoe said, noting the county is required to provide expensive mandated public programs by Albany without the funding to administer them.
“If you don’t have jobs and you don’t have reasonable taxes, it’s hard to entice anyone to come here or to convince your children to stay here,” Skowfoe said.
State Sen. James Seward, R-Milford, said the new census data should prompt Albany policymakers to step up their efforts to create economic incentives that will convince businesses to expand into New York and provide more jobs.
“These numbers really underscore the need for significant new economic development and job creation initiatives,” Seward said. “We have to get more aggressive.”
“We have this syndrome of educating our kids here and then they are gone” in search of jobs in regions of the country that are growing, he said.
New York’s population as a whole increased by more than 192,000 people — or 1 percent — in the 27 months leading to July 1, 2012, according to the Census Bureau.
Vink said most of that growth came in New York City and its suburbs.
The upstate county with the biggest percentage increase was Jefferson, with a 3.5 percent boost in the number of residents. However, Vink said, the phenomenon did not result from an expansion of jobs in the private sector but rather by virtue of the fact that Jefferson County is home to Fort Drum, a major U.S. Army base.
Gene Milone, the Schoharie town supervisor, said the region is sending a bad message to young families by not having adequate facilities to care for frail senior citizens. Some families in Schoharie County, he said, have been force to send their elderly loved ones to nursing homes outside the state.
“How do you cope with that?” he asked. “The state and the federal government are walking away from our senior citizens.”
As for those who were flooded out of their homes, Sarah Goodrich, executive director of the flood relief project Schoharie SALT, said many residents want to return to their homes if they can be repaired.
Towards that end, Fenimore Asset Management, a private investment firm, donated $250,000 Thursday to match contributions that the organization has received from other groups and individuals. Among organizations that have been generous in giving to flood victims has been Catholic Charities, which has kicked in $170,000 to help 83 families get back on their feet, officials said.
‘“Overall, we’re seeing more hope as people see more progress being made,” said Goodrich.
Schoharie County Treasurer William Cherry said it remains to be seen whether the county will be able to get back the people it lost because of the flood.
“Without some private industry bringing in jobs, there is no way the population will grow, and certainly any recovery will be a faltering one,” said Cherry. “The experts say it takes up to 10 years for a community to recover after an event like that flood. Another event would definitely change the dynamics.”