By Joe Mahoney Staff Writer
The Daily Star
---- — COOPERSTOWN — The idea of hiring a manager to oversee the day-to-day operations of Otsego County — an entity with an annual budget of nearly $130 million — has been kicked around for years.
But the proposal has never gained traction with the majority of the 14-member Board of Representatives, with opponents saying it would add another layer of government bureaucracy that would have to be funded by taxpayers.
But some county officials are hoping the idea gets a fresh look following Tuesday’s elections, which ended with the apparent election — final totals have not been officially certified — of Republican businessman Rick Hulse Jr. of Cooperstown.
During the campaign season, Hulse, who finished election night holding a 33-vote lead over incumbent Rep. John Kosmer, D-Fly Creek, repeatedly said he wanted to bring effective management practices to county government. He also indicated he would be open to the county manager idea if funding for it come from existing operations.
“Where but here would you find a $130 million-a-year business that is being run by a committee of 14 part-time individuals?” asked Democratic County Elections Commissioner Hank Nicols.
Rep. Rich Murphy, D-town of Oneonta, the chairman of the Administration Committee, which serves as a sort of mothership for all committees, recalled one recent meeting where there was an extended discussion by county representatives about envelopes.
“We’re just killing ourselves with minutia,” said Murphy, who did not seek re-election and will leave the board at year’s end. Another meeting, he said, was bogged down with a lengthy discussion about cell phone usage by employees at a county department. Such topics, he said, fall “right in the wheelhouse of a county manager.”
While the board will have several new faces come January, veteran Rep. James Powers, R-Butternuts, said he doubted that the board would authorize the hiring of a county manager.
“Delaware County gets along without a county manager, and so does Schoharie County and Chenango County,” Powers said. “The Democrats and The Daily Star, for whatever reason, have always said you need a county manager. But no one can say why.”
Powers said the reason that some board members get caught up in apparently insignificant matters involving the county departments they oversee is because they aren’t decisive enough in dealing with information as they get it from county department heads.
“When I was the chairman of the county board, I told them not to micro-manage the departments,” he said. “They need to just get the hell out of the department heads’ way.”
Powers also said he believes its time for department managers to receive salary increases. They have gone without one for six years.
“You can only ask them to carry water so long and then the bucket gets too heavy to carry,” he said.
He noted that county Treasurer Dan Crowell, a Democrat who was easily re-elected Tuesday, called for a tax increase of less than one percent and no raises for the department heads in his proposed 2014 county budget.
“The only reason he can keep taxes down to below 1 percent is because of the work of our managers,” Powers said. “You tell me: Who is getting the short end of the stick here?”
Some Democrats, among them Reps. Gary Koutnik and Katherine Stuligross, both from the city of Oneonta, said they also back raises for the department managers.
One way to come up with the funding for a county manager position would be to reduce the overall expenses at the Board of Representatives by shrinking the size of the current 14-member board. But that couldn’t be done until the next redistricting, scheduled to take place in 2020, officials said.
The idea of chopping the number of members on the board was broached by Hulse at a recent candidate debate in Fly Creek. Another way to wring savings from the board is to reduce the pay for the position, since the representatives would presumably be needed for fewer tasks if a count manager was in place, officials said. Neither idea has been formally introduced.