It took nearly three decades for Otsego County to agree to change its system of government and to hire a county administrator. Now, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and its effects on the county budget, there is no timetable to fill that position. 

However, county officials told The Daily Star on Tuesday, Aug. 11, that the position is still valid and will be filled. 

"I don't think there has been anything to dissuade the members from wanting this," Board Chair Dave Bliss, R-Cherry Valley, Middlefield, Roseboom, said. "To my knowledge none of the 11 members who voted for it in November have changed their minds. If anything, this has reinforced their opinions." 

Since the pandemic began in New York in March, Otsego County representatives have been working to fix a budget deficit made worse by the county's reliance on state aid and sales tax revenue. According to the New York State Association of Counties, Otsego County gets 55% of its revenue from sales tax (37%) and state aid (22%). That is 14% higher than the state average and has left Otsego with a projected deficit of about $12 million in 2020. NYSAC also projects a 2021 loss of between $2.6 and $8.3 million for the county.

The result has been Bliss and Board Vice Chair Meg Kennedy, C-Hartwick, Milford, New Berlin, working nearly full time, they said, doing duties that would have been assigned to an administrator. 

"It has gotten better recently, but it was 12-hours a day for a while," Bliss said. "We are supposed to be part-time, but this has been anything but part-time lately." 

"We've done great, I think, by many standards," Kennedy said. "But would a county administrator have helped? Definitely, yes."

The idea of a county administrator dates back to the 1990s, when the Oneonta chapter of the League of Women Voters began advocating for the position. Otsego has a form of county government which is unique in the state, with no executive branch official or ruling consortium of town supervisors, both of which are common in New York's counties. 

The idea of reforming county government gained momentum in the past five years, with newer members often expressing shock at the county's hybrid form of government. A two-year committee study ended with a proposal that rejected more drastic changes to the county's structure of government, such as a county charter, in favor of an administrator who worked for the Board of Representatives as a day-to-day manager of the county's dozens of departments and annual budget of more than $100 million. 

In November, the position was approved by an 11-2 vote — Rep. Ed Frazier, R-Unadilla, was absent, but had indicated he would have voted no — and in February, the board authorized a job listing and $75,000 for a half year of salary plus fringe benefits, with the idea of hiring somebody by July.

The pandemic put that plan on pause. The county's sales tax numbers in the spring were down by about 30% per month, and the state's budget gap caused it to put counties and other municipalities on hold with regard to state aid, with 20% cuts being proposed.

In response, Otsego County laid off about 60 workers, cut department budgets and other contracts by about 15% each, canceled several projects and instituted hiring and spending freezes. Although several positions have been filled since then, all of them have been in positions that are mandated by the state or were immediately needed, such as in the department of social services, the county jail or the highway department's road crew. 

An administrator position, on the other hand, would be subject to the freeze, Kennedy said. "But, boy, if there ever was a year to have had a county manager, this would have been a great one. Dave Bliss and I have been making a ton of state meetings, and that would be something where it would have been great to have one person doing all of this. Sometimes the rules and regulations change daily. What you know today is going to be different tomorrow. So, it would be great to have one person keeping up with everything, too." 

The county is beginning its 2021 budget cycle and Bliss said the county administrator issue will likely be revisited, even if the answer is the same. 

"The idea is still prevalent and maybe more so," he said. "So it will be brought up during budget discussions." 

"I feel like we are in a holding pattern," Kennedy said. "Any money we have now we are holding onto to make the payroll for the workers we have now. 

"But I think it is still an important priority," she said.  

Greg Klein, staff writer, can be reached at gklein@thedailystar.com or 607-441-7218.

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