St. Lawrence County legislators debate approaches to improving quality of life in the county
BY ANDY GARDNER
North Country This Week
CANTON -- A 2021 budget discussion turned into legislators discussing different angles they feel the board could take to improve the quality of life in the county, whether it be through tourism, arts, public safety or infrastructure repair.
The board’s Operations Committee, which includes all of the legislators, had the discussion during their Monday, Oct. 19 meeting.Legislators John Burke, R-Norfolk, and Kevin Acres, R-Madrid, debated to what extent the county should attempt to combat the drug problem. Burke suggested more planning, rather than paying to lock people up for crimes connected to drugs, while Acres suggested the board should put more money into their fund balance.
“We can continue to pay the cost for incarceration but ignore the root of the problem, which to a large extent is substance abuse,” Burke said. “I would like to think we have the ability to do some real assessment and planning rather than the single focus of putting money back in the fund balance.”
“So the drug problem is not a problem of the fund balance here in St. Lawrence County. The drug problem is a worldwide problem,” Acres said. He said the county’s fund balance is doing well, but is still below the state comptroller’s recommendation. “We are nowhere near this affluent surplus money situation that can be thrown around to solve this and that.” Later in the discussion, Acres added that he thinks their priorities should be “roads, bridges, public safety,” and he feels public safety includes the Department of Social Services.
Legislator Tony Arquiett, D-Helena, came to Burke’s defense and added that he thinks the county should invest more in roads and bridges.
“I didn’t hear Mr. Burke in any way talk about solving the world’s problems. He’s talking about problems here in St. Lawrence County … We may need to make an investment to save money down the road on mental health and substance abuse,” Arquiett said. “We have bridges and roads in dire need. It’s great to have money for a rainy day. It’s great to follow the comptroller’s advice. We have a great need to invest this money into infrastructure.”
Legislator Rita Curran, R-Massena, said poverty and high taxes are big issues that need to be addressed and she feels they are linked.
“I think when we tax people too much, it’s the taxpayer that works … and chooses to move to Tennessee … left behind are the people who are poor and can’t just get up and leave,” Curran said. “I think drugs and the concentration of it in our county is a strong motivator for people to decide to take their families someplace else.”
She also suggested the board look more into finding people to offer some needed services on a volunteer basis.
“We have to get our heads together and figure out how to get volunteers to do some of this,” she said.
Legislators Jim Reagen, R-Ogdensburg, and Margaret Haggard, D-Potsdam, suggested tourism promotion as a way to get people spending more money in the county.
“I think it’s important we get that money set aside for a fishing tournament this summer,” Reagen said. “We’ve been fighting a battle of defense for the last couple months because of COVID … We need to start planning ahead to get our economy moving and give our business community some hope that there will be efforts made to bring tourists to St. Lawrence County, remind people that we have one of the greatest freshwater fisheries in the world.”
Haggard suggested possibly funding arts groups, like the St. Lawrence County Arts Council, or an attraction like the North Country Children’s Museum.
“We are blessed in this area with probably more artistic people than any rural county would normally have,” she said. Haggard also pointed to a study done by Clarkson University business students that showed the children’s museum “brought in an excess $700,000 in spending … just from people coming to see the museum.”
Legislator Dave Forsythe, R-Lisbon, supports building up the fund balance and reducing taxes so taxpayers will have more disposable income they could spend here.
“When people have non-discretionary money, they spend their money. My thought is we build our fund balance up, give the taxpayers a break,” he said. “Government has to run efficiently and as reasonably as possible.”
Operations Committee Chairman Larry Denesha, R-DeKalb, closed the discussion by pointing out he thinks the legislators are largely on the same page.
“I’ve listened to everyone as much as I could … one of the things I’ve always thought it to be true, I think I really discovered it this evening. None of us are that much different. We all want what’s right for St. Lawrence County,” he said. “It all comes down to, in my mind, essentially the only reason government is here is to provide services to our residents and taxpayers. We’ve got lots of good ideas. I think the key … we’ve got the necessary resources in the room and outside the room in different levels of the county to make everything happen … We’ve got to have a good fund balance.”
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