As the new year approaches, community leaders in the north country find themselves with many tasks to accomplish and challenges to overcome.
We witnessed some remarkable achievements in 2013. Hopefully, 2014 will bring us continued good news.
The development projects underway in Watertown are breathing new life into the citys downtown. Both the Mercy Hospital property and Woolworth Building will be used for residential and commercial purposes.
A grass-roots effort resulted in not only saving inpatient services at the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center in Ogdensburg but resulted in the facility being named the Childrens Behavioral Health Center of Excellence. The New York State Office of Mental Health had planned to transfer inpatient services for children and adults to sites in Syracuse and Utica, but supporters of the local facility led by the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center Task Force persuaded Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to keep these services at the local site.
Looking forward, here are a few things wed like to see accomplished in 2014:
Education: Perhaps no other aspect of our society is in more dire need of reform than our public school system. The financial situation in some districts has reached a crisis level with staffs and programs being slashed just to keep their budgets in the black. Public school administrators throughout the north country have talked about the looming problem of educational bankruptcy. This will happen when a district begins cutting core programs to the point where students will no longer qualify for a Regents diploma. School officials must continue discussing merging districts and establishing shared services. If there is not enough revenue to fund each individual district adequately, consolidation on some level will be necessary. The state could help in this regard by repealing the Gap Elimination Adjustment and making some additional funds available, and by passing legislation enabling districts to create regional high schools.
Economy: The north country has become far too dependent on the government as the primary driver of the local economy. While we enjoy hosting Fort Drum as well as a variety of state agencies, new sources of entrepreneurship in the private sector must be created to revitalize the stagnant economy. Jefferson County has the second-highest unemployment rate in the state. Innovative thinking is required to devise ways for the north country to be more inviting to businesses.
Nonprofit agencies: The North Country Family Health Center and the Family Counseling Service of Northern New York have had to rely on emergency funding plans to remain open. The North Country Family Health Center is now under the administration of Samaritan Medical Center, but this is a temporary measure. These nonprofit groups provide vital services in this region, and officials with both organizations must devise practical business plans that identify sustainable sources of revenue to maintain operations.
Solid waste: St. Lawrence County legislators wisely resisted a proposal this year to increase their surcharge to waste haulers for not using one of the countys four transfer stations. But seeing how the county is losing money on running its own solid waste disposal operation, can officials hold out rising their rates much longer? St. Lawrence County should get out of the garbage business and allow private firms to take over this function.
Law enforcement: The last couple of years, the Jefferson County Sheriffs Department has behaved and performed like episodes from the Keystone Cops. County voters deserve a mature and vigorous debate among the candidates for sheriff. We would especially benefit from primaries in both the Republican and Democratic parties, thus allowing voters to decide who should run, instead of the political parties anointing their candidates.