Buffalo 1981, Charlottesville 2017

In 1981 Karl Hand, a neo-nazi sympathizer, organized a “whites have rights” rally in Buffalo and called on others to join him. I remember it clearly because there was a big lead up to it and counter protests were scheduled. The community was on edge, worried about what might happen.

On the day of the event Karl Hand was joined by no one. A swarm of media and counter protestors were there but no one other than Hand showed up for his rally. He stood there alone, a solitary bigoted figure, against a united greater community.

I remember taking great pride in my community knowing no one would stand with that Nazi racist. I talked about it then with my late grandfather Mark Lewandowski. Grandpa Mark served in WWII. He was from the “Greatest Generation” that gave so much to rid the world of fascism. He was equally proud of our community for standing up to Hand and all the bigotry and hatred he stood for.

While I miss my grandfather I am glad he did not witness the events of yesterday and the previous night. During his time while bigots existed, they hid from plain sight, certainly not showing their face to the public. He would not have believed his eyes seeing such overt racism and open bigotry. He would have thought, like I did until the recent years, that the open racism and bigotry of the past was long gone. However, as we have unfortunately seen recently, not only is it still alive, it is open for all to see. The bigots of the past wore white sheets over their heads to protect their identities. Today they proudly carry tiki torches while making a Nazi salute for all to see.

The First Amendment protects the right of such a bigoted, racist white supremacist/member of the KKK/Nazi to state those beliefs; however it does not protect such an individual from being called what you are – a weak, racist bigoted person – and being told how your hate will not be tolerated in our country. We as a nation, united as Americans regardless of the color of one’s skin, religion, sex, ethnicity, etc., must stand up to such racism and say not here, not ever.

That is what Heather Heyer and others who came out to peacefully counter-protest did yesterday. They joined together to say your hatred, your racism will not tolerated in Charlottesville today, tomorrow, or ever. Now her name will be forever linked with a stained day in our American democracy due to her death in a terrorist attack by a weak, sick racist. Just like Virginia State Police Officers H. Jay Cullen and Berke M.M. Bates names will be forever linked to this sad day as they died in a helicopter crash while responding to the Charlottesville incident. One person died peaceably protesting the hatred of others, two others died while protecting the public. This should not happen in our country.

36 years have passed since Karl Hand’s solitary protest, but instead of our nation extinguishing the embers of hatred represented by Hand, the smoldering embers were fanned during the past three decades (especially on the Internet) and took fire during last year’s presidential campaign. As a result, 36 years after Buffalo and Erie County said “not here, not ever” to the bigoted hatred of one, three people are dead because of the open bigoted hatred of many.

This is not now and can never be deemed acceptable. Violence and terrorism, whether it be by hand, knife, gun or a Dodge Charger, must always be condemned and those who perpetrate it prosecuted to the fullest extent under the law. Hatred and bigotry of any kind can never be tolerated. There are not multiple sides in this issue and no excuses can be made for the vitriolic statements and actions of others. There are only those who espouse racism and hatred and the rest of a civilized society. We as a nation must rise up like Buffalo and Erie County did in 1981 and say we will not tolerate White Supremacists, Nazis, the KKK or whatever is the name used that day; not here, not ever.

Mark Poloncarz is the County Executive of Erie County, New York
Copyright 2017

  • Standard Post
  • Written by Mark

Trip to Washington covers people’s business

BY Mark Poloncarz
Erie County Executive
(This Column originally appeared in various editions of the Bee Group Newspapers in July, 2017.)

I recently traveled to Washington, D.C., to join my counterparts from across the country for a special meeting of the County Executives of America Association, a nonpartisan organization that includes elected officials from more than 700 counties nationwide. The CEA brings these individuals together to discuss a multitude of national issues and their effects at the county level, as well as county-level responses to national challenges.

My trip to our nation’s capital involved not only a meeting with my colleagues to discuss the latest information from the fight against the opioid epidemic, but also a meeting with Sen. Charles Schumer to review the information. In addition, I was honored to take part in a ceremony remembering the victims of Flight 3407 and urging Congress to maintain air travel protections put in place since that tragedy eight years ago.

The opioid epidemic sweeping the country has alarm bells ringing at all levels of government and was a main point of dialogue among the assembled officials. As the sole NYS representative to the National City-County Task Force on the Opioid Epidemic, I was honored to present them with the findings from our report, “A Prescription for Action: Local Leadership in Ending the Opioid Crisis,” which outlines steps local officials and agencies can take to stem the tide of opioid abuse in their communities.

The report is the result of a yearlong effort on the part of the National Task Force and examines the widespread issue of opioid abuse and best practices in dealing with it. Many of Erie County’s responses to the epidemic were included among the report’s recommendations and are now part of this blueprint for community anti opioid action. I also had the opportunity to discuss the report, its recommendations, other Erie County anti-opioid efforts and the importance of federal funding to continue the fight along with Sen. Schumer, who understands the gravity of the issue and is a staunch supporter in the struggle. It was a sobering conversation but one that underscored the need for partnerships at all levels of government to combat the problem.

While in Washington, I also joined our local congressional delegation in a Flight 3407 remembrance event that served a dual purpose: to recall the lives of the individuals lost in that tragedy and issue a call to lawmakers to preserve flight safety rules put in place since then to prevent another such incident.

  • Standard Post
  • Written by Mark

Campaign Promises and budgetary priorities

By Mark Poloncarz
May 25, 2017

When a government issues a budget it is usually met with yawns from the public, if it is even noticed at all. However, if you ever want to understand what an administration’s priorities are and if it upholds its campaign promises, whether it is on the local, state, or national level, all you have to do is review its first budget proposal.

A budget is much more than spreadsheets on a page; it is a window into the administration’s goals. It symbolizes the administration’s view of the role of government – is it aspirational in nature by investing in the well-being of its people through targeted programs or, as President Ronald Reagan stated, does it view government as being the problem.

The release of President Donald J. Trump’s first proposed budget shows exactly what his priorities are: increasing military spending and reducing taxes on the wealthy paid for by significant cuts in almost every other part of the federal government. It is pretty much what everyone expected but is not what exactly he said on the campaign trail.

As he promised, Trump’s budget increased the Department of Defense’s budget by more than $50 billion, as well as the Departments of Veterans’ Affairs (a most worthy increase) and Homeland Security. It then cut just about everything else.

For example, the Environmental Protection Agency is proposed to be cut by an astonishing thirty-one percent ($8.2 Billion to $5.7 Billion); the Department of Labor is to be cut by nineteen percent ($12.1 Billion to $9.7 Billion); the Education Department is to be slashed by more than fourteen percent (from $68 Billion to $59 Billion); and programs to support refugee resettlement are to be cut by nearly ninety percent ($4.5 Billion to $500million). If you followed the president’s campaign none of this would surprise anyone.

However, based on his campaign promises you would be surprised to know what other programs the president cut: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP” and formerly known as Food Stamps), cutting the eligibility requirements for Social Security Disability eligibility and its corresponding Supplemental Security Income program, Medicaid, and even the Department of Transportation. On the campaign trail the president pledged not to cut Medicaid, Social Security and other important social welfare programs like SNAP. He also promised a huge increase in infrastructure spending, such as building new roads, bridges, train lines, etc.

Yet, when his final budget came out it included the aforementioned cuts to Medicaid, Social Security, SNAP, and a thirteen percent cut in the Department of Transportation (including elimination of the popular TIGER grant program which has been instrumental to restoring cars to Main Street in Buffalo).

You do not create thousands of more jobs for middle-class Americans by cutting funding to the federal department that pays for the projects. There is no magic economic formula to make that work. By cutting transportation funding the president is actually cutting jobs dependent on that funding.

This cut is in some ways more telling on what this administration stands for than others. While many expected cuts to programs that benefit the poor, or are considered more liberal in nature, transportation spending is one of the few spending programs (other than defense spending) promoted by Republicans. It is the type of program “middle America” likes – everyone enjoys driving on a new road, even if they do not like paying for it.

Yet instead of honoring his campaign pledge to increase infrastructure spending President Trump significantly cut it. In effect, President Trump lied to a vast portion of those who voted for him based on the promise of job growth from the increased investment in repairing our infrastructure. This first budget proves for all his campaign rhetoric of investing in the heart of America President Trump’s priorities lie elsewhere.

We knew he was going to cut programs that assist the poor and those most in need, but now he has proved he will not even invest our tax dollars in job growth programs that could benefit many of his own supporters. Instead of investing in the people who voted for him, Trump’s priorities are increasing defense spending and “investing” in the wealthiest Americans who will benefit from a big tax cut if this budget was passed.

It turns out candidate Trump’s promise of investing in middle-class America through the creation of thousands of new construction jobs is as real as the degree offered by Trump University – it is not worth the words on the paper – and President Trump just proved it by issuing this budget.

Mark Poloncarz is the Erie County (NY) Executive and is responsible for preparing an approximately $1.7 Billion annual budget for the county.

Copyright Mark C. Poloncarz 2017

  • Standard Post
  • Written by Mark

History 101 in the Trump Era

History 101 in the Trump era
By: Mark Poloncarz
May 2, 2017

The last few days will not go down in history as the best days of the Donald Trump presidency, or for that matter any presidency. In the span of less than forty-eight hours President Trump: (1) invited a brutal dictator to the White House; (2) tweeted an incredibly inaccurate statement about Andrew Jackson and the causes of the Civil War; and (3) cut short an interview when pressed to explain his own words, admitting “I don’t stand by anything.” These three actions tell us everything we need to know about the man in the Oval Office, and it is not good.

First, the United States of America has a long, proud history of being the example to the rest of the world of what a representative democracy can and should be. While our own history is not perfect, the United States is known worldwide as the champion of human rights. No other country can claim the mantle of protector of human rights around the world like our nation, and, regardless of president or political party, for the past fifty years we have publicly called out brutal dictators across the world.

That ended two nights ago when, during a phone call, President Trump casually invited Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte to the White House. Duterte is not your usual president. According to published reports, Duterte has a brutal record on human rights. In approximately a year since he became president, more than 7,000 people have been killed during his crackdown on suspected drug dealers and even addicts.

Additionally, Duterte claimed to have killed three people himself when he was mayor of a Philippine city, drawing the wrath of human rights organizations across the world. He threatened to burn down the United Nations building in New York, and most notably in the United States, publicly lashed out against President Obama in an obscenity laced tirade, resulting in the cancelling of a one-on-one meeting between the two presidents.

He is the last person who should be invited to the White House. Yet, President Trump did so.

Giving the president the benefit of the doubt, perhaps he did not know about Duterte’s penchant for ordering the killing of his own citizens or his self-professed extra-curricular activities while mayor (though he should have). Or perhaps he was tired when making the late night phone call. If so, what is more troubling is instead of admitting it was wrong to do so when faced with criticism of the invite, the president doubled down and defended his invite. There can be no defending of this action. If you are going to invite Rodrigo Duterte to the White House you might as well start inviting Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Bashar al-Assad of Syria for state visits.

The president should have admitted he was wrong and retracted the invite. However, as we know, Donald Trump the president, or previously the businessman, is incapable of admitting anything he says or does is wrong. This is a very bad trait for any leader, nevertheless the president of the United States.

Nobody is perfect and we all make mistakes. We have to admit our mistakes, learn from them and move forward, hopefully to never repeat them again. However, this president first has to admit he made a mistake before he can ever learn from his mistakes. Unfortunately the Duterte episode shows, once again, admitting a mistake or weakness is not something Donald Trump is capable of doing.

Normally the Duterte incident would be the worst event for any president during a twenty-four period, but in this presidency it was not because President Trump dropped jaws nationwide a day later when he discussed the reasons for the Civil War and opined it would not have happened if Andrew Jackson was president. He said:

I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. And he was really angry that — he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said, “There’s no reason for this.” People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War — if you think about it, why? People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?

In one paragraph the president seemed to forget everything he was taught in school about the causes of the Civil War, or for that matter, Andrew Jackson’s own history as a slave owner and having died sixteen years before the Civil War began. The quote was so outlandish one might think the president might have just appeared on an episode of Comedy Central’s “Drunk History.” Yet, he did not, leading one to question whether President Trump was awake during any history class or paid attention to anything else other than his businesses because if there is one event in U.S. History perpetually discussed it is the Civil War and its causes. (See Ken Burns’ documentary “The Civil War” as example number 1).

Then later in the day, after general astonishment with his statement, President Trump did what he always does, he doubled down tweeting “President Andrew Jackson, who died 16 years before the Civil War started, saw it coming and was angry. Would never have let it happen!”

There really is no response to the president’s Civil War statements and tweet other than he does not know his history. Ask any 10th grade high school student and he or she will probably come up with a more historically accurate and cogent answer as to the causes of the Civil War.

When the original Constitution differentiated between the rights of “free persons” and “three fifths of all other persons,” or slaves, our nation was on a collision course to either exist as one free nation or split into two states: one free and the other slave owning. Andrew Jackson could not have prevented the Civil War. No one, no matter how angry they were, could have prevented the Civil War. It is as simple as that.

President Trump seems to not know this most basic of historical facts about the United States. The Civil War is the seminal event in our nation’s history since its creation. Our president should know more about the cause of it and how, in some ways, we still deal with the bigotry and racism that created it. He should read a respected treatise on it, or at least watch Ken Burns’ documentary “The Civil War.”

Finally, as was released yesterday, President Trump abruptly ended an interview with John Dickerson of CBS News when he was pressed on his claim President Obama wire-tapped his phones. In trying not to respond, President Trump said this, “I don’t stand by anything.” He then deflected a bit, saying he has “own opinions. You can have your own opinions,” and then ended the interview.

It seems in a moment under pressure the president flinched and finally admitted what most Americans are figuring out – he does not stand by or for anything – and he will casually toss aside campaign pledges or statements now that he is president. He has been unable to pass one major piece of legislation, the Republican controlled Congress is starting to go it alone, in some ways ignoring him, as it negotiates a new federal spending bill with democrats, and even some of his most strident supporters are starting to question if his signature campaign promises – to build a wall on the southern border and repeal Obamacare – will ever occur.

In saying he does not “stand by anything” it may be as close as the president gets to admitting he was wrong. It appears we have witnessed a rare moment of truth by President Trump in an otherwise long period of alternative facts and head scratching statements. He may never ever admit he was wrong, but he just may have admitted what many assumed: he does not really stand for anything other than himself and ‘Donald Trump’ the brand.

These three episodes should be viewed as a window in how the remainder of his presidency will play out.

In inviting Philippines President Duterte to the White House and then doubling down in the face of criticism, President Trump tossed aside our nation’s long standing history of being the protector of human rights, showing we should expect anything from him, including taking stances which will only degrade our nation’s reputation in the world.

In showing an amazing lack of knowledge on the reasons for the Civil War, and then defending his first ill-informed statement, it showed the president will state whatever alternative facts come to his mind. I expect our president to at least know basic U.S. history, not come up with an alternative version of our nation’s history.

Finally, in stating “I don’t stand by anything,” President Trump finally admitted in a moment under stress what we should assume going forward: he does not really have any true political convictions and will casually toss aside what he said before if it no longer fits the current narrative. This will cause serious consternation with our allies as no one can ever be truly sure where the president, and by way of association the United States stands on any issue.

When the history of the Donald Trump presidency is written these three episodes in a two day period might be as good as any other to explain his presidency and the underlying person. While we do not know how his presidency will end up, we at least have a very good understanding on what to expect going forward, and it a presidency unlike any other we have witnessed.

Copyright Mark C. Poloncarz, May 2, 2017

  • Standard Post
  • Written by Mark

2017 State of the County Address as Delivered by Mark Poloncarz

Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz
March 29, 2017 State of the County Address
Burchfield-Penney Art Museum
Final as Prepared for Delivery

Thank you Tom Quatroche for that gracious introduction and the work you do every day to ensure ECMC, our region’s only level one trauma center, is the best it can be.

I also thank you and ECMC’s Board of Trustees for your steadfast commitment to ensuring ECMC does not become a financial albatross to the county. Working together we found a way to assist ECMC build its new state-of-the-art emergency department in a manner that benefits all – the hospital, county, and most importantly, our community – and I thank you for doing so.

I also wish to thank Captain Christopher Kennedy who led us in the pledge of allegiance and wish you Godspeed in your next deployment overseas. On behalf of the county I thank you for your service.

Thank you to Rabbi Jonathan Freirich for your words of encouragement and prayer for wisdom. We can all learn from the messages of compassion, caring and community from the good books of the past, in many ways we need these now more than ever before.

I also thank my fellow elected leaders for being here, as well as the members of my cabinet who so ably serve the people of our great community every day. Thank you.

To those in attendance here as well as those watching at home or work on Spectrum News or Facebook Live– thank you. I appreciate you taking time out of your day to participate in this important tradition.

It is my honor to come before you this evening to present my fifth State of the County address, and it’s a pleasure to be here at the Burchfield Penney Art Center. Erie County is proud to be a partner in supporting the Burchfield Penney and I know our community is a better place as a result of having institutions like this one call Erie County its home.

With the neighboring H.H. Richardson complex undergoing a renaissance, there’s a growing excitement around this campus.

There is also more excitement around Erie County than we’ve seen in decades.

Job growth is up while unemployment is down.

Investments in new business are up while requests for tax breaks are down.

More services are being delivered while county taxes remain low.

We are a great place for business.

We are fulfilling government’s core mission of providing the programs and services that our residents demand and expect.

We are a compassionate community that cares, and, as a result, the state of Erie County is strong.

Here’s some of what we’ve accomplished since I addressed you last year:

As was announced last month, the county, through the ECIDA, and with the help of Governor Cuomo and New York State, will be purchasing 147 acres of prime land at the former Bethlehem Steel site to convert it to a high-tech 21st Century industrial park.

With direct access to three forms of transportation – highway, rail and port – and guaranteed participation in the State’s 2017 Brownfield Cleanup Program, this property represents some of the most attractive industrial land in North America.

By acquiring this land and redeveloping it for new uses, we are building a legacy project that will rewrite the property’s history.

It is a history I know well. My father worked there for decades. At its peak approximately 25,000 people worked for Bethlehem Steel, and thousands more worked in jobs that supported the plant.
Lackawanna was a boom town. Famed columnist Walter Winchell once said, “I’d rather be mayor of Lackawanna, New York, than president of the United States.”

And then the plant started shutting down and jobs disappeared. By the time I graduated from high school what was once a behemoth of industry was becoming a rusted hulk of dashed dreams.

Now the story is changing. With this acquisition of property and the investment of nearly eight million dollars in public infrastructure, a new 21st Century industrial park will rise on the site, setting the stage for the next generation of advanced manufacturing jobs in this community.

What was once populated by smoke stacks and heavy, dirty industry will join Riverbend in Buffalo and the Riverview Solar Technology Park in Tonawanda as the latest in high-tech, green sites for commercial use.

As part of the overall redevelopment plan we will be relocating rail tracks along Route 5 that impede access to the site, building a public road to open the land for redevelopment, and, extending the Shoreline Trail along Route 5 between Buffalo and Hamburg.

These actions will result in tremendous new access to the Bethlehem site for business as well as our residents’ recreational use on the trail.

Thank you Tecumseh Redevelopment, Inc., the owner of the vast majority of the Bethlehem Steel site, for being a willing partner in this sale and for agreeing to donate a portion of its land along Route 5 to be used as an extension of the Shoreline Bike and walking trail.

While this was a big goal of mine when I took office as county executive, I certainly did not do it alone. Thank you to the members of the legislature who have unanimously supported this project from the very beginning, as well my fellow board members at the ECIDA. Without their support the acquisition of and improvements to the site would not be possible.

I also thank Deputy County Executive Maria Whyte who is leading the negotiations with Tecumseh and her team comprised of Ken Swanekamp, Chris Pawenski, Andrew Federick and Kristin Walder from Erie County and the ECIDA’s John Cappellino and its lawyers at Harris Beach. This project is a game-changer for our region. Thank you!

Once we own the land we will move forward with the innovative Net Zero Energy Manufacturing Building that will feature over 125,000 square feet of leasable commercial space housed in a facility powered by solar, geothermal and wind energy. This building will produce as much energy as it consumes, and help power our economy through the jobs created there.

I thank my fellow board members at the ECIDA for supporting this innovative project, and Steve Weathers and his team at the IDA for the work they have done to shepherd it through. Thank you!

Another positive step for our local economy occurred at Erie Community College’s North Campus in Amherst. Recently the construction of the new STEM building on ECC’s North Campus took a big step forward with the final steel beam being placed.

This $30 million investment in ECC represents a significant commitment on the part of NYS, which is contributing half of that amount, as well as Erie County, which is contributing about $10 million towards the construction and the purchase of equipment and fixtures for the building.

This project reinvigorates the College. The building will house cutting-edge STEM courses that are necessary to succeed in today’s work environment. I thank the ECC Board of Trustees for their work in seeing this project through, and congratulate ECC President Jack Quinn for his efforts to make this project a reality.

I also thank Jack and the Board for agreeing with my request at last year’s state of the county to create a joint county-college task force to address common issues we face. The task force has met multiple times and its work is already starting to pay dividends as both entities have a greater understanding of the mutual issues that confront us.

Jack will be retiring after this semester. Jack has served our community in many capacities over the years: a teacher, town leader, congressman and now ECC’s president. The STEM building will be part of your legacy of leadership and I thank you Jack for your lifetime of service to our community.

This past year was a busy one for our Department of Public Works, and not just because of the STEM Building. In 2016 we invested more than $57 million dollars in road and bridge work.

2016 projects were as diverse as the complete replacement of the Jamison and Girdle Road Bridges in Elma;

the construction and opening of the popular Tonawanda Rails to Trails Project;

the repaving of Old Lakeshore Road in Hamburg, Whitehaven and Baseline Roads on Grand Island and Losson Road in Cheektowaga;

we also replaced the Brooklyn Street Bridge at Akron Falls Park;

and repaired the Berg Road Bridge in West Seneca as well as repaved the road from Lackawanna to Orchard Park, just to name a few of the projects.

Don’t let anyone tell you our county isn’t investing in our roads. In fact, during the past four years, we have invested more than $225 million dollars in our roads and bridges, addressing a total of 1,010 of our 2,400 lane miles of roads.

Erie County has more lane miles of roads than the states of Delaware, Rhode Island and Hawaii each have. My administration’s commitment to protecting our infrastructure continues today, and we will continue to work with the Legislature to prioritize and properly fund our infrastructure projects.

Now here is an accomplishment you have not heard about before. At the same time we have increased our investment in roads, we have decreased the county’s total outstanding debt – by a lot. In fact, when I took office the county’s long term debt was nearly $417 million dollars. By the end of this year, total debt will be $333 million, a reduction of nearly 20%.

That is why Fitch Ratings gave the County a “AAA” rating in November regarding our long-term liability burden and an “A+” rating in full. Considering the County’s bond rating was just above junk bond status when I took office as comptroller in 2006, it feels really good to be rated “A+” today.

When it comes to our parks and green spaces, this past year was a big one regarding our investments. At the Botanical Gardens Erie County invested $3.5 million dollars to rebuild Greenhouses 2 and 3 and the houses were reopened to the public this past January to rave reviews.

The County also acquired 10 acres of land adjacent to the Seneca Bluffs natural habitat park in Buffalo, and completed more than $3 million in habitat restoration work at our natural habitat parks along the Buffalo River. We were able to complete this habitat restoration under a grant received from the EPA’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has been a tremendous success. Unfortunately, the program is proposed to be cut in the Trump administration’s budget blueprint.

I hope you will join me in calling on Congressmen Brian Higgins and Chris Collins to do all they can to ensure this important program, that is doing so much good for our community and many others, is not callously cut.

While those in Washington propose cuts to needed programs that promote our environment, here we will start a new one: the “Passport to the Parks” program.

Each of you received your passport today, I have mine, and soon our constituents will be able to get their passport at our parks too. The passport will open up a whole new world of fun and education in our parks.

With your passport you will not only learn about each of our historic parks, but can use the passport to attend educational events with our park rangers, where our youngest constituents can become junior park rangers. So I hope everyone takes advantage of this new, free program offered by the Erie County Parks Department.

While we take pride in the improvements we’ve made to Erie County, we have also taken steps to address problems ravaging our community like the opioid epidemic.

Erie County leads the way nationally in responding to the Opioid Epidemic. Our Departments of Health and Mental Health have played lead roles in addressing this crisis – they have hosted educational seminars for doctors, trained more than 15,000 persons to administer Narcan, identified and approved more treatment options, and helped Governor Cuomo draft appropriate state legislation to attack this crisis. Erie County has taken the lead when others hoped the crisis would go away.

As part of the effort our Erie County Opioid Task Force recommended creating a life-saving 24/7 hotline for addicts and their families, and that’s what we did last August, placing help just a phone call away for individuals and families. As of today there have been 1,719 calls to the Hotline.

To give you a sense of what that number means, in Suffolk County, which has 500,000 more people and a commensurate high rate of addiction, their addiction hotline received 516 calls since April 2016 and they consider their hotline a great success.

In Erie County, more than ninety percent of the individuals who called our hotline and were scheduled for in-person assessments successfully found treatment. Our program is a success and many lives have possibly been saved across Erie County.

For the past year I had the honor of serving on the National Opioid Task Force, working alongside colleagues from across the nation to get to the root of the opioid crisis and to develop ways to fight back. I am proud to say Erie County has not only implemented almost every one of the National Task Force’s recommendations, but many of our programs were included in the final report.

Recently, my administration filed a lawsuit against 11 opioid manufacturers and 4 of their paid representatives. These companies and individuals knew opioids were highly addictive, and could in fact kill, but they advertised them as a safe, non-addictive alternative for pain management.

They reaped huge profits from the sale of opioids. Now they need to be held responsible for the death they sowed in our community and our cost to address this nightmare and we are holding them responsible.

I have spoken to the families of those who have died, as well as those suffering from addiction. I have heard their cries.

We are a compassionate community that cares. As long as I am your county executive, we will never perform a cost-benefit analysis on saving people’s lives and Erie County will never turn its back on those in need.

To ensure the health of our community, the county has lead in other areas, such as in addressing the dangers of, well, lead. My administration led the way in committing $3.75 million over 5 years in enhanced funding to fight lead poisoning across Erie County.

Lead poisoning is an insidious disease that can cause permanent neurological damage, destroying a child’s future, and it takes a community-wide effort to tackle the issue.

I thank the Legislature for supporting this initiative for 2016 and 2017. As a result, we are inspecting and remediating more homes, thereby protecting more children

We have partners in government and in the private sector who are attacking this issue too. I specifically thank Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown and the members of the city’s common council for the actions they have recently taken to reduce lead exposure in Buffalo and work in partnership with Erie County to fight lead.

We also thank the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo, Belmont Housing Resources for WNY, Jericho Road Ministries, Housing Opportunities Made Equal, and others for their advocacy on anti-lead efforts.

I also thank Congressman Brian Higgins for his great leadership on this issue by securing a number of federal grants to address lead poisoning, and Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand for their assistance in procuring HUD funding to fight lead in our community.

As a result of Erie County’s commitment of those $3.75 million dollars, I am proud to note our investment has leveraged an additional $3 million in Lead Hazard Reduction Demonstration Funding and $400,000 in Healthy Homes Supplemental Funding from the federal government. This is huge and just proves our investment in tackling this problem was a good one.

While we have accomplished much, there is work remaining to be done in other areas.

For example, last year I called for the passage of a new Ethics law. To put it mildly, Erie County’s Ethics Laws are a mess. They need to be strengthened and completely rewritten.

I am heartened to see that just last week Majority Leader Lorigo clocked in a just slightly amended version of the ethics law proposed last year by himself, Legislator Loughran and I. I support this legislation, and call on Legislature to pass it as soon as possible. Let’s show Erie County that we are not Washington or Albany. Let’s get that reformed ethics code in place.

Another important law introduced last year, but stuck in committee at the Legislature is a Fair Housing Law. I called for, and Legislators Burke, Grant, Loughran, Miller-Williams and Savage jointly introduced, a law that not only protects individuals from all forms of housing discrimination, but gave our citizens an avenue of recourse against those who would violate it.

April is Fair Housing Month in our nation and it’s about time we ensure fair housing for all of our residents. The law cannot be voted on because it is stuck in committee and the required public hearing has not been held. The public deserves to know where legislators stand when it comes to protecting our residents against discriminatory housing practices.

The people of Erie County put us in office to represent them and address their needs. They are counting on us to work for them and build a county that’s more equitable and inclusive.

So I urge all elected officials to recommit to doing the people’s business. Let’s get the Fair Housing and Ethics laws enacted in the next 30 days.

In other areas my administration is moving full steam ahead.

For example, in June 2013 my administration announced Initiatives for a Smart Economy, a blueprint for development that envisioned new ways to grow our economy.

Today, half of the original 64 Initiatives are complete, and 28 of the remaining 32 are nearing completion.

We made tremendous progress investing in our workforce development, advancing smart growth projects, creating an Erie County energy team, reforming the ECIDA, and promoting Erie County agriculture through our newly-created Food Policy Council and working towards building a new agricultural industrial park.

While we work towards completion of the original Initiatives for a Smart Economy plan, I am proud to announce we will soon release Initiatives for a Smart Economy Version 2.0.

As with the earlier plan, these new Initiatives will allow Erie County to lead or work collaboratively with partners, leveraging county assets and resources with others to work on goals that align with the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council’s plans. In this way we strategically target local areas of need and focus greater resources on them as we work to implement change. Here are some of these new initiatives:

We will continue to work with partners on planning for a new train station in Erie County, one that provides access to all while positively impacting our economy.

We will create a job training program for veterans to receive lead-safe certification to do renovation, painting and repair work on homes to prevent lead dust from poisoning children. This effort will build off of existing work in the Erie County Health Department and Veterans Service Agency by bringing together job training for veterans and lead remediation work that is needed. That way, we can offer veterans a career and protect the health of some of our most vulnerable residents.

To support principles of smart growth, I will establish a Division of Planning Advisory Board to provide the Deputy Commissioner of Planning and Economic Development the advice and counsel she needs to fully execute her duties under our Administrative Code. The Board will include a cross-section of community stakeholders who will work collaboratively to engage a broader spectrum of Erie County’s development, conservation, and municipal interests in county planning processes and reviews.

To keep our economy as robust as it can be we must have a strong and available workforce for employers, and there is one new initiative which will do just that.

We must ensure women are not only equally paid but are trained and considered for jobs they might not have been before.

What I am talking about is developing and opening up for women “middle skills” jobs. Those jobs are those occupations that require more than a high school education but not a college degree. These occupations include truck drivers, welders, IT support specialists and quality control inspectors.

These jobs often pay a living wage and can serve as a stepping stone to a higher paying career.

In the past these jobs would have gone almost exclusively to men, but as we know women make up a majority of our population and they must be considered for these middle skills positions.

Building on existing models, we can provide job training for young women through vocational education offered in high schools and Erie BOCES programs, as well as expand job training and apprenticeship programs specifically geared for post-high school graduates seeking middle skills job opportunities.

I thank Karen King, Executive Director of the County Commission on the Status of Women for her work on this initiative. It will make a difference.

There are other initiatives we plan on including in Version 2.0 of the Initiatives for a Smart Economy, but I am not sure if they will be there in the long run due to the Trump administration’s proposed elimination of all community development block grants.

First, we intend to invest in more villages and hamlets through the creation of a new Smart Growth Fund to promote projects that enhance the centers of our villages and smaller communities. This program is based off of the very successful Smart Growth Fund in Version 1.0 that financed streetscape and beautification projects in communities as diverse as the cities of Tonawanda and Lackawanna, towns of Clarence, Brant, Grand Island and West Seneca and the villages of Akron, Depew and Springville. It needs to continue.

In conjunction with that we will continue channeling resources toward the revitalization of downtowns and Main Streets across Erie County with a Façade Improvement Program to assist business owners improve their business’ appearance and stimulate economic activity.

We also plan on continuing the competitive process to award funds to provide transportation to senior and low-income residents in our rural areas. The current rural transit service serves communities like Sardinia, Wales, Collins and Newstead, to name a few. It is a good program that helped more than sixteen hundred residents in 2016. It needs to continue as well.

However, all three of the initiatives I just mentioned are dependent on the federal community development block grant program still existing. When people hear of this program they immediately think it assists city residents only. In fact the program assists communities everywhere. If it is eliminated from the federal budget we all will suffer.

Regardless of political affiliation, please contact Congressmen Higgins and Collins, as well as Senators Schumer and Gillibrand, and demand the community development block grant program stay in existence.

Those are just a few of the Initiatives contained in Initiatives for a Smart Economy version 2.0, but we will also be working in other ways to benefit our community in 2017.

For example, as we gather this evening we are in the shadow of the iconic H.H. Richardson Towers and the storied campus of what was called the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane when it opened in 1880. 137 years later, the Towers and campus are experiencing new life with the opening of Hotel Henry, while we compassionately assist individuals struggling with mental illness and/or addiction.

I am proud to note our Department of Mental Health, led by Commissioner Michael Ranney, has secured grant funding of nearly $2.9 million for addiction treatment, prevention programs, and to support recovery. The Department of Mental Health also secured grants and awards in the amount of $1.3 million to support children with serious emotional disturbance and adults with mental illness.

Compassion and commitment have been and will continue to be the hallmarks of our response to the issues of mental health and addiction in Erie County. I thank our Mental Health Department for their good work.

Another Department leading the way is our Probation Department. This year Probation added an Officer to work with its partners to locate juvenile runaways before they can get hurt or into trouble.

The program’s goal is to address the underlying issues that contributed to the juvenile running away, as well as locate and attempt to ensure the safety of the missing juvenile. This will prevent the need for the issuance of a warrant and subsequent arrest, detention, and ongoing court involvement of the juvenile.

It is just one more way Erie County as a government is compassionately caring for our community.

Now one way we can strengthen families is by ensuring everyone has the opportunity to live where they want. There have been tremendous strides made towards repopulating downtown Buffalo, as long as you can afford a $1,500 a month or greater rent.

We need to ensure affordable housing exists for all in our community, especially in downtown Buffalo.

In 2017 the ECIDA is undertaking a study of our regional IDAs’ adaptive reuse policy. When completed, the study will provide a report on best practices and recommend specific policy changes.

Erie County is committed to ensuring that the policy not only continues to add to the economic resurgence of the County but ensures projects provide housing opportunities for people of all income brackets.

I believe the report must include an affordable housing component in the policy.

Buffalo has a long, sad history of being segregated. Real estate agents, banks, and others redlined neighborhoods. We cannot allow further segregation of our community, now based on wealth.

If housing in downtown Buffalo is only affordable to the very wealthy, we as a community are poorer. Future adaptive reuse housing projects must include components that promote affordable housing.

The members of the ECIDA’s board of directors must always remember we are not bankers but representatives of the greater community. When we support projects that promote community development we are promoting a stronger economy. It is as simple as that.

To promote community development we can ensure the health and well-being of the most senior members of our population. Recently the story of how an 82 year old woman was viciously attacked in her senior home, and subsequently died, shocked our community.

Ruth Murray was brutally beaten by another resident. The nursing facility initially failed to notify the state of the attack. It told her family she only sustained some minor lacerations to her face, scratches to her nose, and a bruise on her back.

Here is a picture of Ruth the day before with her daughter.

You don’t want to see the picture of Ruth taken after the attack because, in fact, Ruth had a collapsed lung, five fractured ribs, a fractured neck and vertebrae and broken bones in her face. As stated, she died from her injuries.

The pictures are too shocking to see. No one should see their parent like that. No one.

No person should be attacked, much less murdered in a nursing home. No family should ever be deceived by a nursing home about their loved one’s condition. Ruth’s family should not have been deceived by the facility. While New York State has primary responsibility for monitoring and punishing nursing homes Erie County can take action.

That’s why last Friday, I proposed three measures to protect our seniors, hold nursing facilities accountable for mismanagement, and promote transparency.

At the local level I have proposed a law to require nursing homes to disclose their federal quality scores to potential residents, and to allow the Commissioner of Senior Services to review incident reports.

Erie County has also launched a website noting rankings of area nursing homes so that families and consumers can find the best facility for their loved one.

Lastly, I am working with Assemblyman Sean Ryan to introduce legislation in Albany, to increase the maximum fine for incidents like that one that cost Ruth Murray her life.

We need to care for those who spent a good portion of their lives caring for us. I hope the Legislature will join me in supporting Ruthie’s Law and ensuring our loved ones receive the care they deserve and families are not denied the information they deserve to know.

We must protect our seniors, but we also must care for and protect other, vulnerable members of our community.

The prophet Isaiah called us to “share our bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless.” Here, we are working to do these things and to compassionately help those in our community who are both the most vulnerable, and increasingly the most ostracized.

No one chooses to live a life of poverty or food insecurity, hoping and praying they’ll be able to put food on the table for themselves and their children.

No one looks forward to the difficult decision of either paying for heat or paying to eat, just as no one wants to live one paycheck away from disaster while working to keep their heads above water.

Earlier this year I participated in the Rural Outreach Center’s poverty challenge and performed the difficult calculus myself when I agreed to live on $6.36 of food per day for a week. Trust me, you won’t be able to do it easily and eat a healthy meal every time. It was an eye-opening experience, illustrating to me the tough choices individuals living in poverty must make each and every day.

I thank Rev. Frank Cerny of the Rural Outreach Center and his group for the hard work they do to help the rural poor, and helping me and others understand the true nature of poverty and what it means to be poor.

The Erie County Poverty Committee, of which Rev. Cerny is a member and Rev. Kinzer Pointer is the Chair, has been working to identify and address the causes of poverty across the county: in our cities, our suburbs, and our rural areas.

Poverty is a pervasive problem that does not respect age, gender, ethnicity or geography. It is perniciously degrading our quality of life.

It is a problem I highlighted in my 2014 state of the county address, and one we are addressing head-on.

You see, the Poverty Committee has been meeting since I announced it in 2015 as one initiative as part of our comprehensive health and human services plan – Initiatives for a Stronger Community. The men and women of the Poverty Committee understand that the only way to address the problem of poverty is attack its root causes.

That is why they recommended to my administration to invest in two programs to reduce poverty through targeted investments in our youth.

The first initiative, an expansion of the “Help Me Grow” program, screens children from birth to age three for developmental delays.

Through increased knowledge about the social-emotional development of infants and toddlers, “Help Me Grow” is ensuring a child receives the assistance needed before they enter school. It is also a valuable supplement to Erie County’s Special Needs Division which provides early intervention services for more than 5,000 children every year.

These funds will go towards expanding training of child care providers to recognize developmental delays, and provide linkages to provide the support necessary to help the child overcome these challenges.

The second initiative will provide enhanced skill training through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Summer Youth employment program currently administered by the Department of Social Services.

I put the county’s money behind these efforts when I included $500,000 in the 2017 Budget for these programs, and I thank the Legislature for agreeing with me that these programs are a wise investment of our tax dollars.

While I thank the members of the Poverty Committee for their time and effort, the work of the committee is not done. The work of our community is not done to address this issue. There is much more to do.

That is why I am honored to be a member of the executive committee overseeing the Empire State Poverty Reduction Initiative for Buffalo. The team we have in place – from both the public and not-for-profit sectors – is hard at work to address the needs of poverty in our community.

The county also serves on the Racial Equity Roundtable, an organization convened by the Community Foundation of Greater Buffalo, to advance racial equity and promote the change required to accelerate a shared regional prosperity. Its work is making a difference, but there is still more we can do.

As such, later this spring, I will be convening a meeting of our partners to discuss poverty in our community, the whole community.

This poverty summit will bring together leaders from government, not-for-profits, foundations, the faith based community and the private sector to discuss issue of poverty in Erie County, and what we need to do to address it.

One thing we can all do now, even before the poverty summit is convened, is contact Congressmen Higgins and Collins, and Senators Schumer and Gillibrand and tell them the home energy assistance program – HEAP – cannot be cut as proposed by the Trump Administration.

HEAP helps not only those living in poverty but those just above the poverty line heat their homes in the winter. 92,000 families in Erie County rely on it. It must not be cut.

I am not naïve. We won’t eliminate all poverty in our community. Yet, I will not stand by cold-hearted and say we cannot do anything to address it. We can and must do more if we are to truly become the community we know we can be.

Similarly, we must heed the call to shelter the oppressed and displaced, the people who have nowhere left to turn and are in desperate need of refuge.

No one wants to flee their homeland to avoid persecution or war, to take themselves and their families into an uncertain future abroad that was forced on them by violence in their own country.

Our New Americans Committee is on the front line of what has become one of the major issues of our time: whether America is still a shining city on a hill, a beacon of light to those facing the specter of death elsewhere.

While ignorance, fear, and xenophobia may dominate the toxic discourse of a vocal minority, in Erie County we will steer our own course.

You cannot have both broad shoulders and a narrow mind, just as we know that the endless repetition of fear-based lies and misrepresentations about immigrants and refugees cannot bear the light of truth.

Our community is not defined by the vitriolic statements or actions of the very few, but the coming together of our people, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, national origin, and sex to say we will not tolerate hatred and bigotry.

We stand with those of all faiths and creeds.

When hatred and bigotry targets one religion or race, it negatively affects all religions and races.

When an individual, for no action of their own, is denied the opportunity to enjoy the freedoms we hold so dear just because they were born in a particular place, each of us is less free.

I have met refugees from Burma, Iraq, Somalia, and Syria. They have all come to Buffalo to start a new life. They are electricians, plumbers, engineers, teachers, mothers and fathers. They just want a chance at a safe life for themselves and their family.

To deny others the same opportunity our predecessors had is to diminish the legacy of this community and this land.

Buffalo is known as the “City of Good Neighbors,” and while no community’s past is perfect, the many nationalities that comprise the fabric of our community is what makes it as great as it is.

Today, the melting pot that is the United States is threatened by misguided and prejudicial decrees, derided and diminished by an echo-chamber media, and in danger of being forgotten by the very people who have lived with and enjoyed the very freedoms they would withhold from others.

President John F. Kennedy told us “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie – deliberate, contrived, and dishonest – but the myth – persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.”

He also said, “Too often we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

We must always be on guard against those who would casually and cruelly promote deceit as a counterbalance to truth while disregarding facts in favor of fallacies.

Make no mistake about it: Erie County will never turn its back on people who are in need.

We will never allow darkness to overcome light and will never stop listening to voices crying out for help.

We helped those fleeing persecution in the past, we will today, and we will in the future.

We can be the example to the world that the shining city on the hill still exists in America, in a place called Buffalo and Erie County.

I thank the members of the New Americans Committee for their important work and for being a light in the darkness, a voice of compassion in a moment of dire need, and for helping these new citizens play a part in the continual renewal of our County and nation.

Tonight we have celebrated our county’s achievements, recognized our challenges, and identified avenues for needed change. Much like our forefathers and mothers who followed the American dream here created the vibrant industries and neighborhoods we enjoy today; we understand that building a better county has always been a community effort.

We cannot afford to retreat into short-sighted mindsets that pit communities and peoples against each other, whether it is over immigration or addressing poverty. We must reaffirm we are stronger together.

Today more than ever we must nurture that sense of commonality and strengthen the ties that bind us together as a community. The proud heritage we embody in 2017 was created with input from peoples of every color and creed, every nationality and ethnicity, all hoping and dreaming that Erie County was the place for their own American success story.

Working together we are seeing heights we could not have imagined a decade ago.

The renaissance that is the “New Buffalo,” the “New Erie County” is real but there is still much more that needs to be done to ensure all of our residents can enjoy the fruits of this renaissance.

As we noted tonight, history is being made in Erie County today, a history that builds on the rich legacy left to us by prior generations. In industry, education, public health, environmental protection, and many other areas we are standing on the shoulders of our predecessors while forging ahead with a vision for a new, vibrant, and inclusive Erie County.

We remain on the right track and will continue to face our problems head-on, working with partners towards solutions that are agreeable to most, if not all. I remain open to working with the Legislature to resolve our tough problems. I am stepping forward and they must, too.

Now is the time for leadership, not partisanship. We owe it to past generations, who worked so hard to get us to this point, and future generations, who are counting on us to do the same for them.

Let’s not let them down.

Ladies and gentlemen, let’s continue to work together to make an even better Erie County for our children and grandchildren. Our future depends on it!

Thank you for joining me here today. May God bless you, Erie County, and the United States of America.


  • Standard Post
  • Written by Mark