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.

***END***

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Inaugural Carnage

By Mark C. Poloncarz, Erie County Executive

For the 45th time in our nation’s history, a peaceful transition of power occurred in the United States. Due to our nation being one of the few democracies that is not parliamentary in nature, the inauguration of a new president is one of those uniquely American events. Since George Washington first took the oath of office in New York City, and then more importantly, relinquished it so John Adams could take the oath in Philadelphia, inaugural addresses are meant to inspire the citizens to achieve the “better angels of our nature.” They are positive and uplifting, even when our nation faces a crisis.

Today’s address and the events surrounding it were different. From an inaugural address that identified our nation as a dystopian state, to protests turning into anarchical riots in parts of our capital, to an inaugural parade that had more participants than watchers and started as night fell, the inauguration of Donald J. Trump as our president was the darkest one I can remember. Even when a president I did not support was inaugurated I looked forward to watching the ceremony and hearing the new president’s address to learn not just what policy direction he would take, but the tone of his remarks.

Though I did not have high expectations such a speech would be given based on President Trump’s recent statements and choices for department secretaries, I still hoped to hear an address which offered a positive tone and an olive branch to all Americans, including the majority of voters who did not vote for him. Unfortunately that is not what occurred.

President Trump delivered another in a long line of campaign speeches that described, at least in my eyes, an America which does not exist. Yes, there are problems in our country that need to be resolved. There always are. However the description of America today was not the “shining city on a hill” that President Reagan would recognize, or a place called “hope” that President Clinton would remember, but a nation trapped in poverty, robbed of its potential, and stripped of its assets by others.

When the president talked of the loss of middle class’ wealth he spoke not of the great redistribution of wealth to the super-rich that includes himself which has occurred, but as if the vast majority of our taxes go overseas to support foreign nations, which is not true.

He talked about the shuttering of American factories and the corresponding laying off of workers in order to produce goods overseas, which I immediately thought was hypocritical of him considering so many of the products that bear his name are made outside the United States and he comes from the investor class which prioritizes profits over the American worker.

He talked about a society dominated by poverty, crime, and joblessness, a nation where the government was not serving its people, when in fact crime is down (especially violent crime), our nation’s unemployment rate is 4.7% after having been 10% early in the Obama Presidency (after the mess he inherited), and nearly 60% of Americans approve of the outgoing president who delivered on his promise of delivering health care to those without it.

He spoke as if our country was in a hopeless state, or as he called it “this American carnage.”

The nation President Trump inherits from President Obama is not in carnage but is in fact strong. Even if it was in deep crisis, a president should inspire his citizens to act, not point the finger of blame.

I was reminded of how when Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in 1933 FDR focused not on what was truly a hopeless condition to many, the Great Depression, but how we – the citizens of our country – could overcome the Depression by working together with our government. Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo famously said, “you campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” It is true. Today was the day to leave the campaign speech behind and start to govern a nation as diverse and divided as we are.

That is not what occurred. President Trump did not spur our nation forward with a view of togetherness, or for that matter a description of what he wanted to accomplish, but castigated the government and others as the problem for all the ills that people feel. While he spoke of the people taking back its government, it was not all the people but those who supported him. It was a rehashing of many of his campaign themes. It was an angry campaign speech, from an angry man who now just happens to occupy the most powerful office in the world.

As if President Trump’s speech was not dark enough, we also had to witness a few mini-riots on the streets of Washington. Peaceful, non-violent protest is a hallmark of our nation. It has occurred at prior inaugurations and is symbolic of the freedoms of speech and assembly that are ingrained in the First Amendment to our Constitution.

While the vast majority of protestors acted peacefully, a select few engaged in criminal activity. Riots and destruction of private property are not only unacceptable, but reinforce our new president’s message that our society is indeed in great distress. While I would not be surprised to learn the individuals who engaged in today’s destruction have no real political affiliation at all, democrats and those who ascribe to a progressive liberal view need to reject such action. It does nothing to promote the views we support, and in the end will only hurt efforts to protect the rights and issues we hold dear. It was an additional stain on an already dark day.

When history is written on the Trump presidency today’s inauguration will be known as either the first page of a presidency unlike any other before or just a blip along the way towards a more traditional administration. I have no reason to believe it will be anything but the former.

Copyright Mark C. Poloncarz, January 20, 2017

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Speech of Mark Poloncarz at the rally against hate and bigotry at Martin Luther King, Jr. Park, Buffalo – January 16, 2017

“Thank you Rev. Blue and all of you here today coming together to honor and continue Dr. King’s legacy. I would like to start with a quote. From Dr. King:

“We must all learn to live together as brothers – or we will all perish together as fools. This is the great issue facing us today. No individual can live alone; no nation can live alone. We are tied together.”

Those words were spoken by Dr. King more than 51 years ago, though they still ring true today.
They ring true for our community, our state, our nation and our world.

Dr. King understood that no one person is truly free if another is not.

He also knew that the battle for freedom and equality was more than ensuring equal protection under the law, though that surely mattered.

Dr. King, Ralph Abernathy, Fanny Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks and John Lewis all fought for equality under the law and between the brotherhood of man because they all knew that racism and bigotry of the heart and mind was just as damaging to man and woman as it was under the law.

They all knew our society was only as strong as its weakest person.

They understood if inequality between the races existed, whether it be in health care, education, housing or any other area, our nation could never live up to the promise of equality guaranteed under the Constitution.

Dr. King knew that if one of us lived in poverty, we all are weaker for it. As he said, “the agony of the poor diminishes the rich, and the salvation of the poor enlarges the rich” because “in the final analysis, … both rich and poor are tied in a single garment of destiny.”

Yes, we are all tied together for in the end every one of us makes up that single garment of destiny, the fabric of our community.

That is why we stand here today. Each of us is our brother’s keeper. I need your physical and spiritual support as much as you need mine.

Right now our community needs the support of all, because while we are not defined as a community by any one individual, the fabric of our community can be torn by just one.

That is why I hope the words of Dr. King provide not only us, but all the guidance necessary to resolve the divisiveness that exists today but is as old as man, and in some ways is protected by our own laws.

You see, our Constitution protects the right of free speech, including speech we as a civilized society finds abhorrent.

As an attorney and public servant I will always defend the right of a person to free speech, but the Constitution also gives me and others the right to call out and criticize racist and bigoted speech for what it is.

So today, while I may criticize those who engage in hate speech I also pray that those who spew racist and bigoted speech can realize that they are not a stronger or better person than those they demean, but in fact weaken not only themselves but our greater community.

I pray that we, the brothers and sisters of Buffalo, of Erie County and of western New York, can work together to solve the issues of inequality wherever it may exist because our community is only as strong as the child who lives in poverty in the Langfield projects or in the town of Concord.

I pray that we can rise up as community to overcome the shackles of hatred and racism because until we do we cannot be truly free and equal.

Dr. King knew the struggle would be long. He knew he might not see the day when the mountaintop was reached.

While he and others who fought so valiantly back in the 1950s and 1960s may be gone, their spirit lives in all of us. Their torch has been passed to all, and we must not relent in completing the task.

So I thank you for joining us here today because together we are stronger than one, together we can stand up to hate, together we are our brother’s keeper and together we shall overcome.”

Copyright, Mark C. Poloncarz, 2017

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How the wisdom of FDR matters for our democracy today

By Mark Poloncarz

Since it became clear Donald Trump will be our next president it seems like I am asked daily by at least one person my views on his incoming administration and what it means for our country. Many ask me this question as supporters of President Obama who are worried that current policies and laws, such as the Affordable Care Act or the Obama Power Plan, will be reversed. Others who supported the president-elect ask me the same question, as if they are seeking validation from me that their choice of Mr. Trump was a good one.

I have told all that have asked, while I hope for the best, I cannot in good conscience say it will work out. To those who support the current administration’s policies, or wish they were further to the left on the political spectrum, I am disheartened by President-Elect Donald Trump’s recent choices for cabinet secretaries and other high ranking officials. His choices do not instill any confidence in me that we will end his term in office with a more equal, just or fair nation. In fact, his appointees are those whom I believe will set our nation back decades.

When Donald Trump said he was going to “Make America Great Again,” to his average supporter that meant returning to a day when good paying manufacturing jobs were plentiful and Washington, D.C. worked for us. While there certainly were Trump supporters who voted for him based on fear and anger, I believe the vast majority of his supporters, including many blue collar democrats and people I know, voted for him because they felt he would be their president.

However, looking at the list of his appointees, it now seems clear when Trump said he was going to Make America Great Again he was referring to the age of the robber barons when J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt and others ruled both Wall Street and Washington.

For example, if you believe government should protect individuals from the predatory schemes of Wall Street then you must be dismayed by Trump’s choice of former Goldman Sachs executive and hedge fund manager Steven Mnuchin as Treasury Secretary. If you think the Department of Labor should protect workers’ rights, while still supporting an equitable relationship with business owners, then Trump’s pick of fast food tycoon Andrew Puzder as Labor Secretary is dispiriting. If you believe in the right to breathe clean air and drink clean water, Scott Pruitt as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency is an affront to everything you hold dear. The list goes on and on.

To top it off, after our intelligence community briefed Congress on their belief that Russia deliberately interfered in our election and Republican Senators are even calling for an investigation, yesterday President-Elect Trump announced his appointment of Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson to be our next Secretary of State. While Tillerson’s lack of diplomatic experience is not in itself disqualifying, his close ties to the Russians as ExxonMobil’s CEO should give anyone pause. Our founders believed the secretary of state was the second most important job in our government, following the president, which in many ways is still the case. The secretary of state needs to be our chief diplomat and there must be no question as to where his or her allegiance lies. It is fair to say Tillerson’s close ties to the Russians and especially Vladimir Putin should be a concern to all.

Yet, President-Elect Trump’s reaction to the accusations the Russians deliberately interfered in our election to help him win and his professed aversion to daily intelligence briefings is most disconcerting. Russian interference in our Presidential election is nothing more than an attack on our democracy. However, instead of joining others from both parties who have called for an investigation into the matter, or remaining silent on the topic, Trump again chose to attack, calling the allegations politicized and showing contempt for the same intelligence agencies he must rely on as President. At least he should rely on them, but he claims he does not need a daily intelligence agency briefing because, as he stated, “I’m, like, a smart person. I don’t have to be told the same thing in the same words every single day for the next eight years.”

This statement is not only incredulous on its face, but dangerous for our country. Our president faces some of the most difficult decisions any human can make. To make those decisions without facts and advice from our intelligence community, especially at a time when the Russians have shown they will interfere in our domestic affairs, would be as President Obama just said, like a pilot “flying blind.” We deserve a president who will read these reports regardless of whether he wants to do so; there can be no alternative.

So how did we get here, with a president-elect who does not want to read intelligence reports, rejects allegations of foreign meddling in our elections without even seeing the facts, appoints the latest version of robber barons to run our nation, and who just happened to lose the popular vote by nearly 3,000,000 votes? All because many good people in a few swing states voted for him and his promise of a greater America.

While I may not believe the Trump presidency will be good for our country, especially after his recent actions, only time will tell whether the Trump presidency affects what is most cherished in our nation: our democracy. While some scoff at the thought his presidency could negatively impact our democratic institutions, I am reminded of the words of the president who faced more adversity that any other during the 20th Century: Franklin Delano Roosevelt. During his fireside chat in April 1938, FDR spoke on the institution of democracy in words that still ring true today:

“Democracy has disappeared in several other great nations-not because the people of those nations disliked democracy, but because they had grown tired of unemployment and insecurity, of seeing their children hungry while they sat helpless in the face of government confusion and government weakness through lack of leadership in government. Finally, in desperation, they chose to sacrifice liberty in the hope of getting something to eat. We in America know that our own democratic institutions can be preserved and made to work. But in order to preserve them we need to act together, to meet the problems of the Nation boldly, and to prove that the practical operation of democratic government is equal to the task of protecting the security of the people.”

“There is placed on all of us the duty of self-restraint. . . . That is the discipline of a democracy. Every patriotic citizen must say to himself or herself, that immoderate statement, appeals to prejudice, the creation of unkindness, are offenses not against an individual or individuals, but offenses against the whole population of the United States. . . .Self-restraint implies restraint by articulate public opinion, trained to distinguish fact from falsehood, trained to believe that bitterness is never a useful instrument in public affairs. There can be no dictatorship by an individual or by a group in this Nation, save through division fostered by hate. Such division there must never be.”

Though nearly eighty years have passed since Roosevelt spoke those words, we would be wise to heed his advice because a democracy is a work in progress that requires its citizens and their government to work together for the greater good. As such, we must strive to create a better nation for all and reject falsehoods that would cut at the core of our democratic institutions. We must not blindly reject facts that do not fit into our own narrative. We must call out those who seek to divide us, and reject those who engage in the spread of hate. We must work together when necessary, yet be active in opposition to policies that would destroy the bedrock principles that form our nation and its laws. We must all engage in acts of self-restraint, especially in today’s age of instant social media gratification.

We must all be advocates for the American Democracy, and it starts at the top.

Mark Poloncarz is the County Executive of Erie County, New York.
Copyright Mark C. Poloncarz, 2016

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Where do we go from here.

Statement of Mark Poloncarz in response to the election of Donald Trump as our 45th president.

Originally published November 9, 2016 on Facebook

Since the adoption of our Constitution the American Democracy has been a perpetual work in progress. Every four years we come together to elect one person to lead us forward, though no one person can ever truly represent the diversity and differing opinions that make up the three hundred twenty million citizens of our country. Yesterday was no different, and while the presidential election may not have gone as I had desired, I congratulate President-Elect Donald Trump and all of his supporters on their victory.

Now we as a nation must find a way to heal the wounds of this bitter election and move forward to address the significant issues that face our nation – issues relating to race and fairness, inclusivity and religious tolerance, poverty in all communities (not just the inner city), and the feeling by many regardless of the color of their skin that the American dream is no longer attainable – just to name a few in a long list of many. While we may disagree in the way to get there, in doing so I will stand up for the democratic ideals that I believe in and continue the fight for a better community, a better America, and I ask all others to do the same.

Good luck to President-Elect Trump as he begins the difficult task of governing, and may we, the people of the United States, find a way to work together in our perpetual quest to seek a more perfect Union.

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