CHAUTAUQUA - County Executive Greg Edwards and his opponent, Legislator Chuck Cornell, D-Jamestown, clashed Wednesday on economic development issues during the first debate of the election season.
Cornell wasted no time calling into question Edwards' record on economic development and taxes, saying the one-term county executive hasn't done enough to stop the loss of jobs, residents and talent from Chautauqua County.
"I've made it clear that the development of new business start-ups and fostering entrepreneurship will be the centerpiece of my administration's economic development strategy," Cornell said in his opening statement. "We need to be proactive, not reactive. We cannot afford to continue the economic development strategy of 'wait and see.'"
Edwards highlighted economic development activities that have been carried out by his administration since he was first elected in 2005, especially as they relate to entrepreneurship, and he emphasized his belief that they are working.
"The key here is we have had tremendous success," Edwards said in his opening statement. "We've had tremendous job growth."
DEBATING THE BUDGET
Cornell used a question about the county budget to blast Edwards' opposition to tax reductions that have been spearheaded by the County Legislature's Democratic majority over the last 3 years.
In his own response to the question, Edwards pointed to the county budgets he has proposed that have included small property tax reductions even though the cost of doing business has increased dramatically for municipalities.
"The budgets I've submitted have been fiscally sound and balanced and forward-thinking," Edwards said.
While answering the same question, Cornell, pointed to his own track record on taxes while he has served as a county legislator, contrasting his record with Edwards' record. According to Cornell, residents and business owners alike are paying more in sales taxes on gasoline because of a measure he opposed but that Edwards' supported, and more than $3 million in property tax reductions were carried out by the County Legislature over the last three and a half years, and not by the county executive's office.
In addition, Cornell said, his own support was instrumental in removing the sales tax on residential energy bills, which he said Edwards opposed and has saved residents more than $5 million last year alone. He also criticized Edwards for supporting a reduction in the county sales tax rate when he ran for county executive in 2005 even though he has reportedly opposed efforts to reduce the sales tax rate since then.
"I've spent the last three and a half years significantly reducing taxes across the board," Cornell said.
Cornell again blasted Edwards on the same grounds when a question was asked about controversial proposals in Albany to expand costly labor laws to farm workers. Edwards was critical of such measures, laying much of the blame on Albany for Chautauqua County's economic woes. In his response, Cornell rattled off a long list of rural counties in Upstate New York where the population is growing in contrast to Chautauqua County.
"Don't tell me it can't be done in New York state," Cornell said, saying farmers need the tax reductions that he has supported but that Edwards' has opposed over the last three and a half years.
DEBATING SECONDARY TAXES
Cornell did offer praise for Edwards in some areas like veterans issues, but he kept returning to his belief that the county government needs to be doing more for its residents.
"There is a reality out there and the reality is that people are hurting," Cornell said. "We need to step it up. I don't know how else to say it."
Edwards kept a cool head during the first half of the debate and he continued to highlight efforts being carried out by his administration to improve Chautauqua County and emphasize his belief that they are working.
In the second half, Edwards worked harder to respond directly to Cornell's criticism, defending his own position on the residential energy tax issue by saying his focus is on reducing property taxes because that's what helps businesses.
"On average, it saved someone $8.77 a month on their residential energy bill and it took $5.3 million away from the county government that could otherwise been used to reduce the property tax," Edwards said of the residential energy tax.
Edwards also turned the tables toward the end of the debate, criticizing Cornell when he did not take a position for or against the farm labor proposals and saying it's a state issue. Edwards is fundamentally opposed to the proposals and said the county executive must work hard to oppose such efforts even if the ultimate decision will be made in Albany since it would significantly affect county residents.