Editor's note: This is the first in a series of stories highlighting the first year in office for members of the Chautauqua County Legislature.
By ERIC TICHY
OBSERVER Mayville Bureau
MAYVILLE - Freshman members of the Chautauqua County Legislature are reaching the halfway point in their first year.
The first-year group includes four Democrats, three Republicans and one Green Party member.
Since taking office in January, the legislators have been tasked with overcoming a potential $13 million to $14 million budget shortfall next year, and - not to mention - dealing with potential sale or lease of the County Home.
Legislators, new or seasoned, have also wrangled with a potential sales tax increase, a legislature downsize and reapportionment and, new contracts with county workers.
Rod Rogers, G-Forestville of District 5 and Tom Erlandson, D-Frewsburg of District 8 are two of the first-year legislators this year, although the latter served as a county lawmaker for two consecutive terms starting in 1987. Both men were asked the same questions regarding their first few months as county lawmakers.
How would you describe your first few months in the legislature?
Rogers: "It's been very educational. It's been a real learning experience for me, although I've not been involved in politics very often; this is my first time. In some ways it's what I expected. And other ways, it's not what I expected."
Erlandson: "Well, some things are different and some things are not. The legislators are obviously different; the procedures somewhat are different. There are fewer committees now since the last time I've been in the legislature. There used to be an environment committee. I think economically times are harder now; the mandates are greater and budgets are harder, so times are tougher."
What has been most challenging?
Rogers: "In my case, it's been getting to know the people in the organizations within the government, the committees and the agencies. And it's getting to know what and who the people are. It's been a real challenge."
Erlandson: "Well I think in terms of issues, the County Home matter is a difficult one, and trying to do something with the mandates - which is extremely difficult because we don't control it. The whole question of trying to keep taxes as low as possible; county parks has been a challenge because parks personnel has been reduced to one person. But I think George Spanos (Public Facilities director) is doing a great job. I'm pleased there."
How do you plan to deal with a possible $14 million deficit next year?
Rogers: "Because this is my first time, I will be involved in every meeting that I can, discussing every department so I can get a better understanding. You want to look at the budget and the little things like that. You really don't know the details; you really need to look at the details to see where you can simplify and be sure we are doing the basics and where we can do without."
Erlandson: "I think whatever fund balance we recently gained, which is like $10 million, we need to look very hard to use that or not use that. I think a good portion should be used to offset property taxes. My own view is, I would rather vote for a sales tax increase than a property tax increase. I think if we can do that, and it's questionable because our state officials won't approve, than I think we should."
Viewpoints on the County Home?
Rogers: "My initial thinking on it, I really wanted to see all the options. I wanted the results from the CRG (Center for Governmental Research) and see what they come up with. We can't keep going down this path the way we are. We need to do something else. On the other hand, I'm not in favor of that area being for-profit, so I think we got to at look at all the options. If there are some offers, we should look at those if the study of the CRG cannot come up with something."
Erlandson: "My personal view is that given the economic problems in the state, the nation and the county, all taxpayers need to ask themselves what do they want and expect and reasonably get from their government. My view is that Chautauqua County running a skilled-nursing facility is not on that list. I think we should sell it to a reputable operator. You know conditions are a lot different now than they were 50 years ago. We didn't have the alternatives that we have now. Most importantly, I do not see operating the County Home on my list of what government should be doing."
What projects are you looking to push within the next few months?
Rogers: "Obviously the budget is going to be a major concern and so will the County Home. The issue of the cost of running government is important to me. We had put together (a resolution) to form a committee to look at it, and that got voted down, unfortunately. The forum that was held on consolidation was useful; it was an important step, but I hope we don't just stop there. That was my main effort. That's why I ran for office."
Erlandson: "I think government effectiveness. I've been with Rod Rogers on that; I think the Chautauqua Lake Watershed, too. .. I think these are some of the problems we tend to forget."