Wendel highlights successes, cites challenges
MAYVILLE — County Executive PJ Wendel believes Chautauqua County is in a good place and will continue to be moving forward.
During Wednesday’s county Legislature meeting, Wendel issued his annual State of the County address. While the 18-minute speech didn’t specify any new programs, he did highlight a number of economic priorities for his administration.
“My administration plans to invest in our workforce, in our infrastructure, in our communities, and in our economy,” he said.
Wendel highlighted how the county’s general fund balance is at $19.4 million. “This contribution is created by holding our teams to a fiscally responsible budget, an increase of the tax foreclosure auction, an overdue settlement of the tribal compact, and as well as continued success in our sales tax revenue,” he said.
Wendel noted how the county has reduced the tax rate of 71 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation over the last two years, but still contributing to the county’s fund balance. “These actions were taken with purpose as we are entering a time of high inflation, increasing interest rates and pending recession. I remain committed to holding financial stability during any economic crisis,” he said.
Wendel continued to highlight the county’s economy, stating that in the past three years 1,123 new business licenses have been issued and also that over the past year alone, the county Industrial Development Agency has reported 50 approved projects, with a combined $501 million investment.
“These committed investments will create nearly 300 jobs, retain an additional 774 jobs, and will create construction projects throughout our county,” he said.
One of the changes his administration has in 2023, which was previously announced, is the restructuring of the county’s Public Health Department, under the guidance of interim director Dr. Michael Faulk. This year, the department will debut its mobile clinic and will be used for lead testing for children, education regarding opioid use, augmenting vaccination clinics, and having a presence at farmers markets or other public events educating about healthy food options and overall wellness.
“This mobile clinic will also assist with Emergency Preparedness in case of emergency events,” he added.
Meanwhile, Wendel noted how Mental Hygiene Department Director Carmelo Hernandez has worked to integrate the Department of Mental Hygiene and Department of Social Services. “While working with each team to break down barriers, we determined that the new integration and refocus was in the best interest of our community to provide continuity of care for those who are being serviced by both departments,” he said.
Other highlights he noted included the Finance Department, which will be implementing new software for occupancy tax payments; the Sheriff’s Department, which has added a new Unsolved Cases Team; the Office for the Aging, which is bringing back its annual picnic; the Department of Public Facilities, which has added new plow trucks and a new long-arm excavator, CHQ Transit, which has added three new trolleys; the county airports, which has completed a $6 million runway project in Jamestown and begun construction for a new hanger in Dunkirk; and the county Emergency Medical Services, which responded to 5,801 Advanced Life Support emergency responses in 2022.
Looking ahead, Wendel said he will continue to work with Jamestown Community College to address workforce development, begin Phase II of the west side expansion of the South and Center Chautauqua Lake Sewer District, help private companies develop a plan to expand broadband services, and assist the city of Dunkirk with its $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative Grant.
In terms of public safety, Wendel said the Sheriff’s Department is developing a Threat Assessment Team and has gone through a Crisis Intervention Team Training to provide officers tools for safe assessment of the level of interventional support required.
With hospitals, Wendel shared how UPMC has received a $30 million grant in the form of a statewide Health Care Facility Transformation program that provides grants that help improve patient care. In regard to Brooks Hospital, Wendel said he continues to work with the governor’s staff, expressing the need to maintain healthcare in northern Chautauqua County.
Some key development projects he’s eyeing in 2023 include: the Furniture Mart Building in Jamestown, Welch’s Building in Westfield, the former Silver Creek Main Street School, the Talcott Street Building in Dunkirk, Truck-Lite in Falconer, Lakeshore Hospital in Irving, the Chadakoin River in Jamestown, the Mayville waterfront adjacent to Lakeside Park, and the former NRG power plant in Dunkirk.
“As these projects come to fruition, they will help transform the economies of their communities,” he said.
In terms of future development, Wendel noted the county is looking at the purchase of 150 acres in the western part of the county to build out the needed infrastructure to establish a new industrial park.
“This will address the critical need for shovel ready sites here in Chautauqua County,” he said.
During Wednesday’s legislature meeting, lawmakers decided against trying to raise the occupancy tax to 8%. Nonetheless, Wendel said he is still committed to establishing a sustainable funding sources for lakes and waterways. “I am confident that with the experience of our stakeholders and a strong collaborative effort, Chautauqua Lake will be on a path to sustainable management and maintenance,” he said.
Wendel continued to criticize Gov. Kathy Hochul for a proposal to withhold federal funds from the county which is to go to Medicaid assistance.
He also expressed concerns over inflation. “We will utilize aggressively conservative budgeting that will allow taxpayers to keep more of their hard-earned money by our decreased tax rate and effective management of our expenses and resources,” he said.
But even with these challenges, Wendel believes the county is moving in the right direction. “It is my continued goal to make Chautauqua County the exceptional place that it is to live, raise or start a family, work, or start a business, and create a community where people want to visit and stay to experience all that we have to offer,” he said.