DUNKIRK — The County’s reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic was front and center in a radio debate between the two men who want to be Chautauqua County Executive in 2021.
The debate, hosted by WDOE (1410 A.M. and 94.9 F.M.), featured current County Executive and Republican candidate P.J. Wendel and Democrat challenger Rich Morrisroe.
Wendel defended his administration’s response to the pandemic, while Morrisroe found some faults in how things have been happening at the county level.
“Having been the responder in this, I feel very confident in what we’ve done,” Wendel said.
He said the incident command model has been impactful on managing the pandemic.
“We’ve looked at the data, nothing anecdotal,” he said. “At the end of the day, those decisions we have made have been very effective.”
Wendel said his administration has kept things going and have taken a responsible stand on the pandemic.
Admitting, no one was prepared for the pandemic, Morrisroe said he thinks things could have been done better.
He said the county fumbled in how it dealt with the outbreak at FieldBrook Foods.
“We’ve had some moments of breakouts here and in some cases they were mishandled, FieldBrook and SUNY Fredonia,” Morrisroe charged. “We fumbled so I’m thankful for the Governor and what he’s done so far.”
Morrisroe said the response to the FieldBrook Foods outbreak was “a slow response, it was slow to get the information out.”
“The Governor had nothing to do with FieldBrook Foods,” Wendel responded.
He said SUNY Fredonia’s positive cases exceeded 100, “but (they) did not get shut down like other Universities did.”
Morrisroe contended the county could have taken steps earlier to combat COVID.
He said there was political party pressure to open businesses more quickly.
He also said mixed messages from different layers of government added to the problems of dealing with the pandemic.
“We were in the 200s (positive cases) in August and now we’re in the 600s,” Morrisroe said. “We need to do more and we need to be more vigilant.”
“I also think we have the luck of a county that has a lot of land and not a lot of density. We got very lucky,” Morrisroe opined. “We can’t pretend the pandemic is over. We’ve got to keep moving forward.”
Wendel responded that at no time did politics play a part in the county’s response in battling the virus.
“The idea that we were pushed politically is really unfounded,” Wendel said.
Wendel said there are concerns, across party lines regarding the emergency executive power Gov. Andrew Cuomo has exercised.
He said one problem is that Cuomo will say something or issue an executive order, but the county doesn’t receive the details for days.
The two men also sparred about Wendel’s proposed 2021 County Budget.
Morrisroe said sales tax expectations are “rosy” and not based on the reality of the situation.
He charged that county residents will see a property tax hike because while Wendel proposed lower rates, he adjusted assessments.
“The projection on the sale tax are rosy, I don’t think that’s going to sustain.,”Morrisroe said. He predicted a loss of revenue, especially if a second stimulus package stagnates at the federal level.
Morrisroe also warned that the county has been steadily losing population, thus revenue, for the last 40 years.
Wendel defended his budget, noting the county is actually ahead of last year’s sales tax revenue numbers.
“Unfortunately, this isn’t a game this is our lives…” Wendel said. “We are $203,000 ahead of our 2020 sales tax revenues. We’re not behind the game, we’re ahead of the game.”
Wendel said two-thirds of all county homeowners will see a decrease in their property tax under his plan.
“We’ve made very sound decisions and we’ve used the data and we have done things very responsibly,” he said.
Morrisroe noted that most towns in Erie County are cutting expenses while increasing taxes to offset expected revenue losses.
“We’re not Erie County. We’re not Buffalo. This is Chautauqua County,” Wendel replied.