MAYVILLE – Wednesday night, County Executive PJ Wendel gave the State of the County Address, which highlighted the county’s achievements and hardships from the past year.
“Our main challenges in 2021 were the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, its effects on our budget process, and the understanding and navigation of a concise strategy to appropriate American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding,” explains Wendel. “This forced us to pivot our efforts to emerge from this pandemic while providing services to protect our residents.”
The Executive commended the County Health Department, saying they rose to the challenge of combating surge after surge.
“Much like in 2020, cases increased after the holidays. However, unlike in 2020, last year brought the Delta variant, increased hospitalizations, and unfortunately increased fatalities to Chautauqua County residents,” admits Wendel.
However, the county held 173 COVID-19 vaccine clinics and administered over 40,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses. Additionally, 9,586 COVID-19 tests were given, and over 40,000 at-home COVID-19 test kits, over 48,000 KN95 facemasks, and over 10,000 cloth face masks were distributed to county residents.
The county’s budget was also discussed.
“This budget provided one of the largest property tax reductions in over 20 years, a
51cents/1,000 reduction. This was accomplished while returning county government to pre pandemic levels of services, reinstating 140 jobs to the county workforce, and reducing our tax levy for our 2022 budget,” says Wendel. “With the success of our budgeting strategies, we were able to increase our fund balance in 2021 and 2022 while increasing our fund balance to 10% of our annual budget.”
ARPA spending in the county was a major task this year, leading the Executive to form a bi-partisan group to decide where the $24.6 million dollars would be allocated.
“Our ARPA working group placed a special emphasis on public health, infrastructure, economic and workforce development, clean water, and public safety,” explains Wendel. “Projects selected within these general categories were prioritized based on their countywide impact, ability to address an identified need, and their future sustainability without impacting future county budgets.”
To date, the county has awarded funding for 33 of the 44 projects with over $11.9 million already allocated to projects in the ARPA plan. This includes $2.5 million in funding to expand broadband to unserved and underserved communities.
Wendel claims 2021 was also a year of great economic success for the county. The county had an unemployment rate of 3.5 percent, the lowest rate since the 1990s.
Additionally, $164,000,000 was invested in Chautauqua County, which will create 314 new permanent jobs while retaining more than 1,750 current jobs.
Wendel also admitted that the road to economic recovery includes addressing population decline, saying that a new marketing and communication director will form a plan to retain the current population as well as encourage others to move to the area.
“It is critical to have incentives and sites for business development, safe walkable communities, appropriate training and educational curriculum for our workforce and students, quality housing, and fun and exciting opportunities for people who choose to make Chautauqua County their home,” says Wendel.
The county also made steps to increase government efficiency for its residents. This includes the hiring of a safety coordinator and an airport manager, as well as the instituting of a Telework policy, which should help reduce physical office space which in turn will save the county money on future lease agreements.
A rebranding of the public transit system will expand services and optimize the riders experience. A restructuring of the county government will also be streamlined for efficiency.