When County Executive Maggie Brooks declared at the outset of her first-ever State of the County Address that "the state of our county has greatly improved," she said she did so "with a clear vision for our future."
But what exactly that vision is was unclear: Very little of what Brooks addressed was new.
There was, of course, her announcement that she plans to extend the county's prescription drug discount program, currently available to seniors, to all the county's residents. And she's launching a program to dole out $3,500 grants to homeowners for lead paint abatement. But details of those plans --- and what their financial impact on the county might be --- are yet to come.
Instead, Brooks served up a series of pats on the back to programs already in place.
Perhaps the best example of this was her tribute to the County of Monroe Industrial Development Agency, which took up nearly 10 minutes of the 35-minute speech.
Using three businesses as examples, Brooks touted the success of county efforts to grow the local economy. She cited figures like the nearly 1,000 jobs the incentives are projected to create and nearly 5,000 more they will retain. But the figure she led off with --- the one that's supposed to make the case for the program's success --- is the 67 percent spike in the number of businesses using the incentives in 2004 over 2003, after COMIDA retooled some of the programs to make them more attractive.
Minutes later, however, she measured the success of another program by a different yardstick.
"It's because of innovative services and programs like these [the Department of Human Services' new St. Paul Street welfare-to-work center]," Brooks said, "coupled with effective case management that we ended 2004 with a net reduction in the total Public Assistance caseload for three months in a row."
Not surprisingly, Brooks promoted the budget her administration prepared for 2005 and the Budget Advisory Team she assembled to help with it, while taking the opportunity to call yet again for Medicaid reform in Albany. Conspicuously absent was any concrete strategy that can be implemented locally to address looming structural deficits in the county's budget.
Even if Governor George Pataki's Medicaid plan is approved, "the resources of our county government remain limited," she said. Her solution? "We must continue to rethink the everyday practices of the past and continue to think outside of the box."
Brooks also passed up the chance to express specific plans and goals for the county that typically mark executive addresses at higher levels of government. Instead she revisited old (but upbeat) news like the expected birth of a baby elephant at the Seneca Park Zoo, the rise in passenger traffic at the airport, and tougher standards for the county's four public authorities.
Perhaps that's because positive stories provide excellent material for the speech's political purpose: to reinforce Brooks' image as a conciliator. At the opening of the address, she identified as her signature accomplishment "the new spirit of cooperation that we have established in county government." Such rhetoric was peppered throughout the address, which ended where it began: "Let's be proud of what we've become in the last year: One community, together again."
That's a tough sentiment to disagree with, but the county legislature's Democratic Caucus took up the task, in a response delivered by Minority Leader Stephanie Aldersley following the main address. With few specific statements to contradict, Dems turned most of their attack toward a familiar target --- and one that undermines Brooks' bid to cast herself as a uniter: partisan divisions.
"If words and deeds are to be met on this matter, then the administration and the Republican Majority in the legislature must deal with the legislature in a more fair and balanced manner," said Aldersley. "In the past year, Democrats in the legislature have made numerous requests for information and proposed significant legislation on behalf of the 300,000 residents we represent. The response has been, frankly, no response."
Aldersley listed a litany of requests to the administration that went unanswered. She conceded that Brooks' administration has made the tone of local government more positive. But she questioned whether that made any difference if the day-to-day business of governing was growing less cooperative.
You can read the entire 2005 State of the County Address at www.monroecounty.gov