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The State of Our County: divided and complacent


Has anybody ever given a State of… address (State of the Union, the County, the City) and really leveled with us?

Locally, these speeches have become less a “State of…” assessment than a “Here’s What I’ve Done for You” list. So Cheryl Dinolfo’s State of the County address last week was no departure from the norm.

Dinolfo talked about the expansion of the airport and the zoo, job creation, our festivals, our golf courses, her enthusiasm about the pending arrival of Uber and Lyft, her new name for the county’s Industrial Development Agency (“Imagine Monroe”).

She talked about her vision for the county. She talked about keeping the promises she made when she took office a little over a year ago: “First and foremost: my promise to keep property taxes flat.”

And she announced an initiative that’s worth applauding: a new job recruitment and training program that, if successful, might help make a dint in the county’s crushing poverty, most of which is concentrated in the city.

But as with so many of these speeches, Dinolfo’s State of the County was mostly cheery, boosterish talk, a description of a happy, successful place where problems are overcome with enthusiasm and determination.
Well, that’s one portrait of the county, and on the surface, I guess it’s accurate. But below that surface is a harsh reality.

We are a starkly segregated community: segregated by race, by income, by political leanings. And at our core are thousands of our neighbors struggling with poverty.

Our segregation is strengthened by New York State’s unfortunate system of dividing us into small, separate communities: little towns and villages and hamlets, with a few cities sprinkled around. And so within Monroe County are 19 towns, nine villages, a town-village, the City of Rochester, and 18 school districts, each with their own elected governments.

The County Legislature is divided mostly along similar lines, with some legislators representing one or more suburbs, others representing several city neighborhoods, and only three of the 29 representing both city and suburban residents.

Since most of the county’s suburban towns are heavily Republican and the city is heavily Democratic, the geographic divisions in the County Legislature are also strongly political ones. And the Democrats are so outnumbered in the legislature that Republicans can pretty much ignore them.

Geographic divisions can build a sense of community. But they can also lead to insular thinking, a lack of a sense of the common good. For many suburban residents, the poverty in the city is the city’s problem, not theirs. The low success rate of city schools? Not their problem. Child-care needs of low-income families in the city? Legal defense for low-income people accused of crimes? Not their problem.

The principal public official elected to represent the entire county, city and suburbs alike, is the county executive. The person in this position could be a leader. In the right hands, the county executive’s position could be one that pulled all of us together to tackle our most serious problem: a poverty level that is one of the country’s worst. But that’s not happening.

The State of this County? We’re a divided, myopic, complacent community. Our poverty level’s severity, its longevity, its urban concentration, and its impacts – in education, in crime, in health problems, in economic vitality – are deadly serious. And they’re a threat to the county’s future.

I did find a little glimmer of hope in Dinolfo’s focus on job training. But so much of her speech was happy talk. There was no sense of crisis, no warning of the human destruction that poverty causes, and the threat it presents.

It will take all of us, acting together, to address that threat. Somebody has to inspire us to do that, and the ideal leader is a key elected official like Dinolfo. Sadly, she shows no sign that she sees that as her role.