Sunday, August 20, 1995
Columbia County, my home (statistics of 1995}
Columbia, a midsize New York State county with 63,000 inhabitants on 600 sq. miles, has 500 employees, one per 125 inhabitants. The agricultural base went down with the Tax Reform Act of 1986, which killed the tax shelters involving Holstein cow breeders, and the gorgeous farms are turning to hayfields, and being subdivided for wealthy city weekenders and retiries. The countryside is still heartbreakingly beautiful, the valleys and slopes seen from the road are like Switzerland.
The county has a small industrial base, since Universal Match and the naugahyde seat companies went out of business ("ran out of naugas to kill," as the local wags have it), and lives largely on employment in social services. As some counties live from their jails, so Columbia provides homes for the retarded, elderly and orphans, run by families that support meager farm income as best they can. The man - or, more commonly, wife - has a job in Albany, 45 miles North, or in a local WalMart, while the stay at home farms ans takes care of the boarders.
If you want to meet the county executive officer, who also is the chief fiscal officer and administers the county budget of $ 74 million, you can meet him at the Taconic Convenience store on Route 82 evenings and weekends, whre he has a part-time job as night manager. Gerald Simons earns $25k base pay, another $7K as Budget officer and additionally $100 or per certain meetings, of which there are many. Nevertheless, a part-time job is a necessity for a family man.
The budget's main component is a mandated $42M in social welfare, of which $6.5M comes out of county taxes. New York State, unlike some states that are fully federally subsidized, pays half of its welfare costs, and shares its costs with the counties. So the county absorbs from 15 to 25 percent of each welfare component, and struggles mightily to meet its obligations.
This is tough, particularly when New york City folk buy a small property, retire from their city jubs, turn over theirhouses or coops to thir children, and asy to the county: "Take care of me, I have no money." In adddition to Medicare, they qualify for Medicaid, while the local farmers and wage-earners have to contend with increasing ral estate taxes on small incomes.
Real estate taxes have just been reassessed throughout the county, much to the displeasure of everybody. The intent was to equalize, because the local assessors of the 17 towns had put up huge assessments for new arrrivals, the city weekenders who bought weekend properties during the Reagan boom years,a n left the old time residents' assesments alone. The "welcome stranger" taxes were obscene, but the reassessment was not entirely fair, leaving the tax rates between towns hugely disproportionate.
Between dairy farms dying - in the town of Taghkanic the farms went down from 30-odd to four - and other caalmities, such as John Dyson buying Bryant farms apple orchards and cutting them down for a wineyard, then leaving the land fallow while building up the winert in nearby Millbrook (Dutchess County), the farming community is suffering.
It is no wonder that the young people graduate high school and leave, either to go to college in nearby Oneonta or Albany, of get jobs in Schenectady and Rochester. The oldsters who have no choice, rebel when the schools need reconstruction and repairs, because they cannot pay increases of 60 percent in school taxes, and there are no young people to fill the void. No industry is coming in, when ther are no big concentrations of inexpensive labor, and that is killed by high costs of housing for laborers. Small companies can be held - Kaz Industries was persuaded to stay, despite attractive offers from the South, but that was due as more to local loyalty than pure economics.
Given the natural beauty of the county, tourist trade might be expected to provide employment and income. Yet the county has only about 300 beds, with scant chance of building up. The tourist beach attractions are Taghkanic Lake, or, more accurately, Lakes, beautiful be aches that currently attract busloads of visitors who leave no income to the county. Other lakes are surrounded by residential communities. Historic sites abound, but there are no attempts to build up specific hiking trails . In this health-oriented age hiking trails, inexpensive mountain and valley hikes, are the thing that attarct. Biking is already popular, but hikers are better spenders.
The county's income is $34 m form real estate taxes, another 4.8M from fees (county clerk, garage, use of jail by other munucipalities) and repayments (public health, mental health, AFDC), 10.7M from state and 6.7M from fed govt aid.
Of its expenses,