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Challenges ahead for Cayuga County even as officials successfully navigate pandemic

When Cayuga County Legislature Chair Aileen McNabb-Coleman took on the role of acting county administrator, she knew it would come with challenges. As she put it, the job really mirrors being an executive, which is in the County’s long-term vision. Right now though she leads both.

Last week, McNabb-Coleman spoke with about her expectations for 2021, as well as the challenge of “wearing both hats” while navigating a governing body through a public health crisis.

“I’ve had to straddle that line all year,” she said during that conversation. “I’ve had a lot of good interactions with our department heads and I’ve honored the wall between policy and operations. So I’ve done the very best I can. There’s definitely been days that I have had to really clearly self-assess.”

For Cayuga County’s most-identifiable leader, the charge has been being an advocate. First it was the fight for more PPE, which was a major struggle in the spring – during the early days of the pandemic. “Now we’ve done the fight for vaccination information,” because as of last week we were only hearing about that on the evening news; and we were not having discussions about that. Either with local health departments or the state.”

Thankfully that changed. The County has been communicating with Upstate Hospital and state officials about the vaccination process. “I feel confident now. And I feel as long as [Public Health Director] Kathleen Cuddy feels confident – we’re in a good place,” McNabb-Coleman added. “Partnerships are building. That’s great.”

Not all aspects of responding to the pandemic have been great, though. One reality is that all municipalities – including Cayuga County are facing a looming 20% reduction in state reimbursements. That was a looming issue as the Legislature moved through the budget process. “A majority of our budget relies on state aid reimbursement,” McNabb-Coleman added. “So going into this budget, we called on department heads to not request any new personnel, new equipment, and for them to review contracts to look for efficiencies. We went into this year with a very good, conservative ask.” She said the county also looked closely at vacancies and what could remain vacant through 2021. Unfunding positions ‘helped’ Cayuga County ‘a lot’. “We prepared our budget in a conservative way, but because we didn’t have concrete information from the state – we may be looking at some new issues. So we’re gonna have to monitor very closely our state aid reimbursements coming in that are owed to us, what’s owed to us in the future, and whether or not we need to readjust what’s going to happen moving forward.”

What does that mean, though? In real terms, McNabb-Coleman said that they would only be able to look at non-mandated services like DMV. “That’s a huge deal,” she continued. Yes, I know there are some things that happen online or whatever. But we know that there are certain residents that definitely need to come to our building, or to call the building to get things accomplished. So that’s a huge department in our county.” Similarly, road patrol for the Cayuga County Sheriff’s Office is another non-mandated item. “We certainly won’t do that. We won’t cut that, but it’s an example,” she explained. Parts of highway are also non-mandated, which means they could be cut back, but would be excruciatingly difficult to do. “We’re trying to get our county more lean. We’re talking about a possible $20 million reduction. That’s huge. That’s a huge projection for our county when the budget is $152 million. We’d turn the county upside down, spread it out, and try to look for places we could take a little bit from each – so that our residents wouldn’t see a huge, profound impact.”

In the meantime, it’s a wait-and-see approach for Cayuga County, like many others around the region. McNabb-Coleman says taking a more ‘regional’ approach to problem-solving has been a big, unexpected – but pleasant surprise in 2020. “We have certainly learned to regionalize our approach to things and approach to solutions,” she explained. “I’m in contact with other counties very often, and have saved the County money by taking that approach. We have talked about future plans to regionalize certain services that everyone can have a benefit from. We widened our network. There have been times that I’ve had to call Onondaga and say ‘I need tests’, and they will send them to me; and there have been times when we’ve heard from other counties. There’s a lot of really great collaboration and partnerships that have been forged through this process. It’s a positive silver lining, which is great.”

Listen to our entire conversation with Cayuga County Legislature Chair Aileen McNabb-Coleman from FL1 Daily last week below.