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Marren: Preparation was crucial in Ontario County’s response to COVID-19 consequences

Ontario County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jack Marren says that keeping the County- as well as its staff- safe during the Coronavirus Pandemic was a priority if they wanted to find success. He says the Board knew it was going to be a difficult year from the onset of economic restrictions, which lasted into the summer; and amplified once again as COVID-19 cases ballooned this fall.

Earlier this week Marren sat down with us on the FL1 Daily podcast, where he talked about 2020 and what he was watching as the calendar turns over to 2021.

“Before we can prepare the public, we have to keep ourselves safe,” he said, recalling that moment addressing county employees and the supervisors about the situation. “I painted a pretty dark picture,” Marren continued. “It only took me driving by Eastview Mall once or twice – seeing them closed – to know how bad it could get. You shudder at what it could be – it was very demoralizing.”

He said that department heads and elected officials came together to keep people safe during the pandemic. Whether it was the clerks office, the Sheriff’s Office, highway personnel or treasurer’s office – everyone came together in a meaningful way. “It worked,” Marren continued. “Everyone came together and came up with plans that were useful and that kept everyone safe. That was really important.”

Like officials in Cayuga County – Marren said that there has been some frustration with the lack of communication, inclusion and guidance from the state, down to regions and counties. For example, questions bubbled last week about why local health departments were not being given a leadership role in distribution. Marren said that regional leadership in Monroe County conveyed to them that public health directors will be included in the process. Some raised questions about why private health complexes were tapped to lead regional vaccine rollout instead of public health offices. “There was a lot of frustration, but cooler heads prevailed,” Marren said. “It was nice. I think everyone is going to be able to come together nicely to make sure that vaccine rollout is successful.”

That said, there are some less-than-nice realities that have come from the pandemic. Like the fact that towns and counties are going to have the most-responsibility when it comes to finding ways to creatively cut budgets. It’s something that Marren says they already had to do in Ontario County, and something that will have to keep happening over-and-over unless the federal government bails out New York State.

“I went with the worst case scenario of 50% in reduction of sales tax,” Marren explained, recalling the process he took for building budgets in Victor and Ontario County. Eastview Mall is located in the town of Victor and generates $1.1 million in sales per day, according to Marren. Losing that for any length of time would prove to be a mighty blow for budget builders. There were furloughs and some layoffs at the town-level, and at the county-level they offered early retirement for employees. “We had 51 individuals accept that, and while there’s minimal savings this calendar year – we’ll see more savings drawn from that following.” Marren doesn’t expect to see an uptick in personnel costs until 2022 when business is likely back to a normal level.

One thing that the Chairman has been frustrated by is the lack of furloughs or early retirement offerings at the state-level. He says that there are offices in state government that can’t function like normal. “The state as far as we know have not done any incentive packages to cut back in departments,” Marren added. “It’s frustrating to us and clearly we’re anticipating seeing a 20% reduction, so we need to find a way to save $14 million.”

That’s what it equates to for Ontario County as they look ahead to what looms if 20% reductions in aid reimbursements are realized. The question that every county is wrestling with though is what would that look like?

“There’s a lot of people hurting out there,” Marren continued. “Department of Social Services, mental health and substance abuse services, and a lot of others. Areas that support families and people are going to be a priority – but if there’s a lack of money counties will be forced to look in areas that aren’t mandated. It’ll hurt these programs long-term.”

Even with all of the challenges and concerns, though, Chairman Marren is confident in one thing: People’s resiliency.

“People in New York rally,” he added. “I think we will persevere through this. I’m optimistic. There are areas that I’ve seen grow during this pandemic, and that could help us down the road. We’ll lean into those areas and keeping pushing forward no matter what.”