It has been a few years since Mitch Rowe returned to Seneca to take over as county manager. The County was in a good place then, and given the circumstances, it could still be argued that it’s in good shape.
A February report from the state Comptroller’s Office indicated that nearly half of all counties in New York suffered sales tax declines. Seneca ranked in the top three for steepest declines in sales tax revenue — seeing 7.5% disappear at the hands of COVID-19. A large chunk of that could easily be attributed to the closure, then reduced operation of del Lago Resort & Casino.
Rowe said over the weekend that while 2020 was a difficult one, things could have been worse. “As an organization, I believe that Seneca County has done its best under very challenging circumstances,” he said. “The COVID-19 Pandemic has put both the County government and its residents to a test that hasn’t been seen in literally 100 years. I am proud of all County employees and Departments and in particular Public Health Director Vickie Swinehart and her staff. I am also appreciative of Board Chairman Bob Hayssen and the entire Board of Supervisors for the leadership and attention they have given during these trying times.”
There were ups- and downs, but he spoke to the benefit of past years’ sales tax revenues, which helped a great deal in 2020. “I think the biggest success for the County in 2020 was surviving the financial impacts of COVID-19. Seneca County has for many years benefited from a robust Sales Tax revenue stream and more recently from Gaming Revenue from the del Lago Resort & Casino,” Rowe added. “In turn, both take pressure off the County’s reliance on property tax levies. Despite a $4 Million shortfall in these revenues, the County anticipates managing the impact without any significant impact on reserves.”
Looking forward to 2021 there’s opportunity to seize on the changes that people have come to expect. “The biggest opportunity I see in 2021 is to realize and maximize on an economy that accepts and adapts to what can best be described as the new normal,” he explained, pointing to the county’s willingness to roll with the punches. “Hopefully we can get COVID-19 behind us once and for all.” Rowe said that the One Seneca initiative was crucial in bridging the gap between stakeholders over the last year, and will continue to play a major role moving forward.
Responding to the concern that many taxpayers have about the long-term financial stability of Seneca County, Rowe said that he has a little cautious optimism about things. “I am cautiously optimistic that Seneca County is in a good place fiscally,” he added. “My biggest concern is our Sales tax reliance and the fact it is so dependent on a strong and fully functioning economy, a federal relief package that provides relief to Counties would help a lot.”
Beyond the pandemic and economy, water and sewer issues in the south end of the county are big issues for the Board of Supervisors and County Manager’s office to dispatch. “The top concerns going forward as I see it are to try once and for to resolve the Water & Sewer issues in South County,” Rowe continued. “Another open item is the County Sewer Plant upgrades and the now decided approach to keep 5 Points and Willard Operational. Moreover, the decommissioning of the Hillside Plant and redevelopment of the former Army Depot remains a challenge and I would like to play a role in that being resolved as well.”
He noted that Seneca County also needs to finalize and complete a facilities plan, which has been challenged by a lack of consensus among the Board of Supervisors. “A lack of consensus at the Board of Supervisors’ level presented challenges but COVID-19 hit and the County truly was not in a position to make significant financial decisions,” Rowe explained. “I would like to be part of finalizing and implementing the final phases before my time with the County ends.”
He didn’t give a timeline, but indicated that he is thinking about the next steps and future leadership for Seneca County. “I am committed to working with the Board of Supervisors and County Departments to ensure a smooth transition when my time with the County ends and for the next generation of staff leadership,” Rowe said. “I am very grateful to have had the chance to return to Seneca County and am doing the best I can to leave things in a good place when that time comes.”