by Dan McClelland
Nearly 20 local leaders and community residents joined new Assemblyman Billy Jones Tuesday during a coffee stop at the town hall as part of his district-wide swing.
Refreshments were provided by Supervisor Patricia Littlefield.
Introducing the new state representative, the supervisor said she wascalled and invited to lunch by Mr. Jones, who was then chairman of the Franklin County Legislature, shortly after she was elected supervisor. Mrs. Littlefield, whose father John Sparks was also a one-time chairman of the county board, said she was very impressed that Billy reached out to her, and the gesture “boded well for better north county-south county relations.”
Since then Mrs. Littlefield said they've both accompanied the Governor on several of his “adventures” in the North Country.
Mr. Jones said his visit that day was part of his district tour, where he had meetings scheduled last week with residents of most towns in his district.
He said too often newly elected state representatives “get rushed to Albany” to begin the matters of the state. “But I feel there is important work to do in this district, too!”
He called the listening tour his “homework,” where his assistant Molly takes copious notes of concerns people have for him to study later.
He told the group of 20 local residents or so that he grew up in Chateaugay on a family dairy farm where he worked after high school before joining the state Department of Corrections where he worked for 20 years.
Mr. Jones said before he was elected as a county legislator, he also served for a time as mayor of the “metropolis of Chateaugay.”
He said he was taught by political mentors that if a person wants to understand local government they need to serve as a mayor, or as supervisor, or trustee orcouncilman. “That way you find out what's going on in your community!”
“It's where the rubber meets the road, where you find out about water and sewer districts, about the conditions of roads and bridges, about your neighbors dogs and cats.”
He called his village service a “valuable resource” to bring to state governance.
The new assemblyman said when he returns to Albany after this current recess, he expects March to be a very busy time, state budget-wise.
He said it'll be the state legislature's job next month to “amend the Governor's budget” so it is fair and palatable to state taxpayers. “I'm selfish with what I want to see in the budget...things that will make things better for our district- the 115th Assembly District. -And for that I will always be selfish!”
He called the Governor's budget proposal“a massive $152 million document” that lawmakers must go through and amend. Over 25% of a typical state budget is for education, he noted.
He said one of his “top priorities” is seeing that the state provides “a good solid education for every child” in New York State.
The state's basic education aid, called Foundation aid, “has increased some but not enough!” he said of the Governor's January proposal.
“One of our push backs to the Governor's budget is more Foundation aid.”
Mr. Jones said the formula for Foundation aid, which dates back to a lawsuit against the state in 2006, is very outdated and new data is needed.
He noted there is still approximately $4.5 billion that is still owed to school districts in the state as a result of that legal action over ten years ago.
“I'm going to work on more Foundation aid in the new budget,” he assured the crowd.
Of the Governor's proposal to spend $162 million to permit families where the total income is $125,000 per year to send their children to state colleges and not pay tuition, he said it is the “start” of an important discussion. He said he has received criticism of the plan by a number of private colleges in the North Country and called it one of the top educational issues people call his office about.
Superintendent of Schools Seth McGowan, who is a big critic of the state's educational aid formula, said much of what comes out of Albany education aid-wise each year is controlled by state lawmakers in New York City's five boroughs. He said he has been told by regional state representatives over the years that their power is “so overwhelming” that it is difficult to enact meaningful change.
Mr. Jones said he understood the downstate power and noted that he didn't see that changing “in our life times,” but he added the current Albany leaders arenow more open to the issues of the North Country than the leaders, “who left office unceremoniously” two years ago.
He was asked if he thought being a Democrat- one of the first to represent this district in decades- would help him given the long time Democrat Party control of the Assembly.
“It doesn't hurt me,” he answered, noting, however, that during his time in politics he has always “worked in a bipartisan way.”
Supervisor Littlefield asked him: “You don't think there are more partisan politics in Albany than in the North Country?”
He said there were, and that's why it's important for North Country leaders to work together, regardless of politics.
Town councilman and former school board president Mike Dechene said that “Tupper Lake is on life support” at the current time, “yet people here are very resilient. He also noted that in recent years Tupper Lake Central School District has been particularly hard hit when it comes to state aid. “I would just hope you think of Tupper Lake” when you are working in Albany, adding: “I know you will!”
“I willfight for Tupper Lakeand our other communities here for all we want to make our region better!” the state official told him.
He said he sees the same problems in all the region's communities.
Jim Frenette, who has held many volunteer posts in the community and the region over his lifetime, told him that to fully understand what the area and its people need, “you have to listen.”
“That's why I'm here today...I'm not going to be a Superman...but I will work hard for you! Mr. Jones told him.
He promised to be “the most accessible state legislator you've ever had,” saying people can call him or his office any time.
Mr. Frenette said Senator Betty Little and Assemblywoman Janet Duprey set a very high bar in that area, and the new assemblyman agreed with him.
He said some of Mrs. Duprey's staff are now part of his very able staff.
Supervisor Littlefield also praised his staff, in response to four calls she made there in recent months.
The assemblyman said he currently serves on four state committees: tourism, economic development, aging and small business. Mrs. Littlefield felt service on those committees were all important to this area of the state.
Mr. Jones said he needs the North Country needs to build an economy that “will keep our young people here and attract others.”
To that comment, businesswoman Hope Frenette said she felt new technology coming to our area “is not moving fast enough.”
Mr. Jones told her that high-speed broadband access “for all” ispriority he shares with Governor Cuomo.
He said the Governor has “promised broadband for all by 2018.” He called it an ambitious but achievable goal.
Mrs. Frenette said high speed internet service is critical to the development of small industries and academic institutions in our area.
The assemblyman agreed. “Having good internet service is not a luxury...schools here are at a disadvantage without it.”
He said a recent poll showed a frightening statistic: that only 14 of every 20 students in this region have access to the internet after school.
Supervisor Littlefield said that there is already a fiber optics trunk line through Tupper Lake, but it's still “dark” and people are upset about it.
Superintendent McGowan told him the school district has a state of the art technology system- and while the state Smart Schools Bond Act was a disaster- the district's connection isbroadband internet service.
He said the difficulty districts face connecting to nearby colleges for course offering is the cost to the districts. He said colleges want districts to pay for distance learning costs and state aid at the current time doesn't allow for that.
“It's not technology...our kids have Smart pads and great technologies. “The big thing is getting out of the district and developing new relationships with colleges, but that costs big money.”
He said the school district needs money “to light up” high speed internet channels for everyone in town.
Mrs. Littlefield said many local businesses suffer financially because they cannot access high-speed internet services through broadband. “Officials at Tupper Lake Hardwood are beating their heads against the wall” for good internet to run their operations.
“So how do we grow?” Mike Dechene asked him. He said there are summer residents who would like to become year round residents and work here from their homes “if there was good connectivity.”
Mr. Jones admitted it was a major problem for this region and said he would help the Governor reach his 2018 goal of broadband service throughout the North Country.
Mr. Dechene said another factor that hinders business in this area is good cell service. He said the Governor has control of the Adirondack Park Agency which limits the number and height of towers that can exist in this park.
He said he was recently in Lowden, N.H., where large “Frankentrees” beam cell signals across the region there.
Mr. Jones agreed with him “that it is absolutely ridiculous” that this area can't enjoy reliable cell service like most places in the country. He said part of the answer is the permission to erect “one good cell tower,” than ten little ones.
He promised to press the APA to permit more and better towers to serve area residents.
Trustee Clint Hollingsworth said one of his recent campaign promises was to work hard to try to return jobs to his community. “High technology can bring those jobs!” he told Mr. Jones.
He said the distance from markets has made it impossible for industries to produce here and said he felt modern means of communications and the best technology here can reverse that harmful trend. Mr. Jones agreed with him.
With new business, also must come new trained workers, the trustee added.
Mr. Jones felt that “new amenities” arriving in Tupper Lake would bring more visitors each year. “And some of those people will stay and do business...if they could be connected better!”
“Connectivity is the key, I believe!”
Jim Frenette said the absence of Big Tupper has hurt Tupper Lake and its economy. Patty Littlefield agreed, calling it “a big hit to Tupper Lake.”
Mr. Dechene noted that Tupper needs more attractions like good trails, more motel rooms, more tourist amenities to keep people here longer each year.
Regional Office Of Sustained Tourism (ROOST) representative Michelle Clement said the community needs more incentives, more ways to expand the tourist season from two months to 12.
Mr. Jones noted that the shortage of motel rooms in Tupper Lake is a disadvantage. Many people who come here end up staying somewhere else, he explained.
“I'm not knocking any of the accommodations here...we just need more of them!”
Michelle Clement said the recent Northern Challenge was a prime example of the problem. Some of the anglers were staying 75 miles away. “The derby's growth potential is limited by the number of nearby motels!”
“We need to help our local motels grow and encourage more,” she suggested.
Hope Frenette said that when Big Tupper was operating she had two two-bedroom apartment thatwere “rented out every weekend.”
“How about the state taking over Big Tupper?” Mrs. Littlefield told Mr. Jones.
“For a fraction of the $20 plus millionthe state is spending this year on improvements at Gore and Whiteface ski centers, it could have had Big Tupper- and promote all three together,” Mr. Dechene suggested.
Village Treasurer Mary Casagrain suggested to Mr. Jones the state come up with incentives for this region to bring business here.
Jim Frenette remembered when the state almost purchased Big Tupper in the 1980s when former ORDA Chief Ned Harkness “was salivating to buy it.”
He said it was “a done deal” that unfortunately unravelled in the politics of Albany.
Seth McGowan noted that many rural communities in this region have had great proposed projects that somehow “died on the vine” because of state and federal regulations. He asked Mr. Jonesto work to reduce government bureaucracies in Albany “and break the log jams.”
Hope Frenette asked him for his help to win grants to help Tupper Lake improve its housing stock to help people improve their houses and to permit young first-time homeowners to afford to buy them.
She felt many young people move out of the area because they cannot afford “to buy a nice house.”
“Many houses here are rotting away...making our community look like crap,” she asserted.
She suggested perhaps grants to help builders fix up existing houses- since banks aren'tlending much money these days.
The way things currently are prospective homebuyers can't afford to buy ahouse at existing prices and then pay to fix up the place. “It's a big roadblock for many people!”
Supervisor Littlefield said grants are also needed to help elderly people renovate their homes in such a way as they can continue to stay there.
“The public wants to see their parents age in their homes...that's something you can start, Billy,” she told him.
Mr. Jones promised to come back to Tupper Lake regularly, to help whenever and wherever he can.
by Dan McClelland