20 Questions: Senator Ritchie Looks to 2018

CHRISTOPHER LENNEY / NNY BUSINESS Patty Ritchie in Ogdensburg City Hall talked with NNY Business about the year gone by and plans for the year ahead.

Senator Patty Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, has been serving the public since 1986. The St. Lawrence County native sat down with NNY Business to talk about how these experiences have shaped her approach to governing and shares thoughts on issues such as agriculture, tourism, jobs, small business success and the state of the north country economy.


NNYB: You began your political career as St. Lawrence County clerk. How did this experience help shape your fiscal approach as a senator?

RITCHIE: I guess I would say that my experience as county clerk has shaped me in two ways: First of all, I believe I got elected because of my customer service attention as county clerk. And that’s something that is very important to me in this role and something that I take great pride in. I think people would probably be surprised that we literally have over thousands of people that we’ve been able to help with their problems. Sometimes, even for me, it’s frustrating; it’s a regulation or something in Albany that people are dealing with that you think they should just be able to call up and get it fixed and they can’t. Luckily, they call us and we’re able to address that. So that’s the first part. When I was county clerk, I always saw it as my own challenge each year when we had to present our budget, to do a little better and find a way to help reduce the taxes and help find a different way to bring in more revenue. With that, I was able to start the New York City (vehicle registration) business, which I’m pretty proud to say has actually brought in millions of dollars for St. Lawrence County.  It’s something that I believe has been a real revenue generator for the county and helped to keep taxes down.

NNYB: What is the single biggest issue that the north country faced economically in 2017?

RITCHIE: I think the issue of jobs. Jobs have been my number one priority; I believe it’s an issue that is going to be my number one priority going into the new year. I think when people look at the unemployment rates, they actually have gone down, but I think for many they believe jobs and the economy is the number one issue, too. I know one thing that is surprising for me is that we always say, “Oh, there’s no jobs,” but it’s kind of two-part: There are jobs in the area, and what I hear from employers, over and over again, is that they can find people to actually fit the position that they’re looking to hire. I know on pretty much a weekly basis, because I’m dealing with the nursing crisis here, whether it be finding nurses for the hospitals, the nursing homes, or even the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center.  I toured the prisons that I represent – five of them – there’s a nursing crisis there. So nursing is one area that showcases there are jobs available, but matching them up and making sure people have the right skills is an issue. Agriculture is a big industry, so it was important to me to help start, with seed funding, the Ag Academy here in St. Lawrence County. More and more, when the FFA students come to Albany you’d probably be surprised at the ratio of non-farming families that the kids that are coming from when it comes to the agriculture industry. More kids are getting interested and we have to make sure we’re showcasing the opportunities at a younger age level if they’re growing up on a farm. Manufacturing has, unfortunately, put a damper on the area with firms closing and a lot of jobs that tie into it. So it’s been a priority for me when it looks like there’s an opportunity to be more aggressive, the zinc mine that’s just hiring, that is a business that has struggled a little bit to get attention in Albany and I was able to reach out to the “second floor” (governor’s office) and to NYPA and try to help the situation along. All of us should be thrilled that that many jobs are coming back to St. Lawrence County. We have a lot of potential here and one of the things I don’t think we’ve focused enough on is our proximity to Canada. Time and time again, I think that there’s an untapped market. With the new cross-border group I set up with my colleagues up across the border, I think there’s a lot of opportunity there and it’s something I think New York can capitalize on.

NNYB: What is going to be the biggest economic issue facing the north country in 2018?

RITCHIE: I think tourism, of course; we’re still dealing with the high water issues. I think it’s incumbent on all of us to make sure that we prop up the tourism industry, we make sure that we tell all the people that we’re open for business, that this is still a wonderful place to come. On pretty much a regular basis, I can talk to some of my colleagues in Albany and they have no idea that there’s a place called the Thousand Islands in New York state. And when I tell them about Boldt Castle, and that if they’re looking for their summer vacation they should come up, I think they’re all pretty much amazed. So, I think tourism is something we can capitalize on. We do need to make sure we pay more attention to tourism and the industry this year given the issues with the flooding last year.

NNYB: You chair the Senate’s Agriculture Committee. What measures can the state implement that will provide a direct economic impact to farmers by improving their bottom line in the coming year?

RITCHIE: I think there’s a number of things. This past year, we had record funding, $51 million, for the industry, which is of course New York’s number one industry. With that, we were able to restore the $10 million cut in the executive budget. Some of the things that go along with that, Cornell is a big part. On a regular basis I try to showcase Cornell and how New York is lucky to have the cutting-edge research there.  Whether you’re here or somewhere else in the state, the first thing some of our farmers tell us is the research going on at Cornell helps their bottom line, whether it’s helping with pest management, or helping with a new crop. Cornell is something that the state should make sure we’re funding to the level to help our farmers, whether it be in the north country, Central New York or across the state. The Ag Academy is something that was I able to put the seed money into to help get off the ground. FFA has been something that has been a priority for me, making sure that we’re getting young folks interested, something that is definitely a challenge as our farming population ages and the average age of a farmer is 57. It should be concerning for all of us. We have to find new ways to entice young folks into the industry. This is an exciting time, though, for agriculture. This is the first time, I believe, people are really paying attention to where there food comes from. In a previous budget, I was able to secure $1 million for the Food Hub, something that’s been talked about for years and Cornell Cooperative Extension took the lead on that, and I think we’re actually going to see some great things come out of that.

NNYB: Your “New Farmers Grant Fund” and “Grown in New York” initiatives are designed to promote innovation in agriculture and preserve the future of family farming. Have these initiatives proven successful?

RITCHIE: I think there are a lot of opportunities with, again, the public now being aware of where their products come from. I think a perfect example is, a few years ago, Christmas tree farmers came in and they were telling me that they didn’t have money for promotion, and that the biggest untapped market was New York City; they couldn’t get Christmas trees there. We were able to put some funding in the budget and for the past two years they have been able to expand in New York City and just recently I had a meeting with the association and they told me they cannot keep up with requests from New York City. I think that’s just a perfect example of how we can grow the industry if we just make sure we’re putting the people with the right matches on the other side, connecting farmers and a market.

NNYB: You played a role in easing travel requirements for boaters between the United States and Canada. How does this benefit the north country economy?

RITCHIE: That was something that was personally important to me because I had grown up here, a couple of miles from the border, and when my kids were young they went to hockey practice in Canada when the rinks were full. So it’s hard to kind of see Canada as maybe another country, because the back and forth is so regular. But once the Canadians put (strict reporting requirements) in place, and the gentleman’s boat was confiscated and he potentially was going to face a huge fine, it was important to reach out to our Canadian neighbors and ask if there is a way to address this. And luckily, (Canadian) Senator (Bob) Runciman was willing to pick up the phone and work with me on that. It was a real privilege to be able to travel to Parliament and testify. It’s certainly something both Senator Runciman and I are proud of and believe is going to be a big benefit to make sure that those regulations were rolled back. Charter fishermen were worried about the same thing, so I think it just showcases what can be done if you’re willing to pick up the phone and work together.

NNYB: Tourism suffered this past summer due to unusually high water levels on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. What measures did you take to help alleviate some of the economic disruptions caused by these levels?

RITCHIE: It was early on that you could see that there was going to be problems that we thought might have been more short-term, but that ended up lasting until Labor Day. So the first calls I got were from residents who were looking for sand bags. Because a lot of communities had never experienced it, they had no idea how to get the sand bags or how to even start the process. I was able to reach out to the governor’s office and get sand bags available in the area; that was the first step. But the problem that was only supposed to be a short-term issue ended up extending much longer and the damage was pretty great. So, I was able to tour a lot of the places in the three counties that I represent, go back to my conference and tell them we need some kind of financial help, because some are not going to be able to survive this – small businesses, especially – and many are not going to be able to repair it. I know this is something that a lot of people were worried about, that as it continued on, there weren’t going to be enough resources. So after we passed the initial bill, I was able to have pretty much daily conversations with the governor’s staff about additional resources and get a commitment that those that weren’t able to file (for financial assistance) right away, that by the time they did file the resources would still be there. So that’s something when we go back we’ll continue to make sure is put in place so that those filing, anyone who’s filing a claim that can be paid under the guidelines, the resources will be in place.

NNYB: Without being a weather forecaster, what can be done to help make the 2018 summer season more successful for seasonal business owners?

RITCHIE: It was important for me to ask my colleague (Sen. Tom O’Mara), who is the chair of the environmental committee, to come up and hold a hearing, because that’s the biggest question everyone is asking, even more so than the resources: “If I do fix this, if I do make it over the hump, am I going to have to go through this again next year?” Because one year’s bad enough, we can’t do this again. So that’s why it was important to have the hearing, to see if there is anything that could be put in place and, I’ll be honest with you, I believe there were some things that were changed under (Plan 2014) that may have tied the hands of those that could have started to release water at a lower trigger level.  I have sent a letter to the IJC (International Joint Commission) asking them to take a look at it. I know they currently have a survey out there, so I’m hoping that we’re going to see some changes, maybe some amendments to what was put in place so they can react sooner. We all know that climate is changing, as far as unpredictability. I’m sure no one would have thought the previous year we would have been dealing with drought issues and the next year we have flooding issues. So we have to be better prepared to react and it’s important that the IJC take a real look at it and if there’s anything that can be done on their end to address the situation earlier, that needs to be done.

NNYB: Fort Drum is the largest driver of the north country economy. What role can a state senator play in ensuring that the base retains this importance?

RITCHIE: First and foremost, is to make sure people realize that Fort Drum is here. Like I said earlier about the Thousand Islands, when I got elected and went to Albany, I must say that other than a couple of senators who represent the area around me, most had no idea that Fort Drum existed here. And if they did know that Fort Drum is here, they certainly had no idea the size and how many soldiers and families were here. So, this is the seventh year that I will be holding my Fort Drum Day in Albany and that is a way to showcase Fort Drum’s importance not just to the north country, but to New York state as the state’s largest single-site employer. But also to the nation; it’s something that we should all be proud of. We are also making sure we are putting Fort Drum in the strongest position. Since I’ve been there, we’ve been able to put upwards of $14 million in programs to help with (thing such as) the buffer zone; that’s the encroachment issue that many other bases are dealing with and something that this post here doesn’t have to deal with given the proximity of the farmland and what’s been done at the state level. So I think there are a number of things at the state level that we can do just to make Fort Drum showcased a little more and a little stronger in the standings if for any reason there were another BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure).

NNYB: The governor’s Regional Economic Development Council has provided funding for job creation and business investment in the north country, but is sometimes seen as pitting one region against another. Is there a better way to create jobs in the north country and the state?

RITCHIE: I have had my concerns about this in the past and sometimes, especially with the Downtown Revitalization Initiative, it has kind of pitted one community against another. There is one thing about the program that certainly I’m supportive of and this is, for the first time, people who are on the ground, who are local, can actually put forth recommendations that can be taken to Albany, instead of the other way around. So, I think it is helpful, that the regional council gets applications that come from the local communities and then there’s a way for that to be transferred to Albany. So it’s not Albany making all the decisions, it’s coming from the locals.

NNYB: The 2 Percent Property Tax Cap is designed to control spending by local governments, but municipalities routinely vote to override it. Is the cap reasonable and should it be made permanent?

RITCHIE: I certainly support the 2 percent cap. I think it’s gone a long way toward helping to keep taxes down, which is a serious issue in New York state. The one thing I don’t think we’ve done enough is providing mandate relief at the state level, so that local governments can stay beneath the tax cap. There are a couple drivers when it comes to property taxes and one of them is Medicaid. I believe if we’re looking to help keep taxes down we should look at those mandated costs, such as Medicaid, and do more to help reduce the burden the states sends down, in order for counties and local municipalities to stay under the tax cap.

NNYB: The state has enacted free tuition for the majority of SUNY students. This should be a boon to the north country’s SUNY colleges and its students, but is it financially sustainable?

RITCHIE: That is the concern that I had when it was proposed. There is a price tag to it and no one really knows what the price tag is. But I certainly am a supporter of trying to make college affordable and that’s kind of two-fold: I certainly supported increasing TAP (Tuition Assistance Program). I think it’s a good way to allow resources to be put in place for those that are going to college. Sometimes, there are students who aren’t able to finish their degree, especially here, in four years and so there are some problems with what was put in place. But one of the bigger pieces that I think was left out of it, and something that I tried to get attention to, is that those students that already have gone through college and have a huge college debt, it’s a little unfair to them that now there’s something put in place, but nothing to help them with their student loan debt. Especially with the interest rate so high. So I’ve been advocating for some way for the state to help those who have a college debt find a way to refinance to help knock the interest rate down so that the loans can be paid off sooner. There is a little bit of a fairness issue, I believe, when it comes to this; that we didn’t look at the second half of the equation and those that are graduating or have just graduated with a huge college debt, we’ve got to find some way to help them pay that off.

NNYB: Regional air service is an important component to the north country economy. What steps are you taking to help ensure that this service is maintained?

RITCHIE: Watertown’s airport was just an awardee under the regional council as our regional hub. Here in Ogdensburg, the nonstop flight to Florida is really been something that people that I represent have been thrilled with; they’re able to fly to Florida from Ogdensburg. That’s why it was important to me when the (Ogdensburg Bridge and Port Authority) reached out and was looking for resources for advertising in Canada  – because that is something I had heard from my Canadian counterparts – that there wasn’t enough promotion on the other side of the river for Canadians to really know the service was here. So, I think that’s an economic generator, having Canadians come over and take the flight, but more than that, when you have a business looking to locate in an area, one of the first things they look at is ease of access, whether it’s someone coming in from the company to be able to fly in or a prospective client coming in, making sure that there is air service available. So maintaining those local airports that would help entice businesses in, especially Canadian businesses, is very important, for sure.

NNYB: The state is moving toward a $15 per hour minimum wage. Given the economic reliance on small businesses in the north country, is this a positive thing?

RITCHIE: I had concerns about  $15 an hour because this is a rural area and the small businesses are the backbone of our area. Now, I don’t think there’s anybody who doesn’t want to see someone get an increase in their pay and be able to be in a better place financially. But when it comes back and hurts the business, who either cuts down on employees or ends up closing up, it does the exact opposite.  So that’s why it was important to regionalize it. That $15 I did not believe was sustainable in the north country, that $12.50 for some businesses is still going to be tough, but I think that was a lot more manageable than the $15 was going to be. I guess the perfect example of that was right after the governor put in (wage changes) for fast-food workers, the McDonalds in Canton closed. So I had a meeting with the executives at McDonalds, asking, “What can we do?” And they said they needed to invest in a drive-through and with the change in minimum wage, it wasn’t economically feasible for them. So that’s 40 jobs that disappeared from St. Lawrence County. And I think that was part of the discussion that we were trying to have, that everyone wants to do what they can to help somebody’s ability to provide for themselves and their family. At the same time, there’s a cost on the other end, so if you’re providing a wage that no business can pay and stay open, then we’re actually defeating the purpose. This is something that I think will be ongoing that we’re going to have to watch.

NNYB: Legislation has been introduced in Albany to allow over-the-counter sales of marijuana to anyone over the age of 21, a measure which would impose an excise tax that would provide millions of dollars in new revenue to state and local governments. Is this a responsible way for government entities to balance their budgets?

RITCHIE: Right now, we’re dealing with a huge drug epidemic and I just don’t believe that now is the right time to allow free use of marijuana, given the situation we’re dealing with now with the opioid crisis.

NNYB: The fight against heroin had taken its toll on municipalities, both in financial terms and human suffering. Is the answer tougher criminal penalties or more treatment options?

RITCHIE: I think it’s both. I know it’s been frustrating for me in Albany that the Senate repeatedly passes bills that impose tougher sentences for those that are dealing drugs and the Assembly will not move any bills forward. When it comes to stiffer penalties, it’s a serious issue. The second part of the question is: I don’t believe we have enough services. You run into families on a regular basis that I think people would not believe would be a family that would be dealing with an issue. If anybody says that it doesn’t touch just about every family one way or another, then they’ve kind of got their head stuck in the sand. This is an issue, whether it’s a family member or friend, it’s at crisis level and we need to make sure that there are treatment centers available. When someone is looking to get help, telling them they are going on a list and it will be six months before they’re able to get in there, or that their insurance doesn’t cover it, or their insurance is going to allow them to stay in there for a couple of days when it’s a program that takes several weeks to complete successfully, is just the wrong approach.

NNYB: Cormorants have negatively impacted the area’s fisheries. What can be done to manage the cormorant population and improve the local fishing industry?

RITCHIE: Cormorants is an issue that I’ve also been involved in. For years, the cormorant population was out of control; it was pretty much decimating the fishing industry. Unfortunately, the U.S. District Court put a ruling in and a mechanism, or a plan the DEC (Department of Environmental Conservation) had put in place that was actually turning around the situation – the fish population was increasing again – has now been put at a stall. It’s something that, DEC is the expert, they had a plan that was working, and they need to back off an allow DEC to do their job.   

NNYB: You have been a strong proponent of redeveloping vacant land at the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center in Ogdensburg. What opportunities could such a redevelopment present?

RITCHIE: I don’t think it’s just the psychiatric center property; all you have to do is drive through there and see that the state has a lot of land, across the state, that is underutilized or not utilized at all. A few years back, before I was elected, there was a piece of property, which is the lot that we started with, that there was somebody interested in developing, but when they tried to get the land transferred from the state they just couldn’t make it happen. We were able to get the bill passed for the property to be transferred, and I was able to secure $300,000 for the city to use to demolish some of the buildings. Because that’s one of the issues: that the city has a prospective customer for the property, but the city can’t take on a huge debt when it comes to demolishing buildings that, unfortunately, the state has let decay. Right now, I believe they’re in the environmental study portion of it and it’s something that I believe, once they are able to transfer the property, there will be somebody who would be willing to invest in some jobs on the lot next to Route 37. Along with that is the next part, which is the riverfront property; it’s one of the most beautiful pieces of land on the St. Lawrence River that’s undeveloped and it’s not being used and it’s not back on the tax rolls. Given the financial situation of the city, what better way to help the city economically than to put this land that the state has owned for years – and a lot of it has fallen to ruins  – back onto the tax rolls and have an ability to have an investor invest in it.

NNYB: Residents along the St. Lawrence River in the town of Orleans have expressed frustration that the state has not offered enough financial help to deal with contaminated wells that residents claim were caused by runoff from a nearby state salt barn. Is there any additional financial relief from the state on the horizon?

RITCHIE: I understand Orleans’s frustration. That is an issue that I inherited when I was elected and something that I’ve continually advocated for for funding from the state. I was able to convince my colleagues in the Senate to include in our Senate budget full funding the Orleans water line; unfortunately, I couldn’t get the Assembly to go along with it. So I did advocate at a meeting I called together in Albany with the players, including the “second floor” to find funds to piece the $3 million gap together so that the project could go forward. If you’re just asking my unscientific opinion, I do believe that the state should pick up the tab for the water line in Orleans.

NNYB: What is the one thing you’d like to see happen in 2018 to benefit the north country economy?

RITCHIE: We have to be more aggressive on the jobs situation. I think it’s important that we work together to talk about businesses that maybe would be looking to come here, instead of piece meal. When I get the call that the mine is potentially looking to come here, but they have some issues, whether it be funding issues, or regulations, and I try to fix the problem, I think it would be helpful to have a group that would sit down and focus on it. I was able to put together this Canadian group that is going to continue to meet with our counterparts and the group continues to grow and we continue to get calls from other municipalities that want to be a part of it. The regional councils, as I said earlier, that comes from the ground up, and I think we need something globally that gives us an opportunity to try to showcase what we have to offer up here to bring businesses up, because it’s about jobs and it’s also about trying to address the issues that we’re having with filling jobs that are available.

 

~Interview conducted by Holly Boname with questions compiled by Brian Kelly. Edited for clarity and length to fit this space.