Those holding office at the local level have more impact on the daily lives of their constituents than at any other level of government, said Gerald K. Geist, executive director of the New York Association of Towns. And its never been harder to serve in local government in New York state.
Those words, delivered at the James E. McVean Student Center at Jefferson Community College, where empty chairs were in short supply, helped kick off the Tug Hill Commissions 24th annual Local Government Conference.
During his keynote address, Mr. Geist highlighted some of the many challenges that local leaders face as the country contends with a sluggish economy and municipalities continue to struggle to meet the financial demands of state mandates.
These challenges, which include falling revenue, increased expenses and a 2 percent property tax cap, can best be met by banding together, embracing new technology and encouraging the next generation of leaders to step up, said Mr. Geist, who spent 24 years in local government as part of the North Castle Town Council in Westchester County before being appointed executive director of the association last year.
The association, which represents towns ranging in population from 38 in Red House to 759,757 in Hempstead on Long Island, offers legal and legislative advice and representation to its members.
Following the keynote address, Mr. Geist and Michael E. Kenneally, associate counsel for the association, fielded questions in a packed classroom in the John Foster Dulles Building. Pension smoothing, the property tax cap and the passage of the NY SAFE Act were all hot topics.
The conference drew 540 registrants and 90 speakers participating in 30 different sessions that offered training in everything from the nuts and bolts of planning and zoning to municipal website design and security.
Participants were from Jefferson, St. Lawrence, Cayuga, Herkimer, Oneida, Oswego and Lewis counties. Of them, 75 percent were from around the Tug Hill Plateau area.
Everything went well. It seemed to go very smoothly. Weve gotten excellent feedback so far. This is just a great opportunity for them to get some quality training, said John K. Bartow, executive director of the Tug Hill Commission.
What keeps people coming back, according to Mr. Bartow, is the back to basics ethos of the conference, which allows many officials to satisfy annual training requirements. The ability to network with colleagues and representatives from state agencies and associations like the New York Association of Towns also is a big attraction.
Attendance was slightly down after a record year in 2012. Mr. Bartow attributed this to the fact that the date of the conference fell between the Passover and Easter holidays.
Despite or perhaps because of the current challenges, Mr. Geist emphasized that there still are tangible benefits to serving in local government.
While that service has never been more demanding, Mr. Geist said, The positive impact of your service is evident on a daily basis.