Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

October 27, 2013

To be, or not to be, one of Majority?

By HOWARD BALABAN howard.balaban@lockportjournal.com
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — In the heavily Republican 15th Legislative District, the candidates for Niagara County Legislature have starkly different views of what it means to belong to the majority.

Eight-year incumbent Michael Hill, R-Middleport, cites as accomplishments of his tenure various measures that were put up and adopted by members of the legislature’s GOP-led Majority Caucus.

It’s a super-majority these days, since legislature membership was trimmed to 15 seats in 2012 and 12 of those seats are now held by Republicans and affiliates. Three Democrats rarely can get a word in edgewise, or their proposals taken seriously, in the hyperpartisan legislature chambers. 

Hill’s county Democratic committee-backed opponent, Joshua Walker of Gasport, doesn’t think Hill’s belonging to the majority caucus is anything to brag about. Walker’s campaign signs are two-parters, one message board encouraging people to vote for him and the other urging “end puppet government.”

Ahead of the Nov. 5 election, here is a look at the 15th District candidates’ views on the current state of county government.

Hill: Majority caucus is ‘right sizing’ government

Through four terms of office, and always as part of the GOP-led majority caucus, Hill said he has been involved in helping reduce the county tax levy by 12 percent.

“In 2003 and 2004 the legislature turned over from Democrats to Republicans. In 2004, the (average) tax rate was $8.78 per $1,000, and this year it’s $7.72,” he said.

Hill considers himself part of a team that’s been working to “right size” county government.

Since 2004, the county workforce has been reduced to 1,400 employees from 1,700, “and we provide the same services,” he said.

Now the team has set its sights on increasing the use of shared services within the county. It’s a goal Hill says he fully supports.

“We’ve created an ad hoc committee to look at shared services between the 12 towns and the county. There are similar agreements in Orleans County, where each town is essentially a substation for the county,” he said.

“Here, if our county highway department has to do something on a county road north of Somerset, it drives past the Somerset Highway Department to get there. .... I’m pushing hard for expanding shared services because I think the atmosphere is right for that.”

Regarding service to his district, Hill says he’s proud to have played a role in creation of the Royalton-Hartland Business and Professional Association, in 2006.

“The east end of the county had been woefully underrepresented as far as having a Chamber of Commerce or a business-minded group,” he said. “This group allows small businesses to collaboratively advertise and have a collective voice with local government in county, town and village level.”

Another point of pride for Hill, he says: He was one of three original sponsors of a county legislative resolution calling for repeal of the 2013 New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act, only a few weeks after it was signed into law in Albany. The resolution was approved unanimously by lawmakers in both caucuses.

Hill, 42, is a supervisor with the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. He has the Republican and Independence ballot lines in the election.

Walker: Would ‘reach across the aisle’ for public good

Joshua Walker says he’s running for office to see to it that the county legislatures works for the residents of Niagara County.

“I believe what we have with one-party rule is not in the best interest of tax payers. We need public servants, not party servants,” he said.

Walker, 31, thinks there are too many instances in which Niagara County legislators simply vote their party line. It’s comparable to what’s happened in Congress, he said.

As a registered Conservative who managed to land the Democratic committee’s endorsement, he said he has a demonstrated ability to “reach across the aisle (in order to) get people taken care of across the county.”

Walker said he’d support moves to balance the county budget, but would not support a tax increase. Job cuts are on the table for him, if the positions aren’t needed, he said. “Patronage” jobs — for individuals and firms that are affiliated with the Majority Caucus, including attorneys on retainer with the county billing $3.9 million a year for their services — would be among the first cuts, he said.

Walker would like to see the county legislature press the state for welfare reform. The existing system discourages work, hurting the county and its people, he said.

“If one person gets $400 a month on welfare, for him, his wife and his son, then gets a job that is still low-paying but disqualifies him from food stamps, he’s essentially handcuffed to the system,” he said. “Why not try to work someone off the system instead of one way or the other? I’d like to see a dollar-for-dollar adjustment” of benefits as earned income rises.

In addition, Walker, who is an electrician with IBEW Local 237 and also works on a family-owned dairy farm, would like to see the county get behind reform of industrial development agencies.

While area IDAs are embracing local hiring policies for companies receiving financial incentives to build and operate here, the policies may exempt “specialty” work. They should not, Walker said.

 “You can’t give loopholes to large corporations. It allows companies to get away with hiring a $9 employee from outside the area versus a $15 employee locally,” he said.

Generally, Walker doesn’t think current legislators have the will to stand up for their constituents.

“The legislature is like a mini version of the federal government. They’re all puppets, and that’s what you get with a 100 percent majority. I want to make a difference,” he said.

If he’s the only challenger who gets elected, he said, he will make sure that Roy-Hart residents know who he is. “And they will know that I am fighting for them, instead of being a wallflower.”

Walker seized the Conservative ballot line from Hill, who was that party’s endorsed candidate, in the September primary. He also has the Democratic and Working Families ballot lines in the general election.