Three working groups have been created to prepare Niagara County for post-pandemic operations, Legislature Vice Chairman John Syracuse, R-Newfane, announced on Thursday.
The groups will be composed of members of the legislature, other county leaders, department heads and community partners.
“Niagara County and its residents are more than ready to get back to business, get back to fully functioning, but we fully recognize there is more to that than simply flipping a switch and saying go,” Syracuse said. “Our efforts to date have mostly been focused on providing necessary services to taxpayers while adhering to COVID-19 restrictions. Now, we must begin pivoting to post pandemic planning, some of which has already been underway, so we can hit the ground running.”
The three working groups will be ReStart Niagara, ReThink Niagara and ReConfigure Niagara.
ReThink Niagara will focus on helping businesses get started back up and running, accessing government programs and providing any other support.
“This effort will be done in partnership with the Niagara USA Chamber and the Center for Economic Development,” said Legislator Rich Andres, R-North Tonawanda, who will chair the committee. “Businesses will have a lot of questions and issues regarding reopening, and, just as we have been doing throughout this crisis, we will continue be a resource to assist them.”
ReThink Niagara will focus on what has been learned in providing services to the community during the pandemic that can modernize our services delivery going forward.
“Many of our departments had to quickly adapt to technology in order to deliver services in creative ways so we do not want to automatically default back to the old ways of doing business,” said Legislator Jesse Gooch, R-North Tonwanda, who will co-chair the committee with Legislator Tony Nemi, R-Lockport. “I look forward to working closely with County Clerk Jastrzemski and our department heads to seize this opportunity to modernize our operations.”
ReConfigure Niagara will focus on operating Niagara County government in a time of severe budget constraints.
“Like families and businesses across our community, there is no avoiding painful budget decisions caused by this pandemic,” said Majority Leader Randy Bradt, R-North Tonawanda, who is also an accountant and will chair this committee. “Working with County Treasurer Kyle Andres, County Manager Updegrove and his budget team, we have a huge task in front of us to figure out how we balance our budget in these very challenging times.”
Syracuse said he is not expecting a report from each committee, but rather proposals made as they move forward.
Two Democratic legislators told a reporter they did not receive much, if any, advance notice of the announcement of the committees, and that they were disappointed in the lack of advanced notice and input.
Minority Leader Dennis Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls, said he felt “slighted” for not being more involved in the process.
Virtuoso said Bradt called him telling him an email was being sent and he wanted Virtuoso to work with him, and as soon as he hung up the call the emailed press release was there.
“I think I have a lot of knowledge about our county and our county government. A lot more than a lot of other people that were named to be head of those committees,” Virtuoso said.
Virtuoso said politics should not have played a role.
“It should have been bipartisan and it really wasn’t. We didn’t have any input into this. All of a sudden we get a press release and that’s it,” Virtuoso said.
Virtuoso also expressed disappointment in all of the committee chairs being from the eastern end of the county, with the western end being impacted with more COVID-19 cases and more businesses that were shut down.
“None of them are from Niagara Falls,” Virtuoso said.
Legislator Anita Mullane, D-Lockport, said she was “disappointed” about not being consulted with beforehand as well.
“I’ve always said I’m here to work with anybody. I’m offering assistance and ideas,” Mullane said.
Mullane added that she wants input from the three cities and surrounding towns on any plans involving reopening.
Legislature Chair Becky Wydysh, R-Lewiston, said everybody is going to be involved “in some way and at some point.”
She added that she wants Virtuoso and Bradt to work together on the ReConfigure group.
When asked if the groups would be bipartisan, Wydysh said they would be.
“I have said before that this entire situation is not political and it can’t be. We are going to have to work together to move our county forward,” she said.
Wydysh said the meetings of the group will not be public as they are just working groups, but stressed that any formal decisions would have to go through the committees, which are open.
“Those are going to have to come to the committees if a resolution is needed ... It’s not like anything is going to be hidden or held back,” Wydysh said.