Sep 03, 2009 Walt Shepperd Uncategorized
Bill Fisher settling in as Deputy County Executive
The modern Jamesville Penitentiary, the Onondaga County Central Library in the Galleries, the Convention Center in the Oncenter complex, the Justice Center, the new ballpark. All deals closed by Ed Kochian, often over coffee on weekend mornings at a corner table a block north of his office in the Civic Center, in his role as Deputy County Executive. Over 28 years in that role, Kochian served as point person for all three County Executives since that position was created in 1962.
Under former County Executive Nick Pirro, along with the county’s former Chief Financial Officer Joe Mareane, Kochian helped keep the county solvent and its credit rating enviable. When he announced he would be retiring at the end of July, current County Executive Joanie Mahoney asked Kochian to promise to remain only a phone call away. When he did leave, he left a note on the door leading from Mahoney’s office to his, “I strongly advise you keep this door locked until the new guy passes muster.”
The new guy is Bill Fisher, who served as treasurer of Mahoney’s campaign and director of her transition team. A graduate of Yale and SU’s Maxwell School, in 1991 he founded a software company, which grew to do business internationally. An Onondaga County native, he is a former political writer for the Syracuse New Times. As we head into Fall, Mahoney and Fisher sat down for an interview focusing on the challenges posed by the economy on the county budget process.
With the budget and the sales tax and health care and unions looking like a rugged road, what’s the good news for the county?
Mahoney: That’s a tough question to ask me right now.
What are you proudest of?
Mahoney: That’s quick. I’m proud of the turnaround on the lake, and the efforts we’re making with environmentally-friendly solutions. We have accomplished a lot in the last year and a half. That comes quickly to mind, but we’ve done a lot of things here that I am proud of. We had to do more with less as soon as we got here.
The first budget that I was able to put together for 2009, because I had to work in 2008 with the budget Nick did. January 1 we implemented austerity because the last quarter of ’08 was when the economy really tanked. So we haven’t had the resources to do even what we hoped to do. But given that, I am very proud of the team we have here.
We have Ann Rooney as our administrator for Human Services who is getting down to the contract level with our Human Service agencies to see if there are people who can be working together better. Is there a better way we can spend these resources? Given the lack of resources, she took our priorities of making sure we had quality, affordable day care for working mothers, and she was able to reduce the cost and shore up some of these day care centers. She found a way to creatively take stimulus money and target it toward capital improvements in day care centers. It puts people to work doing the construction.
We have a food stamp program now. We’re doing it so well that one of our employees is spending a lot of his time traveling to other counties to explain how we’re doing it here.
Fisher: One thing I’ve noticed, since I got here eight weeks ago, is there’s a lot of momentum for the ideas set forward on the campaign trail. For example, the idea of taking a regional approach to things like economic development and land use plans. Taking a look at how looking at things regionally takes some of the incentive out of the traditional rivalry between city and county.
Mahoney: And county and neighboring counties. There is a lot of momentum there, and that reminds me of another thing I’m proud of. We are just putting the final touches on the redone 2010 Plan, which is our plan that’s supposed to be controlling sprawl. In my humble opinion, we haven’t done a great job in Onondaga County controlling sprawl.
But we are redoing that plan. Developers have gotten the word that if you’re not part of the plan, don’t count on help from Onondaga County. We’re not taking our sewer pipes further. We’re not taking our water pipes further. We’re going to start doing things smarter and better. That’s in its final stages.
The things that I think people elected me for, the things I told them I was going to do, we haven’t lost focus on. We don’t have the resources to do everything. The other thing is I told the county employees that I wouldn’t try to balance the budget on their backs. This very difficult budget is being spread broadly. I don’t have exact percentages, but the percentage of the local tax dollars that we spend on our work force is very significant. Yet I’m only asking them to solve 16 percent of the problem. I have a $50 million problem, and I’ve asked the unions to help me solve eight of that million.
Are you surprised by the unions’ response?
Mahoney: Not surprised, but disappointed. At this point it’s as if people just aren’t aware of what’s going on in the rest of the world.
Fisher: I was surprised by, having been in that room when Joanie reached out to the unions and heard very positive feedback, I thought, I was really surprised by the completely different message we got less than 24 hours later.
Mahoney: In writing, which is easier to send. When you’re face to face, it was a very cordial, productive conversation. But the minute the rhetoric started flying, and the name calling–we’ve got to get past that. People are tired of that. And people are too busy in their own day to sort out who’s fighting with who. I don’t want to be in any fights. I don’t want to be a part of any of that. I laid out the problem. I laid out my solution to the problem, and then I gave them the opportunity: before I put this budget together, if you want to have some input, and you want to give me some things to think about, and ways to make this better for your employees, I’m all ears.
We’re at the end. We’ve got a few days. Go back and talk to people and tell me, if you don’t want a furlough, which I don’t want either, if you’ve got something you can live with that’s easier than that, let me know what it is.
Here’s a couple of suggestions. If you’ll forego raises–I’m not asking anyone to take a pay cut–I’m saying just don’t take a pay raise. There’s a big distinction. I haven’t taken a pay raise in ’08. I didn’t take one in ’09. I’m not taking one in 2010. I’m not asking them to do anything I haven’t done, and am not willing to do. If you forego your raises, you can skip the furlough. All I got was the name calling, the rhetoric.
Fisher: The metaphor was a gun to your head. That’s just not an appropriate characterization of the conversation that happened in that room.
Mahoney: And I’m trying to do things differently. I listen to the unions. They asked to be brought into the conversation. I brought them in. I can put the budget together myself. That’s my job. And that was actually one of the comments that one of the union leaders said, “You were elected to make these decisions. Now you want us to tell our employees that we made the decision?” I said, “No. I can still make the decision, but you’ve asked me in the past to be brought into the conversation. I’m bringing you in. I have a problem. Do you want to try to solve it. I really could use your help.
The response was, “No.” We’re back now to we’ll put the budget together on our own. The management confidential people who aren’t part of the organized workforce are going to give up their raises this year, and they won’t have to take a furlough. The union employees, I hope, will, at the end of the day, see that that’s easier on all of them.
Whatever the outcome, you’ve been talking “we” and you have a new team member. What does Bill Fisher bring to the table?
In a very short amount of time I have come to rely on Bill very much. He’s involved in everything. He brought energy, smarts, a work ethic second to none, and a personality that meshes with mine, in that when we’re in these difficult meetings, we’re looking for common ground. Neither one of us is the tough talk, rhetoric, brinkmanship, who-can-stare-each-other- down. I think we’re very closely aligned in our style. That makes it good for me, that if I can’t be in a meeting, and Bill goes, I know that that same style is there. It’s let’s roll up our sleeves. Let’s talk about what the problem is.
Let’s come to a solution we can all live with. No one’s going to like it, but what can we live with? The only concern I had, because I worked with Bill on the campaign and during the transition, was how much harder I was going to have to work, because, morning, noon and night, he doesn’t stop.
Reach Walt at firstname.lastname@example.org.