By Holly Crocco
On his 68th day in office, Putnam County Executive Kevin Byrne stood before a standing-room-only crowd in the Historic Courthouse in Carmel and pledged that when opportunity knocks in the form of improving affordability, accessibility and accountability in county government, he will answer the call.
“Some may use the opportunity of tomorrow to put off the challenges of today,” he said March 9. “It is critically important that we not shy away from these challenges, but embrace them and confront them head on.”
Byrne said he already reorganized his administrative office to save more than $100,000, and that the county’s utilities contracts and are expected to be locked in at lower rates below market value, with a projected savings of $185,000 on gas and electric bills at county facilities.
“We’re now taking this a step further and have instituted a policy of scrutinizing and negotiating every new contract,” he said.
Byrne noted that there are also a number of private sector and town-level projects on the horizon that are expected to boost the county’s economy. For example, the Farm at Brewster Yards (formerly ProSwing Baseball & Softball) is moving forward with plans to build a new multi-sports complex in Brewster, and The Alexandrion Group is still planning to move forward with a large-scale distillery in Carmel.
“Both of these projects are expected to create high-quality, good-paying jobs, and make Putnam County a destination for visitors,” he said. “My predecessor and members of this Legislature have been committed to their success, and I pledge my administration will continue with that same level of support.”
In addition, the reopening of the birthing center at Putnam Hospital in Carmel, and the debut of Ace Endico’s new 117,000-square-foot facility promise to keep local residents employed and keep tax dollars in Putnam.
To increase accessibility for all residents and to reach people with various abilities, Byrne is proposing a new position in county government – coordinator of the office for individuals with disabilities – to help caregivers navigate the system. The position would be created from two funded, currently vacant, part-time positions in the department of social services/mental health.
“The creation of this position is just one more opportunity for us to make a real positive impact on the lives of our most vulnerable residents,” said Byrne. “For an individual living differently abled, opportunity means a chance to break down barriers. For someone living with the disease of addiction, it’s a chance to get help.”
The county executive stated that overdose-related deaths increased dramatically across the country from 2020 to 2022. Therefore, he is proposing to use a “modest portion” of opioid lawsuit settlement funds – $85,000 – to help fund programming at the Putnam County Prevention Council this year, which will experience a dip in funding when a grant runs out.
“Putnam County government received these dollars for a reason and the government shouldn’t horde it,” said Byrne. “The Prevention Council has been providing educational forums, professional training, harm-reduction services and so much more since their inception.”
He said his administration is going to refocus on “the core responsibilities and functions of county government,” such as providing for residents’ health and safety. Therefore, the county will continue forward on the path of building its first stabilization center – a 24/7 mental health crisis facility that specializes in diverting people from the hospital and the criminal justice system, connecting individuals with services they need.
“It’s smart, it makes fiscal sense, and it’s the right thing to do to get people the help and services they need,” said Byrne. “We are working actively with our partners and mental health/DSS to identify a new location that will help ensure this center’s long-term success.”
Protecting children is also a priority for the new administration, and Byrne said it will follow through on the actions from the previous Legislature and county executive, and enter into an agreement with an outside partner to install exterior cameras on every school bus in Putnam, enhancing safety and cracking down on drivers running school bus stop signs.
Also, the sorely-needed radio operation expansion for emergency response on the west side of the county will continue this year.
Byrne called maintaining and improving the county’s infrastructure, including its buildings and grounds, a critical portion of his mission, and said he intends to formally ask the Legislature for a $2 million budget transfer to directly fund county facility improvement projects.
“Many of our existing facilities that provide for the core functions of county government need serious repairs and upgrades,” he said.
This includes various roof repairs, structural repairs to the Board of Elections facility and the Koehler Memorial Senior Center in Mahopac, and other repairs to facilities that hundreds of county employees work in every day.
Byrne said his administration will follow through with the previous administration’s promise to allocate more than $12 million, including $7 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds, to assist the towns, villages and school districts make infrastructure improvements.
“We will not pull the rug out from under them,” he said. “We’ve already received great feedback from our partners in local government who’ve taken advantage of our offer to assist.”
To deliver on an earlier pledge to implement guardrails that will help control county government spending, Byrne last week asked the Legislature to consider a resolution to create a Taxpayer Bill of Rights in Putnam.
“Any time we’re asking our residents to contribute a little bit more of their hard-earned money, we must justify it,” he said. “That’s why this legislation changes our county charter to require a two-thirds majority vote of the Legislature when the annual operating budget results in a property tax levy increase.”
The county executive said he also intends to submit to the Legislature a plan to reorganize the county’s highway and facilities department into a Department of Public Works.
During his State of the County address, the county executive presented to the Legislature his Taxpayer Transparency Act, which will self-mandate that the county live-stream of all of its legislative public meetings over the internet.
“This will provide our residents who are incapable of attending for one reason or another, with the most accurate and up-to-the-minute information on the hard work of their government representatives,” he said.
In addition, the legislation also proposes that the county establish a budget transparency website for the public to view and more easily understand and digest the budget at any given time.
“Instead of just providing a 100-plus page spreadsheet with numbers and line items that the average citizen has no time to look at, let alone actually understand, our budget transparency website will provide accurate explanations as to what our county budget entails in laymen terms,” said Byrne.
He said he hopes the site will be ready for next year’s budget process and will be implemented when he proposes his 2025 county budget.