Candidates address lake, schools, terms
WATKINS GLEN--More than 55 people attended the Schuyler County League of Women Voters' annual Meet the Candidates Night Wednesday, Oct. 19. The debate, held in the Watkins Glen Elementary auditorium, was headlined by incumbent Republican State Senator Tom O'Mara and Democratic challenger Leslie Danks Burke. The evening also featured a debate between Dominick Smith and Gerald Purvis who are competing for a seat on the Dix town council, along with a question and answer session with Robert Barton, who is running for Hector town council against John White.
The candidates were each asked what roles state agencies have in reducing the harmful blue-green algae issues on Seneca Lake. Burke spoke first, highlighting the waterways throughout the state as precious resources.
"When we see pollution from our corporate infrastructure starting to change our waterways, we need to take action," Burke said.
She added New York is gaining jobs in every region across the state except the Southern Tier, which was the only region to lose jobs last year. Burke said one area that is growing however is in agriculture, which is dependent on clean waterways. Burke also said O'Mara is a partner at a law firm that lobbies in Albany on environmental conservation issues for reduced regulation, calling into question a potential conflict of interest.
O'Mara responded by saying as chair of the Environmental Conservation Committee in the State Senate for the past two years, he has worked to increase funding for the environmental protection fund to $300 million, which is a record level. He said he worked to add "hundreds of millions of dollars" to the budget to help municipalities with their water and sewer infrastructure projects.
"I have been a huge supporter of Project Seneca, that will clean up the effluent going into Seneca Lake from an old and not well performing water treatment plant here [on] Seneca Lake," O'Mara said. He added he helped to secure $1.6 million for the Project Seneca regional wastewater treatment plant between Watkins Glen and Montour Falls.
The candidates were also asked what the biggest challenge was facing the public school system. O'Mara said the biggest current problem is the attempt to implement Common Core "in a disastrous fashion," while at the same time trying to implement a teacher evaluation system tied to it.
"Either one of those on their own would be extremely difficult tasks to undertake," O'Mara said. "To do them in combination together from the get-go has been a disaster, and continues to be a disaster."
O'Mara also spoke about working to get the Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA) eliminated, which was implemented in 2010, to get more funding back to schools. He also said the schools in Schuyler County get more funding per pupil than those in New York City Schools.
Burke responded by saying the biggest threat to education in the state right now is "the corporate influence over our schools." She said the Common Core rollout was botched and benefits the corporations involved in testing students.
"It pulls teachers away from schools who are in greatest need," Burke said.
She also said school infrastructure is crumbling, and those who attend wealthy school districts are not receiving the same outcomes as those who attend local school districts. Burke said this is not something they can sustain if they are working to educate students for the future.
Burke said while the GEA aid returning was long overdue, there was a decrease in foundation aid to every school that received their GEA funds back.
Both candidates also spoke on the viability of term limits, with both of them responding they are not in support of term limits. Burke said elections are the way to solve this issue, adding the state needs to address the money in politics that benefits incumbents. O'Mara said he would like terms to be longer than two years, as about six months of each term is spent campaigning when they could be getting work done.
In Dix, Smith is the incumbent running on the Democratic ticket, while Purvis is running as a Republican. Smith said one of the biggest challenges facing the town is maximizing their tax dollars, while also keeping taxes low for residents. He said he would like to see something put in the business park, as well as find creative ways to potentially share some services with other towns. Purvis said while he has not been involved in issues facing the town for many years, he has been a farmer in Dix for 50 years and former councilman back in the 1980s and 1990s.
In Hector, Barton is running as a Democrat against Republican White, who was unable to attend the debate. Barton said he "deals in facts, not fear," adding he wants to bring science and good management to the town board. He said he would like to bring all the different communities in the area together to talk to one another more often and work together. Barton spoke about increasing connectivity through electronics, while also talking to the Department of Transportation about reducing the speed along Route 414.