State of the county: Equity agenda begins

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy speaks at a Guilderland event in November, 2014. McCoy gave his annual state of the county address on Tuesday, highlighting the need to provide treatment to residents for mental health issues and heroin use.

ALBANY COUNTY — Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy, in his state of the county address Tuesday, announced an “equity agenda” to help serve residents affected by poverty, age, disability, or race issues.

He also said that partnerships, grants, and restructuring continued to lower county costs and increase the fund balance in 2015, and he highlighted new initiatives like the creation of a mental health court and allowing the anti-opioid drug naloxone to be available in Albany County without prescription.

Anti-poverty services

“It’s a partnership,” McCoy told The Enterprise.

The county and the Center for Human Services Research at the University at Albany will assess the county’s social and human services departments to “deliver services to improve the health and well-being of…our residents,” he said in his address. “Significant portions of our community are being left behind, particularly if looked at by race, ethnicity, income, and neighborhood.”

McCoy told The Enterprise that the county provides good services, but that “you pull the trees out, dust them off, and replant them. Society changes. People’s needs change.”

The partnership with the center will allow the county to expand services, but “reduce what’s already being spent,” he said. “The county strives to make a profit, but it goes to the taxpayers of Albany County. We’re effectively spending less than $50,000” for the department assessments, he said.

Mental court

McCoy said that the county’s Department of Mental Health plans to develop a mental health court this year, to be in place “mid-year” or by fall.

Costs would be minimal to the county, he said; just as with the existing veterans court and drug court, the same attorneys and courts would be used on special days for those with mental illness.

McCoy recalled the closure of mental health facilities in the 1980s, which, he said, forced those with issues into the public arena. Since then, he said, those with mental illness who are arrested spend time in jail, and not in a treatment facility.

“They shouldn’t be in jail,” McCoy said. “They should be getting the treatment they need.”

Anti-opioid availability

Following up on his 2015 creation of an opioid taskforce, McCoy announced on Tuesday that the county’s health commissioner, Elizabeth Whalen, would “issue a standing order that naloxone will be available without a prescription at participating pharmacies in Albany County.

The drug naloxone, known widely as the brand Narcan, counters the effects of opiates in drugs like heroin. Family members can give the drug to relatives if they find them collapsed from drug use, he said.

“People are going to use heroin. If you can give naloxone —” McCoy told The Enterprise. He used an example of a man he knew growing up in Albany who overdosed on bad heroin but knew enough to call for help.

“It made a difference to him, living or dying,” McCoy said of the drug.

On Wednesday, Governor Andrew Cuomo expanded the availability across the state, announcing that independent pharmacies would now be able to provide naloxone without a prescription.

Albany County’s efforts to inform and train the community on the use of Narcan is “growing as the message gets out,” McCoy told The Enterprise.

“This is something that hasn’t gone away,” he said.

Continued efforts

Asked about the county’s work preventing trains with dangerous or flammable cargo, like crude oil, from crossing through the county and into the Port of Albany, McCoy noted that in June, he held a summit at The College of Saint Rose; that he had filed comments with the United States Secretary of Transportation to phase out tank cars; and that the county has asked for reduced train speeds for cars with flammable liquids.

“We’re staying on top of this,” McCoy said. “People first, environment second. We’re not going to stop. We’re not done.”

McCoy, a former firefighter and current member of the National Guard, said that train explosions and spills would be “hard to handle in the city of Albany,” with its professional fire departments. For volunteer squads, like those in New Scotland and Voorheesville, McCoy said, accidents would be even more difficult.

Experts at the summit told him, “Be prepared. It’s a matter of time,” McCoy said.

Financially, the county has continued to increase its fund balance, which stands at $40 million.

“It doesn’t mean we have money to go spend,” McCoy said. “But, it’s there for a rainy day. A budget is a working document — it changes.”

Savings have taken place with the turn-around of the county’s nursing home finances, he said.

“We cut the subsidy in half. We were bleeding $1.5 million per month” for 250 residents, McCoy said. “It was expensive. We have to fix it. We still have to be creative out there.

McCoy is hoping to receive a grant to create a partnership with Albany Medical Center to offer primary-care services at the nursing home, “so we don’t have to ship residents out,” he said.

 An on-site facility could turn a profit for the county, which would “be nicer than spending taxpayers’ money,” McCoy said.

The county continues to work with the state to offer a senior-housing rehabilitation program, to which the county pledged $1 million, he said. Seniors who have enough money to get by, but not enough to fix a roof or repair a furnace, may qualify for the program in order to stay in their homes “as long as they can,” McCoy said. Funds can also pay for the installation of railings or accessible baths, he said.

Melting pot assistance

McCoy said that a Mexican ambassador to the United States met with him and expressed concern about immigrant issues here, such as language barriers in the legal and health systems. The county applied for and received a grant to create a regional immigration center from here to the Canadian border, he said.

The center will train lawyers and offer interpretation or counseling services to immigrants on criminal or family court issues, he said.

“If there’s a scuffle, if you plea a certain way, it can affect a citizenship application,” McCoy said, noting that an immigrant’s attorney may not know all the limitations and could be trained at the center.

In his address McCoy called for anti-Muslim and anti-Islamic sentiment to stop.

“I served 15 months in Iraq,” McCoy told The Enterprise of his military service. “I learned a lot about their culture.”

He said in his address, “As I look around this room, I am reminded of what makes our country so great. That is diversity. The national rhetoric, which has fueled anti-Muslim and anti-Islamic sentiment, is wrong and cannot be tolerated. That is why I called for a series of public meetings with the Muslim community to foster dialogue, education, and understanding, and to break down barriers and fears.”

He told The Enterprise, “I’ve seen other countries go to war for less. We need to get ahead of it.”

By speaking with members of the Muslim community in Albany County, he said, “We got ahead of the curve. We’re breaking down barriers. We need to make people feel comfortable. They’re our neighbors. A lot of them are doctors, and prominent people in the community.”

McCoy called the county a network, and said that we need to “bring out dialogue and educate people.

“That’s what makes our country great…partnerships, collaboration,” McCoy said.

At the local level, he said, county employees and residents will “enhance the programs that are working…change together, and create economic growth and jobs for our children.
“I feel this county is the best county in the state of New York,” McCoy concluded.

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