Full text: Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan’s State of the County speech

Delivered February 16, 2021. 

Hi, this is County Executive Pat Ryan. Thank you for joining me for the 2021 State of the County address. 

As I think about the coming year here in Ulster County, I have high hopes and tremendous optimism. 2021 will be a year of Resilience and Renewal, and today I’m excited to outline a bold vision for how Ulster County will emerge better, stronger, and more equitable after the darkness and difficulties of the last year. 

But before I talk about what lies ahead, I want to take a moment to reflect on what we’ve all collectively been through this past year. 

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2020 was a year of challenge and crisis…of worry and waiting…of loneliness and loss, with over 200 of our neighbors and loved ones succumbing to this horrific virus. And the heart-wrenching reality is that we’re still very much in it, fighting for our collective lives…and our livelihoods. 

But, last month we finally started turning the tables on the virus — administering the first doses of vaccine to frontline healthcare workers and vulnerable seniors. There is much more work to be done, and I will not rest until every resident who wants the vaccine has received it…but with each dose we administer, my faith and optimism builds. 

And as I reflect back anew on the last year, I also remember the remarkable ways in which our community rallied and rose to the challenge. 

Just days after the pandemic hit, we mobilized and organized the growing sea of goodwill in the county and launched Project Resilience. We delivered nearly half a million meals to residents in need and kept the doors open at over 100 local restaurants. We worked with the YMCA, Center for Creative Education, and Boys & Girls Club to offer child care to frontline workers and families in need. We helped pay the rent of those impacted by the pandemic. We supported woman- and minority-owned businesses through our Ulster Equity Loan program. For the first time, we funded a full-time mental health professional into our 911 call center so that we can offer residents who need it trauma-informed care instead of incarceration. We doubled our Brighter Futures program for teens and provided an additional 20,000 meals to homebound seniors this winter. 

And over time Resilience became not just a program, but a mindset. A set of values guiding our collective response: compassion, ingenuity, urgency, equity, and economic justice. 

Those values, which have guided us here in Ulster County during this last year of tremendous challenge, echo those that our neighbor — President Franklin D. Roosevelt — called upon nearly a century ago in the midst of great strife and uncertainty. The New Deal programs he implemented led to a booming middle class, the establishment of a safety net for all, and a renewed sense of hope in America. When working people and families were most in need, our country stepped up and took bold action. 

Here in Ulster County, in 2021, we must — and we will — continue this work. Our resilience efforts will be guided by a clear aim: ensuring no one is left behind in the wake of devastation that this pandemic has created. This year, we will move forward with our plan to knock down our old jail and build desperately-needed workforce and senior housing in its place. We will continue our aggressive efforts to address the resurgent opioid crisis. We will keep fighting to return critical inpatient mental health services to our hospital, and expand our mobile mental health capacity to meet the urgent need. All of these investments in our most precious resource — our people — will help us emerge stronger and more equitable from this crisis. But in a time like this, we must do even more and we must be willing to try new approaches. 

Amidst the pandemic’s devastation, we have our first opportunity in a generation to think about creative and innovative ways to help people in need. One of my biggest takeaways from the challenges of this last year is that ultimately families know how best to meet their needs. We can continue to overdesign rigid, bureaucratic programs…or we can trust and empower you to take care of your family. 

I’m very excited to announce that in 2021 Ulster County will become one of the first counties in the country to undertake a large-scale universal basic income pilot program – where we’ll provide much-needed economic relief directly to families throughout the county. Through a partnership between Project Resilience, the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Guaranteed Income, Community Foundations of the Hudson Valley, and Ulster Savings Bank, we will be providing 100 qualifying households with direct relief payments of $500 a month for an entire year, all funded through the generosity of community donations. 

This concept is not new. UBI was supported by Thomas Paine in 1797, Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967, and has been a huge success across Europe where they saw groundbreaking effects on their citizen’s mental and physical health. By teaming up with one of the world’s leaders on UBI, we can start to better understand what $500 a month for an entire year will mean for a single parent, a recent SUNY Ulster graduate, or a member of our senior community. 

I’m proud that, once again, Ulster County will lead the way — implementing bold, creative solutions, at no additional cost to our taxpayers, in a moment when so many are counting on us. 

At the same time, we must also look beyond the immediate work of ensuring our community’s resilience. 2021 must also be a year of renewal, where we commit not just to economic recovery but to real economic justice.

We will center our renewal efforts around the most pressing existential challenge our our time — climate change. Rather than reverting back to our pre-pandemic economy, where far too many were already living paycheck-to-paycheck, we will lean into the future economy v further accelerating our work to implement a Green New Deal here in Ulster County. We will prove that taking aggressive climate action is not only the morally right thing to do, but that it will position us as an economic leader in the State and across the nation. 

Here in Ulster County, we’ve already begun this work and are recognized as leaders. 

During my first week in office, I signed an Executive Order committing to an aggressive goal: transitioning our county operations to 100% renewable energy by 2030. Over the last 18 months, even in the midst of the pandemic, we have taken bold action to make progress towards this goal — we are putting battery-powered buses on the road, turning brownfields into solar fields, and training a new generation of workers in the expanding clean technology industry, 

I’m proud that as a government we have been leading by example, but fully achieving the Green New Deal in Ulster County will require us mobilizing every part of our community — our businesses, our schools and universities, and every single resident and family. So today, I am excited to announce three major initiatives that will simultaneously protect our environment and boost our economy. 

First, we will launch a ground-breaking public-private partnership to more aggressively reduce greenhouse gas emissions (or, to put it in simpler terms, to stop polluting our precious air, water, and soil). Right now, in Ulster County, about 20 percent of these emissions come from the private sector. So today I am calling on every single business – large and small – to join our climate action efforts. We are launching our Ulster County Green Business Champions program to recognize businesses who are already leading, and we’re putting in place a program to support those that want to take climate action and make their business green. Whether it’s installing your own rooftop solar array, like Bread Alone, upgrading to high efficiency LED lighting, like Moon Farmer, or installing geothermal heating, like Mohonk Mountain House, there are many options available to save money, improve your operations, and demonstrate your commitment to our community. 

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Second, we will dramatically accelerate our efforts to boost local renewable energy generation (in other words, to generate the power we need with less pollution). Right now in Ulster County, less than 10% of our energy comes from local renewable sources. We need to get this number to 100 percent, and a key part of that will come from boosting our solar power generation — especially by expanding our community solar efforts. Through our Solarize Ulster program, without having to install any solar panels or equipment at one’s home, any resident can essentially “plug in” to a nearby community solar array. Not only will this allow our residents to be part of making the Green New Deal a reality, but it will also lower their utility bills and save them money at a time when we know the financial pressures are so great on everyone.

And finally, this year we will dramatically expand our Green Careers Academy, enabling us to put people back to work post-pandemic in the rapidly expanding green jobs sector. Over the next ten years, in Ulster County alone, we will need to install over 30,000 heat pumps and over one million solar panels. We will need to thoroughly rehab and update ten thousand homes, insulating attics, plugging air leaks, and installing efficient appliances. We will need to advance cutting-edge research to develop new forms of energy production, storage, and transmission. And much much more. 

Building this green infrastructure requires a highly-skilled workforce, which we will develop right here in Ulster County. Rather than seeing our young people leave the area to find exciting, good-paying jobs, this will enable us to keep them here…and to draw in others as well. In 2019, we launched our Green Careers Academy in partnership with SUNY Ulster, which has been a huge success. This year, we will significantly expand — bringing on a host of new partners including Ulster BOCES, Bard, Cornell Cooperative Extension, Central Hudson, Citizens for Local Power, Habitat for Humanity, the Climate Reality Project, and several of our local labor unions to help train and get our residents good-paying green jobs. 

These initiatives — Solarize Ulster, our Green Careers Academy, and our Green Business Champions program — are just the beginning. Throughout 2021, we will continue to announce and launch additional Green New Deal initiatives throughout the county. Looking ahead to Earth Day on April 22nd, in just nine weeks, I will outline a comprehensive, multi-pronged plan to further build on our Green New Deal in Ulster County efforts. 

Now is the moment, as we emerge from a crisis that highlighted the flaws and cracks below the surface in our economy and our community writ large, to come out stronger — not by just tackling the challenges of today but by looking forward and laying the groundwork for a greener, more equitable, and more just society. 

I think back to one year ago, and remember the energy, hope, and optimism of the high school students from across the county who I talked with after my State of the County address. We must set our sights high for them. And I think about my son Theo, who just turned 18 months old. We must build something better for his generation. This will not be easy, but it can be done — if we all summon the same grit, compassion, and resilience our community has shown this last year. As the great philosopher Dr. Seuss says in one of Theo’s favorite books The Lorax, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

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