County: Jobs debate is meaningless

We had hoped discussions of the degree to which Chautauqua County’s economy is struggling would have ended in November.

Apparently, we were wrong.

To recap, both executive candidates Ron Johnson and Vince Horrigan pointed to different figures to show that fewer people are employed in Chautauqua County than there used to be. Johnson used the oft-quoted 7,777 jobs that appeared on countless blue and white signs on lawns throughout the county last summer and fall. Horrigan, who ended up winning the election, pointed to a smaller number of about 3,000 jobs.

Either way, our economy isn’t growing. The discussion has been over how slowly it is contracting. It strikes us, then, that discussion over how badly our economy is floundering is rather inane – but inane discussion is exactly what happened at a recent meeting of the Chautauqua County Legislature’s Planning and Economic Development Committee.

Fred Larson, a Jamestown Democrat who returned to the legislature after about a decade away from politics, prepared a list of questions for Bill Daly, county IDA director, focusing on how the county is preparing sites for development. During the discussion, Larson said Chautauqua County has 6,000 less people employed than seven years ago, prompting Daly to say, “That’s the biggest lie that’s ever been told, and that’s a shame.”

Technically, Larson is correct. The state Labor Department’s website count of those employed shows a decrease from 63,800 employed in December 2007 to 57,300 in November 2013, a decrease of 6,500 workers.

State Labor Department statistics show a disturbing trend of fewer people in the county’s labor force regardless of when you choose to begin counting. Through November, the labor force totaled 61,800 people, a loss of 400 since January 2013, and yearly trends show a steady downward sloping trend since 2000, with slight upticks in 2004, 2005 and 2008 that didn’t arrest the overall trend. The number of people employed shows a similar downward trend since 2000. Furthermore, there are more people in Chautauqua County who live in poverty now, roughly 17.7 percent, than there were in 2007, when the poverty rate was 14.3 percent.

Republicans and Democrats have differing opinions on how best to attract good jobs to our area. Democrats like Larson favor building industrial parks so developers can more quickly locate in Chautauqua County, pointing to the embarassing situation last year in which a pet food manufacturer had to pull out of a Blockville plant because there wasn’t a steady water supply. Horrigan said during the campaign new buildings shouldn’t be built, favoring marketing existing properties that sit vacant so sites can be customized based on the needs of someone interested in the site.

It’s likely both sides are right.

What is key is how well we find out what the customer’s needs are so the sites can be customized to fit those needs. No one did a good enough job to know Saturn Pet Care’s needs for a site, which ultimately resulted in the company not locating in Chautauqua County. Existing properties should be marketed and filled, but the county should have something available for the Saturn Pet Care companies of the world for whom the county doesn’t have the right existing site. The right mix of each side’s preferred approach is a point open for debate.

There should be no difference of opinion, however, about the fact that our economy is leaving too many area residents jobless. For those who are working, too many are being paid at or near poverty levels.

Rather than debate the numbers, can’t we just agree we have a problem?