Democratic Onondaga County executive candidate Toby Shelley seeks fiscal responsibility

Toby Shelley

SKANEATELES | When he ran as the Democratic candidate for Onondaga County sheriff last year, Toby Shelley said he earned 47.3 percent of the votes despite being out-raised 5-to-1 by his Republican opponent.

Despite the unsuccessful bid, the Otisco resident said that race taught him that he could get votes without spending a lot of money.

"My message resonates with people," Shelley said during an interview in Skaneateles. "I never brought a single thing up in the sheriff's race that I couldn't find a way to pay for."

Feeling that his message still resonates with county residents, Shelley is now the Democratic candidate challenging incumbent Republican County Executive Joanie Mahoney for the county's top leader. Previously, Shelley ran twice for sheriff in 2014 and 2010 and for county legislator in 2011.

Similarly to his other campaigns, Shelley acknowledged that he was "talked into" this one, but people "convinced me that it was the right thing to do." Initially, he said, it was the Conservative Party that asked him to run, but when there was talk of the Democratic Party cross-endorsing Mahoney, he jumped in to seek that nomination as well.

"I think it's important that the public have a choice," he said. "We don't live in an autocracy. We live in a democracy. The public deserves a choice."

After winning the Sept. 10 Conservative primary and earning Reform Party's endorsement, Shelley said he has "a line for everyone to vote on."

His main concern is fiscal responsibility, something he said he heard in the last sheriff's race as well — "People didn't' feel unsafe in their homes. It was about the money. What are you going to do with our money?" he said.

Calling himself a moderate Democrat and a fiscal conservative, Shelley said the county should have a one-year, five-year and 10-year plan, "a roadmap of how we're going to do things in Onondaga County."

His spending priority is putting money toward infrastructure and seeing how many miles of paving and sewer pipes, for example, could be installed annually.

He took issue with the Lakeview Amphitheater, which he said was bonded for $50 million on which the county will pay $2.5 million over 30 years for a total of $75 million.

"That money would be better spent on infrastructure, better spent on creating jobs," he said.

Of the amphitheater, Shelley said he likely would not live long enough to see it paid for in its entirety, so the county is in essence giving its children a will that leaves them with its debt.

At the same time, he said, the county will tear down grandstand and racetrack at the state fairgrounds because they do not make money, sending Super DIRT Week to Oswego County and losing out on the $10 million that even generates for the county.

Yet, Shelley said, the county has not released a financial plan for the amphitheater.

"I'd love to see that plan because as county executive, we built this thing. We're stuck with this for 30 years," he said. "What are you doing to do to make this thing profitable? I'd like to see that financial plan and get an idea of what we're going to do."

Noting the amphitheater plans to host 20 outdoor concerts a year, or one per week for five months — an impracticability with the county's weather patterns, Shelley said — he said his plan is "to think outside the box and try and make this a year-round thing" in order for it to generate revenue.

For the county's 19 towns and 15 villages, Shelley said those municipalities lost on average 30 percent of their budgets when the county stopped sharing sales tax revenue with them.

As county executive, he said, he would like to look for ways help out the towns and villages around the county.

"A lot of towns and villages are trying to survive without raising taxes because property taxes are capped at 2 percent,so they're dipping into their savings accounts," Shelley said. "It's just a matter of time before that money runs out. I'd be very open-minded to helping towns and villages."

He contended that the county has $250 million in reserves and, rather than simply finding ways to spend that money, should share it with its municipalities or perhaps tax its residents less.

And though supporting Syracuse is important since many county residents travel the city's roads and use its facilities, Shelley said the county should not entirely be city-centric.

"Even though we have borders dividing us — town borders and village borders — it's one community and we need to think like that," he said. "We need to think of it as one community and how we're gong to help each other out."

Should he be elected, Shelley said his main priority is to examine the county's commissioners, deputy commissioners and management confidential employees to surround himself with the best team he can.

"The important thing for the guy is to work out a great system, a fair system, to get the best possible people in those positions," he said. "It's the future of our community at stake. Obviously, it's the money in our pocket at stake."

Shelley said he can bring fairness to county government, and above all, he feels he brings "a working person's perspective."

"I'm a working person like most everybody else," he said. "I know what's it like to pay a lot of taxes. ... I'm a working person. I can connect and relate with most people."

Skaneateles Journal Editor Jonathan Monfiletto can be reached at or (315) 283-1615. Follow him on Twitter @Skan_Monfiletto.