SKANEATELES — On a snowy Thursday night in central New York, Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon faced questions about water quality and outlined a few of his top priorities during an hour-long town hall meeting.
Many of the questions asked during the open forum focused on the health of Skaneateles Lake. Harmful algal blooms were present on the lake this year, which raised water quality concerns. The lake provides drinking water to several municipalities in Onondaga County, including Skaneateles and the city of Syracuse.
In response to a question about what the county is doing to address toxic blooms, McMahon highlighted the importance of partnerships. He explained that the county is working with the town of Skaneateles and state agencies to develop strategies for combating the problem.
McMahon acknowledged that climate change is a factor in the development of the blooms. He mentioned other proven or potential factors, such as runoff into the lake and the use of pesticides on lawns.
It's not yet known, McMahon added, if the reemergence of the harmful algal blooms will be a permanent problem or a temporary challenge. But he wants the county and other stakeholders to be ready.
"This lake is the heart and soul of not just this community, but of the rest of our county," he told the crowd of about 30 people who attended the meeting at Skaneateles Town Hall. He recognized the lake as the county's "best economic asset."
Cayuga County Legislature Vice Chairman Tim Lattimore was among those who asked questions. He expressed interest in Cayuga County entering a shared services agreement to use water provided by the Onondaga County Water Authority.
Being able to tap into OCWA's supply would give parts of Cayuga County "dual sources of water," Lattimore said. He supports the idea because of what he described as the "degradation of Owasco Lake." If the water supply from Owasco Lake can't be used for some reason, OCWA's supply could be a backup.
McMahon offered to work with Lattimore on the issue.
Before taking questions, McMahon outlined what he views as the three challenges facing the county: modernizing infrastructure, refocusing economic development initiatives and addressing poverty.
With sewers crumbling and municipalities across the county with aging water pipes, McMahon considers it an economic development problem. He said there are two local companies looking to expand, but the infrastructure presents challenges.
"They can do it here or go somewhere else," he said.
He wants to focus on existing businesses to boost economic development. That could lead to more investment and job retention, he said.
With the county's economic development efforts he wants to promote local assets, such as Onondaga Lake. Redeveloping the west of the lake, he said, can help it become a tourism draw.
He also touted some of the region's major industries, including agriculture, engineering and the life sciences.
"We're going to focus our strengths and we're not going to go swinging for the fences on some of these projects that don't make sense for us," he said.
Poverty rounds out McMahon's to-do list. He noted that there is poverty not just in urban areas, but in rural areas and the suburbs. He knows the data, especially in Syracuse, but doesn't want that to define the city or county.
He will unveil a plan to combat poverty within the next 60 days. He offered a glimpse at his plan by revealing it will focus on education, health, housing, transportation and workforce development.
"We're going to talk everywhere we go about poverty," he said. "We're going to talk about what results and success looks like."
It was McMahon's third town hall meeting since being appointed county executive. He was chairman of the Onondaga County Legislature before taking on the new role.
He succeeded Joanie Mahoney, the longtime county executive who resigned to take a job with the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. She is the chief operating officer at the school, and an adviser to SUNY Upstate Medical University.
McMahon has three other town hall meetings scheduled for later this month. His next forum is Tuesday at Clay Town Hall. He will follow that with a meeting Dec. 13 at Cicero Town Hall and Dec. 17 at Salina Town Hall. The events, which are open to the public, begin at 6:30 p.m.