March 15, 2024

By Amy Neff Roth


When President Joe Biden signed a bill on March 9 to prevent a partial federal government shutdown, he also accelerated the timetable of a project in Herkimer County.

The $460 billion package of six annual spending bills included millions for community projects across the country, including $2.75 million for a proposed children’s center in Herkimer County. That money, on top of other grants, was enough to move the project forward.

The Herkimer County Legislative Board voted 10-5 Wednesday evening to authorize construction of the 14,000-to-16,000-square-foot center on part of the former Duofold site in Ilion that is currently across Spruce Street from the main Duofold building.

“We’re ecstatic,” county Administrator Jim Wallace said of the federal funding. It was the last thing needed for legislators to put construction to a vote, he said.

The project has already received funding from several sources: $1.4 million from Empire State Development and the Mohawk Valley Regional Economic Council, $550,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funding from the county, $250,000 from the Community Foundation of Herkimer & Oneida Counties, and $315,000 in federal funds secured by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY, last year.

Plans for the children’s center —which has not yet been designed and, therefore, does not have a final price tag — call for a smorgasbord of services for kids currently in short supply in the rural county.

These include, Director of Public Health Christina Cain said:

All of those services are interrelated and together will create “one cohesive, unified endeavor,” Cain said.

“It’s going to be a very busy place,” she said.

And all the grants, she said, means that the center will come with very little cost for Herkimer County taxpayers, Cain promised.


Federal funding

Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, whose sprawling district covers Herkimer County and the North Country, sent out a statement on Tuesday touting the $30 million  in funding in the bill to benefit projects she supported in her district as well as other causes in the bill that she says will benefit upstate New York.

She called the funding for the children’s center a “huge win and result for Herkimer County.”

In discussions with county leaders, child care kept coming up as the top issue, one that presents challenges to employers whose workers need it, Stefanik said. That’s why she chose to back the project for funding, she said.

In putting in applications for community projects to receive federal funding, Stefanik makes sure to back one project in each county that is most desired by local officials, she said.

Stefanik also supported another project in the county to mitigate flooding in Herkimer. The appropriations bill contained two grants for New York State to be used to fund efforts by the village of Herkimer to widen Bellinger Brook to prevent flooding and to repair and reconstruct parts of the West German Street bridge over the brook.

Schumer and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, sent out their own releases about upstate projects they supported included in the appropriations bill, including the children’s center.

Wallace said the county has applied to both Stefanik’s and Gillibrand’s offices for funding for the children’s center and that both politicians as well as Schumer had worked to secure the grant. Schumer also helped to secure last year’s grant, he said.


Too little child care

The idea for the center started with the urgent need for more child care providers in the county, especially ones able to look after infants, Cain said. There’s only one day care center and very few home child care providers in the county, she said. Mohawk Valley Community Action offers day care, but only to those who are income-qualified, she said.

And infant care is particularly hard to find because it’s so expensive to provide given the staff ratios required by the state, the cost of the equipment and credentialing.

Cain gave two examples of the broader consequences of a dearth of child care.

“We have so many jobs in this community that we need filled,” she said. “And the more people that we can get into the workforce, the better. And there are a whole host of folks who are not able to work because of the availability of child care or the cost of child care.”

And in the longer term, that lack of child care affects the schools who struggle to teach too many kids who simply aren’t ready for kindergarten, never having learned socialization or the basic curriculums taught in day cares, Cain said. Some kids even end up needing speech therapy because they’ve had so little conversational interaction, she said.

“They’re not ready by a long shot,” Cain said. “They don’t even know how to sit in a chair and pay attention.”

The children’s center will rent space inexpensively (to keep child care costs down) to a still undetermined child care provider who must offer two infant classrooms, two toddler classrooms, a pre-kindergarten classroom and a classroom for before- and afterschool care for school-age kids, Cain said.

Spaces will be available to families with or without child care subsidies.

”The whole issue of child care just kept coming up and coming up and coming up,” she said. “We started thinking of just maybe building a child care center. And from there it just grew and grew and grew.”


Mental health services

Although the center started out as a plan to offer more child care in the county, it soon became apparent that the county needed more mental health services for children just as urgently, Cain said.

So her department will open a public mental health clinic in the building, using part of a grant meant to support children with or at risk of serious mental health challenges to pay for a provider or providers. It would be open to anyone of any insurance status under the age of 18.

It’s too early in the planning process to say exactly what providers they’ll be looking for, but preliminary, Cain likes the idea of having a psychiatric nurse practitioner and a licensed clinical social worker, she said.

Having the clinic in the same building as the day care providers a few advantages, she said. If the older kids in the day care need services, they’re already in the building. Parents can bring kids in for appointments and pick up their younger kids from day care at the same time. And providers have said that they would be much more likely to accept a job in a place that offers child care for their own kids, Cain said.



Asked if the federal government’s often last-minute efforts to prevent partial government shutdowns were a sign that bipartisanship is tough in D.C., Stefanik, House Republican Conference chair, didn’t answer directly. (Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has also said that Stefanik is on his list of potential running mates in this year’s election.)

But she pointed out that funding community projects, like the children’s center, springs from bipartisan efforts locally.

In her own district, she said she spoke to local elected officials and the Chamber of Commerce starting more than a year ago without regard for anyone’s party affiliation.

“It’s a way,” Stefanik said, “for us to deliver results no matter if you’re a Democrat, Republican or independent constituent.”

“These local investments,” she added, “they are real results.”

Wallace concurred that local politicians have to work with everyone.

“You have to get things done for people,” he said.


Flood mitigation in Herkimer

Bellinger Brook, the village of Herkimer’s main flooding culprit, cuts through primarily residential neighborhoods, Mayor Dana Sherry said.  It flooded badly in 2013 and again in 2016, she said.

The bridge project has gone out to bid and will hopefully be completed this spring. And village officials hope the brook work will also get done this spring, she said.

These projects could mean, she said, that flooding will be a thing of the past in Herkimer.


Rest of bill

The appropriations bill also included a host of other funding for upstate projects and other measures that Stefanik, at least, believes will affect her constituents positively. She cited, as conservative victories, measures to prevent the VA from having veterans’ names put into the Federal Bureau of Investigations system for background checks on firearms purchases without a judge’s consent; a 10% cut to funding for the Environmental Protection Agency; a $977 million cut to the Department of Justice’s funding compared to last year; and a 6% cut to the FBI’s budget.

And she called other measures a win for upstate including ensuring the availability of flavored milk in schools, $20 million for the National Park Service’s American Battlefield Protection Program and full funding for the Specialty Crop Research Initiative.

Flavored milk, she argued, encourages children to drink more milk and it helps the area’s dairy farmers.

“We want to make sure that kids are able to drink the milk that they choose in schools,” she said. “It’s good news for parents, good news for dairy farmers.”