Niagara Gazette — Bill Ross is one of the longest tenured and, arguably, most recognizable members of the Niagara County Legislature.
His challenger in this year’s 2nd District legislative race is Sean O’Laughlin, a 57-year-old political newcomer who believes guys like Ross have had their time and now is the time to usher in a new era of leadership in county government.
“I’m frustrated with what’s been going on in Niagara County,” said O’Laughlin, the nephew of former Niagara Falls Mayor Michael O’Laughlin. “I figured I’d give it a shot to see if I could change something.”
Ross has served in either appointed or elected office locally for 40 years, with 28 of those involving stints as a town councilman and, later, county lawmaker. He has served as chairman of the legislature - one of the top legislative posts - nearly every year since 2004.
He views his experience as a plus, arguing that the county has done more with less during his tenure while promoting economic development and consolidation efforts, including a reduction in the body itself from 19 to 15 members. He said he’s running again because he wants to continue efforts to trim the size of county government, reduce spending and control property taxes.
In recent years, Ross said he and other members of the Republican-led majority have not only reduced the total number of county employees at a savings to taxpayers, but took other steps to cut costs, including selling off the old Mount View facility at a savings of about $1 million per year.
“We don’t just talk smaller government. We did it,” Ross said.
“We’ve done a lot, not enough because of the state mandates out there, but we have been able to maintain essential services,” he added. “We have done more with less and as long as I’m up here, we will continue to move in that direction.”
O’Laughlin said that while he understands state mandates play significant roles in the overall county budget, there is plenty of “pork” approved each year, items like attorney salaries that he believes could be reduced or eliminated altogether. He noted that many lawyers on the county payroll are also donors to local campaigns, including his opponent’s committee and others in the county’s Republican-led majority.
“These are the guys that are giving directions to people and I haven’t taken any of those directions,” O’Laughlin said, referring to members of the Republican majority like Ross. “I’m trying to remain free of all that.”
O’Laughlin said part of his “frustration” with county government stems from lawmakers’ handling of the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency. He questions the level of return the community is receiving from tax and other benefits doled out by the agency, saying he’s concerned too few jobs are being created for the cost borne by local taxpayers. He’s also concerned that too many of those jobs are being given to workers from outside the area.
“We get some jobs, but we should have a whole lot more. I find that very frustrating,” he said.
Ross said it is a “tough decision” any time incentives are offered to business owners, but believes it is often necessary and appropriate to do so given the level of competition for jobs in the marketplace. Generally, he believes the NCIDA and the county’s Center for Economic Development have done a good job of helping to create and retain positions amid intense competition.
“You are competing against not only other communities in New York state but surrounding states,” Ross said. “If you don’t have some type of incentive program, you’re not going to get them in.”
A registered Republican, O’Laughlin will appear on this year’s ballot on the Democratic Party line. He said he still believes in Republican ideals, but does not agree with the direction of the local GOP. O’Laughlin lost his bid to secure the Republican line in the September primary.
“I think you should vote for the right person and the right cause, but you need a major party to help get you in there,” O’Laughlin said, explaining his decision to accept the Democratic Party’s endorsement.
Ross, a registered Conservative, won the Republican Primary and will also appear on the ballot on the Conservative, Independence and Working Families party lines in November.
While the “need for change” has been a popular theme among challengers for county seats this year, Ross said he believes his record shows he’s done a good job of representing the interests of his constituents throughout his tenure.
“It’s only a change for the better if the person in the position isn’t doing anything,” he said. “I work hard everyday. Take a look at my record, take a look at my attendance and take a look at what we’ve achieved.”Bill Ross (Incumbent) • AGE: 79 • OCCUPATION: Retired from Niagara-Wheatfield School District where he served for 47 years as a school administrator. • EDUCATION/MILITARY SERVICE: Master's degree in education from Michigan State University, with certification in school district administration from the University at Buffalo. Served U.S. Army ROTC, active reserve for 28 years, retired as lieutenant colonel. • POLITICAL AFFILIATION: Registered Conservative • ENDORSEMENTS: Niagara County Republican, Conservative and Independence parties. • COMMUNITY: President Wheatfield Lion's Club, past president Town of Niagara Lion's Club, member of Niagara Falls Rotary, past president Mount St. Mary's board of directors. • FAMILY: Married, father of three Sean O'Laughlin (Challenger) • AGE: 57 • OCCUPATION: Purchasing manager at Unifrax in Niagara Falls • EDUCATION: Associate's degree in business administration from Niagara County Community College, bachelor's degree in economics from the State University College at Buffalo and masters in business administration from Niagara University. • POLITICS: Registered Republican, endorsed by county Democrats. • COMMUNITY: Member of St. Vincent de Paul Parish. Has worked on fundraising campaigns for United Way of Niagara for two decades. Long-time supporter of Niagara Cerebral Palsy (NCP), serving as board member and treasurer. NCP Family of the Year Award in 2011 and the Humanitarian of the Year Award in 2012. • FAMILY: Married, father of three.