Monday, January 25, 2010

ARCC welcomes public role as advocate

© 2010 The Chronicle. All rights reserved.
ARCC’s Shimkus led fight against sales tax hike; welcomes public role as advocate
By Gordon Woodworth
Chronicle News Editor

Todd Shimkus said that when he was hired in 2003 as president and CEO of the Adirondack Regional Chamber of Commerce, the ARCC board wanted him to speak out on behalf of the local business community.

Mr. Shimkus has embraced that role, most recently opposing a sales tax increase in Warren County that was ultimately rejected, and pestering a Rochester-area Assemblyman with daily letters urging consumer-friendly changes to health insurance.

His advocacy, impassioned and direct, has ruffled the feathers of some elected officials. But in a lengthy interview with The Chronicle last week, Mr. Shimkus said he is proud of the work he does on behalf of the 1,000-plus members of the Chamber, and he has no plans of stepping out of the public eye.

“I have been outspoken since I got here,” Mr. Shimkus said. “I was outspoken in my prior chamber job, and I think that is part of the reason they brought me here. I’ve been doing advocacy for a long time on behalf of the business community, and that is what this board was looking for.”

Ferone: That’s why we hired him

George Ferone of Tribune Media, who was on the search committee when Mr. Shimkus was hired, said advocacy “was definitely something we wanted to see us get stronger with. Todd is dynamic and very focused, and he brought a very strong political science background with him. In fact, I believe he held elected office in Massachusetts. Those skill sets help him with his Chamber role here.”

Mr. Shimkus, in his native Massachusetts, served on a school board, then town board and ran for state assembly.

As president of the ARCC, he says he has two mandates.
“Number one, you have to run a chamber well. You’ve got to run chamber services that members want. And probably the most important thing that our members want is the networking opportunities, the chance to grow their business, to figure out how to build relationships and partnerships that make some sense.

“The other piece of it, and I often call it the secret, or the indirect, benefit, that they get, is the advocacy. Government is doing something to business every day, whether it’s at the federal, state or local level. Sometimes what they are doing is helpful, sometimes it’s not helpful.
Saying what specific businesses can’t “…Businesses, especially small business owners, can’t risk losing customers by showing up at a public hearing or speaking out on an issue. Those folks that do, I give them a ton of credit. But it’s my job to do what they can’t do. I’m not putting anything, other than memberships, at risk. They are putting their livelihood, their business, at risk, if they tick off a customer because of something they said at a public meeting.

“They shouldn’t be in that position, and our willingness to advocate for them means they don’t have to.”

Mr. Shimkus said he depends on his 27-person board of directors to direct the Chamber’s positions.

“It’s not about a single project or a single issue. It’s about what our board, in its diversity and through its debate and our research, what do they think is best for the economy. And there may be times where some members get hurt by a position we take, but if we think it’s the right thing for the economy, we’re going to take that position and it’s my job to fall on the sword and take the slings and arrows and the name-calling and deal with that.”

NBT Bank’s Dan Burke, an ARCC board member, said Mr. Shimkus never takes a public position without first getting the backing of the board.

“He’s pretty astute about that,” Mr. Burke said. “We need a voice for the business community, and Todd is the guy that makes it happen. If he’s publicly advocating a position, you can be sure he’s got his board behind him.”

Sokol, Kenny: It made a difference

After the Warren County Board of Supervisors narrowly voted to consider a 1% sales tax increase and set a public hearing, Mr. Shimkus e-mailed chamber members with the headline, “The world is run by those who show up.”

“That is one of my favorite sayings,” he said. “We told them, here’s what we know about this, here’s the date of the public hearing, and here’s the time. And I think we did say, here’s our position.

“But it wasn’t a call to action to come out in droves. And as I told [Queensbury at-large supervisor] Matt Sokol and a couple of other supervisors, we didn’t send out a similar e-mail asking our members to contact the supervisors. I did send out an e-mail to people that I thought could offer some informed judgment on the impact. I wanted whatever input the supervisors got from our members to be good data and information, and rational arguments. I wanted quality, not quantity.”

Mr. Shimkus, it appears, got both.

“For me, personally, Todd made a difference in the way I voted on the sales tax increase issue,” said Mr. Sokol, one of several supervisors who changed his vote, first for considering the sales tax increase, then opposing it.

“That Saturday [after the Friday Board of Supervisors meeting when supervisors voted to consider the sales tax increase], I was blanketed with e-mails from members of the ARCC opposing the increase. And that was just Saturday.”

Bill Kenny, Glens Falls’s Ward 5 county supervisor, said, “I absolutely think that the chamber’s involvement in the sales tax debate was instrumental in its defeat. There were a number of forces at work — political parties, business people and everyday citizens, and all of them had a say in the outcome.

“…Todd is very vocal about issues that impact the local citizenry. I believe we need to have more people like him stand up and be counted. I think some elected officials tend to discount his views unfairly as they do not take into consideration that he represents hundreds of local businesses.”

O’Keefe: ‘He didn’t have all the facts’

Queensbury at-large supervisor David Strainer said, “I don’t think as far as I was concerned that he made any difference in the sales tax debate. I was already a no…and I think most supervisors had already made up their minds.”

County Treasurer Frank O’Keefe, who supported a sales tax increase, said, “Good constructive criticism is good for any government or business, but when you come in and oppose something and don’t have all the facts and figures, I have a problem with that. I don’t think Todd had the crucial facts based on reality.”

Mr. O’Keefe added, “I believe he made the statement that he would encourage people to do business in other communities if the sales tax increase was implemented, and I don’t think he should go down that road.”

Mr. Shimkus replies, “I never made that statement because I couldn’t back it up. I never said it, but other folks did…What I did say was that we would take $14-million out of cash registers and put it in county coffers, because that I can document.”

Mr. Shimkus said, “I understand Frank’s points. He needs to look out for the finances of the county. This probably didn’t make his job very easy, losing this access to $14-million. But that is exactly the point we’ve been trying to make.

“The only way to reduce government spending, to make sure that they aren’t funding something they shouldn’t be funding, is to reduce the amount of revenue they have.”

Monroe, Goodspeed, Geraghty qualms

Fred Monroe, the Town of Chester supervisor who chairs the county board and who supported a sales tax increase, said, of Mr. Shimkus, “I don’t have a problem with his advocacy. I believe very much in a free exchange of ideas and opinions and always hope that the outcome will be a wise decision. He was effectively representing his membership.

“…That said, I think he was a bit too strident in the sales tax debate, and did not have all the relevant facts known to the supervisors.”

Another up-county supervisor, Johnsburg’s Sterling Goodspeed, said, “I welcome his and any participation in discussion of important county issues. All participation is good.

“The one caution that I would add here is that participation should not be one-dimensional. It is great that Mr. Shimkus became involved in the discussion over sales tax, but to move to the next level he needs to likewise develop an understanding of the complexities that our county and its residents face and not just lobby for the business community.”

Warrensburg Supervisor Kevin Geraghty said, “I think [Todd] was a little heavy-handed at times, but it did not affect my vote as much as the other comments by the people…The only thing I wish is that he would recognize that some of us have business experience and we are changing how things are done at the County, but it takes time.”

Asked if he ever defers to elected officials, Mr. Shimkus said he did.

“At the Dec. 18 public hearing, Frank O’Keefe got up there and made some comments that were clearly directed my way, but I didn’t speak. Everybody knew where the Chamber stood. I didn’t need to continue to beat that drum. And I think I showed that at some point, I defer. I don’t have a vote.”

But he adds, “Whether it’s at the Common Council level or in Albany or in Washington, I’m going to give them the best advice, the best information we have. On the sales tax, that was what we were trying to do. We were trying to give them evidence of what this would do to a local business, and the impact it would have.”