TIC Interview with Michael Breslin -
Albany County Executive

Interview By RAY FELICIANO

Interview date: July 3, 2007 (printed April 2008)

What does a county executive do?

"In Albany County it's the supervising head of a work force of almost 3,000, with a budget of some $565,000,000, over half a billion dollars, essentially charged with providing services to the less fortunate at a level that I think if you got all the people and they came together, they would agree 98% of the time exactly where that level ought to be. Now, there's some disagreement as to how we provide it, but we do health, mental health, social services, children's needs and families, age and youth, Medicaid, nursing homes, that 2/3 of what we do. If you put on top of that with jail, probation, district attorney, all the criminal justice system that the county's responsible for, that's more than 75% of what we do."

Albany County Executive, Michael Breslin

Albany County Executive - Michael Breslin with TIC Sr. Editor, Ray Feliciano.
(photo by Kimberly Feliciano)

"That's what we do, we treat individuals who are in need to get them back to the place where we like them to be. Most of them are there not of their own volition; the ones in the criminal justice system are of their own volition; but they're there because of illness, age, either newborn infancy or elderly and frail and disabled or some sort of addiction, but inadequacies that we can address in most cases. And after you get through the ones with the health and mental health where we actually get them directed to treatment for this, then you talk about people with a common need for services; lack of money, lack of a job. We try and get them hooked to a job so they become independent. My goal is not to serve these people for the rest of their lives but to serve them as quickly as possible. In fact right about the time I became county executive, what used to be called welfare or straight public assistance became temporary assistance for needy families. Temporary assistance. So each person that comes in to us we say, 'Who are you? What is it you need?' and get it so that you can do it yourself and we start working towards that."

What part of our taxes fund the county level?

"We raise locally around $65 million from property tax. We get some $140 million from local sales tax, and the rest comes in various forms through Federal and State assistance and some individuals who pay for part or all of the services we give them."

Which services and equipment are from the county? Basically my question goes to what's the difference between county stuff vs. town stuff vs. State stuff?

"Ok, first of all a notion that we often disabuse people of is that we don't sit between the State government and the towns and the cities and the villages as sort of an intervening supervising. We do things different things and different functions that towns and cities do. I just described to you the individuals that we serve. Those are services that we provide that are not provided by the cities, towns, and villages. The schools obviously do the education and we generally do not do education all though we've had a tremendous increase in our interface with education so that we let the teachers, the guidance counselors, the administrators all know, what are those symptoms and signs of the people that need our assistance so that we can get in early before it really get really out of hand. We work very closely with them, but we don't do education. And by and large in the cities and villages and towns we don't do there police force. Mostly our police is the sheriff who runs the jail, the county jail, and does the road patrols out in the hill towns, but he doesn't provide those functions for the rest of the cities and towns. The cities will also do roads in their particular jurisdictions and the city planning and zoning and the buildings, the housing, and the commercial buildings. That's all the functions of cities and tax. We don't do that."

How does the county balance its needs for a land fill with the public's desire to save the Albany Pine Bush environmental preserve?

"Because of the way the situation around here has developed, the City of Albany runs the land fill for most of the communities here, and the county has not gotten into this business of land filling. So it's not something that I am really intimately familiar with, nor do we really get into that function. I'm a member of the Pine Bush Commission and actively support it and I'm involved with their procedures and I think it's a wonderful facility. We just opened a new discovery center that displays what's out there. It becomes the entrance way it'll be something that we can teach kids. The land fill is really something that is really run by the city of Albany."

Can you tell us more about the discovery center?

"Have you been there? Go. You've got to. It's the old SEFCU building at Rt.155… It's a place to see some exhibits and for the school kids to come in to really get an eye opener on an education about ecology."

There was some concern recently that Albany Medical Center was considering reducing the number of beds they have for psychiatric patients by half from 52 to 26. What affect would that have on the county and what county services are available for patients with mental illness?

"There is no question in my mind that there is a lack of mental health facilities throughout this State. It seems that it is something that is cyclical however you want to describe it. And several decades ago when they started closing down the institutions, and saying that "we are going to do it in a different way." We had our Capital District Psychiatric Center, but we didn't have the big hospitals. They were all closed down. And people were then relegated to treatment that got them back into the community as best we could do it. Now, in Albany county we work to create and assistant in funding and assist those who, with the proper agencies who operate them, to find housing in the community where people suffering with mental health issues can live at a level of which they can survive and participate as assistants to our community. As either one they don't get to that level or they are found wondering or they commit crimes, a lot of people… It's very difficult to one, categorize them or finding the appropriate place for them to go. And there are not sufficient facilities to do that. That's why you are finding so many of the people that are presently in the criminal justice system who are sitting in jails. And I sympathize with the police officers who run into people who are committing acts that are in violation of the law but they are not in violation of the law that are necessarily hurting people in any serious way and it is people that really need to be in a place where they'll get mental health services. And we've been working with the State that we do need the assistant to do this. We have made many efforts to reach out to identify those people as soon as possible to attempt them to get them into the system, so that we can get them into a treatment that will allow them to stay in the community because once they can stay in the community with the treatment, they are so much better off that they can get integrated with the rest of us. But when they fall below that, and they need further assistant there are not facilities to do that. We work very hard. In fact recently with one of the reach out efforts that we had done with Schenectady, Rensselaer and Albany County, is a children's mental health emergency treatment so that we can identify kids and get them in quickly there. But there are a lot of resources to identify and treat up to the point where you really need some sort of long term placement that we do not have the facilities for them."

So does that mean you would be opposed to them reducing the beds to half in Albany med?

"I would be opposed…I'm not sure exactly what the facilities should be categorized as. And my understanding is that the ones at Albany med are not long term as much as they go through there and then they get placed at other facilities. We have a number of people that we, for example, they show up at the jail. And under a legitimate charge, I'm not questioning why they're there in terms of what the police have done, but I question why they're there because that this person and a number of them need mental health treatment. And we move them to one facility out to the west, down the river where they can get evaluation, but then they always come back here, and then end up in the jail. In fact, at one point in the last month, we had at least four people in our jail whose only offense was an offense committed at the Capital District Psychiatric Center while inside it. That was four people determined to be in need of psychiatrics right there, and because of the inability to deal with them there, they all of a sudden became criminals. Although we do have a mental health part of our jail and we try to treat them as appropriate as possible, that's not the treatment facility that is required for the people who have the mental health issues that we are seeing in the criminal justice system."

Isn't Governor Spitzer also expanding the mental health facility at the jail?

"He doesn't expand on our jail, in particular. He might expand on the criminal justice system. I know he has expressed concern about the state of the mental health facilities, particularly for those of the people who are interfacing with the criminal justice system. But exactly what he proposes, I don't know."

How does your office work with the Albany County Legislature?

"The Albany county legislature is our legislative body. 39 members are representing some 8,000 people apiece throughout the county. Every time there's matter and policy, and a requirement for acting, for enacting laws, they address it through their committee system and adopt laws. I carry out the laws that they adopt, and for the most part the stuff that we have spoken of today. By and large it's defined in state law as modified and refined a bit by local law, and generally speaking they are laws of long standing. Every day the legislature is looking over my shoulder to do this, that, or the other thing. The legislature tends to act in areas that they feel like the existing laws are inadequate or things have changed and we need to address something new, and then they adapt that. In many instances, they'll ask my advice, and we provide them with information and advice, but they do it, and go up or down on the various issues they described. It comes to me to, much like the president or the governor, to veto or not veto and it then it's enacted and it becomes law."

How do you communicate and how do you work with the state legislature, do you make recommendations?

"We make recommendations by contacting our local legislators. I'm blessed in that, the only county in the State of New York that has one State senator that is exclusively for that county is Albany County, and that happens to be my brother. But we also have several assembly men, and I contact them when I believe that we need assistance in getting either laws changed or funding or whatever."

How does Albany County encourage small business to invest here?

"We do that in a number of ways. I first of all believe that the county government should not be in the business of business, as much as it should be in the business of creating an environment so that businesses can flourish. We have a number of tools that we use. Some twenty or so years ago there was an Altech loan fund that had some federal and state oversight that allowed the fund to be turned over to the county and we use it now to make loans to deserving companies who apply to it. It's now run through the Albany county regional chamber of commerce plus participants in the county government. To grant loans to start up and expanding businesses who are creating jobs. The primary criteria; creating jobs. We also have access to Empire Zones, the Empire Zones which we created initially as particular areas across the state that use to build military establishments that would be turned into business centers and places for commercial growth. In Albany County that was Northeast Industrial Park in Guilderland, Watervliet Arsenal, but has now expanded and we used it in many places. You see the greatest good of the county and all of our residence in the northern end of Green Island there's an Empire Zone where we redone the whole end of it, the northern end of it, with many new businesses and a tremendous influx of both dollars and cents investment, and new jobs. We're now focusing on an area of Railroad Avenue, which is up in an area between Colonie, Guilderland, and Albany, very close to nanotechnology, so that we will take advantage of this burgeoning new high-tech nanotechnology group that's coming here. I mean, if you understand it. I mean, I do, and I want to make sure that people understand that I do, that Semetech North, which is Semetech which is a consortium of so many of the manufacturers of the chip, has moved so that Semetech North is here doing the cutting edge research which is going to be the next improvements in making chips, smaller, more powerful, less expensive. And there's going to be spin-offs from that. With the new applications with the new kinds of chips, we want to make sure that we have space for it, that's at once dedicated to it, and fits within the way we want our community outlayed, and very close to where nanotechnology is. Albany County Airport has added tremendously to the businesses added to the area."

I understand that Albany County recently allocated about $250,000 for youth programs and services. Could you tell us a bit more about those programs and why they're needed?

"There is a desperate need for assisting youths, and that is a small portion of what we do. We created five years ago the first, and only at this point, department of children's and families … all of the various children's parts of departments, health, mental health, social services, and put it into one department. So that we can best identify the problems of children, monitor them, and get them the treatment and whatever they might need. And so we wouldn't talk about all these mental health problems. This is the challenge, to see what problems they have. And you know, if one child has a problem, let's look at the rest of the children in the family because they're dramatically more likely to have problems, and let's treat the whole family instead of just one child at a time. And we have a lot of money that goes into that, so we aren't simply doing CPS. We're doing the prevention before that. We're going out into the schools. When I first came here, it was like, "What do you mean? Go to schools?" We do before they go to school, and after they fall out or drop out or get into trouble. We're now going into schools so we're talking to teachers, to guidance councilors, administrators. So they understand what the signs are of children that are in trouble. They understand what we can provide by way of services. And do that so we're not waiting until some kid has committed a violent crime, and now we're going to put that kid away, there's been perhaps some really serious damage done to others. So, we're doing that on a level that we never have done before. We have a lady who runs the South End Partnership, who works in the south end of Albany to establish relationships between kids, schools, all the institutions of the south end, so everyone knows who she is, and what the services that we provide on an ongoing daily basis. Now, in addition to that, through our youth bureau, we assist various agencies who provide services within the communities in the county. The YMCAs, the Carnegie institutes. Those agencies that address the welfare of children. Generally speaking most of them aim at children at risk, or better said perhaps, there are more resources aimed at those children than those aimed at children in general. We try to focus on this as far as we can as you get the children at risk so that they will have meaningful programs, particularly in the summer time when they would be not in school, and God knows doing what, and after school during the school year, so there's meaningful activities during the school year that they have opportunities to do homework, that they have supervision rather than be home alone, and in the summer time they have activities where they can go swimming, and perhaps go Thatcher Park, and go to those things that kids with other resources are able to do simply that they would not otherwise see."

Public schools often complain that charter schools are draining funds away from them, what is your position on this?

"I really don't have a position on this because I know that these schools will exist whatever they are. I want to make sure we are in contact with every school so we can let them know where we are, what we can do and when. I didn't get into this before… between the ages of birth and age five when they begin school, we have early intervention and pre-k handicap for children who have difficulty, whether it is slow learning or developmental disability, whatever it is, we provide those services. Generally speaking when I came in that was the last we thought of kids until they were either deposited upon us by being abused or as criminals themselves. Now we're reaching out to do that on a more broad basis, right up through the school system. And we do it whether it is public schools or charter schools. In fact we will work with the private schools when it's an individual that needs our help."

Complaints about child protective services have been coming up repeatedly. We have gotten a number of letters to the editor; complaints that CPS was taking kids w/o much evidence and denying blood relatives the first rights to the child. What does the county do to make sure that removing the child from the parent is the last resort?

"Well, I can assure you that is always is a last resort and that's one of the cardinal principals. When we get a report, or we go through our normal course of going through neighborhoods and interfacing with children and other people and we see a situation that indicates the possibility of abuse or neglect, if an investigation warrants that it's that serious, yes, something will be done immediately so that we can step back and analyze it and see what needs to be done. Ideally one of the benefits of reaching out in the community is that we reach it long before it's a situation where there needs to be any removal of the children. But rather look at mom and dad, ya know if you don't do this, and this, and this, Johnny is much more likely to respond, and Johnny needs a better diet than this, and Johnny needs to start going to school, and we can help you in doing that. And if you need a job, what can we do? In any way we can help we try and help. But at some point the people are resistant and do not react appropriately and we feel that children are still at risk or there has been in fact, harm to the child. Then there will be a removal, at that point in time it goes in front of a court and I would say that fifteen years ago the first rule was reunite the family and it was almost an absolute inviolate rule to reunite the family. And what changed I would guess is ten or so years ago the mood became permanency. Reunite the family if you can, but do it quickly, because each year the child is in this period of instability not knowing whether it's going this way or that way, that is the most devastating thing for a child, is the instability, the not knowing what's going to happen. We need to work through this so that we get…if we keep with the parent, do that, but we want to get those services as immediately as possible. And it also meant that we don't want to be dilly-dallying around in court about this hearing and that hearing after that hearing all the time waiting to see what we are going to do with the little Johnny. We need to find what is Johnny's situation, and what's the best thing for him and start moving him towards it now. Permanency first, and we have done that, but, yes we always favor the parents and in lieu of the parents, the family, if the family is appropriate. I think that we do it as best possible, but as you can well imagine, there will be circumstances where a child has been neglected in a given family, and a family given another chance and neglect happens again. There will be instances where a child who may be really a handful is placed in some sort of foster situation who gets into trouble again in that situation. It is not and never will be a perfect world, but we have to work everyday to make sure that one, we are working towards that permanency so that we give the child the best possible solution that will be stable and then continue to work towards that. And if during the course of it turns like well, that decision, even if it was correct then is not correct now and we have got to change it, we have to change it. But the goal is to do it as quickly as possible."

Do you believe that there could be improvements in how the process is now?

"There can always be improvements. I think that the improvements are in everyone's ability to recognize each child in the system as precisely as possible, to identify the problems with each child, and how we might make them better and then respond to do that. I don't think there is a clear answer that you could apply because when you look at so many cases that we see, as soon as we make one rule, you gotta have mom or dad doing this, the next case is gee mom or dad really blew that one or something else. But I think that there is no question that in order that there is the authority and its accepted by people there has to be an opportunity to go to court. I think that in some instances the court preceding the process and procedure can extend to long, particularly when you are extending for evaluations and here is the situation that all would agree, this screams for aid, for assistance, for something to happen now rather than keep kicking it around and to hold people in some sort of suspended state while we try and figure it out. That's what needs to be eliminated. And anything that can ever be done to expedite the process without corrupting the process, ought to be done. You know that old thing about justice delayed is justice denied. In placing a kid or trying to figure out what's going to happen to a kid, the delay really hurts because whatever the problem is now, if you are delaying and not doing anything about it, it's not going to get better, it's only going to get worse."

You mentioned corruption. One of the allegations regarding CPS is that the system encourages adopting out because supposedly their federal funding is partially based upon on how many kids are put up for adoption.

"I don't believe that at all. We talk about our numbers . We talk about how many we've got adopted of those who are adoptable. We do not talk about raw numbers and the number I really decry is those numbers of children who are freed and parents have surrendered their right to them and they are available for adoption who are not adopted. We really focus our efforts on those children. We are not out looking for kids to be adopted. We are looking for those kids who are in that situation that need to be adopted."

[Kimberly] One other thing, there is a…, I think we mentioned it in that article that I gave you, there is a lady in California who has been doing research, she is the director of legislative affairs and she is very involved in what's going on with child protection and she has been doing a lot of research and finding that 990 tax forms for these agencies, these parsons child and family and so forth and she is finding that there are lawyers and sometimes judges and law guardians that are on the board of these agencies and she is saying that there is a conflict of interest, that they're incentive of sitting on this board is in conflict with really fighting for the families and for the kids.

"I don't think that is a problem around here. I really do not. I think that Parsons does a great job and as I say, we don't focus in any sense on let's find some kids to adopt as much as we have a pool of children who have been surrendered and or homeless for whatever reason and we try to find a place for them. Because I will tell you this, anytime that you can create an adoption, almost without exception, I will say that it usually ends in an intuitional solution. When you have a child that has already been surrendered and is available for adoption and is not being adopted, it may say a lot of things. It may say that this child is really difficult, and is a handful, and it also says this child does not have the home that you and I had when we grew up that is so nurturing and so helpful to the development of each individual child and of those who are available that we get as many as possible adopted."

We are running out of time so I am just going to get to a couple more, since 9-11 and the scares of Avian Flu, what improvements have been made toward emergency preparedness in the event of terrorism, catastrophe or pandemic?

"There is a number of things that have happened. One, it has forced public safety entities to communicate. We have tremendously improved our communication system throughout police, fire, health and all of those agencies, and we now are conducting exercises with the various different governmental agencies at various levels sit at the table saying, 'well, we'll do this, this, this, and that' and we plan on seeing what we are going to do. We will never get the full range of possibilities of what terror might mean, but one might mean that we need to inoculate a whole bunch of people. So traditionally the county has always had flu vaccines that we give out every year. This year, we did it in an emergency setting down in the Times Union Center. We got a whole bunch of volunteers together to see if we can get, I think it was 1,500 people inoculated in an afternoon, and we did. And it demonstrated that we have a whole bunch of volunteers who are now organized in a way that, and it wouldn't be a flu vaccine, it might be an anthrax or things like that, but we had to contact them, get them together and we will continue to do things like that so we will be prepared."

In an emergency situation, like a pandemic, 1,500 doses, it seems like that would be a really small number, wouldn't it be flooded with many more than that?

"It would be. And the way we have done it this time was with, I believe in every instance the shot was given by a registered nurse. If we had this pandemic with anthrax, that would not happen. And we are planning for what would be actually happening in that event and we have identified locations where they would be distributing whatever possibly throughout our community. But we are not going to do this flu thing except by professionals."

Yes, I understand, Albany county voting machines, will they include a paper trail and if not how will the accuracy of the elections be assured?

"The answer is simple. I don't believe there should ever be something that doesn't have a paper trail. I wish we could get closer to a final solution. I think that of the, other than for the handicapped, the lever machines have worked pretty well, and pretty reliably. And I don't remember and big scandal with any of them. So I am not terribly disturbed that we are still using lever machines because we also have so many handicap accessible machines we have around the community. I do not want to use federal money, but again, the big thing is there ought to be a paper trail."

In Albany there is often talk about the democratic political machine and party politics. Would this encourage or discourage political newcomers from participating in elections?

"I became county executive on about two weeks notice going on thirteen years ago, and my allegiance is to this county, this government, to provide the services that we talked about. I am a Democrat, and I think that I have run this county in a way that is consistent with what I believe the democratic principles stand for and basically they are that it isn't so much that this is a free country, and everyone is entitled to get whatever they can, as much as it is, yes, we should have freedom of enterprise except for there are certain people who cannot get along who need our help and we ought to provide that regularly and routinely to get those people to that level that we think they should be at and I have done that. And I think that in general, I am very happy that there's a new governor. That a lot of directions that the State government went that did not recognize the dignity of man, that the needs of those people who are less fortunate than the rest of us and that need governmental assistance, and I have done everything possible to make sure that we can do that, but at the same time, doing it I in a rational and efficient way as possible. We need to have more people working on this too. Sharing of services and the consolidation of service so that we can do it more efficiently and more effectively, and that more than anything Democrat or Republican is what I work for here."

Can you explain the Building Bridges Skills project?

"Yes, we have two new projects this year that I really want to focus on, actually three. One is House. We provide public assistance, we provide food stamps, we provide home energy assistance, we provide Medicaid, but if people don't have access to safe affordable housing, it doesn't work, it just does not work. I cannot imagine a kid coming home and not having a place to do his homework and not knowing if he is going to get up and be in the same place in the morning, but so many people live a paycheck or illness or something away from being evicted. So we've been pushing very hard and we now have committed $300,000 dollars of county money to a housing trust fund where we are going to work with all the community agencies who do housing to start finding better ways of creating new housing and refurbishing and retaining the old housing. Building Bridges is a similar effort to reach out into our community and train people who have the physical ability but not the practical skills nor the access to unions or other places to get jobs so that they will be getting training given right now so that by the time our convention center starts being built, they will have had all the training required and ideally experience in their fields to be part of the workforce that will build that arena, build that convention center. Finally, the last thing I want to mention is a point of entry and a whole new focus on the alternatives to nursing homes. We need long term care alternatives in the community that will allow us when we get old, and get more frail, so that nurses and professionals will come to us and allow us to stay in homes. Or if you get an adult in assisted living to stay there and be funded, and if there is an individual caregiver, it might be your son, or your cousin, or next door neighbor, who can do it most days, but not every day, that there'll be a respite, so you can go to a place on those days when they can't come. Or if the person who is your caregiver is someone who has to go to work every day then you go to adult day care just like there is child day care, so that you are not forced to go to a nursing home. There are many people who would prefer to do that, and it doesn't take much of a thought to realize how much less expensive it is than to put people in a nursing home. And if you are in a nursing home, I don't care what the nursing home, that is an institution that is unlike the home and I don't know anyone when I ask 'how many people can't wait to get into a nursing home?' Nobody. So we need those long term alternatives, we are really going to push for them."

Is there anything else you would like people to know?

"Well I thought we wrapped up, that was about it. Those are most of the big things I'm going to be working on this year. I enjoy my job. I am energized by it every day. There is a lot of great people that work here. There are a lot of struggling people we need to help and we are going to do our best to get as far as we can to reach out and get them the help that they need so that they can live the same kind of lifestyle they have always wanted as kids but they are not able to do."

Audio clip

Audio clip from The Informed Constituent July 3, 2007 interview with Michael Breslin, the Albany County Executive.

  • Voice 1 - Ray Feliciano
  • Voice 2 - Michael Breslin