Hard work is a way of life for Monroe County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo and it always has been.
She gave birth to her eldest son while in law school and only missed one day of class. She got four days to recover only because he arrived the day before Thanksgiving break.
One year into her stewardship of Monroe County, it is something those who know her are quick to remark on.
“She’s basically 24-seven,” says William Reilich, chairman of the Monroe County Republican Party.
It was the same on the campaign trail. “She’s relentless. She’s going to a dozen things a day and looking for more,” he says.
Dinolfo, 55, just completed her first year as county executive, managing a county workforce of 4,400. In that time she prepared her first county budget, a spending package worth $1.2 billion that was approved by the county legislature in December. Dinolfo had served as county clerk since 2004, but 2016 marked her first year as the top administrator, taking over from Maggie Brooks who had held the post for 12 years.
Anthony Daniele, R-Pittsford and president of the County Legislature, has known both women for years. They are both hard workers, but Dinolfo is more methodical, detail-oriented and less likely to delegate, he says.
“Cheryl is very, very intent on really getting to the nitty-gritty details of subjects, where Maggie was more likely to get seven people into a room and get them talking and make it more of a community decision,” Daniele says.
Brooks, with her background as a broadcaster, also was gifted at managing the public perception of the county, he says.
She could “pepper the news with little successes,” Daniele says, as a way to build confidence in the institution. Dinolfo is “not looking for a short-term headline,” he says, “she’s looking to win the war.”
Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren, a Democrat, says the two of them have a great relationship and can have “an open, honest discussion” about the needs of the city. They work closely on many joint initiatives, she says. Even when a county decision does not go the city’s way, she understands the limits any leader faces.
“A lot of times we want to do more, but we’re limited to the funds we have available,” Warren notes.
Dinolfo did face a few serious controversies in her first year, including charges that the county clerk’s office under her leadership had improperly waived fees for certain people and failed to process thousands of gun permit opt-out forms.
Despite some of these challenges, Daniele says he trusts Dinolfo’s decision-making and her moral compass. Like her predecessor, Dinolfo shares a fundamental philosophy when it comes to governing.
“From an operational standpoint and from the standpoint of fiscal stewardship of the taxpayer’s dollars, they’re very much the same,” he says.
Minority leader Cynthia Kaleh, D-Rochester, largely agrees.
“Their main political base is in the suburbs and that’s never changed,” Kaleh says.
Her hopes for improved communication with the Republican-dominated administration have come to naught, and Democratic efforts to get more child protection workers and child care subsidies into the 2017 budget failed, she notes.
“She commands the suburban vote, and they don’t want to hear anything besides $8.99,” Kaleh says, referring to the county tax rate per thousand of assessed property value, which has not changed since 2008.
The tax rate is the first thing Dinolfo points to when asked about her accomplishments.
“Keeping that tax rate in check and keeping it flat at $8.99 is a commitment I made, and it’s something in the community that people expect (in order) to manage their own finances,” she says.
Though she is sympathetic on child care subsidies because she wants to encourage people to work, the bottom line had to be protected. Her budget proposal added $100,000 to child care subsidies, though that addressed a small fraction of the need. Democrats had asked for $1 million.
Last year, Dinolfo says, actual spending by the county did include additional funding for child care subsidies, going beyond what the state required. If there is room in the budget in 2017, she says, county human services staff will help additional families on a case-by-case basis as funding allows. She acknowledges ongoing anti-poverty efforts aimed at getting more people into the workforce will likely increase demand for child care.
“We’re sensitive to it, of course, but families are very resourceful as well,” she says. “We want to help, but we want to make sure people have the tools to help themselves too.”
She points to her own family and the birth of her son while she was in law school.
“We did what I’m sure all families do. You turn to your family; you turn to your friends; you try to make all those pieces work,” she says, noting she graduated on time the following year.
Family is key
Much of Dinolfo’s approach comes back to her work ethic and close family ties, values she says she absorbed from her parents, particularly her father, Russell Loria, a lawyer who continues to report for work every day.
In many ways, it’s a familiar immigrant story. Her grandparents arrived from Italy and had to build a life from scratch, Dinolfo says. Her grandmother was a seamstress, and her grandfather was a bricklayer.
“He laid brick for Eastman Kodak on Ridge Road,” she says.
Meanwhile her grandmother brought clothing home to sew in the evenings, supplementing the family income, eager to provide opportunities for her children.
“My dad did the same thing, put himself through school, taught us the value of how to attain those goals, working hard, having a goal in mind,” she says.
At a young age, she would help at his law office, running errands and observing trials.
“I learned the ropes from him, but I also learned to interact with people from him,” she says.
Though she has long had an interest in politics and government, she is not an ideologue, people say.
“Her decisions aren’t for loyalty to the party. They’re community driven,” says Joseph Carbone, R-Irondequoit, vice president of the County Legislature and a longtime friend of the Dinolfo family.
She is deeply loyal when it comes to family and friends. When Carbone, a podiatrist, decided to run for the legislature, she was one of the first people to volunteer on his campaign.
“She offered to go door-to-door with me. I was a complete novice,” he says.
Dinolfo did not hesitate to knock on doors from dawn to dusk on his behalf, he notes.
Perhaps it is not surprising then that one of Dinolfo’s favorite phrases is “boots on the ground.”
“Quite frankly, this is a beautiful building (the county office building), and it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to come here every day, but you can’t really govern from inside four walls. For my style, you have to be out in the community, you have to be out in the public, getting a boots-on-the-ground understanding of what people need in this community.”
The Irondequoit resident makes a point of running personal and family errands at different locations so people see her and can speak to her in the supermarket or one of many local diners. And they do.
“My husband and I were in a local hamburger place because I love hamburgers—and I love milkshakes too. So we were having a hamburger down at the beach, and a couple comes up to us and says: ‘Oh, we’ve always wanted to meet you.’ So we’re chit-chatting and next thing you know, they’re having dinner with us. And that’s great; that’s a good thing,” she says.
Working as county executive is a job she loves, she says.
“This is a community worth fighting for. This is a community of just tremendous people and tremendous opportunities,” she says.
In addition to holding the line on taxes, she is proud of setting up and staffing a county Office of Public Integrity. And she is also proud of having seen through the dismantling of local development corporations, a complex process that required multiple county and state legislative approvals.
“We’re waiting for a judicial sign-off on the last piece,” she says.
She personally has visited four dozen local businesses over the past year, and she has encouraged her new economic development director, Jeff Adair, to build connections with local town supervisors to support their business development efforts.
She also expects to unveil shortly an online portal providing taxpayers with information on county contracts, making good on another of her campaign promises. While it took longer than she envisioned, she says the system was all designed and built in-house.
She is looking forward to major renovation projects in 2017 at the airport and at the Seneca Park Zoo. And she is enthusiastic about Rochester’s potential to generate revenue through tourism.
“That airport is just incredibly important from a business standpoint to spur economic activity and make sure our businesses get what they need as far as connectivity with other cities,” she says.
The Seneca Park Zoo is already one of the county’s top tourist attractions, and she is looking forward to building on that.
“There’s a lot of things here that are affordable for families,” she notes of the potential for tourism.
A year in, Dinolfo says she still rises early each day, catches up on the news and looks ahead at her goals, asking herself daily: “How can we put our best foot forward so that Monroe County continues to flourish?”
Title: Monroe County Executive
Education: B.A. in political science, LeMoyne College, Dewitt, Onondaga County, 1983; J.D., SUNY Buffalo Law School, 1986.
Family: Husband, Vincent; sons Patrick, 31, and Russell, 25; daughter, Jennifer, 20.
Hobbies: Spending time with family, keeping up on the news, gardening
Quote: “Quite frankly, this is a beautiful building (the county office building), and it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to come here every day, but you can’t really govern from inside four walls. For my style, you have to be out in the community, you have to be out in the public, getting a boots-on-the-ground understanding of what people need in this community.”
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