Massena town board candidate Profile: Melanie Cunningham says government’s efforts should create living-wage jobs
Saturday, September 21, 2019 - 6:04 pm

MASSENA -- Democrat incumbent town councilwoman Melanie Cunningham says she believes local government’s efforts should ultimately lead to creating living-wage jobs for people.

She doesn’t define “living wage” as a specific number. She calls it "a job that can provide for a family, offer them benefits and stability … not working 60 to 70 hours a week."

She said she wants to see the town continue areas where she believes they have been successful during her two years as a councilor.

She pointed to ongoing projects such as an expansion at the Celine G. Philibert Cultural Center and Museum, which they will be able to at least partially fund with a state grant.

And she highlighted two water projects in the early stages - one to expand town water service east, possible as far as the RACER site and Akwesasne, and another project to repair deteriorating water lines on North Raquette Road and state Route 131.

"You also have a chance for businesses to come in that way too,” she said of the project to expand their water service to the east.

Cunningham resigned from the MMH board at the beginning of 2018 to replace then-Councilor Steve O’Shaughnessy. She was appointed to his seat on the council after he was voted in as town supervisor in the 2017 election. Cunningham said she sees the MMH referendum as biggest issue facing the town.

“There's no bigger issue this town has been faced with, ever. I pray that it goes forward. I hope people vote yes for this to happen,” she said. "The affiliation, that has to happen. The town board, we have to. It is priority of keeping the hospital open and keeping the medical service and jobs. Those are good working honest people that need those jobs."

She believes if the referendum fails, it could lead to a significant increase in property taxes to pay for MMH’s outstanding debts. If they affiliate with SLHS, the state Department of Health has pledged $20 million to take care of the debts.

"People in this area cannot afford that. We have to have a health facility here,” she said.

While she called O’Shaughnessy’s handling of the MMH board leading up to the St. Lawrence Health proposal as “aggressive,” she believes the hospital would have ultimately closed without the shakeup. O’Shaughnessy fired and declined to re-appoint several longtime members, some of whom later complained they were fired because they wanted to affiliate with Crouse Hospital rather than SLHS.

"It was aggressive. I can say this - by being on both sides I can see why it had to be aggressive." "We knew what was on the line. People's jobs, people's taxes were on the line,” she said. "It had to be done to move forward to get to the positive place we're at."

"After going three years not knowing the affiliation the hospital board chose ... we had major concerns,” Cunningham said. “They were running out of money. They were going to close.”

"The town board identified a partner we need to survive."

She said she believes her work on the council so far qualifies her for a new four-year term.

"For the last two years I've been on the board. I've involved myself in many facets ... I'm currently liaison to the rescue squad, Business Development Corporation, museum and library (boards),” she said.

She also pointed to having to rebuild her life after the closure of General Motors, her former employer.

"I did not receive any transfer money or any buyout money. I didn't receive a single penny from them. My husband was also laid off from them. We had to walk in the door one day and say 'tour parents don't have a job,’” she said. "I also stayed to the very end and took care of the membership and I didn't receive any money for it. I helped people who wanted to transfer.”

She then went back to school and got a degree as a registered nurse. She is now the RN at the Salmon River Central School District.

"I see both socially and economically what families are faced with,” she said. "These are issues that are faced everyday ... and we try to find a way to help these people"

She said she also volunteers at a local food pantry and is “passionate” about her involvement in a program called Gabriel Helping Hands. She said the organization “helps many people in the local area, families that need help."