Hugh Reynolds: Channeling the master

He’s been everywhere, man, from teenage village mayor, county legislator, state assemblyman and now Dutchess County executive. But in a real sense, Marc Molinaro, still only 36, ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

What he is staring in the face is estimated $40 million budget gap for next year — the difference between anticipated revenues and generally understood expenses — and a lean piggy bank (the fund balance) to tap.

If he’s worried, the first-term — a little over eight months on the job, actually — county exec doesn’t show it. He says his experience on virtually every level of government helps him understand the issues and choices confronting Dutchess government and the people he deals with. And he has a veteran staff of fiscal experts.

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Should he need a shoulder to lean on, Ulster County Executive Mike Hein, after more than three years of this kind of “right-sizing,” is only a phone call away.

“We talk regularly. I’ve learned from his decisions,” Molinaro says of his two-term Ulster counterpart. Their last exchange had to do with Hein’s offering a few weeks ago a $12,500 buyout to 200 eligible workers. Molinaro followed with a $20,000 offer to his retirement-age staffers.

“He [Hein] joked about my raising the ante,” Molinaro said. “Funny stuff, but ours was actually based on research involving the costs of health-care coverage for those workers. We met with union leaders and came up with what we hope will be an attractive figure.”

With one significant exception that I know of — former assemblyman Patrick Manning, whom he defeated in a bitter Republican primary in 2008 — Molinaro isn’t about creating enemies or animosity. He avoids what he calls “crisis and turmoil.”

Take the $40 million budget gap, one based on a $411 million budget adopted last December. Molinaro could finger former county exec Bill Steinhaus or the legislature for leaving him holding the bag, but he doesn’t. “The landscape is littered with politicians who blamed the last guy,” he said. “That’s not my gig.”

Budget gaps at this time of the year, even of this magnitude, are not unusual, the former legislature finance committee chairman said. “We’d make it up by applying the fund balance.”

An unusual combination of circumstances, driven by a new state mandate to hold property tax increases to 2 percent, last year drove the Dutchess legislature and Steinhaus to apply virtually all the county’s $30 million fund balance to this year’s budget. Molinaro is left with less than $7 million.

Hein, who has employed similar tactics, usually stashes enough of a nest egg to rebuild the fund balance over the course of a budget year. The fiscal gimmick of stuffing the budget with vacant job positions is no secret. But even with that device there’s substantially more pressure on the fund balance these days.

Dutchess is considerably larger than Ulster in population, with almost 300,000 people versus about 185,000. But their budgets are similar in magnitude: $410 million to about $370 million. Both executives say their employment target for rightsized county government is about 1,500 workers. Dutchess has just over 1,800 now, Ulster around 1,700.

And while Molinaro, obviously a quick learner, is still on an upward curve, it would appear Master Mike could learn at least one thing from the student. Hein, in downsizing county government, has avoided cuts in his own executive department. Molinaro, in his first budget, plans to eliminate at least one executive position. Good move, sharing the pain.

As forUlster’s budget gap, assuming there is one, we know little more than what the administration tells us. We know Hein’s 2012 budget was drawn with an $8 million deficit, to be financed with the sale of the Golden Hill nursing home. If an eight or nine percent gap is the rule, as in Dutchess, $25 million could be a working figure in Ulster.

Maybe the master will be seeking advice from the grasshopper.

Room at the top

Congressman Maurice Hinchey’s office has announced a $2.4 million grant to build a 21-story glass-enclosed elevator on the Poughkeepsie side of the Walkway Over the Hudson. How odd, people taking an elevator to a walkway. I guess that’s what they call roughing it. Perhaps Congress will consider funding a few million dollars’ worth of dynamite to blast out more parking space on the west side.

More gaffes

Apparent GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney in an interview on 60 Minutes Sunday night admitted he goofed when introducing new running mate Paul Ryan as “the next president of the United States” at a rally inVirginia.

Corrected by his daughter after he stepped down, Romney denied the gaffe. “Yes, you did,” he said his wife told him, after which Romney took the podium for a hasty correction. It’s no big deal, but there is something comforting about a candidate willing to admit and correct a mistake.

In the spirit of Richard Nixon, who once said, “I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant,” I offer the following: Ulster County Exec Hein advised my boss he did not introduce Assemblyman Vito Lopez as Peter Lopez at a birthday fundraiser last month as reported here. My spies in attendance swear he did, but who are we to question the horse’s mouth? As noted in the original piece, it was a crowded room.

Pay raises

By now, there’s little doubt the state legislature will vote itself a substantial raise shortly after voting machines cool down on Nov. 6. Legislators were raised to $79,500 (base pay) in 1999 and are reportedly eying something on the order of $90,000, plus their usual perks. Adjusted for inflation, the ’99 salary would be about $110,000 on today’s dollars. Taxpayers will express outrage, but have nothing to say after the election.

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