After prompting by some media, Ulster County Exec Mike Hein finally took ownership of the scheme to claw back some $3 million a year in sales tax revenues from the city and the towns. Hein laid his rationale in detail at what will probably be the largest public gathering of the year, the 300-odd attendees at the Ulster County Regional Chamber of Commerce’s monthly breakfast meeting this week.
The executive reiterated previous “county” positions enunciated by others. After “giving” the city and towns some $22 million in Safety Net and election expense relief over the past four years, those municipalities repaid the largesse through significant “masked” spending increases (39 percent from 2012-16 in Kingston’s case, he claimed at the breakfast; after his math was checked and found to be in error, he on Thursday pegged the figure to 17.59 percent), using the fresh county revenue to increase spending.
Rarely has it been reported in recent years of municipalities squandering money. It’s actually something of the opposite. Every year seems a struggle to balance expenses, often mandated, more often contractually obligated, against state property tax levy hike caps that usually fall under 2 percent.
In the case of Hein’s publicly stated “39 percent” increase in city spending over the last four years, the budget numbers as adopted look more like less than a third of that. The new mayor, who seems a fairly quick budget study, says he has no idea where Hein gets his figures.
In any event, the fig leaf is off. Let the public discussion, which the mayor says he wants but which the executive apparently deplores, begin.
It was good to see the county executive reserve a few moments for questions after his speech, virtually a repeat of his recent state of the county address, even if he did ask and answer the first question (on the sales tax) himself.
I stand second to no one in my admiration of Ellenville Hospital Administrator Steve Kelley, who took a small-town hospital on the edge of extinction in a depressed community and helped it become a thriving institution. Kelley, a regular attendee at Chamber breakfasts, is also quite obviously an admirer of the county exec.
Before asking his question, Kelley led off the audience participation phase of the Chamber Q&A by saying he wanted to make a statement. The statement was what a terrific job Mike Hein was doing as county exec. The question was how come he had decided not to run for Congress. Soaking up was left of limited time, Hein explained what Kelley and everyone else already had heard.
The new order stumbles
It would appear from Ken Ronk’s first chairman’s address that he expects his Republican legislature to be productive but not disruptive, watchful of the executive branch without micro-managing, independent but cooperative, and most of all unified.
In short, something almost entirely foreign to most legislatures. (See Articles of Confederation 1783-88)
Toward the end of his 20-minutre address, the new chairman put it all in perspective. Speaking to the bipartisan legislature that had evolved under former chairman John Parete, Ronk said he wanted to demonstrate his commitment “to the give-and-take necessary to building something worthwhile, something really special: a unified legislature.”
A legislature, even if unified, does not operate in a vacuum. Government power remains largely in the executive branch. Just in case Ronk missed that basic fact of politics, a few minute after his speech the hopefully unified legislature failed to override an executive veto — voting 12-6 where 16 votes were required — on a $25,000 disagreement between the feds and the Town of Denning. The vote was more than symbolic in serving to remind Ronk and other would-be dissidents just who’s in charge. Four Republicans who had voted for the original legislation and who might have overridden a veto, were they consistent in their votes, were conveniently absent.
A power struggle
Given the 16-vote threshold, legislators didn’t even try to override an executive veto on a far more controversial topic, free county charges on electric vehicles. The county comptroller says the program amounts to giving away county resources. The executive says it’s for a good cause.
Since all this blew up late last year, the state power authority has announced it will establish charging stations at Ulster’s three Thruway rest stops. Ulster says it costs 62 cents to charge a vehicle. The power authority puts the figure at $8 a jolt.
The power authority, which probably knows more about power than does the county, bases its charging fee on what it cost to set up its stations, plus electric. The county, with grants paying most of the way and in-kind county workers (already on the payroll) making up the difference, is obviously charging only for electricity.
Actually, the county isn’t charging at all. Under a deal yet to be detailed, the local chamber of commerce has pledged up to $1,000 a year to offset county costs and allow it to advertise “free” charges. It’s still giving it away, but nobody’s complaining.
Family court and other things
Though only 30 years old last September, Ronk is nonetheless a seasoned player with four elections on his resume. Given an average age of about 55 in the legislature, his youthful exuberance is refreshing. Like when he said in his opening remarks, “I cannot remember a time in our history when there were three former chairman of the legislature remaining in our body.” Ronk was in high school at the turn of the century. Former chairman John Parete, 74, has shirts older than that.
Ronk’s signature call to action, definitive recommendations from the legislature on the location of a new Family Court house by mid-May, could be the test for the new order he proposes. Under pressure from the state, the executive branch has been studying this issue for at least two years. In the meantime, another Family Court judgeship was created, exacerbating already overcrowded conditions at the current courthouse on Lucas Avenue in Uptown Kingston.
Adding spice to the mix, a permissive referendum would be required under state law should the county opt to relocate a courthouse outside Kingston city limits. Such facilities must otherwise be located within the county seat. Whether residents vote for a multi-million-dollar family courthouse, perhaps at the nearly vacant Business Resource Center in the Town of Ulster, remains to be seen. If it’s in the city, only legislative approval would be required.
Intra-governmental politics being what they are, I think it doubtful that the executive will allow the legislature to carry this football over the goal line. I predict storm clouds.
Speaking of wind, Parete fils got on Manna Jo Greene’s case for charging (unspecified) “politics” in her voting against two appointees to the Resource Recovery Agency. Begging the Rosendale Democrat’s pardon, Richard Parete, who ran the interviews, pointed out that the nominating process this time around had been open and transparent compared to previous years.