I want to be fair to Steve Noble, Kingston’s new mayor. But as a Kingston resident I can’t help worrying that the mayor’s team of rookies got outsmarted by County Executive Mike Hein’s squad of cunning veterans. Guile and experience often trump youthful exuberance.
Noble brought Corporation Counsel Kevin Bryant and City Comptroller John Tuey to secret talks at the County Office Building. Hein welcomed them. In the room was County Attorney Bea Havranek (for the most part), with input from Hein’s chief of staff Adele Reiter and county Finance Director Burt Gulnick.
The sales-tax agreement announced by Hein and Noble last week was for high stakes: the disposition of the $16 million a year at current rates over five years to the city and towns.
The agreement, an exercise in lawyerly ambiguity, complex and confusing, was no game for amateurs or knuckleheads. A perplexed County Comptroller Elliott Auerbach, the fiscal watchdog, called it “more complicated than the Magna Carta.” I think he might have meant the Ellenville Million.
One thing is clear, and the mayor admits as much. He gave away more than he got. Calling it “compromise” doesn’t make it go down any easier.
Oh, to have been a fly on the wall (Hein would have swatted me at the first buzz) as the Hein team steadily turned the screws on the visitors. Noble went into negotiations declaring he would not bargain against himself, which in fact he did. Coming out, he was happy to retain the 11.5 percent share of county sales tax revenues he had going in. Ah, but that percentage is based on receipts. Those formulas have changed to include a cap on city revenues.
Who had the cards? The city, it would seem, was playing from a weaker hand. Or as the mayor put it, post-agreement: “Our choices came down to pre-emption [the city imposing its own sales tax] or they could impose a formula.”
There was a third factor, the Cahill clause. Recall how Assemblyman Kevin Cahill held up extension of the county’s 1 percent sales tax surcharge for two months ending in January 2014, costing the county between $3 million and $5 million. The new deal’s “Cahill clause,” so-called, defines and separates that 1 percent, worth almost $4 million a year to the city and towns, and imposes penalties should receipts from the tax be delayed or suspended. The political intent is to isolate Cahill, to encourage his constituents to rise up in wrath should the assemblyman attempt to squeeze concessions out of the county in exchange for passage of the extension by the state legislature. Cahill’s pressure was a major factor in the county forking over some $30 million in Safety Net welfare costs and elections support to the towns and the city, now allegedly long-forgotten by apparently ungrateful recipients.
Cahill, for his part, after keeping a close ear to negotiations, appears nonplussed. Surely he must appreciate the intent of those behind the scenes machinations: corral Cahill. All he’d say was, “The 1 percent [due for renewal next year] remains under the authority of the legislature.” A wily grassroots politician, Cahill has to understand that some of the rules of this long-running blood rivalry with Hein have changed, in part thanks to Noble.
As for passage this month by the respective lawmakers, Hein owns the county legislature, though there may be a discouraging word here and there. These are after all county legislators, with only three city representatives, and this is a better deal for the county.
The city aldermen will fuss and fume as aldermen do, but their mayor’s signature is on the bottom line. They’ll hope the county displays generosity in other ways, like taking over money-draining city bus routes or financing a Midtown walking trail along abandoned railroad tracks.
Town supervisors will grouse. They’re in the same boat as the city, but were not party to the agreement. Strategically-placed county investments in infrastructure will muffle louder voices and reward fellow travelers.
End of the line
Hindsight can sometimes bring clarity and/or perspective. Take the long-running battle between Ulster County and its soon-to-be-former rail-corridor tenant, the Catskill Mountain Railroad.
Under an agreement announced by the parties last month, the railroad will vacate its Kingston premises as its lease expires on May 31 and dropped its legal action to stay its eviction by the county.
Previously advertised requests for proposals on the future of the tracks that will remain rail — that is from Kingston to Hurley and another spur from Boiceville to Mount Tremper — due to be opened May 20, have been postponed to an indefinite date.
Most of the elements in the agreement were long in place. What hindsight suggests is that the railroad, after spending an estimated $600,000 in legal fees over three years, never had a chance against the locomotive of Ulster County government. How much taxpayers spent on legal work is at best a moving target given the ill-defined combination of in-house lawyers and outside specialists that served the county’s interests over three years. Why the legislature, as close-out approaches, doesn’t demand a full accounting is anybody’s guess. Some believe the railroad’s thinking is that it will be awarded a five-year contract to operate its tourist trains on county tracks by the same people who locked them in litigation is wishful thinking. Having devoured its prey, the wolf can only lick its chops.
A visit to the railroad’s western terminus of its eastern Kingston-West Hurley run at milepost 8.3 as it crosses Route 28A is revealing. Pitched as a generous compromise by county officials to extend the railroad a few miles west, the destination is a sad, desolate, painfully revealing end of the line.
In terms of a would-be tourist attraction, there’s not much there. To the north, just off the tracks, sits a long-abandoned two-story wreck of a farmhouse. To the south, perhaps 50 feet away, Route 28A curves westward through thick brush. Tracks run due west under a canopy of trees.
Just a mile down the tracks, next to the Glenford dike, views of the AshokanReservoir provide magnificent vistas. But the trains won’t go that far, no matter who’s operating them. Plans call for the tracks to be taken up and sold for scrap. Hiking and biking trails will be installed from milepost 8.3 up and around the north side of the reservoir.