For County Comptroller Elliott Auerbach, the big news in County Executive Mike Hein’s 2017 budget proposal was an item that went unmentioned in Hein’s unveiling address on Friday — a major cut in funding for the county’s independent fiscal watchdog. Under Hein’s proposed spending plan, funding for the Comptroller’s Office would drop from $890,000 to $695,000 next year. The cut, Auerbach said, would force him to lay off two staffers and impede his office’s ability to carry out independent audits of county finances and monitor government spending.
“It’s hard to believe that having my budget eviscerated by 20 percent is anything but a deliberate attack on my office,” said Auerbach on Wednesday. “It will have an impact on our independence and it will undermine the [county] charter.”
Hein did not return calls for comment on the budget. But the two elected officials, whose positions were created by a 2006 charter amendment, have a history of conflict going back to the earliest days of the new government structure. Auerbach’s office has repeatedly questioned the wisdom and propriety of a number of Hein administration initiatives, including Hein’s use of money from the county’s contingency fund to bolster annual budgets. Last year, when Hein announced that the county would provide public electric car charging stations, Auerbach pointed out that it was illegal to provide public resources — in this case taxpayer-funded electricity — for free.
Most recently, Auerbach said, he has “made inquiries” regarding one of Hein’s signature projects: the county-run “Patriot House” supportive housing facility for homeless veterans. Auerbach said he was working with State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli on an audit of homeless veterans and had sought information on how often Patriot House had been used and by whom. In his budget address, Hein went out of his way to defend the Patriot House, saying that the eight-bed facility was debt-free and, in two years of operation, had assisted 53 veterans, including 43 from Ulster County. Auerbach has also criticized fiscal operations at the Ulster County Sheriff’s and District Attorney’s offices.
“The problem with Elliott is that he has not made a lot of friends,” said veteran county Legislator Dave Donaldson (D-Kingston). “That said, that means he’s doing his job. He’s not supposed to make friends, he’s supposed to be an independent watchdog.”
Auerbach has eight staffers responsible for carrying out major audits of county spending and operations and monitoring day-to-day spending by going through thousands of invoices submitted by various county departments. Auerbach said that Hein’s proposed cut would require him to lay off two staff members. That, he said, would negatively impact his ability to keep track of routine spending, while carrying out more extensive audits. Hein’s budget, however, still needs legislative approval.
“There needs to be some significant justifications for cutting a duly elected official’s budget by 20 percent,” said Donaldson. “Otherwise I would favor putting it back in.”