The 2006 Ulster County charter, approved by voters in the midst of the jail debacle, set up the county comptroller as the independent watchdog of county government. It says so in every communication issued by three-term County Comptroller Elliott Auerbach.
Lately, though, big dog Mike Hein has been taking bites out of the little dog. The county executive’s proposed 2017 budget reduces Auerbach’s department by over $120,000 — two bodies, about 25 percent of Auerbach’s staff.
Auerbach protested the blindsiding evisceration — the comptroller’s vividly headlined press release declared “Barbed Budget Impales Independence” — to no apparent effect. Hein explained that everyone was taking a hit this year, though the comptroller’s office’s, unlike some others, was by no means voluntary. Hein also questioned why the taxpayers should spend $635,000 on the comptroller’s office or even the need for it in the first place, since his office is well-staffed and competent to handle the fiscal responsibilities assigned the comptroller.
In this case, Hein practices what he preaches. When his budget officer resigned a few years ago, Hein assigned those duties to the finance officer.
After covering the Hein beat for the better part of a decade, though from something of a distance these days, I think I can follow his logic. This was no idle warning shot, like the time a few years ago when he shifted some of the comptroller’s core responsibilities and staff to the finance office. Here, Hein is reiterating he’s the boss and he’ll cut anybody when he damn well pleases.
Now, some will say this is politics, but isn’t almost everything in government? Auerbach as watchdog can be a pain, if only to nip at the executive’s heels. There’s the suspicion that Auerbach, re-elected by a larger margin to a much lower-profile post than Hein, might be a viable challenger to Mighty Mike in a Democratic primary. Auerbach polled about 5,000 votes more than Hein in their most recent respective re-elections.
Another speculation is that Auerbach’s inquires into financing surrounding the Patriot House veterans’ facility could be tickling tender toes. As they say around the county government, some days you’re the dog, other days the hydrant.
There’s no question that Hein, with a lapdog legislature behind him, can whittle down Auerbach’s department position by position and budget to budget until the comptroller is operating from a broom closet in the County Office Building. But why not cut to the chase if that be the goal?
Charters can be amended. Positions can be added, or eliminated. It’s a necessarily complicated process requiring public hearings, a vote of the legislature, executive approval and finally passage at referendum.
There’s even a potential slogan, circa 1170: “Will anyone rid me of this troublesome priest?” Or so said King Henry II, according to legend, in a call for action against Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury.
Nothing like that is going to happen, but Auerbach has to know he’s been put on notice. Does he seek sanctuary like the ill-fated Thomas, or does he do battle? Does the cry for “open government” ring a bell?
Note: I make it a practice to correct column errors herein, so here goes. I wrote last week that Hein had reduced the county tax levy for the last two years. It’s five.
Room at the inn
It was good to see Hein release some details on the county’s Patriot House in Kingston at his annual budget presentation last month. But he may have raised more questions than he answered.
According to Hein, the eight-bed shelter for homeless veterans in Kingston’s Rondout area has served 54 veterans since it formally opened in July of 2014. Simple math indicates an average of two a month, or 25 percent of capacity. Not good, but at least we understand why occupants are seldom seen in or about the 19th-century structure at the top of Wurts Street hill. Officials say that most of the time they’re out looking for jobs or getting treatment for various physical and mental issues.
“It would be enough if only one homeless veteran were served there,” an indignant veteran told me at the budget session when I asked him how they measured what he called the “success” of the shelter. I disagreed.
As detailed on the shiny plaques in front of the shelter, a good deal of volunteer work and donations went into that project. Give Hein a bugle blast for organizational skills. He also told his budget audience the building carries no debt — the county got it from the state for a dollar — and that operational costs come to some $25,000 a year. He did not reveal what it cost the county or how much was donated to convert a long-vacant building into a modern shelter. Perhaps that’s water under the bridge (where Hein said homeless vets no longer huddle) but I would think the generous, patriotic folks who donated money and materials for the shelter deserve a fuller accounting of how it was spent.
There are of course many positives to this project — one of which, Hein’s contention that he has eliminated veteran homelessness in Ulster County, may well be true. If not, there appears to be plenty of room at Patriot House.
Paving for the future
As often happens, it takes a tragedy for government to act on a clear and present hazard. For over a decade, cyclists in New Paltz and surrounding areas had been petitioning the county to pave narrow shoulders of scenic roads in the area. They found a responsive ear in Hein, a leading advocate of healthy exercise. On September 11 a hit-and-run driver struck 25-year-old Gabriela O’Shea as she was riding her bike home on Route 299 from her job at a New Paltz bar. O’Shea suffered major injuries. The driver later surrendered to authorities. Friends and supporters have raised or pledged more than $70,000 for O’Shea’s medical treatment.
At the time of the accident, the county had plans to create biking paths on both sides of Route 299 west to Libertyville Road about a mile away. Critics contended the plan had stalled, but officials said it was in progress. In either case, the O’Shea accident has advanced plans to create safer biking lanes for an increasingly expanding group of enthusiasts.
Meanwhile, the Carmine Liberta Bridge in New Paltz was dedicated this Tuesday, complete with bike paths due west.
Other than expressing astonishment and disgust at the latest Donald Trump debacle a week ago, I wondered why anybody would keep a tape recording from a ride in a van with a bunch of other guys. For 11 years.
The local version is of no near consequence, but we reporters like to tell the story.
It seems future mayor T.R. Gallo, a newlywed alderman at the time, was involved in a domestic dispute at the home he shared with his wife in Midtown Kingston. Police were summoned. They recorded verbal abuse and the like with the complainant stating that her new hubby threw a piece of pizza at her. Those who knew Gallo questioned the story, knowing full well he would never throw pizza at anyone. He would eat it. Charges were not pursued.
Police routinely filed what they used to call an “incident card,” a brief report of an event which did not rise to the level of action. A Freeman reporter noticed the card (it was public record, like the blotter), copied it down on a piece of paper, and put it in his wallet.
Shortly thereafter, the divorced Gallo got elected mayor and in due course the index card went missing. About a year later the mayor and I got into a beef about access — he could be petulant. If only to display the power of the press, I made passing reference in a column to “throwing pizza” (with no names attached) that only he and I would understand.
“Where the hell did you hear about that pizza story?” he demanded.
“Let’s put it this way, mayor,” I said. “We keep better records than you do.”
He found the whole situation hilarious. Not so the tide of public opinion in regard to the Republican presidential candidate.