Editorial: The golden age of budgeting

County Executive Mike Hein and Kingston Mayor Steve Noble

County Executive Mike Hein and Kingston Mayor Steve Noble

History, both local and global, is full of examples of public officials letting the public down. But here in Ulster County and specifically in both the City of Kingston and the Town of Ulster, the public has been excellently served by those responsible for drawing up next year’s budgets.

For County Executive Mike Hein, good budgets have been his stock in trade for the past several years. It’s the fifth year in a row that the tax levy has declined, to the point that in 2017, less property tax will be collected than was in 2010. Despite cutting taxes, there’s still $15 million for infrastructure fixes, leadership in terms of converting to electric vehicles and a $6.4 million allocation for the community college, which puts Ulster in the top four of New York’s counties in support for such institutions. There’s also money for the family court move and acknowledgement of the hit the county will take because Dutchess is keeping more of its own prisoners in its own jail, as well as the county’s finalization of its takeover of Safety Net and elections costs from the municipalities. Taken as a whole, Hein’s is a solid, well-planned budget. Crafting spending plans is really where the rubber hits the road for local government — Hein has year after year kept the $325 million operation going strong and firmly fixed on its fiscal targets. That’s an achievement worthy of acknowledgement and praise.

How about that Steve Noble? For a first budget ever, the mayor of Kingston has done very well for himself and Kingston’s taxpayers. His proposed budget neither raises taxes nor results in job losses for city workers, despite having to absorb $700,000 in increased healthcare costs and having to plan for contract talks with three city unions. Back when we were all up in arms over the sales tax talks, some cast serious aspersions on the city’s ability to manage its own money, implying that the county should get more of the sales tax as the county is better at budgets. Noble’s auspicious debut should serve as a rebuttal to that argument and a very good sign that competence is the new black at City Hall.

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Of course, it goes without saying (which it actually did in the print edition of this editorial) that both the exec and the mayor get a lot of help with these budgets from their staffs, and deserve praise as well.

So yes, it can be said with little fear of reasonable contradiction that we’re enjoying a golden age of budgeting here in Ulster County. But, there are some concerns too — kind of like when you walk out of the door on a gorgeous autumn morning, happy with yourself and the world in general, to find a bear’s gotten in your trash.

In Kingston, there’s already pushback on social media about Noble’s plan to raise $175,000-plus by metering the city’s six parking lots and raising parking rates. It seems the days of free municipal parking in the City of Kingston are, if we may mix a metaphor, going the way of the dodo. Few are more sensitive to parking issues than those of us who work in Uptown Kingston. We’re here five days a week, most of us, and finding a place for our cars is rarely easy. But cities charge for parking — that’s just a fact of life, and a lot of cities charge more than Kingston. As we’ve stated that property taxes in the city are about as high as they can get, and we support the concept of raising user fees rather than taxes, we’ll grin and bear having to pay more for parking. (Or maybe just work from home more.)

Countywide, Hein’s proposed cuts to the County Comptroller’s Office are raising eyebrows. The exec wants to cut $195,000 from Elliott Auerbach’s 2017 budget, which Auerbach says is a serious threat to his office’s ability to do its job.

Hein’s counter is direct and simple: Since county government has gotten smaller, there’s less of it for a comptroller to monitor, so less money needs to be spent on that office. Hein also points out that there have been 250 audits of county government over the past seven years, none of them coming up with serious issues, and that his 2017 budget has more in it for audits than ever before. He also argues no government agency should be eternally held harmless from having its budget pared, a general principal we agree with.

But, we wonder if paying for an effective Comptroller’s Office isn’t something like paying for a burglar alarm service — you’ll likely not get robbed, but not having that little sign on your house saying you have a burglar alarm may make it more likely you’ll get robbed.

So, if you cut the Comptroller’s Office to the point where its oversight abilities are degraded enough, do you not create a situation where the unholy trinity of waste, fraud and abuse is not only harder to detect, but its genesis actually encouraged by a heightened perception of weakness?

Ultimately it will be up to the county legislature. “Honestly my opinion on the Comptroller’s Office cut is simple,” Legislature Chairman Ken Ronk wrote in an email Wednesday. “I want the best bang for the buck for the taxpayers. This is precisely why we have a legislative budget review, and I look forward to the comptroller availing himself of the budget review and appeals process that has been laid out by the legislature. If he makes more compelling arguments than the county executive’s staff, then the funding may be restored, if not then it likely will not be restored.”

We shall see.

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