Hugh Reynolds: An inconvenient truth

Unlike most of his constituents, Ulster Town Supervisor Jim Quigley is cruising in warm waters as I write this. It’s a high-pressure job, and the big fellow needs a break now and then. Before he left on this brief vacation, Quigley, as is his wont, addressed some inconvenient truths most of his peers seem to willingly ignore.

Set against the town’s present tax-base woes is Quigley’s lament that the once-$60 million Hudson Valley Mall will probably sell to a Georgia developer for something like $8 million. While seven cents on the dollar might be the developer’s idea of a great deal — even with the suggestion of a $10 million investment in rehab and upgrades — Quigley knows from bitter experience that the sale could mean a huge reduction by court order in property assessment.

The question Quigley raises — and addresses — is why, in the last few years, anchor stores like Macy’s and JC Penney have abandoned their Ulster sites and why the mall is going for a fire-sale price. The answer in short, says the perceptive supervisor, is that this income-challenged community cannot afford it.

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As evidence, he cites last month’s ALICE report (for Assets Limited Income Constrained Employed) by United Way of Ulster County. That report indicated that 45 percent of Ulster County residents are either living in poverty or struggling to stay afloat in an economy where good-paying jobs are limited to the government, education and healthcare sectors. State labor statistics show that some 4,000 jobs, well-paying and otherwise, have left Ulster County since the Great Recession began a decade ago.

ALICE reports are based on federal census tracts. Even the relatively prosperous Town of Ulster has two, says its supervisor. Based on current population, a 45 percent poverty or near-poverty level means about 80,000 people are impacted. Big, big deal.

 

Pay raise, not

Amid the usual finger-pointing, the state legislative pay-raise window slammed shut on New Year’s Eve. Legislative leaders blamed the governor for demanding concessions — some called it “bribery.” Andrew Cuomo’s response: if you want a raise with no strings attached, do it yourself. All it takes is spine, guts and a strong set of hind legs.

Recent polls suggested that upwards of 70 percent agreed with the chief executive about at least limiting outside income in exchange for a pay raise. But after the last election, who believes polls any more?

In this case, the governor was right, even if he violated the spirit of the “non-political” government-appointed pay-raise commission, which dissolved in acrimony at its final post-election sessions without making a formal proposal. The commission was designed to provide legislators cover, but they still had the power to give themselves a raise. Would Cuomo have cast a veto? We’ll never know. That upwards of 95 percent of incumbents were reelected last year suggests to me that payback from a less-than-attentive electorate would have been highly unlikely.

Under the state constitution, legislators may only raise their salaries in the year in which they are elected. Though the constitutional intent was to force legislators to face the voters, that’s not the way it works. Ducking that mandate, pay-raise legislation is offered just after elections. The next chapter can’t unfold until 2018.

Meanwhile, hundreds of judges and senior administration staff will, like the legislature, go without pay raises for another two years. Somehow, I can’t feel too sorry.

 

All aboard

A contingent of Ulster Republicans led by party Chairman Roger Rascoe will be attending the presidential inauguration on the 20th. Joining The Rajah will be members of his executive committee from Esopus, New Paltz and Shawangunk, plus former chairman Mario Catalano of Ulster and elections commissioner Tom Turco of Saugerties.

It is unlikely that Rascoe and his band of happy warriors will be getting front-row seats for Donald J. Trump’s inaugural address, given Ulster’s performance in the last election. Trump didn’t run as well in Ulster, where Democrats enjoy a 13,603 enrollment advantage, as in nearby counties. The Donald carried only two of 20 towns. Orange County gave him 19 of 23 towns. Newburgh and Kingston were solid for Hillary Clinton. Democratic Sullivan County went for Trump.

Democratic enrollment, measured against total registrations, is about 36 percent in Orange and Ulster, according to the state Board of Elections. By the same token, Republicans in Ulster comprise barely a quarter of the 115,000 registered for the last election, compared to 32 percent for Orange.

Despite those numbers, Ulster Republicans still control the county legislature and the offices of clerk and district attorney. Moreover, if about 450 votes had switched, Republicans would have elected a surrogate judge last year.

Meanwhile, local Democrats are signing up for the million-woman protest scheduled for the day after the inaugural. Democratic Chairman Frank Cardinale says that “for sure, we will not be attending the inaugural.” But that several buses from Ulster will carry protestors to the anti-Trump rally scheduled for Jan. 21 in Washington. Information is available from party leaders. Cardinale calls the march “a rebuke for [Trump’s] incendiary remarks about women and minorities during his campaign.” Amen to that.

 

Legislative stirrings

Two potentially major issues, campaign finance reform and extension of leadership terms, will be aired at a public hearing at the County Office Building in Kingston Tuesday, Jan. 10. Given that one is dead on arrival and the other a slam dunk, and that the public doesn’t much care about these things anyway, the legislature has allotted all of 10 minutes for the two public hearings, beginning at an inconvenient 6 p.m.

Extending terms of leaders from one to two years has broad appeal. Legislators serve two-year terms, after all. As mischievous legislators like the idea of roiling the waters on an annual basis, there will be a few dissident votes.

Speaking of leadership, incumbents are expected back for another one-year term at the annual organizational meeting next week. Chairman Ken Ronk, hoping to improve on his 14-9 election last year after a year of relative peace and quiet, will face only token opposition. Republicans will return Mary Beth Maio as majority leader. Democrats will endorse Hector Rodriguez as minority leader.

Campaign finance reform, advanced three years ago by former legislative chairman John Parete (he’s in the doghouse now), would sharply limit contributions to county elected officials from those doing or seeking to do business with the county.

This legislation has had a mixed history. County Executive Mike Hein first raised the issue in a 2013 state-of-the-county address. He backed off after being advised of legal issues by the county attorney.

Then-chairman Parete added some teeth to the legislation, but it languished in committee until late last year. Parete’s efforts were seen as anti-executive, since the executive is the only county official who raises tens of thousands of dollars a year, some of it in generous donations from vendors.

Bottom line: Hein controls many more votes in the legislature than Parete. This shall not pass, though it should.

 

Here and there

Governor Cuomo set a contentious tone for the upcoming legislative session by announcing he’ll be taking his annual state of the state speech on the road. Historically, governors have delivered these addresses to the state legislature in chambers, as does the president with Congress. In a Saturday night surprise, Cuomo announced a veto of legislation dear to both houses, extending state financial support for legal services to the poor in non-criminal cases. Sen. George Amedore, for one, rose up in wrath, but he didn’t mention the price tag in a press release. Cuomo, while clucking over the plight of the poor, said he wasn’t going to impose an $800 million obligation on the state. In other words, let the counties pay for it.

Speaking of the courts, newly-minted county Surrogate Judge Sara McGinty was on the job surrogating this week, though she won’t be formally sworn in until Jan. 24. How can this be? Here’s how. She took the oath from her paralegal Kristine Tabasko on Jan. 1.

There’s sure to be a crowd on the 24th. Judicial inaugurals attract more lawyers than slow-moving ambulances.

This just in. Bob Aiello, a former nine-term Republican county legislator from Saugerties, is making noises about running this fall. Recall, Aiello was ousted by not-so-friendly neighbor Chris Allen in 2013, and eschewed a rematch in 2015, when Allen was easily reelected. A semi-retired hairdresser, Aiello, 68, is said to have his sights set on town hall this time.

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And finally

I have every confidence that my respected colleague, Woodstock Times editor Brian Hollander, will properly eulogize town supervisor Jeremy Wilber. Hollander, as a former town supervisor, uniquely understands the challenges Wilber faced and was a friend of the late leader.

Here, some historical context is in order. I’ve covered the deaths of a number of incumbent supervisors/mayors during my career who died suddenly: Neil Grant of Shandaken, John DeGasperis of Ulster, T.R. Gallo of Kingston and John Coutant of Esopus. Wilber battled cancer for years and was in hospice before his death on New Year’s Day.

And yet through all that, his fate sealed, Wilber kept to his post, working diligently on the 2017 budget, with help from fellow board members and overseeing as best as could be the day-to-day affairs of the town until almost the end. Under the circumstances, that kind of dedication is extraordinary.

“He was always a gentleman,” said Rochester Supervisor Carl Chipman, president of the county supervisors and mayors association, speaking to a common perception. “But when Jeremy felt strongly about something, he really let you know about it. He was really upset about the tax cap, about decisions made in Albany and passed down to us to pay for.”

Chipman, who suffered his own serious health issues last year, remembered Wilber as a trusted colleague, despite ideological differences between the two. “He was not able to attend meetings toward the end, and we missed him. I think we always will,” Chipman said.

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