Hugh Reynolds: Hein’s budget bulldozer

Hugh Reynolds.

Hugh Reynolds.

Former county GOP chairman Mario Catalano hit the nail on the head when he admonished Republican legislators, calling them derelict in their duties in allowing Democratic County Executive Mike Hein to make policy via the budget process. Unfortunately, at least for the dissenting dentist, the majority had already given away the store by the time he spoke out last week, an hour before the annual budget meeting.

Taken as a whole, and here I can see 2015 campaign bumper stickers already in production, Hein’s fourth budget as elected executive is quite a remarkable policy-making document. With 16 of 21 legislators in attendance voting in favor — a veto-proof majority assembled through executive lobbying — the Ulster legislature approved a series of Hein policy initiatives, to wit:

* Defunded the underperforming Ulster County Development Corporation and established a one-stop business development office under his direct control;


* Got the county Resource Recovery Agency off the county dole, forcing flow control through the legislature;

* Accelerated privatization of the county’s mental health operations by farming out a substantial portion to not-for-profit vendors;

* Decided to rip up some 15 miles of county-owned Catskill Mountain Railroad track between Phoenicia and Highmount without even informing the long-standing lessee.

* Finalized the sale of the Golden Hill nursing home to a Southern Tier-based nursing home operator.

* Began a three-year phase-in of county takeover of Safety Net expenses from the towns.

Catalano’s point, apparently lost on his fellow Republicans, was that the legislature, not the executive, was charged by charter with making policy decisions and that they shouldn’t be doing it as part of the budget process.

But what Catalano, key strategist behind the Republican takeover of the legislature in 2007 (and my dentist) didn’t say but undoubtedly appreciated was that the legislature, either lazy, indifferent or inattentive, gave up its policy-making power to the executive long ago.

The brief history of the executive form of government confirms an old axiom that power abhors a vacuum. The executive acted on policy — and some will say rightly so — because the co-equal legislative branch either couldn’t or wouldn’t.

The first incursion, the selling of the nursing home via the budget process, was played out in broad daylight, the inclusion of the funding for the sale in the 2012 budget (more on that later) a portent.

So, in that sense, the horse was long out of the barn by the time the former Republican chairman tried to close the door. And there’s little doubt of where we go from here.

Headquarters company

True to a campaign pledge, Congressman Chris Gibson will establish an Ulster County district office on Broadway in Kingston. But it won’t be in the abandoned Bank of America building at Henry Street where Mayor Shayne Gallo wants to relocate the police department. Fortunately, however, there is beaucoup office space on Broadway these days. The congressman will set up shop at 721 Broadway, a few blocks from the bank in which Gallo wanted to put him. He’ll settle in at the media center, come the first of the year.

Dump here? Never

As is his wont, the county executive hasn’t commented one way or the other over grousing in the legislature about locating a landfill somewhere in Ulster County. Be assured, however, that a close watch is being kept on developments.

RRA board member Charlie Landi, a former Kingston alderman, has of late been circulating a list of 95 potential dump sites in the county. When on a mission, Landi is nothing if not zealous. At first, I thought this was one of those McCarthy-era lists (of suspected subversives) never to be revealed. But without much of a nudge, Landi was quite forthcoming. He told me he contacted the county’s real property service agency and asked for a listing of 200-acre parcels of vacant land. He then went to county mapmakers and had them located.

Naturally, when you Google for wheat, a lot of chaff pops up, like Winston Farm, the Mohonk Preserve, the Kingston watershed in Woodstock, lots of sites in the Catskill Park. But hey, we asked for large vacant parcels, didn’t we?

Stiff opposition is but a preliminary designation away. Few who endured the years’ long controversy will ever forget the rallying cry against Winston Farm as a landfill site in Saugerties: “Dump here? Never!”

Mario Catalano. (Photo by Dan Barton)

Mario Catalano. (Photo by Dan Barton)

While Landi’s logic, which some legislators support, seems to make sense on a purely fiscal level, his appreciation of grassroots politics is something else. As Landi notes, the RRA is spending half its $15 million annual budget shipping county garbage to a place called Seneca Meadows near Rochester, an expense that can only increase with time and distance. Why not ship it to a place near Rochester in Ulster County?

Landi hasn’t said exactly that, and neither did Rochester Town Supervisor Carl Chipman in suggesting to the legislature last week that considering all sites was the “responsible thing to do,” and that he was willing to volunteer his town as part of the study.

Social media being what they are, Chipman wasn’t half way home from Kingston before townsfolk surrounded town hall with torches.

Dump here? Never!

“That idea was dead on arrival,” a chagrined Chipman told me a few days later. He said he hadn’t seen Landi’s list — “And now, I don’t want to” — which details four potential sites in Rochester.