During what Dutchess County Executive Mark Molinaro described as the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression, the official Hudson Valley survival strategy boils down to one word: regionalism.
It was not always thus.
In 2002, Regionalism and Realism, a book about local governance in the New York City metropolitan region, was named an outstanding academic title by Choice magazine. Co-author Dr. Gerald Benjamin, former Ulster County legislator and SUNY New Paltz dean at the time, was one of a very few voices asserting that only by working together as a region could governments cope with rising costs, dropping revenues and the pressure to pay for state-mandated programs.
On Monday, March 4, the annual Pattern for Progress regional leadership conversation featured four county leaders in a sold-out ballroom at the Poughkeepsie Grand Hotel. The idea of collaboration among the counties is one whose time has come.
Molinaro, Ulster and Orange county executives Michael Hein and Edward Diana, and Sullivan County legislative chair Scott Samuelson agreed on the need for regional cooperation. Molinaro credited Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s regional economic councils for having “forced us to find ways to work together.”
But Diana, who told the crowd he is on a waiting list for a liver transplant, said looking to Albany for leadership presents only one challenge. “Every governor has his own idea,” said Diana. “The importance of having some continuity from administration to administration is critical.”
The county leaders discussed economic development. Diana and Hein favor having it under direct authority of the county executive. Molinaro advocates having the executive’s office as one of several voices, working with other organizations focused on tourism, business and related issues.
Sullivan County’s Samuelson told the crowd that there are four potential sites for casinos, something he described as “no panacea, but a part of our tourism.” And he acknowledged that Ulster too has an interest in a casino. “I’m not sure that regionally we couldn’t share that economic benefit with Ulster,” he offered.
A willingness to discuss sharing is a switch from a few years ago. Pattern for Progress has written studies and conducted panel after panel hammering at the walls that separated one county from another. The message has been that there are assets, like Stewart Airport, that benefit more than just a home county.
Sharing has its limits
Jonathan Drapkin, CEO and president of Pattern for Progress, asked Diana whether there was hope of revenue-sharing from new businesses that opened at the airport in the future.
Diana laughed. He said the idea was “something to be approached and discussed.”
Hein jumped in, saying he was “very happy” to hear his Orange County colleague being so open to the idea. He chuckled. He asked the audience whether they had ever seen anyone get uncomfortable more quickly.
The general tone of the entire panel was friendly, with Molinaro discussing future collaborations with Ulster. Ulster, he said, had been in charge of Dutchess for the first 200 years, “so we think we should take over for the next 200.” The two governments are now sharing public defenders, something Hein described as “a toe in the water.” Molinaro predicted that collaboration would grow. Tourism and transportation were areas that were ripe for future integration discussions, he said.
The county leaders discussed the challenges of caring for their elderly residents, particularly the efforts to end the growing expense of operating nursing homes. Diana said he and Hein had spoken to each other as they each grappled with the problem. They disagreed on the solution. Diana said public nursing homes used to be the last resort for the elderly poor, but now all nursing homes are mandated to take Medicare and Medicaid patients. Yet the cost of running Orange County’s Valley View nursing home, $19.6 million last year, was “the road to bankruptcy.”
So Orange County’s decision was to sell the facility. “It means losing the cost and saving the jobs,” Diana explained.
The decision in Ulster County was complicated by what Hein called “a hyper-politicized atmosphere.” But he said the transition of the Golden Hill nursing facility to a limited development corporation kept the facility’s mission and the jobs while putting the facility back on the tax rolls.
“We expect to be through the process by the end of this year,” Hein said. “And then we can focus on other issues — the needy, low income housing, veterans — non-mandated but essential programs that get ignored when we’re struggling to pay for mandated programs.”
Examples of success
Hein touted the success of the Walkway Over the Hudson and put in a plug for his regional rail-trail plan, one which he said would create the longest interconnected rail-trail in New York.
Molinaro described Dutchess’ $2 million incentive plan to implement shared municipal services, citing examples already under way like the village and town of Rhinebeck sharing information technology and the towns of Poughkeepsie and Hyde Park planning to share snow-plowing. “Offering money [created by setting aside a portion of sales-tax revenue] and signing checks is a very powerful incentive,” he added.
Diana was observing the issues with a wider lens. “What’s beginning to happen in this country is totally outrageous,” he said. “We’re supposed to be here for the people. In the end, you have to work together, you have to compromise and both move toward the center.”
When the panel opened to questions, there were reminders of the importance of sustainability and the environment, discussions of the need to plan ahead for future natural disasters, to plan for the aging population, aging infrastructure, and a plea from Ed Cook of the Empire State Carpenters Union, who wanted “some local participation in the economic development councils, some training.”
Cook later explained that the construction trades in the Hudson Valley have been holding steady at about 20 percent unemployment and said there’s a misunderstanding of the unions by the business community. “They think that if it’s union, the union comes with problems. But we don’t see it that way. Our members are the professionals. They’ve got the training. And we are always willing to work with developers, with the government. We do negotiated rates, flexible rates.”