Hugh Reynolds: PILOTs create storm

Len Bernardo. (Photo by Dan Barton)

Len Bernardo. (Photo by Dan Barton)

In this world of idiotic acronyms, where an anti-gun SAFE act allows almost as many guns in private possession — though presumably with fewer bullets — we sometimes forget the original meaning of all this alphabet soup. “PILOT,” for instance, is a widely used acronym for a device to encourage economic development by giving developers fairly long-term property tax relief. It stands for Payment In Lieu of Taxes.

Pilots (we’ll use the shorthand going forward) have scored significant successes in their designated intent, producing over $300 million in new construction in Ulster County over the last two decades and thousands of jobs, according to a report by the state comptroller.

And while it never hurts to know somebody in government when doing business with government, Pilot projects by law are subject to close scrutiny, including public hearings, before anybody gets or gives a dime of taxpayer money.

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Witness, for example, the controversy surrounding a Pilot application to build student housing in New Paltz. Folks in New Paltz are demanding hard facts before that application works its way to the county level.

While Pilots take on the appearance of sliced bread in most cases, lately we’ve been hearing rumblings about a program that some say could have been better administered. To use the parlance of the county executive’s office, via the usual grapevines, the executive is concerned about (unstated) “irregularities” in the defunct Ulster County Development Corporation’s oversight of Pilot agreements with towns, school districts and the county. The all-volunteer Industrial Development Agency (IDA), the lead agency for Pilot projects, has the authority to reduce property taxes, excuse sales taxes on construction supplies and to secure favorable borrowing rates. Given that package of goodies, any eligible businessperson who doesn’t apply for a Pilot from the IDA is a fool.

In January, the county executive assumed the duties of UCDC, via a legislatively created office of business development. March Gallagher, its new director, told the IDA at its monthly meeting last week that given concerns about irregularities, her boss wants to start with a clean slate.

Just how concerned was Mike Hein about IDA Pilot enforcement? Over the weekend, reliable sources tipped media that the man himself would appear at a 7 a.m. IDA governance committee meeting at Kingston City Hall (followed by an 8 a.m. regular IDA board meeting). Though newshounds bolted their warm beds at dawn, Hein, alas, did not appear for the IDA’s sunrise session.

What does this mean? Let’s just say that in this systematic governmental administration fire invariably follows smoke. It’s likely there will be an investigation of Pilots, with an emphasis on just who was or wasn’t watching the store. Gallagher didn’t respond to a message asking for information.

The executive wing, which can be ham-handed at times, needs to tread carefully here, lest they kill a golden goose that over time has been beneficial to taxpayers.

Back at the Bernardos

There are some who suggest this whole IDA Pilot investigation business is about getting at Len and Terry Bernardo, owners of a roller rink in Accord granted tax exemptions almost seven years ago.

Len Bernardo ran against Hein for county executive in 2008, wherein the then-county administrator accused Bernardo of lying about job creation on his Pilot application. Bernardo’s wife Terry was elected to the legislature from Rochester in 2009 and elected chairwoman of the legislature in 2012. A frequent target of Hein’s ire and a potential rival in the 2015 elections, she was re-elected chairwoman in January. Anyone who can’t connect those dots needs an eye doctor.

Len Bernardo swears he never promised any jobs, that his project was all about attracting tourists and business to the Kerhonkson area. But as in most things political, he wasn’t being quite candid. Nor was Hein.

There are in fact two documents signed by the Bernardos, an application “agreement” in which the developers promised some 20 jobs, and a subsequent “contract” signed by all parties that makes no mention of employment. Bernardo runs his business with a skeleton staff of part-timers while thousands of visitors flock to the rink every year.

For Len Bernardo, who says he makes mid-six-figures a year at the rink, the penalties for having his Pilot revoked come to about a week’s receipts, less than $10,000. Were he to admit to being a “liar” and all that entails and pay his alleged Pilot debts, his wife’s political career would be negatively impacted.

Job availabilities

New Paltz police are saying they might have to hire three or four more officers if a 732-bed dorm complex is constructed on land adjacent to SUNY New Paltz.

Town leaders might want to take a more careful look at that claim while scrutinizing the proposed $56 million project. Kingston has a population of about 23,000 and a police force of about 75 sworn officers. Applying the New Paltz formula, a minimum of one officer for about every 250 people, Kingston should have 20 more cops.

County budget officer J.J. Hanson is telling everybody — but not us — that he’s not interested in applying for the job of Sullivan county manager, recently vacated when the Sullivan board of supervisors relieved the incumbent of his duties. While taking a “Not me! I love my job!” stance, Hanson, a former Marine Corps officer and a SullivanCounty native, is familiar, we’re told, with the salary being offered, reportedly $146,000 a year. Ulster budget officer pays $112,000, but only has to satisfy one person, the county executive, as opposed to an unruly herd of town supervisors.

In the Town of Rochester, there’s nostalgia as campaign season follows a long, ugly winter. Many Republicans are now fondly recalling former 10-term legislator Vinnie Dunn and wife Marlene, who served a few terms after his death. Now a Dunn son, retired Air Force officer Troy Dunn, is back in town. The soothsayers around the pot-bellied stoves of Kerhonkson detect a possible interest in reclaiming the family legacy. If young Dunn has such intentions, and he has not communicated his plans one way or the other — he didn’t respond to inquiries — he’ll face Republican legislature chairman Bernardo in a primary. And wouldn’t that be interesting?

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Here and there

Someone jokingly referred to Kingston Mayor Shayne Gallo as “your eminence” at a recent business organization meeting. Perhaps not quite catching the joke at first, Gallo responded with, “Let me tell you, the job isn’t what everybody thinks it’s cracked up to be.”

Kingston High’s Les Miserables played four times to cheering packed houses last week. The notion that the oppressed underclass could rise up to overthrow its greedy masters has some relevance these days. One of the show’s catchier tunes, “master of the house, keeper of the zoo,” reminded me of some government leaders I cover.

I caught just a few minutes of Sarah Palin haranguing a conservative convention on CNN over the weekend in her whinny, naggy, nasal style. At first I thought it was comedienne Tina Fey doing a really bad imitation of the former vice presidential candidate. No such luck: Fey is at least funny.

One has to admire a person who readily admits a mistake. Kingston Buried Treasures series host Paul O’Neill was telling a lecture audience last week how difficult it was to find source material on artist John Vanderlyn, when a number of people shouted out several locations. “Like I said, you can find it everywhere,” O’Neill said, instantly changing course to sympathetic guffaws.

Commissioner of jurors O’Neill will lecture next month on the history of the Ulster County Courthouse (1818) on Wall Street. Opened in 1689, the location, rebuilt after the British burning in 1777, contained the county jail until about 1974, when a separate jail was built on Golden Hill about a mile away. The old jail has been vacant since the new one opened in 2007.

According to the late Harvey Sleight, superintendent of buildings and grounds when the courthouse was extensively renovated in the 1990s, no evidence was found of the hanging of condemned prisoners in the courthouse’s gold-domed cupola. Scratch one more urban myth. Maybe O’Neill can enlighten us to just where those prisoners were taken after the judge intoned “until dead.”

Finally, Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro says he’ll sign “bipartisan memorializing legislation” against the state’s SAFE gun law. According to legislative staff, Hein will continue to ignore “memorializing legislation,” bipartisan or not. Ulster’s anti-SAFE bill passed the legislature 14-6 last month across party lines and absent Hein became law 10 business days later. Hein, as usual, wasn’t available for comment to Ulster Publishing.