In the normal course of events, Ulster’s county exec can afford to ignore the occasional critiques on his operation by the annoying terrier one floor below. That terrier would be independent watchdog Comptroller Elliott Auerbach, who treats taxpayer wallets like a territorially minded canine treats cars.
Last week, Auerbach issued his latest report on county operations, this one on so-called “take-home cars.” According to the comptroller’s detailed report, there are 82 take-homes in the county’s fleet of 318 vehicles. About two-thirds are assigned to the sheriff’s department. Executive staff has access to fleet vehicles if the need arises.
The sheriff dismissed Auerbach’s report as irrelevant, if not irreverent. He says independently elected constitutional officers, meaning sheriff, district attorney, comptroller, clerk and county executive, are not in his opinion subject to oversight by the comptroller.
In any event, the sheriff says his own fleet management program is working just swell. He lets deputies take their cars home as a deterrent to neighborhood crime.
Auerbach’s gripe is less about who’s getting cars and who isn’t, but on the level of supervision and accounting by the county executive through his fleet manager. Auerbach estimates the county is “underwriting $369,000 a year to support this (take-home) initiative.”
Auerbach’s report, therefore, represents a criticism of executive competence, and that will not stand.
In estimating the value of a county take-home car at $4,500 a year, Auerbach raises another issue that may prove troublesome. Should county workers be paying taxes (the feds treat company cars as income) on their take-home cars?
Just what happens going forward depends on public reaction, or as the admittedly less than powerful comptroller put it, “We do our research and make our recommendations. Then it’s up to public opinion.”
The executive has indicated in published reports that he’ll take a look at the comptroller’s report. As usual, he did not respond to a request for comment from Ulster Publishing.
Odds on gambling
Pro-casino state Sen. John Bonacic seems to be throwing his clout behind big-casino interests as compared to “far too preliminary” small-potatoes video lottery terminals (VLTs) in various and sundry outlets. In a press release issued last week, the chairman of the influential senate Racing, Gaming and Wagering Committee declared casinos a priority, while downplaying the boutique slot machines. “VLTs at resorts are more likely to be dealt with, if at all, after the constitutional amendment authorizing gaming is voted on by the voters.” he said. Approval by voters was “by no means a guarantee,” Bonacic added.
The Town of Rochester, which Bonacic has long represented, has appealed to the county legislature to support VLTs at the Pine Grove Ranch and the Hudson Valley Resort in the town. Opposition has come from Wawarsing, which supports a casino at the former Nevele country club near Ellenville.
County Executive Mike Hein, like Bonacic, calls casinos a first priority.
O’Halloran departs, fuming
Meanwhile, Dave O’Halloran, owner of the Pine Grove Ranch and zealous seeker of a VLT franchise, pulled the resolution, via committee chairman Jim Maloney and resigned Wednesday morning as county Industrial Development Agency chairman. The two events, he says, are related.
O’Halloran blamed “the powerful influence” of the Bernardos, legislative chair Terry and husband Len, chair of the Independence Party, for his decision to step down from the position he had held for the last three years.
While Terry Bernardo said she supports VLTs “generically,” (except in anti-gambling Saugerties) she said cannot vote for a resolution that “personally benefits” a constituent. “That would be akin to what [state] senator Malcolm Smith is accused of doing in Albany,” she said.
She said she had ethical conflicts with O’Halloran because “he’s my town Republican chairman and up until a few days ago he was vice-chairman of the county committee in charge of raising money for legislative races, and we’re involved in legal action against him.”
Are we to conclude that one politician’s political payback is another’s ethical defense?
O’Halloran asked for and got a vote of confidence from the county Republican legislative caucus Tuesday night, but it was a Judas kiss. With Bernardo abstaining and Democrats expected to follow the lead of their executive — Mike Hein doesn’t support VLTs at this point — it was all for naught.
O’Halloran told fellow IDA board members and media that it was the board’s decision to terminate the Bernardo’s Pilot benefit on the skating rink they own in Accord that led to Terry Bernardo’s opposition to his VLT proposal, an assertion she denies.
Had Hein any role in the IDA going after the Bernardos, longtime political enemies of the executive? O’Halloran said no, and with a straight face.
Meanwhile, the Bernardos are seeking judicial redress, which, given the way county government has lined up against them, is their only hope for saving face and a few bucks in taxpayer subsidies they really don’t need. Making tidy profits with government assistance, they seem already losers in the court of public opinion, no matter what judges may rule. O’Halloran drove a few more nails into that coffin Wednesday morning.
With time on his hands, O’Halloran will get busy trying bump off Terry in her Rochester district. “We [the Republican committee he chairs] are actively seeking candidates [as is every other town committee in the county at this point]. I am not convinced Terry is our best candidate,” he said of the two-term incumbent who won by a better than four-to-one margin in 2011.
It’s not clear who among the six IDA co-chairs will succeed their departed leader. An active and engaged chairman, O’Halloran had some success during his tenure, but may have been too much the political animal for his own good.
Workin’ on the railroad
Upon closer scrutiny, and well after the official announcement, it looks like this plan for converting the old Ulster & Delaware Railroad from Kingston to Highmount into a rail-trail with limited both rail and trail operations might not be such a bad idea.
Pity the option wasn’t publicly vetted before Hein revealed the plan in his budget presentation last October. In fact, the initiative apparently came as a surprise not only to the public but to advocates directly affected on both sides. Hein conferred neither with rail enthusiasts who hold a lease from the county on the 38 miles of rail right-of-way from Kingston to the county line, nor with the trail-blazers who under Hein’s proposal could wind up with almost 85 percent of the track.
The Catskill Mountain Railroad, holding a county lease that ends May 2016, would retain the three-mile section it redeveloped between MountTremper and Phoenicia, originally known as “the tube train” but expanded for those visitors who prefer dry bottoms on a tourist train. But the rail people will lose a somewhat shorter stretch between Midtown Kingston and the Esopus Creek. Plans call for tearing up those tracks to create an “urban walkway” along its route. When I got to town 40-odd years ago, the urban walkway between the Rondout and Esopus creeks was called Broadway.
Wrecking balls will also be at work on the 12-mile stretch from Phoenicia to Highmount. On what may become known as the skyway rail-trail, Hein has some $2 million on hand from state government with hopes for another $700,000 in salvage from the tracks. County grantswriters are no doubt applying for more.