The long-simmering, often nasty, behind-the-scenes antipathy between Assemblyman Kevin Cahill and County Executive Mike Hein erupted in open warfare last week over Cahill’s blocking of a sales-tax extension that Hein says could cost Ulster County governments some $25.6 million in revenue. Cahill, for one, seemed delighted that hostilities had been joined.
Hein, a born organizer, hastily gathered an impressive cast of “the usual characters” (said Cahill) at a press conference last week shortly after a bill to extend the Ulster County’s “temporary” 1993 1 percent sales tax died a quiet death in the Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee.
Joining the angry executive to bemoan this “Cahill crisis” (Hein’s phrase) were County Comptroller Elliott Auerbach, Kingston Mayor Shayne Gallo, a number of town supervisors and a contingent of county legislators, including cross-over Republican legislature Majority Leader Ken Ronk. Ronk may have produced the most memorable quote of the day, accusing Cahill of “extortion.”
In Albany, that characterization might be considered a compliment.
Cahill, later, took some exception to the word, preferring “negotiation,” something he said Hein has repeatedly refused to do.
This dispute over sales-tax extensions goes back to when the first temporary tax was approved by the state legislature 20 years ago. Cahill, then a freshman state legislator only months removed from the county legislature, opposed the tax. And he has opposed it ever since.
Willing to allow other legislators to carry the home-rule bill — the late Tom Kirwan, a real home-rule legislator, did so for many years — Cahill was content to let the process play out. But it was always understood that Cahill, a rising force in the Assembly and now an important committee chairman who will be a significant player in the way Obamacare plays out in New York, could be a problem if he chose to become one.
Things hadn’t yet gone south with the newly elected executive in 2009, so Cahill stepped back as the by-then-routine sales-tax extension sailed through the legislature just prior to adjournment.
Two years ago, Cahill said he decided “to change my position” (from benign opposition to advocate). But he attached conditions to sponsoring a sales-tax extension (extortion, in Ronk’s and Hein’s view), such as the county taking over Safety Net welfare costs (about $5 million at the time) and election expenses, figured at about $600,000. It has long stuck in liberal Cahill’s craw that Ulster County — his county! — was the only one in the state that did not assume local Safety Net costs in their entirety.
Hein, at the time focused on the sale of the county nursing home on Golden Hill, was not of a mind to give up any revenue in uncertain times, certainly not at the behest of a state legislator he was learning to dislike.
According to Cahill, Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver intervened, asking Cahill whether his office could negotiate with the executive. Cahill agreed. According to Cahill — Hein does not talk to us and has never publicly spoken to this subject that I know of — Hein agreed to phasing in election and Safety Net expenses in exchange for sales-tax passage. Cahill claims Hein reneged on that agreement.
Silver’s office confirmed that discussions were held and that understandings, if not agreements, were reached on at least the elections component.
Ultimately, Hein produced something less than a third of a loaf, convincing a skeptical county legislature to phase in Safety Net expenses over a three-year period, beginning with $1.6 million in 2013, but taking no action on election costs.
This year, Cahill said he told the speaker he’d handle negotiations with Hein. The same conditions Hein rejected in 2011 were presented, in addition to the county’s guaranteeing severance payouts to retiring Golden Hill nursing-home staff. But according to the assemblyman, the executive repeatedly refused to deal. Some things, it seems, are not negotiable.
So where are we?
What now? For one thing, the $25 million figure needs to be examined in context. Certainly a large number, it pales in comparison to the overall county budget of some $360 million. Can Hein manage on 93 percent of revenues? He indicates he’s prepared to eliminate the sheriff’s road patrol and lay off a bunch of other people if the sales tax extension doesn’t go through. Undoubtedly, a $7 million property tax increase (the state limit, based on the 2 percent cap) would be in the mix. Hardscrabble Kingston would take a $3 million hit, the towns collectively about $790,000, according to the county legislature.
In the unlikely event that Hein were to agree to Cahill’s conditions, the net hit would be more on the order of $16 million, the difference between Cahill’s bill and the no-strings-attached legislation carried by Assemblyman Frank Skartados of Milton, which Cahill maneuvered to death.
Cahill, a tax-and-spend guy in the hallowed Maurice Hinchey tradition, offers an unexpected take on this whole business. “What we’re talking about is potentially a 25 percent reduction in sales taxes [the difference between a 3 percent and 4 percent rate] paid by Ulster County residents and all those tourists the executive says are flooding into the county,” he said. The agreement, unless renewed at an anticipated special session of the legislature called by the governor later this summer, runs out in November, in plenty of time to save up for those big-ticket items.
For Hein, personal feelings aside, Cahill’s incursion into what many see as a wholly owned county operation represents a Pandora’s box. Should the county agree to a six- or seven-million-dollar diversion of county sales tax this year, what might the assemblyman seek — yea, demand! — two years from now?
What it comes down to is who’s really running the show. At present, these two Democrats are at hostile impasse, “like two roosters in a cage,” as one town supervisor put it.
As Cahill concluded two years ago, it may take an independent body to negotiate the differences between Ulster’s biggest roosters. Do I hear the whirring motors of a think tank revving up on the SUNY New Paltz campus?
Blaber for mayor
A couple of downtown automotive businessmen with a keen interest in local politics — let’s call them Bob and Vinnie — have started a tongue-in-cheek grassroots campaign to run beleaguered former city meterman Jeremy Blaber for mayor in 2015.
Don’t laugh. Blaber, 26, got more than 1,000 votes when he ran for the school board as a 19-year-old half a dozen years ago. And that was before he became a household word for executive abuse, as in “Man, did my boss Blaber me today!”
Bob and Vinnie say they’re not prepared to put any money into the Blaber campaign. They say they’re barely paying city taxes now. But they have produced a creative flyer. Slugged under an unflattering photo of the would-be nominee, is the slogan: “Jeremy for Mayor?? Capital idea!!”
They call the ex-ticketman “the man of the hour; a modern-day Nero.” What does that mean?
”We’ve elected the rest,” they exhort. “Kingston is going nowhere … Let’s go there with Jeremy!”
Blaber, last seen passing out menus for a Broadway pizza shop, said he was flattered to be considered mayoral timber, but felt that he probably needed more seasoning and education (he’s just a high-school graduate). He did confide that he was seriously considering running for a political office this year, most likely alderman in the Ninth Ward.
Meanwhile, another aldermanic candidate has adopted what may be called the Jason West Defense to explain to would-be constituents why he didn’t live in the ward he hopes to represent when nominated for alderman this month.