As one county legislator put it last week after the legislature’s Ways and Means Committee brokered the sales-tax standoff between Assemblyman Kevin Cahill and County Executive Mike Hein, “They did the hokey-pokey.” Presto chango! They turned themselves around.
And that’s what it was all about. Both sides saved face, though there were enough eggs thrown to plaster both.
The resolution, forged after about 48 hours of hush-hush negotiations by legislature Minority Leader Dave Donaldson, Majority Leader Ken Ronk and Ways and Means Chairman Rich Gerentine, probably could have been arrived at in a few phone calls last month had Hein been willing to negotiate with Cahill. But then, it was Cahill who created the crisis with terms Hein felt he couldn’t possibly consider.
Events, it appears, overtook the players. “They stared into the abyss — all of them — and decided to step back,” was the way another legislator put it.
Victory, or in this case a reasonable compromise, has many fathers. Cahill said he had been willing to offer Hein what Gerentine, Donaldson and Ronk ultimately crafted, but got no response.
“This crisis was utterly avoidable,” he said. Some might say utterly ridiculous.
In the end, after much blustering on both sides, Hein agreed to codify a three-year phase-in of the county takeover of Safety Net welfare expenses, though the estimated $6 million price tag through 2014 is probably a lowball figure. Owing to a stagnant local economy, Safety Net payouts, directed to the poorest of the poor who’ve exhausted all other public-assistance programs, are growing. In return, Cahill said he would drop his opposition to a $26 million extension of the 1 percent sales-tax add-on, which had to be passed by Dec. 1.
After it became public that a handshake agreement last year between the administration and the legislature for a three-year phase-in might not be honored, Cahill wanted formal Safety Net takeover as a condition for extending the sales tax supplement. In fact, Hein’s county budget officer told the Ways and Means Committee that rising costs might imperil the takeover altogether or push the phase-in out to five years.
Given the accumulated bile, it was amazing how quickly this reasonable compromise between two apparently implacable foes came together. That it emanated from a listless legislature hitherto more prone to rolling over than to dictating policy (and this was policy in the real sense) was even more remarkable.
When we tuned in last month, Cahill had blocked passage of the sales-tax bill in the Assembly (the state Senate had long ago approved a no-strings extension). He was being called a crisis-monger and obstructionist by Hein and “the usual suspects” (Cahill’s term). Hein cranked up the pressure, as his wont, by personally warning a number of local non-profits and county department heads that their county support could be seriously curtailed if Cahill prevailed. The word “devastating” was freely thrown about.
Kingston Mayor Shayne Gallo, seemingly the executive’s personal echo chamber these days, chimed in with dire warnings of budget busting and city layoffs. Cahill in turn accused the executive of spreading panic. Sources say Sheriff Paul Van Blarcum didn’t flinch when he was told the executive was on the line with potentially devastating news. He’s clashed with Hein before. He understands the exec is out to slash his road patrol in any event.
Hein’s tactics, which ultimately put pressure on legislators, apparently worked better in some quarters. Last Thursday, as I was walking toward the county office building to cover what amounted to an emergency Ways and Means Committee meeting, I spotted the director of one of our more important non-profits across the street. This agency does wonderful work on behalf of hundreds of people and families, but is usually only a grant removed from financial distress. Its director, perpetually absorbed in stomping out fires, rarely gives more than a nod in passing. This afternoon he dashed across the street to catch up.
“What do you think about this controversy between Kevin and Michael?” he asked.
Having already written reams about it and focused on the immediate task ahead, I was succinct. “Serious stuff, if it happens,” I replied.
“It would be devastating to my agency,” he said, jumping half a step ahead to look me in the face.
“I’ve heard the word a lot,” I said. “I think it’s an exaggeration.”
“Exaggeration?” he exclaimed. “In our case, that’s an understatement. You seem to be supporting Kevin on this one.” (Cahill had accused Hein of employing “scare tactics.”)