Hugh Reynolds: What were the options?

David Lundquist. (Photo by Dan Barton)

David Lundquist. (Photo by Dan Barton)

Is it just around here, or do high-ranking local officials seem to disappear without leaving a trace? County health commissioner Dr. LaMar Hasbrouck flew off to Illinois with hardly a goodbye. I have no idea where social services commissioner Roberto Rodriguez wound up. Economic development specialist March Gallagher at least got an exit interview in last week’s paper.

Tom Dee, the towering ex-CEO of Benedictine Hospital, is probably working at another healthcare facility somewhere, but like others left without a trace. And now comes — I mean goes — HealthAlliance boss David Lundquist. It was announced, but not by Lundquist, that he was leaving, like yesterday. No forwarding address was offered, and phone calls to the ex-CEO went unanswered. Nobody had anything to say other than he was here, he served, he’s history. Not much has been said about the contractual executive parachute, but figure a guy getting $700,000 a year in salary and benefits bailed out for at least a million. It’s nice work if you can get it.

Some might ask who cares about these has-beens? They’re gone, let’s move on. But history has a way of teaching us lessons, if we know enough to ask and have enough sense to learn. We’ll probably never know what Lundquist’s options were when he came here almost four years ago, what choices he and his board made and why. Despite a series of public informational meetings hosted in part by Assemblyman Kevin Cahill last year, the process by which decisions were reached was secretive. Lundquist’s sudden, unexplained departure is but the latest example.

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I suspect — and that’s all it can be at this point — that Lundquist, from his perch at the top of the food chain, had to know the ground was about to shift. The state, even with Cahill as an active advocate, was not about to invest another $40 million or so in what appeared to be a failing enterprise. Nor do banks lend money easily these days even to people with good credit. So some kind of partnership with a regional healthcare organization, either in Albany or Poughkeepsie, seemed on the table.

For Lundquist, this had to be the handwriting on the wall. The $700,000-a-year people who run these organizations probably don’t need another $700,000-a-year person to run a subsidiary.

Like with the Bardavon taking over struggling UPAC a few years ago, are we to become an adjunct to a distant daddy, however benevolent? Will Mary’s Avenue host little more than a very large clinic or regional emergency room while Kingston Hospital becomes a retirement home?

Nobody knows. Maybe Lundquist did, but he’s gone.

Interestingly, nobody from the Alliance board (except for Lundquist) has quit. It seems obvious to me they could use some new blood as our healthcare system teeters toward yet another painful transition.

Ka-ching!

Do Ulster County legislators really work five, six, seven times longer off-site than at regularly scheduled monthly meetings and committee meetings? They do if they keep their own time sheets, which they do. The time sheets are evidence used to qualify the legislators for the state pension system.

According to honor system, daily logs are filed with the legislative clerk’s office for pension purposes, legislators work anywhere from about 14 to 25 days a month on “official duties,” including the two or three days a month they meet in Kingston for public session.

I will pause here while readers willingly suspend disbelief, as I did when these numbers were trotted out at last week’s regular session of the legislature.

It would seem that just about any contact a legislator has with anybody or any agency that even remotely resembles county business can be counted. Minority leader Dave Donaldson of Kingston cited letters to the editor from legislators as official business since, in his opinion, legislators are paid to express their opinions.

Bob Aiello of Saugerties opined that an exchange with a constituent at the local supermarket would qualify. Phone calls, made or received, e-mails, social media, anything connecting a legislator to the public, would suffice. There was a legislator years ago who sold beauty products at house parties. Naturally, she claimed that time for pension purposes.

Aiello, colleagues tell me, may be the hardest-working legislator, constantly involved with this issue or that. “I don’t know when he sleeps,” one marveled.

Indications are he keeps track of virtually every log-worthy exchange.

Imagine this conversation in a Saugerties deli:

Constituent: Yo, Bobby! How’s it going at the legislature?

Aiello: Ka-ching.

Constituent: What was that?

Aiello: My pension plan.

That legislators talk constantly about politics suggests there are few encounters where the ka-ching doesn’t apply.

But seriously. The subject does raise the question of just what legislators do in terms of constituent contact outside official meetings. Some engaged legislators attend town-board meetings in their towns, public events and other gatherings. Others are barely seen between elections.

I’m reminded of the story about the “cleanest alderman in Kingston.”

The alderman’s brother ran into his sibling’s constituent at the old Gov. Clinton Market. “Your brother must be the cleanest alderman down there,” the woman said.

“Why’s that?”

“Every time I call for something, his wife says he’s in the shower.”

Some veteran legislators might be excused for appearing less zealous than they were say five years ago. Rank-and-file legislators got their last raises in 1999, going from $8,000 a year to $10,000. By the same token, their workload was considerably reduced with the advent of the executive system in 2009. Few serve more than a decade, the minimal time to qualify for a pension. Upon reaching 55, they’re eligible for a one-quarter ($2,500 before taxes) payout.

Not that politicians are any less honest than the rest of us, but an honor system that ultimately benefits the honoree is ripe for abuse. And suspicion. This particular morsel went back to committee, where I suspect it will rest until after Election Day.

Some years ago, legislators, under heavy pressure from an irate public, voted to eliminate healthcare benefits for themselves under the rationale that part-time workers (as in the private sector) don’t get medical coverage. The same rule should apply for part-time pensions.

Hats off to Charlie

Years ago (there’s that phrase again), I was grousing with then-state senator Charlie Cook about the secretive and dysfunctional state legislature, in particular its closed-door caucuses. As was his wont, the senator heard me out before offering sage advice. “You might be surprised to know that when 35 senators get together behind closed doors to work out a problem,” he said, “oftentimes something good comes out.”

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That kind of collective intelligence is apparently rare in the 23-member Ulster County Legislature.

Shortly after the state lowered its contribution, thus raising the local share of Safety Net assistance from 50 percent to 71 percent about a year ago, legislative committees began considering a county takeover from the towns and the city. The overall tab at the time approached $6 million a year, about what the county pays in debt service on the new jail.

The main beneficiaries of this largess would have been Kingston, Wawarsing and Ulster, home to most Safety Net recipients. At the other end, Woodstock would take a $300,000 hit in additional county taxes.

A plan by legislators to trade sales-tax receipts for home relief was summarily rejected by the towns. County Executive Mike Hein subsequently came up with a plan to phase in Safety Net relief over a three-year period. It was adopted by the legislature as part of his 2013 budget.

About three months ago, budget officer J.J. Hanson came before the Ways and Means Committee to advise that since Safety Net expenses were running about 15 percent ahead of projections the county might have to extend the county takeover period to four or even five years. Town officials were not pleased.

There is one comment

  1. gerald berke

    There really is no reason to pay $700K… what does it get us? 100 to 150K ought to get enough talent and love for the job to get a masters degree or better and a really hard worker to boot. Enough of this shopping at the Abercrombie and Fitch store/catalog, Sharper Image…
    Shopping local doesn’t mean just bread and T shirts… find the talent locally, look hard… use the local executive talent in Kingston to interview and select… we have some powerful people in this town that can surely vet good talent.
    I remember telling my math professor at U of M “teachers needed to be paid much much more money to get good ones…” “Nop”, he said. “You’ll just get people that want money, not necessarily the ones who love to teach, want to teach, and those are the good ones. Just pay them a reasonable salary.”

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