Hugh Reynolds: Who shot the sheriff?

Mike Hein, Art Snyder and Paul Van Blarcum at a 2011 post-Irene press conference. (Photo: Dan Barton)

Mike Hein, Art Snyder and Paul Van Blarcum at a 2011 post-Irene press conference. (Photo: Dan Barton)

On my recent backyard vacation I read that Ulster County Legislature Minority Leader Dave Donaldson had taken extreme umbrage at the suggestion that the recently appointed county study commission on police services could be a vehicle to eliminate the sheriff’s road patrol. Donaldson, a nine-term Kingston Democrat, is of course entitled to his opinion, but here he could be protesting too much. Or he didn’t get the memo. Sometimes where there’s smoke there is fire.

Politics is all about players and opportunity. This scenario has one helluva cast of characters.

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Take County Executive Mike Hein. Please. All things (now) emanate from Hein. This one probably germinated about four years ago when Hein sent a message to department heads requesting (demanding?) them to cut 5 percent from their budgets in order to hold down the politically sensitive property tax.

Sheriff Paul Van Blarcum, a fellow Democrat in name only, curtly told the newly minted executive what he could do with his 5 percent cut. (The sheriff is an independently elected constitutional officer.) “I’ll cut my budget 5 percent when you cut yours 5,” he replied. Hein neither forgets nor forgives slights of this nature.

In June, Assemblyman Kevin Cahill held up state legislation that would have extended Ulster’s 1 percent sales tax surcharge for another two years. It will cost the county between $5 million and $6 million in revenue if the state legislature doesn’t go into special session and approve the extension this year. (Cahill says it won’t.)

The tab for an entire year would approach $26 million. This would be a very big deal. Critical mass is approaching.

In his annual address to the legislature eight months ago, Hein suggested that the county might be paying more for law enforcement — code for the sheriff’s road patrol — than it could afford. And that was months before Cahill did his sales-tax boogaloo in Hein’s face.

Next year’s county budget presentation is now approaching. Budgets from some 40 county departments have been submitted, chewed over and trimmed. Sales-tax revenues have been projected to rise slightly, despite a decline in usually more prosperous DutchessCounty. Finances appear tight.

Sounds like a plan to me

By law, Hein has to present a balanced budget (at least on paper) to the legislature by the first Friday in October, now barely five weeks away.

Faced with a 2013 gap of at least $5 million — one that could be easily made up by tapping the bulging fund balance — and a potential, though unlikely, $26 million revenue loss next year, the executive has to find at least one big-ticket item to cut, and probably a whole bunch of little ones. (This year it was the county nursing home.)

Enter the police services study commission. After two getting-to-know-you sit-downs, the group has, according to one of its more prominent members, stated no intention of even talking about the sheriff’s road patrol just yet. Others say everything is on the table.

Here’s how I read the handwriting on the wall: Hein’s strategy is to create a “Department of Public Safety,” including the Department of Emergency Services with perhaps some irresistible early-retirement incentives for its longtime director, the very competent Art Snyder.

By eliminating the sheriff’s patrol and merging emergency services to create a new department under his direct control, Hein kills several birds at once. He gets even with Van Blarcum for standing up to him on a budget issue, saves maybe $10 million by deep-sixing the road patrol, and blames it all on “extortionist” Cahill for holding a gun to his head and almost single-handedly depriving the county of sales-tax revenue.

Hein won’t use all the savings from the road patrol to hold down property taxes. The elastic fund balance will suffice for a while. He may spread some money around to town police agencies, where it will do the most political good. Rumor has it (which I can’t confirm, since Hein doesn’t talk to us) that Hein already has one of his senior executives penciled in to head the new department at a salary north of $125,000.

In the end, the executive, almost always ahead of the curve that he almost always creates, smites his enemies, protects the tax base, and makes himself the new sheriff in town. Perhaps most importantly, the ambitious executive pumps up his own well-publicized image for what could be his next career move.

Sounds like a plan to me.

There are of course complications, as one legislator with an ear to the ground told me. Cops are extremely territorial and hyper-political. For them, this had better be the deal of deals. The sheriff, with lots of friends in high places, will not sit idly by while his department is decimated.

As with most things hereabouts, a countywide police department is not a new idea; it’s how Nassau and Suffolk counties do it. Former sheriff Tom Mayone, a Republican, had similar thoughts, but he wanted to expand the sheriff’s patrol to meet every law-enforcement need. Tommy’s delusions of grandeur were sent packing at the next election.

Hurley burley

It’s a good thing rookie Hurley Town Councilman John Dittus isn’t on the ballot this year. Otherwise, Republican Dittus would be pitted against his niece, Democrat Ashley Dittus, 27, his youngest brother’s daughter, in this fall’s elections. Councilman Dittus, my old golf buddy, was elected to a four-year term last year.

Ashley, a clerk with the countyBoard of Elections, will be nominated for town council when Democrats caucus on Sunday, Sept. 8 at 1 p.m. at the Reservoir Inn. A fund-raising brunch begins at 11 a.m. Information is available at (845) 706-4272.

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