Watcher of the public purse

Auerbach and McDonough HZTThis year’s race for Ulster County comptroller, an office one of the candidates says few people know about, pits three-term incumbent Democrat Elliot Auerbach of Ellenville against Republican challenger Linda McDonough of Lake Katrine. McDonough will also appear on the Conservative and Independence Party lines. Auerbach will also be the Working Families Party candidate.

The comptroller’s position, paid $101,709 of a total office budget of $486,556, was created by the 2006 charter to replace the county treasurer and auditor. Auerbach, 61, a former mayor and village manager of Ellenville, was elected the first comptroller in 2008 and reelected by some 7800 votes three years ago. The office carries a four-year term.

McDonough, 56, unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for comptroller in 2010. She was a deputy county auditor in 2007-08 before the current system went into effect. She received the nomination this year after party nominee Jim Quigley dropped out to run for reelection as Ulster town supervisor.


McDonough, who did not attend college, cites her 38 years of hands-on experience in the auditing field. Currently employed by a local certified public accountant (whom she did not name), she is business manager for John A. Coleman Catholic High School and is secretary to the Spring Lake Fire Department.

The comptroller, the 2006 charter states, “shall be the chief accounting and auditing officer of the county.” Over Auerbach’s vigorous protests, accounting responsibilities were shifted to the office of finance under a 2012 charter amendment approved by the voters. The county executive and the legislature saw a conflict in one office overseeing potentially conflicting duties. “It was kind of schizophrenic,” Auerbach now concedes.

Like the county executive, Auerbach, who holds a degree from Hofstra University in business administration, takes responsibility for “creating a newly formed office literally crafted from ground zero” and staffing it with accounting professionals.

“We wrote the playbook,” he said.

But McDonough is on a different page.

“It is my belief that the current comptroller is not performing all the duties defined in the charter,” she said at a joint interview of both candidates in Kingston last week. Among other things, she cites a lack of the quarterly reports required by charter. Auerbach pointed to the 50 detailed reports on departmental and county activities his office has issued in just under five years. McDonough has called those reports “useless information” widely ignored by the public and officials.

Auerbach responded, “To that I offer you two words, Tim Matthews,” referring to his audit of the county’s drug task force which ultimately led to the arrest and felony thievery conviction of the former Kingston police detective lieutenant.

Auerbach said his audits of the county Resource Recovery Agency and the county auto repair department also led to significant reforms.


Critical reports

McDonough, in her literature, seems to be accusing Auerbach of practicing “partisan politics.” Asked whether a Republican comptroller would appear to be more independent, she replied that politics should not be an issue in the office.

Auerbach agreed. “I have pulled no punches,” he said. “We’ve done critical reports on the sheriff and the executive [both Democrats] as well as the [Republican] legislature.”

The two differ on the staffing of the office. Auerbach, from his earliest days as comptroller, has insisted it is understaffed for the duties assigned. McDonough said she can operate “more efficiently” with the eight people currently assigned. Staffing falls under the jurisdiction of the executive and the legislature.

In their joint interview, the candidates clashed on the subject of economic development. McDonough said she didn’t understand Auerbach’s recent short report on the county economy. “It’s contradictory. It doesn’t make sense,” she said. “People are given the wrong impression.”

The report presents a somewhat pessimistic impression of a county economy, showing growth in some areas like tourism, employment and real estate, but a decline in sales-tax collections.

“I apologize for the candidate’s ignorance and that she truly doesn’t grasp the data in this report,” Auerbach retorted. For his comparisons between the first half of this year and last year, Auerbach said he had secured data from the county clerk (on mortgage taxes), the department of finance (on sales-tax collections through June), the commissioner of health, the federal department of commerce and the state department of labor. His conclusions do differ with those outlined in county executive Mike Hein’s budget presentation last month, which showed rising sales-tax receipts and a generally bullish outlook on the immediate future.

“Budget making is part science, part art and part magic,” the comptroller commented on the executive’s proposed 2014 budget. “We deal in cold, hard facts.”

Auerbach spoke of his office’s outreach programs, including social media, the effect of which McDonough disputed. “People seem ignorant of the office and the job it’s supposed to be doing,” she said. “I was quite surprised by that. I spend a lot of time explaining it.”

Both support the state casino gambling amendment on the November 5 ballot, McDonough somewhat guardedly. She fondly recalled the days of her youth when the Borscht Belt was booming.

“Hey, I’m from Wawarsing,” Auerbach said, enthusiastically. “Need I say more?” Under plans approved by the legislature, the former Nevele Resort south of Ellenville could be considered for one of seven casinos to be established upstate.

The two will meet at a League of Women Voters candidate night on Oct. 21 at 7 p.m. at the senior citizen center at Cantine Field.