When he’s in a nostalgic mood, recently re-elected County Comptroller Elliott Auerbach likes to talk about the time some 20-odd years ago that a guy in a business suit carrying a briefcase walked into the Ace Hardware store he and his father operated in Ellenville.
“He identified himself as representing the Ace Hardware Corporation in Chicago,” Auerbach recalled. “My father, a very polite man, asked what we could do for him. He told us we were infringing on the corporation’s name. My father, a very polite man, told him politely that our name had been incorporated in the State of New York for many years and we had no intention of giving it up.”
“The guy told us he’d see us in court.”
Court? A village hardware store against a major corporation? How did the case turn out?
“Let’s put it this way,” Auerbach replied. “That settlement afforded my parents a very comfortable retirement.”
These days Auerbach is battling another kind of ACE, one firmly lodged in the top floor directly above the comptroller’s office in the CountyOfficeBuilding.
ACE, standing for Accountability, Compliance and Efficiency, is the latest acronym from County Executive Mike Hein’s office. And as usual, Hein’s holding plenty of other cards.
Hein outlined the ACE idea in his budget message in late September. Hein said the well-paid five-member unit, a kind of flying financial squad, would be composed of former executive staff from the old county infirmary, sold to a private entity last June. ACE’s primary duty for the next two years will probably be riding herd on the transfer of Golden Hill. After that they don their Bob Cratchit suits.
The subject of their salaries seems to have gotten the attention of the tone-deaf legislature. The executive’s budget lists a salary of $102,093 for the director, listed as former Golden Hill administrator Sheree Cross, with $79,639 for a deputy and $69,864 for a fiscal officer. Two other salaries top $50,000. Altogether the cost of the new division, including benefits, will be budgeted at well more than $500,000. That’s heavy lifting in hard times, even for a county executive who almost always gets his way with the legislature.
Auerbach, who saw his department divested of its auditing responsibilities last year by the executive, thinks he has a better idea. Scrap the new division and instead give the job to the comptroller. “Give the comptroller’s office half of that, two auditors and a staffer, and we can do it,” he said.
There’s a case to be made that the charter in creating an independent watchdog comptroller’s office, specifically charged the comptroller with exactly what Hein is now proposing to move under his control. The difference, of course, is the word “independent.” As I read the initiative, the flying squad would be responsible for overseeing the executive who would oversee the flying squad. Huh?
There are other perspectives. This one’s mine.
Another question being raised by some legislators, though not yet in public: Do we need to spend half a million dollars on something the executive should have been doing all along, primarily through his budget office?
I see this initiative as clearly a policy-making decision, and therefore the responsibility of the legislature. By folding the new department into the proposed budget as he has done before, though, Hein is forcing the legislature into one of those take-it-all-or-leave-it dilemmas they are loath to confront.
By lobbying — but not too vigorously — for something he doesn’t have but thinks he should have, Auerbach could be thrown a bone or two in the budget process. But he grouses that responsibility for another vital function that should be in his department is being legislated away from him.
Who’s the boss?
The Democrats in the Ulster County Legislature will be getting together in caucus in about a month to vote their choice for chairman of the legislature. Their choice then goes before the full legislature for formal approval. Minority Republicans don’t figure to be players unless they and a faction of feuding Demos make a deal.
The Democrats hope, of course, that the party comes out united behind a candidate. The hard truth of the business is that almost all of the dozen members of the 2014 Democratic majority safely elected last week (there may be one or two more when absentee ballots are counted) consider themselves eminently qualified to be the next chairman.
Ken Wishnick, a second-termer from New Paltz, may be the exception. After sniffing the Kool-Aid, Wishnick says he’d rather work “on the business of being a legislator” than sit at the front of the room.
Former chairman Dave Donaldson, who on election night said he wasn’t interested, is now said to be interested. Things could change. This is a highly fluid situation.
Only a handful of the Democratic delegation have a chance of rounding up a minimum of seven votes in caucus and then log-rolling the other five into a unanimous decision.
In terms of persuading colleagues, the coin of the realm has always been committee assignments, and no committee stands higher than the powerful seven-member Ways and Means, which is where the money is. For veteran legislators, or those with a particular interest, like Rosendale’s Manna Jo Greene with environmental issues, a committee promise could produce a kiss. But even the two newly minted legislators, Greene and Chris “The Difference” Allen of Saugerties, know committing too early could leave them powerless at the finish line.
The clock is ticking. It would appear no legislator has more than three votes going in, which means some serious coalescing is just around the corner. Placing odds on wannabes is fun but risky. But why not?
Tracey Bartels, 3-1. The legislature’s only non-enrolled member brings commendable qualities to the table, like being smarter than most. The fact that Bartels is not a Democrat and has no intention, she says, of joining any political party will weigh against her. But she will have influence.
Jeanette Provenzano, 6-1. The legislature’s senior member has been to the altar more times than Liz Taylor, but always ended up a bridesmaid. Sentimentalists might be willing to give her one term, and a portrait on the legislature’s past-chairman wall of fame, if only out of gratitude.
Donaldson, 6-1. The guy they used to call Dancin’ Dave led the charge against those evil Republicans with a January hatchet job on Chairwoman Terry Bernardo. That was a long time ago. In some quarters, Donaldson, like Provenzano, is seen as just a little too cozy with the executive to be an independent chairman.
Don Gregorius, 7-1. Here, I’d offer a daily double, teaming the legislator’s leading vote-getter with Wishnick, the one who says he’s not (now) interested. These two birds of a feather, well-studied, articulate, vocal, belong on the floor emoting, not sitting in the catbird seat quietly presiding. For sure, if either becomes chairman, legislative sessions will be reduced in length by at least 20 percent.
The Paretes, 10-1. Last month, majority leader Ken Ronk of Wallkill, after being ridden hard by Rob Parete of Accord, mistakenly attacked Rob’s father, John Parete of Olive. His apology — “There are so many of them, I got confused” — was acceptable to the family.
Rob Parete, who did not seek re-election after six terms, won’t be voting for chairman at caucus next month. He may not even attend, given family obligations. Poppa John and the remaining Parete son, Rich, also of Accord — the brothers can almost hit each other’s houses with four-irons — are left at the fort. Verdict: not enough firepower.
A few stragglers merit honorable mention. Legislators who run unopposed, like T.J. Briggs in Ellenville and Hector Rodriguez in New Paltz, carry a certain cachet with colleagues, if only out of jealousy. But Briggs, though retired, is a long way from the county office building and Rodriguez works for the new owners of the infirmary, which could — or should — raise issues of conflicts of interest down the road. Democrats are grateful to Allen for helping them recapture the house they lost four years ago, but not enough to make a freshman chairman.
With all this speculation over future chairman, I have saved for last what we Irish call the pig in the corner. According to Gaelic lore, the pig who slept in the house did so with one eye open, lest anyone get any ideas about their next meal.