Sometimes role reversal can be revealing. Take the case of County Executive Mike Hein and Assemblyman Kevin Cahill. Please.
Hein, a former Republican turned Democrat, has set himself up as the taxpayer’s champion, a guy who holds spending and taxes to a minimum. The county’s property tax levy has been almost flat in Hein’s last three budgets while he shed a third of the workforce.
Cahill, a life-long Democrat whose mother would disown him if he even thought of joining the other side, is a tax-and-spend liberal to his bones. Cahill has never seen a budget he couldn’t vote for, other than the few years he spent in the county legislature where Republicans made budgets and tax increases he couldn’t support.
In the Cahill-Hein sales-tax war Hein is on the side of retaining the county’s 4 percent sales tax. Cahill is in favor of reducing it to 3 percent. Hein says Cahill’s action cost the county some $5.4 million in revenue during the two months (December and January) the 3 percent county-share sales tax was in effect. Cahill says county residents and visitors saved $5.4 million by not paying the sales tax. In addition, the city (mostly) and the towns got an estimated $500,000 cash infusion from the county via the phased-in Safety Net takeover.
These figures are approximate. As Cahill put it in a press release after Hein attacked him for squeezing county coffers, “Making things up and leaving out inconvenient facts are tried and true ways to avoid accepting responsibility.” In short, calling such people liars. Gutless, too.
On Monday, Cahill announced he was submitting legislation (with no companion bill in the Senate) that would require the state to take over the entire cost of Safety Net, thus saving the county some $9 million a year beginning in 2015. Understandably, Hein asked why Cahill hadn’t advanced that legislation sooner in his more-than-19-year career in the state legislature. Good question.
We can’t leave this subject without providing background for new readers, or context for regulars who have either become bored with this endless back and forth or forgot its origins.
Cahill, in blocking what had been the routine biannual extension of Ulster’s 1 percent add-on portion of the sales tax last June, held out for formal county takeover of some $6 million (two-thirds of the total tab) in annual Safety Net (payments to welfare recipients who have exhausted their eligibility for all other forms of support) expenses imposed on the towns and the city by the county. Hein and the legislature insisted they had supported takeover via resolution. Cahill, who wasn’t about to accept their word on anything, wanted the takeover formally adopted as part of the 2014 budget.
The 1 percent generated about $24 million a year. As tradeoffs go, that didn’t seem a bad deal for the county, what with its $327 million (2014) budget. For the cash-strapped towns and the City of Kingston, struggling after Cahill and the state legislature increased their share in 2013, Safety Net relief was a godsend.
Hein refused to accept Cahill’s conditions and launched what came to be known as the Cahill sales-tax war. The 1 percent add-on lapsed at the end of last November, just in time for the holiday shopping season. About then Hein, facing monthly revenue shortfalls in the $2 million range, blinked. He and the county legislature, kicking and spitting, wound up accepting the conditions Cahill had demanded last June.
Unfortunately, Hein and Cahill, two of our leading public officials, detest each other. They rarely confer. Indeed, if one enters a room, the other would likely walk out, though both sat at the same table, only separated by one other person, during a recent panel discussion in Kingston on domestic violence. These two acting like adults in the common interest is a highly unlikely scenario, rendering another role reversal unlikely.
The next sales-tax extension is now barely 15 months away.
I have to give Cahill credit for colorful language, literally. Three days before St. Paddy’s, Cahill put out an anti-Hein press release (mentioned above) in green ink, with a figure of an Irish pot o’ gold on the top. Snarky references to Hein as a leprechaun didn’t quite connect. Leprechauns are lovable figures, and there’s no love lost here.
Occasionally, like in this year’s St Patrick’s Day parade in Kingston, circumstances throw the two together. Cahill was on one end of a line of politicians marching down the yellow brick road (Broadway) toward the Rondout Creek. Hein was on the other.
I’m not sure why Hein launched on Cahill again. Maybe he just couldn’t help himself. The state-published sales-tax figures for December, January and February, depending on spin and soft spending last year, were pretty much what both sides had anticipated six months ago.
There is no way, of course, to measure the impact of the 3 percent sales tax, the lowest in the region for those months. Under Hein’s control, the county did not publicize “Shop Ulster! It’s cheaper!” Cahill, basically a one-man operation, has nowhere near Hein’s media clout, nor his aggressive use of same.
I don’t know whether readers or editors would necessarily agree with this, but I’ve always liked to give newbies a few months, usually 100 days, to get their feet wet. One of the exceptions was Hein, actually, but by the time he took office as executive in January 2009, he had already been in much the same job as county administrator for some 18 months.
I developed this mercy rule a long time ago as a young city hall reporter. At the time, Kingston’s mayor had hired the city’s first city planner, a guy from Troy named Bob Pritchard. I wrote up the announcement and then headed down to City Hall to interview the new arrival.
The conversation went something like this:
“So you’re the new planner. What are your plans?”