Ulster’s county comptroller says his authority to audit the finances of any department is, as per the county charter, absolute. In a separate case, the county legislature is claiming its absolute right to hire a county auditor over the county executive’s objections. Other than their claims of absolute authority, these separate situations have something else in common: defiance of the county executive.
A lot of people seem to be going to court to settle differences that most people expect to be decided over a cup of coffee.
In the case of the legislature’s selection of a county auditor, the executive may have had the last word when he vetoed the legislation and the legislature chose not to attempt an override. Last month, legislative attorney Cappy Weiner issued an opinion upholding the legislature’s “absolute” right by charter to name an auditor.
I don’t think we’re talking about Clarence Darrow here. Lawyers are hired to promote their clients’ interests.
County Attorney Bea Havranek then issued a lengthy opinion upholding the county executive’s absolute authority, by charter, to act on any and all legislation approved by the legislature. On behalf of her client, the county executive, she opined that the veto stood.
A legislative committee headed by Legislator Rich Parete is revisiting the issue. Parete said that the committee, given the absolute authority its lawyer believes it has, is considering among others the auditing firm the county executive recently vetoed. Another executive veto could force court action.
In the case of the comptroller against the Department of Social Services, DSS is claiming that the financial information on about a dozen wards of the state under its administration is not subject to comptroller scrutiny. This has not always been the case. Before mid-2012, bank statements regarding wards were routinely forward to the comptroller for reconciliation.
“Over the last 18 months we were getting less and less information [from DSS],” said Comptroller Elliott Auerbach. “Then we weren’t getting any at all.”
Collectively, the checking and savings accounts under DSS supervision amount to about $100,000, according to the comptroller.
DSS, in refusing access to the comptroller, claims in court papers that those accounts are already subject to court supervision. “That is 100 percent correct,” Auerbach conceded. “We weren’t asking for confidential information, only financial records. We can’t reconcile those accounts without those records. That’s our duty, by charter.”
Auerbach also posits that allowing the executive branch to withhold financial information from “an independently elected comptroller” could establish a precedent for recalcitrance.
Deputy Comptroller Joe Eriole, a lawyer who represents the comptroller’s office in the case, suggests those concerns are warranted by past behavior.
“We [the comptroller’s office] generally get pushback whenever we ask for information,” he said. “Usually, the immediate knee-jerk reaction is, ‘I don’t think so. Let me check.'”
As for the contention in some quarters that the comptroller has become something of a pest, Auerbach responds, “Taxpayers should be pleased and proud that we stick our nose in county business.”
That opinion is by no means universal in the executive branch. Indeed, the executive’s recently appointed in-house auditing team would seem a direct response to what some see as meddling by the comptroller.
The county executive, who does not return phone calls from our reporters, is known to regard the comptroller’s office as superfluous: thus the new half-million-dollar-a-year in-house auditing team under his direct control.
When we last tuned in to the seemingly endless conflict between New Paltz government and developers seeking to build student housing for the college, the town board had bonded with the village board in opposing any kind of payment in lieu of taxes (Pilot) agreement for the developer. The two boards also agreed that the village would not allow the annexation of 42 acres adjacent to where the project is targeted.
Case closed? Hardly. The larger questions looming over this controversy are whether the county-appointed Industrial Development Agency (IDA) has the authority to override local objections and if so, whether in this case it will.
Amazingly, that question was not raised at an IDA public hearing on the project, attended by some 400 people, mostly opposed to the Pilot. “It was the elephant in the living room, and the elephant was silent,” observed one attendee later.
Historically, the IDA has “chosen” to respect local authority. Indeed, the IDA has made it policy to seek out local opinion before passing final judgment. The fact that by statute it has a choice — meant to counter not-in-my-back-yard parochialism — is telling.
The IDA will meet in regular monthly session this Wednesday, April 9 at 8 a.m. in the library on the sixth floor of the County Office Building. Officials had said previously they had no plans to issue a decision on the Park Point project at that meeting. Indications now are they might.
Given the vehement opposition to the Park Point Pilot in New Paltz, one might have assumed that applying for a Pilot therein would be, well, pointless. Not so.
A $75 million amusement park and hotel facility called Wildberry Lodge has been welcomed with open arms by town officials. The project seeks a 10-year Pilot. Promoted by the people who operate Rocking Horse Ranch, Wildberry Lodge will be located on the strategically placed Plesser property near the New Paltz Thruway entrance.