The opposite faces of Ulster County Executive Mike Hein, the good and the bad, were on display last week. Since Hein thinks I pick on him too much, let’s begin on a positive note.
The formal dedication of the homeless veterans’ facility on Wurts Street in Kingston was a Mike Hein event in the best sense. It was Hein’s vision to provide a temporary shelter for local veterans down on their luck, and what Hein sees Hein tends to execute.
He steered it through the state legislature, which had to grant permission to sell the 1890s former state-owned group home for a dollar. He arranged the financing, in part by convincing the community college to sell the president’s house. He brought a more-than-willing county legislature on board. And he lobbied non-profits, area service clubs and other community organizations for contributions. There, the executive had to act surreptitiously but for a good cause, since government is not allowed to solicit from the public. Our taxes they just take.
The Bruderhof, for instance, donated a $60,000 roof for the building. Regional Rotary clubs raised close to that amount in donations ranging from a fistful of dollars to thousands from upwards of 150 donors. Credit Colleen Mountford of Woodstock, a member of Kingston’s Sunrise Rotary, for coordinating that remarkable effort. The local ironworkers’ union built a handicapped-accessible entrance ramp. Seabees, American Legion Riders and other veterans pitched in. Saugerties Furniture Mart gave huge discounts to equip the eight rooms in the facility. Individuals purchased appliances for the kitchen. A 10-year-old girl, Ashley Altieri of Saugerties, sold hand-made bracelets and donated the $400 in proceeds. Arranging for free staffing of the facility by professionals dedicated to veterans was another boon.
A large monument in front of the building commemorates those efforts in stone.
Renovating what was a decrepit building from the inside out in time for Hein’s hard deadline of July 2 demanded all the skills and talents of project manager Chris White and the county’s public works department. DPW workers were there day and night.
Given that Hein does ceremony so well, the turnout of more than 150 guests, officials and veterans at the Patriot Project dedication, many by personal invitation, was no surprise. Threatening weather and limited parking might have held the crowd down.
Hein, who like his DPW has lived with this project for almost a year, went through his thank-you list as quickly as possible as thunder boomed off in the distance. The executive’s luck held. Torrential rains descended not 20 minutes after the ribbon-cutting.
A lot still in flux
There were some loose ends, of course, there always are. The $330,000 budget was blown in part by the discovery of asbestos in the building. Why anybody is surprised to find asbestos in buildings last renovated more than 20 years ago escapes me, but it happens. As such, Hein is figuring the project cost at around $500,000 and counting. Community donations closed much of that gap.
Rules of operation remain in flux. The facility is envisioned as a way station, not a home, so there will likely be limits. Just how many veterans in Ulster County might be in need of the service remains a moving target. Best guess is a few dozen, but some with direct access to the veteran community estimate more. Whether admission will be limited to Ulsterites is another issue. The state donated the building, after all, and the Rotary collected donations beyond county borders.
As a veteran, I really didn’t like politicians crowding the front staircase of the facility for the obligatory photo op. Most, and they know who they are, had nothing to do with the project other than voting for it. Should their grinning visages show up in future campaign ads, there could be serious backlash from veterans’ groups. This project was for vets, not for the glorification of politicians.
But these, as they say in the executive suite, are but details. The Patriots Project is by any fair standard a home run for the Hein administration.
And now the bad side
The less said about Hein’s war on the Catskill Mountain Railroad, the better, even though in the spirit of fair play I can’t seem to stop writing about it. In fact, it is an ongoing saga.
While the Patriots Project displayed the best side of the executive, particularly his ability to rally volunteers, his relentless stalking of the railroad, volunteers all, is certainly the worst.
I covered the first meeting of the legislatively appointed Railroad Advisory Committee last week with the expectation that with everyone seated in the same room some reasonable compromises might break out. And some did, but not from both sides.
It was obvious from the get-go that committee Chairman Dave Donaldson, a track inspector for CSX before he became a teacher 28 years ago, was on the side of railroaders. So one-track was Donaldson as presiding officer, the wonder was why the several trail advocates in attendance at the meeting at the county office building didn’t jump up and shake their fists in his face.
Donaldson’s treatment of project manager Chris White — a man of many duties, he also manages the Sophie Finn conversion to a community college adjunct — fell somewhere between rude and vile. At one point, when White asked to clarify an assertion by the rail people, Donaldson almost told him to shut the hell up.
That White had his opportunity to present his side of the story before the full legislature without interruption last month might have been a factor in Donaldson’s lamentably partisan behavior. But then, White was representing the executive. These days, unlike in days of yore when Donaldson was known as the great (Hein) enabler, the former chairman has little use for “the man down the hall.”
It’s not that Hein, after dragging the railroad into court last summer and repeatedly bad-mouthing its operation, didn’t deserve some of this bile. It was more about time and place. This was supposed to be a time to begin to heal, not howl.
In any event, the 90-minute session did produce some news. The railroad, it seems, is willing to give up its Midtown-to-Uptown-Kingston run for trail-only, move its staging yard from Cornell Street to vacant land near Kingston Plaza and, perhaps more remarkably, volunteer its host of volunteers and dearly bought heavy equipment to create demonstration trails along its right-of-way west of Kingston.
Trail advocates apparently want a closer look at this gift horse, but seem willing to listen. “The process is about getting the facts out,” said long-time trailer stalwart Kathy Nolan of Shandaken. I got the sense that Nolan, for one, would rather see the fact-finding legal process go forward than to bring in independent mediators, as advocated by legislators Donaldson and Manna Jo Greene.
Grousing with both sides after the session, it became apparent that the real mediator is already on the payroll, and he’s right down the hall, heels firmly dug in.
In short, it’s Mike Hein. In the spirit of the Patriots Project, he needs to drop this punitive, expensive lawsuit, convene both sides in public session and forge a solution reasonable people can live with.
Good Mike would have effectuated this now widely desired outcome months ago. Bad Mike is another story.
Readers, I did my level best to get us all in on deliberations surrounding the recommendation by county Democrats of a third family court judge. Alas, party Chairman Frank Cardinale, echoing former Republican chairman Pete Savago, considers this examination of candidates private party business.
Not only were we not invited to sit in on the interviews of the four candidates so far declared, we’re not even being told the names of the 10 inquisitors: five local attorneys, Cardinale and his executive committee.
Keep in mind that one of the candidates interviewed at party headquarters this week will in all likelihood be our family court judge for the next 10 years, ruling on the fates of thousands of residents. And party bosses say that’s none of the public’s business?