Hugh Reynolds: The crisis which keeps on irking

The columnist Reynolds.

The columnist Reynolds.

For those who didn’t get enough of the Cahill sales-tax crisis last year, connected to the Ulster County Safety Net takeover, there’s a sequel currently in production. The follow-up installment dealing with the county government’s possible assumption of election costs should be in the news in a few weeks.

All the props are in place, including a dress rehearsal at last week’s regular meeting of the county legislature. A resolution was on the agenda for the county government to assume election costs, budgeted at about $1.4 million a year. The county now picks up between 60 and 80 percent, depending on which legislator is spinning the numbers. Proponents argue that the county should pick up the entire tab, since elections are a county responsibility, with the localities having no input.

Some 20 of the 22 legislators were in opposition. After picking up an estimated $12 million in Safety Net expenses in the current budget at Assemblyman Kevin Cahill’s insistence, they argued, the county was in no position to assume additional expenses.

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As with all things political, it do depend. At the same session, with hardly a murmur the legislators voted another $481,000 for the over-budget Sophie Finn UCCC college extension project in Kingston, originally projected to cost about $7 million.

In any event, last week’s posturing over county-versus-town fiscal responsibility, with a dose of “state mandates,” was but a preview of what will erupt when Cahill’s proposal for the elections takeover in exchange for extension of the sales-tax surcharge hits the legislative floor in October.

After allowing the sales-tax extension to clear the state legislature last winter, Cahill had reminded the county that he’d come calling again on the election takeover at budget time this fall. It’s time. Since Cahill, as evidenced by how the Safety Net issue played out before, holds the trump card I’m predicting a similar result this time around. Though the legislature has put itself on record, no doubt with a nudge from Cahill nemesis County Executive Mike Hein, this issue will be decided in Albany.

Legislature Minority Leader Ken Ronk, doing one of those us-against-them tirades, pointed out that only two towns, New Paltz and Plattekill, had reduced their tax levies after the county assumed Safety Net costs. Does Ronk, not yet 30 but a seasoned legislator, really believe that the towns will pass county cost savings back to their constituents? School districts haven’t. Every time the state has appropriated another billion or so in school aid, school taxes have gone up anyway.

Ronk’s argument was that “county tax cuts” fall disproportionately on towns depending in large measure on their equalization rates.

Not that it’s a bad idea to share some of the wealth.

All aboard

Last week’s 18-4 vote making the Hein plan county policy for the future of the old U&D rail corridor certainly gave railroaders the lay of the land. Before last week’s vote Catskill Mountain Railroad could still hold out the slender hope that the legislature would take a wait-and-see attitude while planning and engineering studies were done by the county.

It was a somber bunch or railroad supporters who listened as the legislative roll call wound down to its inevitable conclusion. “A legislature can change its mind,” said a downcast railroad chief spokesman Ernie Hunt. True, but 18-4 resolutions are seldom reversed or even revisited.

It’s interesting how quickly this one came together. Two months ago legislature Chairman John Parete appointed a special railroad committee headed by former chairman Dave Donaldson. The Donaldson committee was sharply critical of the way the Hein administration was handling the railroad situation.

At the same time, the trail people were continuing to pressure the administration for action. “I can’t believe we’re still talking about the same things we were talking about a year ago,” complained one at a trail committee meeting last month. Another groused that “a plan is something more than a red line drawn on a map.”

Hein appeared unannounced at the trail meeting to buck up believers (and denigrate the railroad). He apparently left with the appreciation that talk was becoming cheap. That he was able to put together an 18-vote coalition in the legislature in something less than a month indicates that few legislators had a stake in this one.

The budget process also comes into play. It by now no secret that the county executive rules through the annual budget. His policy initiatives, by charter the prerogative of the legislature, are adopted with the budget. With the exception of the appointment of department heads, none of whom have been challenged by the legislature in more than five years of charter government, Hein has virtually unlimited authority on hirings and firings. Almost nothing moves into or out of the county budget without the executive’s express say-so.

At budget time, which is now, legislators have been known quietly to approach the executive for this pet hometown project or that, a friendly hire or two, some paving or bridgework, or a contract for worthy business interests for county services. The executive, known as a tight-fisted administrator, can be receptive, but only to friendly legislators.

Did Hein have to dangle budget bait in front of legislators for their trail votes? “They don’t talk to me about things like that,” Chairman Parete said. And of course the executive doesn’t talk to Ulster Publishing at all.

It is noteworthy that Parete, after seeing his special committee bypassed by the executive after only two or three meetings, voted for the executive plan without protest. His hope, he says, is that once work on the eastern end of the trail commences the county will return to the western end through Olive and Shandaken and up to the county line at Highmount.

The railroaders’ last best hope is to put on whiz-bang promotions, Thomas the Tank Engine, Polar Express, etc. this fall and winter on its soon to be eliminated Kingston-to-(near) Hurley run. Big attendance might help the Catskill Mountain Railroad become prime candidates to continue operations when the Mount Tremper to Phoenicia run (part of the Hein plan) goes out to bid in a couple of years.

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