“Comptroller Expenses Scrutinized.” That was the lead headline in last Sunday’s Daily Echo. As we used to say in the business, they should have saved that type from the last story about Ulster County Comptroller Elliott Auerbach’s budget. And the one before that. The beat goes on.
Those expenses in question have to do with about $50,000 the comptroller has spent over the past four years on work-related seminars and conventions, with the formal approval, through the budget process, of the executive and the legislature, as prescribed by charter.
As such, one could excuse the comptroller a loud “WTF!” as he read his favorite newspaper over cornflakes Sunday morning.
He shouldn’t been all that surprised at being blindsided by the wily executive. It is no secret that Mike Hein considers the office of comptroller a useless appendage of county government. Hein, who was county administrator for a year and a half before being elected executive in 2008, sees himself as the county’s chief fiscal officer, the watchdog, the go-to guy. As such, and Hein is very much a man inside his own head, Auerbach and his $650,000 annual budget are just a waste of taxpayer money.
For evidence, one need look no further than Hein’s creation of a special auditing unit last year (another one of those executive acronyms called ACE, standing for Accountability, Compliance and Efficiency) to ride herd over county finances. Currently headed by former Kingston city treasurer Lisa Cutten, this new unit draws a budget in the $400,000 range, which come to think of it is less than Auerbach’s.
While Hein pledges undying devotion to the county charter that created his job in 2006 and frequently warns the legislature against meddling with it, he would sign legislation to eliminate the comptroller’s position in a heartbeat. “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” King Henry II allegedly asked in 1170. Things went seriously downhill for the priest after that.
It is noteworthy that Hein’s fingerprints appear nowhere on this latest launch against Auerbach except in a single hilarious, unbelievable quote in the Echo. “He [Auerbach] is an independently elected official that does not fall under the purview of the county executive,” Hein allegedly told a reporter.
I almost coughed up my own cornflakes when I read that one.
Nobody, but nobody, is independent of Hein in county government. All things flow from the annual budget, and we know who controls that. A couple of budgets ago he actually cut staffing in the comptroller’s office.
Does anyone really believe that Finance Director Burt Golnick, Hein’s appointee and designated successor, supplied detailed information from official vouchers to the media without the executive’s express approval, if not instructions? I don’t.
The legislature’s Ways and Means Committee is playing worried watchdog on this one. Under long-time Chairman Rich Gerentine of Marlboro, a Republican chairing the legislature’s major committee for a Democratic majority, the watchdog has been little more than a rubber stamp for the executive. This year, for instance, the committee might come up with a half-million or so in adjustments in a $334 million executive budget submitted in late September. Chump change. Like an editor cutting a comma in War and Peace. The budget was unanimously approved Tuesday night.
Auerbach, who addressed the legislature on his budget cuts, tried one last ploy. His budget, he said, was negotiated with the executive and presented to the legislature as such. He urged them to adopt that budget. At the other end of the hall, he’s asking the executive to issue a line-item veto to restore his (and Hein’s) budget.
The legislature said no.
The legislature usually doesn’t challenge Hein, but instead sniffs the fringes if the executive gives the green light. And few things light up the public like the appearance of junketeering politicians. One wonders, as Auerbach did, if any other departmental budgets were scrutinized for “trips, contracts and bonuses” as Gerentine put it. It might be noted that the aforementioned director of ACE, Lisa Cutten, a CPA, accompanied some of Auerbach’s staff to a training seminar to Florida in September. That trip, for all parties concerned, was duly approved in the 2014 budget.
But enough context. Let’s cut to the chase.
As Hein surveys the political scene from his sixth-floor aerie, he sees clear sailing to a third term next year. Media, for the most part, reprint every utterance verbatim. More than 100 press releases were issued through October, according to usually reliable sources. Media can count on being fed at least one photo op a week. The image of the competent, cost-cutting executive is well-ingrained.
Rudderless Republicans have been dead in the water for almost a decade, outnumbered and beaten down. Its primary resemblance to a real political party is that party leaders love to party. That the GOP elected 10 of 23 legislators last year speaks more to individual effort on the part of candidates than anything on the county level. So inept were Republicans at recruiting that Hein did not face an opponent when he ran for a second term in 2011.
For Hein, increasingly paranoid as the 2015 election cycle looms, there may be trouble closer to home, perhaps literally beneath his feet in the Democratic comptroller’s office on the fifth floor of the County Office Building.
In many ways, Auerbach could be considered a natural rival to Hein in the Democratic Party. He’s been elected and re-elected countywide by comfortable margins. Like Hein, he campaigns tirelessly, attending every function where five or more people gather, supports all the good causes and opposes all the bad ones. His periodic reports on county departments’ fiscal affairs cast some light into what are often clandestine operations. Moreover, while some zealots consider Hein something of a Tea Party Democrat for his evisceration of county government — lots of natural enemies there — Auerbach is more acceptable to the traditional liberal wing of the party. And Auerbach, unlike Hein, has never been a registered Republican.