Hugh Reynolds: All aboard?

The little engine that saved the railroad? (Photo: Phyllis McCabe)

The little engine that saved the railroad? (Photo: Phyllis McCabe)

With apologies to Johnny Cash‘s “Folsom Prison Blues,” did Ulster County Exec Mike Hein hear the train a’ comin? How else to explain why Hein suddenly switched gears late Monday afternoon and agreed to allow tourist trains to continue to run from Kingston Plaza to Hurley Mountain Road?

For more than two years Hein has been fighting the Catskill Mountain Railroad with every tool at the county’s disposal, including a lawsuit that has cost both sides well over $300,000, in an effort to remove CMRR from county-owned tracks. Hein hasn’t messed with the western end of the operation, where the railroad has for years operated a tourist train between Mount Pleasant and Phoenicia. Previous to this week, Hein emphatically rejected the notion that rail and rail-trail could co-exist on the same right of way, a position also taken by trail enthusiasts.

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A good defense being a good offense, the CMRR’s response has been to demonstrate the potential of a Kingston-based tourist train.

Did they ever. Thousands flocked to CMRR’s Thomas the Tank Engine promotion this fall. Bigger crowds have climbed on the Polar Express, and at premium ticket prices. Perhaps Hein can hear those whistles blowing on weekends from his home in Hurley. I’ll also assume what got his ear was Kingston merchants blowing their stacks over county and city government fighting an operation that has brought more tourists to Kingston than the British invasion. And I’m not talking about the Beatles, the Stones or Herman’s Hermits. Hein can be a hardhead, stubborn to a fault, but he’s no fool. The last thing he and his faithful Igor, Kingston Mayor Shayne Gallo, need as they face the voters next year is an aroused citizenry — or even worse an anti-tourism, anti-business, bully-volunteer image.

Hein’s sudden move from obstinate opposition to apparent reconciliation was more fig leaf than olive branch. “He’s only giving them [the railroad] what they already have,” groused Kingston Legislator Dave Donaldson. CMRR President Ernie Hunt cautiously called Hein’s announcement a step in the right direction, and possibly significant. A step in the same direction might be more accurate.

Hein, who has refused to meet with what he calls “people suing Ulster County,” did not, according to Hunt, pay the railroaders the courtesy of informing them of his change in position before going public with it. And his release on the issue did not mention CMRR, but rather stated that the county would issue a Request for Proposals to operate both the Kingston spur and the Mount Pleasant and Phoenicia track.

What the railroad also wants, and which Hein has not offered, is an eight-mile run west from Kingston for some Ashokan Reservoir views. Donaldson says the railroad people are telling him that they don’t think their current four-mile (round trip) route from Kingston to the base of Hurley Mountain is commercially viable over the long run.

County Executive Mike Hein. (Photo by Dan Barton)

County Executive Mike Hein. (Photo by Dan Barton)

Left on the table, or left unmentioned, was the ongoing lawsuit whereby the county seeks to kick CMRR off its tracks for its alleged failure to meet the terms of its lease. CMRR has a lease that runs until May 2016 to operate on the county-owned tracks. State Supreme Court Justice Richard Mott has been chewing on that case for a year, with the latest word from the railroad being that a decision won’t be rendered until next spring.

Here, we will welcome young (38), energetic and eager Lisa Fisher to the Supreme Court next month. Maybe she can shake the cobwebs off that ol’ boys club, which is to say to move an agenda.

Amid approvals sprinkled in Hein’s release from merchants and environmental groups supporting the trail, County Legislator Jeanette Provenzano summed it up.  “Regardless of whom the future operator of the railroad will be in 2016, this is a ‘win-win’ for both rail and trail.”

There has been some apparent movement on what has been for too long a deadlock. Whether the leopards have changed spots remains to be determined.

Budget bluster

In declaring open warfare on would-be primary rival Elliott Auerbach, Hein might be picking on the wrong bean-counter. This one has sharp pencils, metaphorically speaking.

The first offensive broke a few weeks ago with ever-ready-to-please Finance Officer Burt Gulnick, a Hein acolyte, accusing the comptroller of unnecessary travel and other expenses. This is the same budget officer, remember, who declared the sky was falling last summer in terms of county finances. Turned out it wasn’t. Not even close.

Gulnick responded to Auerbach’s recent budget critique by charging that the comptroller barely knows a budget from his left ear. All of this, one can conclude with reasonable certainty, flowed from the sixth floor.

Hein’s drumbeat on Auerbach could have unintended consequences. It could drive Auerbach into his own extensive fiscal records in search of similar “offenses” against Hein.

For instance, did Hein finance his award-winning lecture tour on good government through the back woods of New York State in 2013 on the county’s dime or his own? And, in traveling to Washington D.C. last week to pick up his trophy from Governing Magazine as a result of that tour, did he file a voucher?

Has anybody else in the Hein administration over almost six years attended an out-of-town seminar, training session or conference with the executive’s express approval and at county expense? Auerbach’s people did.

Auerbach’s critique of Hein’s budget methods, which doesn’t rise to the level of criticism, was in any case all-too-typically flaccid, hardly the kind to generate the degree of wounded pique we’ve seen this month.

What Auerbach reported in essence was that the executive had been routinely underestimating revenues and overestimating expenses in order to create large budget surpluses, the better to hold down property taxes and create budget flexibility. I don’t doubt the Roman Senate complained in similar manner about Julius Caesar’s budgets.

Auerbach, who for the record says he’s not interested in running for county exec next year, terms budget-making a mix of magic and science. It is too often a black art contrived in secret by self-serving practitioners. But perhaps, like the executive, I overstate the case.

All hail De Niro

It being the season of joy and light, it is heart warming see a happy ending to the long-running assessment dispute between Town of Gardiner officials and their most famous property owner (the Shawangunks are alive with celebrities) resident movie star Robert De Niro.

There are 10 comments

  1. Bruno Black

    “anti-tourism, anti-business, bully-volunteer”… one of the main reasons I left the county. A place that has so much capital that it can waste those public funds on private vendettas that go against the public interest is a place I refuse to plant roots. Small-mindedness and access to power is a toxic combination.

  2. Bill

    If the railroad has really spent $300k on legal fees, why the heck didn’t they spend some of that money on fixing the corridor before this lawsuit!?!

  3. CP

    Mr. Hein is a politician. Money talks. He finally hears it speaking.

    This isn’t over; the railroad needs to reach the reservoir, at least, and better yet, get all the way to Phoenicia. But this is finally a step in the right direction. In the end, whether or not the county wastes more thousands – or millions – trying to oust the railroad, the CMRR (or whoever the operator turns out to be, assuming they’re competent) can only be a winner for everyone.

    1. CP

      Just to quickly clarify my previous comment, lest it be misread: I do NOT mean to impugn Mr. Hein with any suggestions of financial impropriety. My point is that he seems finally willing to see money flowing into the county thanks to the activities of the CMRR.

  4. AnotherTakeOnIt

    Here is CMRR’s chance to show they can do it… The vetting of them during the RFP process should prove to be very interesting. This considering they haven’t been able (willing?) to provide the same basic basic business records to the county to date. This despite the lease requirement that they do so. Interesting indeed!

  5. tom healy

    Giving the railroad just 2 miles with no chance to grow, is the same as giving a kid a 10 speed bike. And then telling him he can only ride it to the end of the driveway.

  6. Dan

    Hugh, you have Keri Savona and Lisa Fisher mixed up. Lisa Fisher was elected to the state supreme court. Keri Savona was elected to U.C. Family Court Judge. Your article listed “Keri” Fisher as being elected to the state supreme court.

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