Hugh Reynolds: Niagara falls?

The columnist Reynolds.

The columnist Reynolds.

As of this writing, nobody outside its corporate offices knows for sure whether Niagara Bottling will locate a new plant in Lake Katrine after being turned down last week for state funding. According to sources close to the scene, the deal between Niagara and the Town of Ulster was one of those XYZ arrangements, as in, we get X, you get Y, we all get XYZ.

But one of the bigger dominoes — the X factor? — fell the wrong way when Niagara’s $10.8 million request for state regional economic development funding for the $54 million bottling plant got shut out last week. Niagara would have had to float a whole lot of kidneys to make up for that shortfall.

Sales price for the TechCity land, I’m told, was in the $3 million range, reportedly what developer Alan Ginsberg paid for the whole IBM shebang 15 years ago. Talk about deals.


Not to take sides, but if Niagara goes away, will it necessarily be such a bad thing?

In Woodstock and Saugerties they’d be dancing in the streets. Woodstockers, no strangers to hyperbole, had visions of Cooper Lake, the city’s main reservoir, drying up. Sawyers envisioned millions of plastic bottles floating in the turbid Esopus toward their beloved lighthouse on the Hudson.

In Kingston and Ulster, they’d be crying in their holiday eggnog. Kingston’s water department had visions of offsetting $16 million in capital improvements with the fresh cash from Niagara. Ulster, with about $3 million worth of waterworks bills, had similar hopes.

On the county level, the prospect of adding $54 million (eventually) to the tax rolls would have looked sweet in next year’s campaign brochures. Nobody was too excited about the modest-wage jobs the plant would have provided.

For politicians, there were all those agitated voters in Saugerties and Woodstock, not to mention the enraged environmentalists for whom anything made of plastic is poison.

Ulster Town Supervisor Jim Quigley fought tooth and nail in what appears to have been a losing effort. Does that make him a loser? I don’t think so. Quigley gets good marks for trying to bring hostile elements together, like bitter antagonists Kevin Cahill and Shayne Gallo to sitting for lunch at Reginato’s in Lake Katrine a few weeks ago. Lunch was delicious, I’m told. The conversation, less so.

Cahill, for his part, worked phones, e-mails and buttonholes in a quest for common ground, to no avail. As this thing was handled mostly behind the scenes, he can’t claim credit or take blame for the way things went.

County Executive Mike Hein raced out front early and then, perhaps with a finger to the wind, faded. He convened a closed-door summit of major players at the county office building in April, but left after making introductions. In June he wrote a (private) letter in support of Niagara to the regional economic council. In his fashion, Hein kept everything on the hush. He, like Cahill, can’t be held accountable. And isn’t it nice to see these two in step for a change?

Other than the all-too-rare opportunity for economic development bragging rights, Niagara was more a win-lose-lose proposition for nose-counting politicians.

Gallo, like Quigley, was out front on this project, but with boon ally Hein hedging his bets, he curbed his enthusiasm.

If the golden goose takes its eggs elsewhere, Kingston’s water department ratepayers could be facing double-digit rate hikes for a while. If there’s an upside for Kingston and Ulster, it’s that the water department demonstrated its willingness to deliver excess capacity, assuming Mother Nature cooperates, to any other would-be developers interested in Kingston or its immediate environs. Bottom line, perhaps, is that any other developer would expect access to some of the best water in the state. As long as they don’t bottle it.

Up a tree

It is difficult to play the role of watchdog if, in the words of former president Bill Clinton, that dog don’t hunt.
Ulster County Comptroller Elliott Auerbach, watchdog of county finances — it says so right on his letterhead — was barking up the wrong tree when he recently overstated the Hein administration’s padding of budget surpluses. Generically, Auerbach had it right. Budget-makers from time immemorial have been underestimating revenues and overestimating expenses in order to create year-end surpluses.

But Auerbach was way off on the numbers — by about 10 percent. For a bean counter that’s a definite no-no.

The mistake, on the order of $30 million in a $334 million 2013 budget, was to fail to include an off-line enterprise fund in the final accounting. The fund was set up years ago to keep track of revenues and expenses at the Ulster County infirmary, which was sold to a private operator last year. Purchase of some road machinery also ran through the fund. The person who made that mistake “is no longer employed by this office,” Auerbach said, while readily acknowledging where the buck stopped.

“A comes before J,” he said three times. That translates to Accountability coming before Judgment.

Hein, after Auerbach exposed his jugular, wasted no time in sending forth budget officer Burt Gulnick to call the comptroller in effect incompetent. Auerbach grouses that he has yet to receive deputy exec Burt Gulneck’s critique in writing, but is nonetheless busy compiling a revised report.

This incident may well have serious political consequences. Auerbach, in some quarters, including Hein’s, was seen as a credible challenger for the Democratic nomination for county executive. After this, he will be less credible, something Hein will remind anybody who will listen. This is not necessarily a death knell for Auerbach, assuming he had plans to contest Hein.

Auerbach, unbowed, will continue to issue periodic reports on departmental operations. The Hein administration for the most part will continue to ignore them, unless the comptroller screws up.

And all that jazz

Ulster County Community College’s board of trustees has appointed a 27-member search committee to replace retiring college President Don Katt. You read that right: 27. Katt, after a 47-year career at the college, 14 as president, will retire next August. It is hoped the new president will be in place by May or June.