Hugh Reynolds: The golden goose

County Exec Mike Hein, seen here under an April shower with Mayor Gallo and U.S. Sen. Schumer. (Dan Barton)

County Exec Mike Hein, seen here under an April shower with Mayor Gallo and U.S. Sen. Schumer. (Dan Barton)

From the annual state-of-the-county address to weekly press releases and press conferences, the Mike Hein administration rarely misses an opportunity to blow its own horn. Well, honk this! Last week the county comptroller touted the administration’s fiscal record.

Even from fellow Democrat Elliott Auerbach, repeating what state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli had reported, this was unusual. During seven years in office the watchdog (Auerbach) and the big dog (Hein) have developed an antibiotic relationship (made up that meaning to signify the opposite of symbiotic.) Auerbach and his staff of bean counters research, report and critique on all manner of county fiscal operations. Hein and his crew generally ignore Auerbach’s input.

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Hein considers the office of comptroller superfluous. The county needs only one watchdog, he figures, and he considers himself fully capable of monitoring his own operations. Since Hein controls Auerbach’s budget, the latter has to be careful about looking too carefully and/or barking too loud.

About five years ago the state comptroller, who usually audits municipalities years after the fact, came up with a system to provide advance warnings in order to avoid or ameliorate what he called “fiscal stress.” The ultimate effect of such stress, as most homeowners can attest, is bankruptcy.

The state comptroller’s glowing report on Ulster finances (2011-2014), via Auerbach, differs markedly in level of detail from bumper-sticker sloganeering. While most of the familiar indices are there — flat tax rates, healthy fund balances, declining debt service,  even a $20 million reduction in spending this year — the state comptroller’s report points to operating deficits in 2011 and 2014. In other words, the county spent more than it budgeted in those years. It ran a 0.3 percent operating surplus in 2012; pretty much flat-line.

Deficits can be made up either by appropriating surplus (fund balance) or raising property taxes. Hein would sooner jump off the roof of the County Office Building than consider the latter.

In marked contrast to generally hold-the-line years, the county in 2013 ran an operating surplus of almost 9 percent, or about $25 million. The sale of the Golden Hill infirmary in Kingston is the gift that keeps on giving.

Not only did the county pull in $25 million from the sale, the comptroller’s report says, but $16 million in annual operating expenses (for a full year) were avoided. The alternative to selling the infirmary, the executive repeatedly insisted, was for the county to have run annual deficits in the millions to operate an aging facility.

Maybe, maybe not. The infirmary’s private-sector owners laid off or retired about a third of the workers it inherited, cut the benefits of those remaining, carried out some needed modernization steps and either maintained or improved the level of care. Apparently, they’re still making money and paying taxes. One can’t blame the administration for crowing about that.

The fiscal huzzahs proclaimed in the comptroller’s report should get the administration safely through this year’s election — unless, of course, an egregious scandal breaks out. Hein, after making the tough choice on Golden Hill and strong-arming a reluctant legislature, has reaped the fiscal and political rewards. The problem going forward is there may be only one golden goose, Golden Hill.

It’s electric

Most of the media really doesn’t mind publicizing self-serving pronouncements from politicians, though I wonder about the public’s tolerance for same. Once is usually enough, twice too much.

And so we return to Ulster County government’s electric-vehicle charging station initiative. Proclaimed with the customary fanfare in last winter’s annual state-of-the-county message, the idea raised questions almost immediately. Why, some legislators asked, would the county be giving away free fuel at public expense to a miniscule percentage of drivers?

How small? According to an outfit called Green Car Reports, about 120,000 “electric cars” are operating in the United States. With a population of about 320 million, that works out to about one electric vehicle for every 2,650 people. With Ulster’s population, usage could be projected at 60 or 70 electrics. I don’t think the homeless guy I pass on Broadway every morning drives an electric car. Nor do any of the ink-stained wretches with whom I work.

One of those drivers is the penny-pinching CPA who currently heads the Ulster Town Board. Supervisor Jim Quigley says he bought “a plug-in Prius.” The plug, he said, increases his gas mileage from about 50 miles an equivalent gallon to 56.

He anticipated my question. “Sometimes, I do things for sociological reasons,” he explained. Exactly on point. The Hein administration has been courting the well-organized, highly vocal and influential environmental bloc.

Quigley, who (literally) bought into the electric-car idea, calls it “pap.” He might have said “pol” for smart politics at public expense.

Petitions, please

Ignoring or forgetting one of the cardinal rules of petition-gathering, Fred Rasmussen got himself kicked off the Working Families Party line in the race for county executive. The two-for-one rule of thumb strongly urges candidates to submit at least twice the minimum number of required nominating signatures in order to withstand scrutiny by political foes.

Rasmussen submitted 48 signatures of which 38 were disputed by the Albany law firm retained by the county executive.  He needed 32 valid signatures. Only 25 passed muster before state Supreme Court Justice Chris Cahill. Bye-bye, Rasmussen.

Working Family honchos, after vehemently protesting Rasmussen’s petition effort, calling him a fraud and a dupe of Republican candidate Terry Bernardo, hailed the result. They praised their nominee, Mike Hein, for his “commitment to working families.”

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Meanwhile, we await an appeal on petitions rejected in Supreme Court for failure to meet a filing deadline from Kingston Mayor Shayne Gallo to run on the Conservative and Independence lines. Even with a clever mouthpiece like attorney Andrew Zweben, Gallo’s quest is a long shot. Traditionally, fewer than 5 percent of appeals are granted.

The columnist Reynolds.

The columnist Reynolds.

Gallo’s petitions were rejected due to “a fatal [timing] flaw,” something appellate judges have been loath to overrule. The appeal will be heard Aug. 20 in Albany.

The bottom line is that Gallo is toast if he doesn’t prevail in court and loses the Sept. 10 Democratic primary against party designee Steve Noble. His late brother, former mayor T.R. Gallo (1994-2002), was elected three times but never faced a challenge from his own party.

Gallo could run on a self-created Please, Please Help Me Stay in Office line (just a suggestion) with a chance of winning in a three-way race with Democrat Steve Noble and Republican Ron Polacco. Not likely to be a successful strategy.

A sign promoting the Gallo/(Jeanette) Provenzano team for mayor/alderman-at-large, about half the size of a standard billboard, went up this week on a grassy knoll near the Broadway underpass. Neither has the Democratic nomination. Yet. If ever. Democrats will choose on Sept. 10. Can a Noble/Noble sign or maybe something like “two for the price of one” be far behind?

Out Ulster way

What was it mother used to say about getting things right on the first pass? Measure twice, cut once?

With apologies to Town of Ulster Conservatives, my report on their meet the candidate night last week requires some measure of correction. I listed Suzanne Reavy as a candidate for town justice. In fact, she is a candidate for town clerk against incumbent Linda McDonough.

Worse, I quoted Reavy as planning to extend the hours of town court, when she was actually talking about the clerk’s office. I left a message with clerk McDonough about that but she didn’t return a phone call. A front-runner for Bonehead of the Week, I misunderstood that Reavy, a court clerk in the town of Kingston, was a candidate for a similar position in Ulster.

Annie Raskoskie is seeking the Republican nomination for town justice against 12-year incumbent Marsha Weiss.

The town Republican committee has endorsed Weiss, McDonough and former supervisor Fred Wadnola. Quigley, up for a fourth term, Reavy and Raskoskie are the insurgents. No date has been announced for the all-important Republican caucus. Notifications have to go out by late August.

As footnote, town Conservative Chairman Don Wise remains a registered Republican, according to the county board of elections. His switch to the Conservative Party is not effective until after the Nov. 3 general election. At least he puts his money where his mouth is. The party’s goal, he said, was to recruit conservative Republicans.