It should come as no surprise to those reading the police beat, or more sadly, obituaries, that we have a serious problem with heroin addiction in our communities. A year ago, Ulster County Legislature Chairman John Parete appointed a citizen coalition to look into the problems and causes, and offer recommendations. The commission, headed by former legislature chairman Lou Klein, reported to the legislature last week. “We cut through a lot of mustard,” Parete said of the Ulster Coalition Against Narcotics (UCAN).
The report, which is on the county legislature website, speaks for itself. More compelling than its carefully researched statistics and charts was the testimony of two mothers who lost sons in their early 20s to heroin addiction. It wasn’t just the death of a son who one woman called “my hero,” but the frustration and despair of dealing with insurance companies, public-health bureaucrats and treatment programs that only made things worse. It was in every sense every parent’s worst nightmare.
The panel met monthly for over a year, with subcommittees holding discussion sessions with stakeholders and conducting interviews in-between.
One of the group’s first meetings was to brief County Executive Mike Hein on its objectives. Said Klein, “Right at the outset Mike made it clear this was not his coalition. (None of Hein’s staff were named to the commission.) He understood we were (unanimously) appointed by the legislature, that we would be advisory to them and that we would direct our efforts only to policy and budget items. He said he would administer that policy in his administrative role as executive. Of course, how he does that is up to him.”
Point taken, tender toes avoided. “We were careful not to get into a war back and forth and limited ourselves to policy and budget issues,” Klein added. He said that the coalition interviewed at length Hein’s health commissioner and her two deputies on what the coalition determined to be “a public health crisis.”
While not commenting directly on the commission’s report, Hein was quoted as expressing sympathy for the families and victims of heroin addiction. Parete and UCAN have been hoping for something more in terms of budget support.
Hein can’t be blamed for treading carefully here. Having downsized and privatized the county’s mental health services operation, he could be faced with an enormous build-back to address what the Klein commission saw as a growing epidemic. Some legislators might posit that these issues could be better addressed by deep-pocketed state and federal agencies.
Parete expects to forward legislation in October to address the report. Given the weight of the report’s issues in terms of policy and potential financial impact, it is unlikely definitive action will be taken before early next year.
Might a (presumably) re-elected Hein, the vocal advocate of making Ulster the healthiest county in the state, embrace this legislative initiative in his annual state of the county message next winter? Will he lobby state and federal representatives for help?
This is one area where politics should not prevail.
Pick your battles
Round one of what is shaping up as a county executive slugfest between incumbent Democrat Mike Hein and Republican challenger Terry Bernardo goes, on points, to Hein.
I know the exec says I never write anything good about him, but on this one he’s the clear winner.
First of all, Bernardo, a former legislature chairman, foolishly challenged Hein on one of his strong suits: county finance. Secondly, he happens to be right on almost every point. Last, but hardly least, other than the tax bills they get in the mail, county finances rank somewhere near the bottom with campaign finance reform with most voters.
At issue was a resolution passed by the legislature and vetoed by Hein that would allow the chairman of the legislature to appoint a committee that would select an accounting firm to audit county finances on behalf of the 23-member legislature. The county charter already requires a separate professional audit of county books by the executive branch. Some legislators saw this as a check-and-balance issue, others as an expensive duplication.
The legislation allowed the chairman to appoint three members of a five-member audit committee, thus giving him control. The minority leader would have two appointees. The county executive and county comptroller would both have been non-voting members. The legislature failed by two votes to override Hein’s veto at session last week.
In a testy exchange, Bernardo accused Hein of bullying the legislature. The executive termed her views electioneering by a desperate candidate. He’s right about the electioneering part. There is an election this fall, after all. Bernardo will not so easily discouraged by slings and arrows launched in mid-September. Desperation sets in about a week before the polls open when your pollster advises buying a bus ticket.
On its merits, the proposed legislation was bogus in allowing an appointed committee, even one comprised of legislators, to have authority over the full body. Sending it to voters for final approval in November, as recommended in the failed legislation, amounted to painting lipstick on a pig.
Just for laughs
Most county legislative debates have lighter moments. How about Ken Wishnick of New Paltz declaring he was “doing the right thing” and then voting the opposite way on the audit committee proposal? Wishnick, soon to retire after two terms, spoke in favor of the Hein veto but then, to loud guffaws, voted to override it. After a quick red-faced reversal, he claimed it had all been intentional. Few bought it.