Hugh Reynolds: Wild times for the county legislature

Ken Ronk. (Photo: Dan Barton)

Ken Ronk. (Photo: Dan Barton)

The Ulster County voting machines had barely cooled down when county legislators started jockeying for control of next year’s legislature. Democrats and Republicans each elected 10 of their own, with three wild cards in play on Nov. 3.

“It could be the wildest election in years,” predicted Dave Donaldson of Kingston, who wheeled and dealed his way to four terms as chairman. It was.

Tracey Bartels of Gardiner doesn’t belong to any political party but practically always votes with Democrats. Similarly, Mary Wawro from Saugerties is an enrolled Conservative but a solid Republican vote.

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Rich Parete, a Marbletown Democrat elected on the Republican line, had been denied his party’s nomination at caucus and primary. Offered the Republican line, he held his nose, took a breath, and won re-election with more than 60 percent.

Now Parete, having been twice denied by Democrats, says he will caucus with those who returned him to the dance. For Parete, that won’t be much of a stretch. He voted with Republicans twice to elect his father John as legislature chairman.

On election night, Republicans were crowing about their “new majority.” They were apparently counting on a grateful Parete, “our Republican legislator from Marbletown,” as presciently predicted party Vice Chair Kevin Costello at the GOP annual dinner last month.

John Parete hasn’t said whether he’s a candidate for a third one-year term as chairman. If so, we know the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. There are other permutations. John Parete, with Democratic votes from his son, Donaldson, Chris Allen of Saugerties and T.J. Briggs of Ellenville — the latter pair rewarded with seats on the  prestigious Ways and Means Committee — was re-elected chairman last December, 14-9.

Minority leader Ken Ronk of Wallkill must have learned something from those political science classes at SUNY New Paltz only eight years ago, not to mention his current job with the Assembly Republican Campaign Committee. The adroit Republican leader put together the what-can-we-lose coalition that twice elected Parete chairman. A man with feet in many camps, he also has the county executive’s ear.

Ronk does not lack for ambition. Just turned 30, he’s waited two years to climb the next rung. The chairmanship of the county legislature would look good on his resume should a state Assembly seat open up after the 2020 census.

In the end, it may not much matter who’s chairman of a legislature playing second fiddle to a powerful executive. Mike Hein holds the purse strings and he knows how to use a budget he devises and controls to his best advantage.

As such, legislators will not be the only elected officials horse-trading votes behind the scenes and making promises over the coming holidays. Chastised somewhat by a closer-than-expected election and having lost some automatic votes in the legislature, the exec too will be busy pursuing new allies.

What if?

What if the legislature’s Ways and Means Committee held a public hearing on the county budget and nobody came? It happened in Old Hurley Monday night, as the committee waited for 22 minutes in a near-vacant town hall for anybody to show up.

Even Chairman Rich Gerentine of Marlboro stayed home, though most of his overstocked eight-member committee was in attendance. It was surreal, legislators sitting behind their nameplates at a table at the front of hall, staring at empty chairs.

Committee Vice Chairman Don Gregorius of Woodstock tried to put the best spin on what should have been an embarrassment for everyone involved. “The more people who come out, the better the product,” he said with a straight face. I have to believe that Gregorius, retiring after five terms, believes every word he learned in Civics 101.

This “product” was finalized for all intents and purposes when Hein presented his proposed 2016 budget at the end of September. The only figure that matters to most taxpayers in some 400 pages covering over $330 million in revenues and expenditures is that the property tax levy will drop by 1.1 percent.

An indication of how sure was Hein of history repeating was his repeatedly stating in his campaign that the legislature routinely approved “99.9 percent” of his budgets.

The attitude among many legislators, though none would state it publicly, is that since it’s the executive’s budget, he draws it up and administers it. It’s his baby, so why bother?

To cover its collective butt, the legislature hires a Westchester accounting firm to review the executive budget before it goes to public hearing. Charging taxpayers $65,000, consultants recommended a few slices here, some revenue enhancements there, adding up altogether to around the one-tenth of one percent the executive spoke to during the campaign.

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Consultants did find something interesting, though, projecting an operating surplus of some $10 million in 2015, something the executive did not speak to at his Sept. 25 budget presentation. (All the numbers weren’t solid at that point, in any case.) Rather, the exec called for appropriating $16 million from the fund balance to offset a rise in property taxes.

That’s quite a swing. Going from a $16 million deficit (which fund balance transfers represent) to a $10 million surplus, is in media math a $26 million shift, serious money.

But finance committee members did not speak to a budget obviously awash in cash, one that could have and should have given property owners more than a 1.1 percent tax break.

You see, these are public hearings, where only the public is heard. And the public was heard Monday night in Hurley. Nobody bothered to show up.

 Hometown heroes

Unofficial returns show Democrat Mike Hein with huge pluralities over Republican challenger Terry Bernardo in Kingston, Saugerties, Woodstock and New Paltz. No surprise in those Democratic strongholds. Even in Shandaken, railroad country, Hein buried Bernardo 283-37. Favorite son Hunter Downie, a high school senior running on the Green Party line, polled 40. I didn’t include minor-party candidates. It would appear the trail people hit the campaign trail.

The hometown match-ups between major party candidates were more revealing. In Hurley, Hein took 56.8 percent of the vote, almost exactly his countywide margin over Bernardo. In Rochester, her hometown, he won by almost 5-1 (major party) in a town that turned out a Democratic legislator and elected a Republican.

Either I smell gunpowder (bullet votes for Hein) or Bernardo, a two-time legislator, is one of the most unpopular politicians in her town.

Assembly news

Sticking a toe in the water, Assemblyman Pete Lopez announced last week he was officially filing with federal authorities for a run in the 19th Congressional District next year. Given the way he’s played this cat-and-mouse game that did not mean, Lopez assured me, he was an “announced candidate.” Filing with the feds allowed him to continue raising funds for a possible run. In other words, it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, but he might be a chicken.

There are 4 comments

  1. CP

    Congratulations to the winners. While Mr. Hein won significantly, I hope he realizes that this is for his good works (we assume) and is NOT a mandate to kill the CMRR, which is on the cusp of another successful and profitable Polar Express., capping a year of expanded trackage and equipment.

    See you on the train!

  2. Steven L. Fornal

    Hugh Reynolds wrote: “In Rochester, (Terry Bernardo’s) hometown, (Hein) won by almost 5-1 (major party) in a town that turned out a Democratic legislator and elected a Republican. Either I smell gunpowder (bullet votes for Hein) or Bernardo, a two-time legislator, is one of the most unpopular politicians in her town.”

    And, yet, as mentioned, those same Republicans that voted against Ms. Bernardo voted for the man (Ron Lapp) that had the Bernardos as his “brain trust.”

    To demonstrate how out of touch Mr. Lapp is re his new position, in his acceptance comments (Blue Stone Press) he stated how he’s good at budgets. Oops! The budget is primarily the job of the County Executive with the Legislators weighing in. Hardly the job for an individual legislator. But, you see, Mr. Lapp knows nothing about what his role requires as he’s not attended government meetings (either at the town or county level) and, so knows precious little of the process.

    Great job, Rochester! Voting in someone completely ignorant of the responsibility required so he’ll be looking for direction from the most unpopular politicians in town.

    1. itr

      Ever watch “Survivor”? Archer lost the position Lapp didn’t earn it. And Hein couldn’t give her the immunity idol. The tribe has spoken/voted.

      1. Steven L. Fornal

        No, can’t say I’ve ever wasted my time watching “Survivor.” And, seeing as Lynn Archer, more than any other Dem, challenged Hein on various issues (enough to make him reconsider) it seems rather obvious that it was the old name.

        Which is what you ultimately contend with your “The tribe has spoken/voted.”

        Clan would have been a better descriptive term but I get your point. Of course, one would hope that voting in legislators would encompass consideration for what the candidate brings to the table rather than who s/he is (old time name).

        And, the fact that Ms. Archer co-sponsored (meaning having input into the content) 24 bills, spent enormous amount of time on the phone with and traveling to Albany to speak to cable industry officials about the necessity for broadband connectability throughout the county and actually got the county to agree to allowing for cable infrastructure to be included on county bridges so that when ready cable will be able to be easily/quickly accommodated would seem to make her the clear choice for an independent legislator that actually accomplished something. As opposed to someone who has little to no knowledge of legislating.

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