How much of a raise would you give yourself if you could set your own salary? A rather healthy hike, I’m sure. Hey, you’re worth it.
The Ulster County Legislature is now in the final throes of giving itself a salary increase. Under a resolution approved by the legislature’s Laws & Rules Committee this week, all 23 legislators will be given a $4,000 increase in their annual salary, beginning in January, while maintaining all the current benefits. That salary is now $10,000 a year for the rank and file. Extra stipends are there for the chairman, majority and minority leaders. The legislature last increased its base salaries in 1999, effective in 2000.
Under state law, a legislature, including the state legislature, can only vote to increase salaries in election years. The sense of the law is that voters should be given the opportunity to express their opinion in polling booths. Legislators get around this annoying requirement by waiting until after election, like now, to act. There is low turnover (there will be three new Ulster members next year). Lawmakers vote for their own raises, which if Ulster’s goes through next month will take effect less than three weeks after formal passage.
County Executive Mike Hein has not spoken on the subject. According to those with their ears to the ground, he has not sent out any signals. He can either rise up in righteous veto, citing his numerous cost-cutting measures (which did not include generous raises to senior staff last year), or he can quietly allow the legislators’ raises to become law.
It has been in any case a tortuous journey. The county legislators believe they can take this measure without worrying about the populace marching in indignation on the county office building.
A five-member compensation committee spent the better part of six months reviewing, comparing and debating salary issues. It decided to leave the salaries of elected county officials — county executive, sheriff, DA, comptroller — where they have been since 2009.
Dealing with the part-time legislature was more vexing. Complicating what should have been a straightforward decision was the fact that 18 of 23 legislators take county health insurance benefits which range from about $15,000 a year for a single person to over $35,000 for the so-called “Cadillac” family plan.
The inequities were obvious to even the casual observer. “You have a situation,” committee members Gerry Benjamin and Brian Cahill said almost in unison, “where one legislator who takes the [Cadillac] plan is getting compensated at the rate of $46,000 a year while the person sitting next to him is getting $10,000.” Moreover, Cadillac takers’ compensation goes up every year with rising healthcare costs, while his seatmate’s is frozen.
The committee came up with a plan to deal with that inequity: Raise everybody to $20,000, cut out all county health insurance for legislators and let them buy their own insurance. The so-called “$4,000 resolution” before the legislature isn’t all that cheap, in that it allows part-time legislators the option of county health insurance.
As Benjamin, a retired political science professor at SUNY New Paltz, likes to lecture about every complicated question, there’s always a fast and easy answer that probably doesn’t work. Here’s one: Eliminate health insurance for county legislators. Taxpayers could swallow hard and give their representatives a raise, but not with full health coverage.
Attacking the citadel
John Parete says he won’t launch his campaign for re-election for chairman of the county legislature until after Thanksgiving — which might be too late — but he sure sounds like a candidate these days.
Parete, who doesn’t much like Mike Hein in any case, has attacked him in three areas sure to generate steam in the executive suite. First, there was the pre-election call for campaign finance reform. The measure would have restricted contributions from county vendors and employees to elected officials. The back story on that is Parete, who has expressed amazement that good-government groups haven’t joined his cause, knows Hein didn’t collect a $300,000 war chest solely from wine-and-cheese fundraisers.
This week Parete called for the privatization of the county lawyers system by totally defunding the County Attorney’s Office. Rather than a coven of well-paid county lawyers, Parete suggests consultants. As county chairman he has to know the executive is already doing both.
The unkindest cut had to come with the idea of eliminating the environmental department, shifting its duties to other departments. Surprisingly, Hein’s well-funded and highly vocal environmental allies haven’t burned Parete at the stake for that one. But then open burning is against the law.
All this represents a direct challenge to executive authority and prestige, something the Sixth Floor cannot and will not tolerate.
Dump here, never!
Former Kingston alderman Charlie Landi, a member of the county Resource Recovery Agency, seems to be one of the few in favor of locating a Resource Recovery Agency landfill here. For lack of better, let’s call it Landi’s Landfill, which given the dearth of reaction is in some ways appropriate. Landi’s logic is straightforward enough, at first glance. The RRA is spending something like $8 million a year to transport county garbage to a dump near Seneca Lake. Why not save money by building a landfill closer to home?