Hugh Reynolds: Ulster supervisors, city officials unite against sales tax raid

The columnist Reynolds.

The columnist Reynolds.

County Executive Mike Hein’s pre-emptive sales tax strike on Ulster County’s city and towns has awakened in some local officials the possibility that maybe, just maybe, those people on the sixth floor of the County Office Building aren’t their best friends. A few weeks ago, the Hein administration, which, disclaimers notwithstanding, always means Mike Hein, gave its support to a plan being pushed by legislature Republicans to cut county sales tax payments to the city by some $1.6 million a year and about $330,000 to the 20 towns.

Howls of protest could be heard from Shandaken to Kingston and from Olive to Rochester, though it may have been more muted in Marlboro, Wallkill and Saugerties. The county supervisors and mayors association, often little more than a monthly breakfast club, met in emergency session — at breakfast, naturally — to resolve unanimously that this change shall not pass.

But do they have the onions? Esopus Town Supervisor Diane McCord likes them with her scrambled eggs. Are the municipalities united in purpose? Will they collectively do the heavy lifting to convince their county legislators that the clawback of some $2 million annually in sales tax cash would be, though a good thing for the county, onerous for the towns and city? Especially the City of Kingston?


Association president Carl Chipman of Rochester put it in terms most could understand. “We have an after-school program for kids at town hall,” he told association members last week. “Most of their parents are single working mothers. If we eliminate this program because of this sales tax business, some of those mothers would fall into the Safety Net. Is that what the county wants?”
Though harrumphs and grunts from the breakfast club indicated empathy, solidarity is another thing. A trip back in history could be instructive.

We all know the story about the country mouse and his city cousin: different strokes for different mice. Something like that dynamic has been in play since Ulster County moved from a 33-member board of supervisors to separately elected county legislators almost a half-century ago. Charter adoption in 2006 tweaked the system, downsizing the legislature to 23 and requiring candidates to run in single-member districts. But the disconnect between the towns and county government, which some outlanders contemptuously call “Kingston,” remained.

Under the old supervisor system, every town, from tiny Hardenburgh (about 200 residents in those days) to biggest Saugerties (perhaps 16,000) sent its town supervisor to Kingston to govern the county. The City of Kingston’s 13 supervisors, one for each ward, were probably the closest to pure county officials, since they supervised nothing in their respective bailiwicks. Indeed, “going to the county” was a retirement plan for ex-aldermen.

One did not need to channel Justice Learned Hand to discern the egregious inequity in this system. Saugerties had upwards of 80 times more residents than Hardenburgh, but both supervisors had one vote in the county board of supervisors. Kingston, with little more than 15 percent of county population, held almost 40 percent of the seats on that board. Those inequities were addressed by one-man, one-vote judicial fiat of the late 1960s.

Other than providing soft jobs for politicians, the direct benefit of this system, in place since 1683, was that every town had a resident voice in county government. Quite naturally, supervisors, elected in their hometowns, considered themselves supervisors first and county officials second. Now there is a distinct divide. Supervisors are town officials, legislators are county officials.

The fight shapes up

This is not to suggest that twains don’t meet. After all, town and county officials represent the same constituents. Some legislators attend town board meetings rarely; a few have reserved seats. “Some [town] boards wouldn’t recognize a county legislator if he walked into the room,” said Shandaken Supervisor Rob Stanley at last week’s emergency meeting. By the same token, town supervisors are seldom seen at monthly meetings of the county legislature. The exception would be supervisors’ association president Chipman of Rochester, a regular at legislature meetings even though most of his words fall on deaf ears.

Legislator Manna Jo Greene, a former Rosendale town board member, not only attends town board meetings but also the monthly sessions of the association. Standing in solidarity with her breakfast mates at last week’s meeting, Greene voted with the majority to resist a county reduction in sales tax distribution to the towns and city.

While one Manna does not a movement make (22 other legislators failed to show for a meeting on an issue that will affect all their constituents), it would appear supervisors, the city and the county legislature finally have something in common. Money.

In 2013, when the county began a three-year phased-in takeover, the county executive expressed the hope, if not the expectation, that towns and the city would use that spending relief to lower taxes. That hasn’t happened, in large part because state-mandated tax caps and increasing costs at almost every level haven’t allowed it to happen. About a month ago, County Comptroller Elliott Auerbach, in an apparently separate report, spoke to a similar pattern. That town officials took the money and spent it was the rationale for Hein’s clawback. Not unexpectedly, town supervisors, adept at juggling their own budget figures, are quick to spot subterfuge in others.

One of the accusations that Hein and his frontmen are advancing — in some cases we hear tell of, advancing and then denying such talks ever took place — is one that borders on charges of malfeasance. Their argument goes like this: some 22 percent of the spending relief the county afforded the towns was not been spent on town services or in reducing taxes, but stashed in contingency funds. The county keeps careful records, and the numbers are not in dispute.

Ulster Town Supervisor Jim Quigley, a retired CPA, begged to differ. In taking fellow supervisors inside the numbers on this particular subject, Quigley acknowledged the disparity in money sent and spent. He pointed out that the shortfall Hein referred to included highway departments. While town boards vote on highway budgets, most leave them intact. “These guys know what they’re doing and they’re careful with taxpayer dollars,” Quigley said.

Town supervisors and city officials say they will not accept the Hein clawback and that they will accost their legislators where they all live. Self-preservation being the first priority of politics, their efforts just might get legislators’ attention.

Too early for a march?

Given the potential severity of the proposed cuts, one might expect city officials, in league with their country cousins, would be leading a march on the County Office Building. Maybe in those bunkers where pols do public business, plans are afoot for next Tuesday’s regular meeting of the legislature. Right now, it’s hard to tell.

A week ago, eight aldermen meeting in caucus with the alderman-at-large presiding barely mentioned headlines in the paper that day. “We have nothing yet,” said council President Jim Noble.

Doesn’t anybody read the papers?

Can Gibson win?

Pundits scoff at the notion of an upstate Republican getting elected governor of heavily Democratic New York. But stranger things have happened, and not that long ago.


In 1994, a virtually unknown state senator from Peekskill, with his ABC campaign (Anybody But Cuomo) took down the mighty Mario Cuomo, then seeking a fourth term. George Pataki was last elected governor in 2002, so it’s not impossible. Or it wasn’t then.

Apparently counting on Andrew Cuomo having worn out his welcome after only two terms, Chris Gibson took his first formal step toward running for governor in 2018 in forming an exploratory committee last week to raise funds. Gibson said he raised over $2.3 million for his last congressional run in 2014. He’ll need at least seven times that amount to match Cuomo’s $16 million war chest.

Clearly expecting Cuomo as an opponent in 2018, Gibson did not mince words in his announcement release. “For far too long, Governor Cuomo has led [‘ruled’ would have been stronger, and more accurate] with fear, intimidation and bullying,” he charged.

Right now, nobody else is seriously talking about challenging Cuomo, but if sharks smell blood in the water, it will be a crowded field. Gibson is smart to get his toe in first.

Campaign trails

Gibson had barely gathered his filing papers when Democrat congressional hopeful Zephyr Teachout bounced into New Paltz with U.S. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney in tow. Democrat Maloney and Republican Gibson are simpatico on lots of issues, so it was a nice get for the Fordham Law School professor.

A plea to fellow pundits: Can we all stop calling Teachout “very, very bright?” For one thing, it’s obvious. For another, law schools don’t hire nitwits for teachers.

Elsewhere in New Paltz, go-anywhere Republican hopeful John Faso traveled to the mountain last weekend to pick up the endorsement of political science savant Gerry Benjamin at his Prospect Street home. The two go back to their Rockefeller Institute days, which may suggest Faso could be something of a closet liberal. Benjamin’s credentials aside, I’m not sure an endorsement from the much-quoted political science professor means an awful lot outside Ulster County. But like chicken soup, it can’t hurt.

It appears that residency may be an issue in the upcoming congressional primaries. Teachout lives in Dover Plains, but registered to vote only last December. Republican Andrew Heaney advises us he and his family moved to Millbrook in 2013, not 2014, as erroneously reported. On the other end of the spectrum, farmer Will Yandik’s family has been plowing Columbia County dirt for four generations, and Faso has called Kinderhook home for half his life.

Ubiquitous Ulster Comptroller Elliott Auerbach isn’t running for Congress anymore but seems to be everywhere. Auerbach got an op-ed piece published in the Albany Times Union last week, which appears in our paper this week. It’s not The New York Times, but it’s big time on the Hudson. This guy might have been a congressman.

Auerbach, a Democrat and a three-term comptroller, argues against separate primaries for state, federal and local offices while bemoaning “massive dropoffs” in voter turnout. Governor Cuomo and local Assemblyman Kevin Cahill previously took similar positions.

And finally, friends of former legislature chairman John Parete reminded me that the Olive Democrat was the first to appoint minority legislators to committee chairmanships. Republican legislature Chairman Ken Ronk followed suit last month.