Hugh Reynolds: Oil and water

hugh-reynolds-cutout-yIt was good to see more of our public officials finally stepping to the plate on the controversy involving the proposal currently under consideration by the Coast Guard to park gigantic oil barges up and down the Hudson. By gigantic, we mean mega-Titanic, that famous liner a mere dinghy at 882 feet compared to these multiple-football field-sized behemoths. If one of those barges breaks up, verily it is feared, the gushing oil will lap the foothills of the Catskills.

Arriving late to the fore last week, the soon-to-be-ubiquitous tandem of congressional candidate Zephyr Teachout and Ulster County Executive Mike Hein got their two cents in. Unfortunately, all the best sound bites had already been uttered, filmed and reported. Esopus Town Supervisor Diane McCord, for one, stood knee-deep in the Hudson, flaming red hair on end, fist in air, right after the news broke a month ago.

Our Democratic duo, flashing brilliant smiles beneath furrowed brows, managed a few zingers. Both demanded an extension of the public comment period. Interesting, since they made the original deadline by only a week. Coast Guard officials, who make these kinds of decisions on use of navigatable waterways, agreed to extend comments for another 90 days, which is to say well beyond the election where public input might have more impact.


Meanwhile, some people are beginning to ask where U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson is on this important issue of federal jurisdiction. Some may even wonder whether the congressman, who announced his retirement in January after three terms, hasn’t already gone AWOL on his soon-to-be-former constituents. Efforts to reach him have been unsuccessful.

Republican congressional candidate John Faso, whom Gibson vigorously supports, loves the river and all its little fishies, of course, but isn’t expected to jump on a bandwagon hauled by his opposition. Faso, who was in Kingston for Sunday’s Hooley, said he supports extending the comment period until the end of the year, which is about a month more than Democrats demanded.


County budget blues

Amid the usual dark secrecy, final preparations for the 2017 county budget are on target for early-October presentation. While information on the budget is strictly embargoed until County Exec Hein does his power-point presentation before a gaggle of department heads and invited guests at SUNY Ulster in Stone Ridge, a dark cloud hangs over 2017.

County Comptroller Elliott Auerbach issued a largely ignored warning last October — at the tail end of the county exec race — that 2017 was going to be an exceedingly difficult budget year. Auerbach’s bean counters concluded that the 2016 (election year) budget, front-loaded with spending and property tax cuts, and with a healthy infusion from the fund balance, was simply not sustainable. Hein having cut the workforce by a third since taking office in 2009, there remains precious little wiggle room. Reached this week, Auerbach reiterated his concerns. The flight of retail business from the county is another concern.

There are some positive signs. The all-important sales tax, budgeted at a conservative $110 million in revenues for this year, is projected to increase by perhaps 3 percent next year. For sure, $3 million is a lot of cash, but less than 1 percent of the county’s current $330 million budget. In search of cash, it is bandied about the county office building that consideration of forcing towns to pay for community college charge-backs is on the table. If so, it will generate a political firestorm akin to this year’s sales tax distribution war between the county and the towns.

County taxes, even if only about 16 percent of the overall property taxes people pay, is always the bottom line for the Hein administration. Indeed, that’s where budget preparation starts. It’s unlikely that Hein will exceed the state-mandated two-thirds of one percent, though there will be much moaning about “unfunded state mandates.” But he might have little choice. It’s could be that kind of year.

Meanwhile, powerless county legislators will be grousing about getting more input on finances, even unto a seat at the table. It won’t happen. Hein owns the legislature.


Kicking a five-pointer

With football season upon us, it’s time to break out pigskin metaphors. There is of course no such thing as a five-pointer in football, but Republican congressional candidate Faso says his internal polling gives him a five-point lead (as of early August) over Democrat Teachout. (What’s with these weird names? I just learned how to spell Shayne and Tkaczyk and along comes Zephyr. I’m hoping my boss never runs for anything.)

About internal polls, as opposed to the reports routinely issued by public pollsters, there is a rule that says if any portion of an internal poll is released — for example, one showing a candidate with a lead over his or her opponent — the entire poll has to be made public. As there are often questions in internal polls that could prove embarrassing to the candidate, partial releases are rare. Congressional races, a Faso aide advised me over the weekend, are excepted. Oh.

The Teachout camp was quick to spin the results. Being down only “the margin of error” (as they put it) was pretty good, they said, considering the millions Faso has poured into his campaign (most of it unspent to date). I think they were taken aback. I was. At best guess, after consulting tea leaves, chicken entrails, barroom buzz and the occasional owl, I had Teachout up five points a month ago. Could there really be more to this Faso fellow, less of Teachout, than I had initially thought?

At this stage, all this is the kind of flip, flop and fry (as Elvis used to sing) that passes for meaningful discourse. If anything, the early August poll was but a benchmark, a snapshot in time, as are all polls. What we look for is trends. If Faso is up five points in early October that might mean something, at worst that his campaign has stagnated. If Teachout surges to a five-point lead in a month, that’s a 10-point swing. Now we’re talking.


Patriot House

On the way down the hill to the Hooley on Sunday I passed “Patriot House” on Wurts Street, designed three years ago as a county shelter for homeless veterans. The 19th-century bluestone mansion was gaily decorated with bunting for the holiday. A car with Massachusetts plates was parked in a small parking lot. As usual (I live in that neighborhood) nobody seemed about.

The two-story house has about a dozen beds, a kitchen and a parlor. Officials had estimated that on average there had been about 14 homeless vets, some “sleeping under bridges,” in the exec’s colorful phrase, at the time they began planning for the shelter.

With the assistance of local state legislators, the county got the abandoned state-owned property for a dollar. Hein has called it “the worst real estate deal I ever made,” in reference to the (literally) untold hundreds of thousands spent by the county on repairs and improvements.

Just how many homeless veterans actually use the facility is difficult to determine. Calls to the county veterans’ agency have not been returned. Hein, on more than one occasion, has cited maybe one or two a day, up to 30 a month overall. That’s not much to brag about, but they do.


As for the ghost vets, county officials tell the curious that the facility was not intended to be a boarding house, i.e. homeless shelter, and that its occupants are required to seek work or treatment during the day. Thus, the empty rocking chairs on the porch during daylight, the few lights on at night.

I hope that the annual budget process will include a full public accounting of this project.


Getting her Irish up

On Sunday afternoon I reported for duty as one of several AOH golf-cart drivers at the annual Hibernian Hooley on the Hudson. We were assigned to take people back to their vehicles, parked in some cases up steep hills a half-mile away from the festivities. And who says Rondout has a parking problem?

One of my favorite passengers was Kathleen, a feisty senior from Queens with a slight Irish brogue. “Me mother,” she said, “came from the Olde Sod.”

It seems Kathleen was approached by a young police officer as she squeezed her Honda into what seemed an impossible space across the street from the police station on Garraghan Drive. “He told me I had to move,” she said. ‘I said, Well, that’s a bitch.’ “He said that was awful language for a lady. I told him I was 83 and I’d say any goddamned thing I wanted. He walked away.”

Irish cultural summit

The Kingston planning board isn’t expected to make a decision on the controversial Irish Cultural Center project on the Rondout when it meets in regular session Monday night. It should prove a lively session nonetheless. Both sides will be out in force, lawyers, residents, business owners, but thankfully probably not too many politicians. Pols go to ground when the going gets tough. Heard from any lately on this subject?

A recent addition to the debate was Kingston historian and author Lowell Thing. A man of distinction, Thing, in a letter to the editor this week, argues with sponsors that parking issues are only incidental to a project that will considerably enhance the cultural and economic life of downtown Kingston. He’ll get lots of pushback on that Monday night.

Whichever way the planning board ultimately goes, a court challenge is almost certain. Lawyers can only lick their chops.