I’ll confess to missing my first Ulster Regional Chamber of Commerce candidates’ debate last week since Lincoln-Douglas. Thursday being my usual day off, I was snoozing peacefully when local congressional hopefuls John Faso and Zephyr Teachout were introduced by chamber President Ward Todd at around 8:20 a.m. at the Best Western Hotel.
It’s a cardinal rule of journalism that there’s nothing like being there. However, since there were about 250 people in attendance, I was able to gather a cross-section of second-hand accounts.
Viewed by some not too long ago as a Republican club, with the infusion of not-for-profit members, educators and government types the chamber has evolved into something better resembling a community profile. Still, to many old-school Democrats, it’s a business organization and more or less conservative Republican. Todd, a former Republican chairman of the county legislature, has done a credible job of expanding chamber membership and with it the shift in demographics.
All things considered, liberal Democrat Teachout’s “connecting” better with the neo-moderate audience was a plus in the eyes of one (Democratic) attendee. Teachout’s trademark passion wears well on the campaign circuit. The more reserved John Faso, her opponent, comes across as studied and experienced, but something of a wonk in the ways of policy and government. If Teachout is your exuberant younger sister, Faso is your dad.
That they agreed on term limits apparently gave some observers pause. After eight terms in the Assembly, Faso seemed a lifer before he left to run unsuccessfully for state comptroller in 2002. Teachout placed a limit of 10 years on herself, though I’d bet dollars to doughnuts this political climber will be running for higher office, maybe governor, in 2018. By comparison, Chris Gibson, the man each hopes to succeed, and whom Faso calls a role model, limited himself to three terms (six years). Former congressman Maurice Hinchey, a staunch foe of term limits, logged 20 years in the House and might still be there if reapportionment and health issues hadn’t forced his retirement four years ago.
While Teachout generally traveled the high road at their chamber encounter, the combative Faso apparently couldn’t resist speaking to his key campaign theme, Teachout’s New York City roots. She’s a law professor at Fordham University and lived in Brooklyn before moving to Dutchess County last December. His reference to Teachout as “the 14th representative from New York City” (Gotham has 13 of the 26-member state delegation) was not well-received. Hey! Playing upstate against New York worked for eight Assembly campaigns from Kinderhook.
It’s possible this generally polite exchange, so typical of chamber events, left the blood-thirsty few hungering for venom, given the vehement attacks the candidates are lodging against each other in TV ads, direct mailings and on social media. Here, there were no red-faced exchanges of “carpetbagger!” or “corrupt lobbyist!” Maybe I didn’t miss so much after all.
Next stop: Temple Emanuel in Kingston will sponsor a congressional candidate forum at its Albany Avenue social hall on Oct. 27 at 7 p.m.
A recent Time Warner News-Siena College poll last week showed a dead heat between the candidates, with around 10 percent undecided. At the least that independent poll gives the lie to internal polls from each camp that had its candidate five points up. So much for internal polls. Siena will conduct another poll toward the end of the month. It should be most revealing, and unbiased.
Memories of chamber breakfasts past reminded me of the late Kingston mayor Peter Mancuso (1984-85). Mancuso was a fine alderman (he rode snowplows) and an adequate county legislator from Kingston. But mayoral administration in trying times was, for the retired Broadway bartender, a chore. Pete kept up his regular routine of visiting hospitals, kissing babies and attending funerals, and otherwise avoided the limelight.
However, nobody could duck a speaking invitation to a chamber breakfast. Given this rare opportunity to see Hizzoner at a large public gathering rather than in his office, Freeman city hall reporter Tom Wakeman and I went to the breakfast at the old Holiday Inn. Upon arrival we found a near empty parking lot. This is really embarrassing for the mayor, I said to Wakeman. The chamber could book a trained seal for its breakfasts and 200 people would show up.
Turns out that I was a week early. “I don’t care what day it is, I’m hungry,” said Wakeman. I bought breakfast.
Faso’s snarky comment harkens to one of those periodic discussions about merging the Town of Ulster with the City of Kingston. At the time, Kingston had 13 council members. Then-town supervisor Frank Sottile had just succeeded John DeGasperis, who had died suddenly in 1991. Somewhat in disarray, the town board was kicking merger around at informal session when, as sometimes happens at these group muddles, clarity and perspective emerged. “How’d you like to be the 14th alderman, Frank?” somebody asked. End of discussion.
For the second year in a row, County Executive Mike Hein has proposed a budget that will reduce county property taxes and spending, however slightly, while retaining almost all county services.
“Fantastic if you can reduce spending and taxes,” enthused legislature Chairman Ken Ronk after Hein’s presentation at the Business Resource Center last Friday morning. Translation: this budget will sail through the legislature with at least 20 of 23 votes.
At first blush, it would seem that County Comptroller Elliott Auerbach’s warnings last year of a dire 2017 were unwarranted. Auerbach’s chief concern was Hein’s propensity for tapping the fund balance in order to hold the line on tax increases. In what he called an “invasion” of the fund balance, Auerbach detailed $52.2 million in fund-balance appropriations (approved by the legislature) over the past three years. In one of those dusters Hein likes to throw at critics from time to time, he proposes $16.3 million more for 2017. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Mr. Comptroller!
Having been blindsided like everyone else — county budgets are the best-kept secrets in county government — Auerbach and his staff will fine-tooth the budget before offering opinions.
In reaching for the jugular, Hein does have a tendency to squeeze a bit too hard. Like holding his annual budget presentation in a cramped classroom at the Business Resource Center “only 800 feet from the city line.” This political maneuver was so blatant as to be obvious to even the causal observer.
After working behind the scenes for over a year, Hein has emerged as frontman in the county effort to relocate Family Court from Lucas Avenue in Kingston to next door to the social services complex in Ulster. It’s only going to cost an estimated $9.9 million, he told his audience — already a sharp increase to the $8 million figure the administration used to sell the project to the legislature. The measure is on November ballot.
Other than some road and bridge construction and the move to the BRC, there are no bold new initiatives from an administration approaching its ninth year in office. With sales tax revenues projected to increase by only a miniscule 1 percent and property taxes down a quarter of 1 percent, this is definitely a hold-the-line budget.
But no recent Hein budget presentation would be complete without at least a veiled reference to his bête noire, Assemblyman Kevin Cahill. Reprising a widely reviled tactic of holding struggling non-profits hostage, Hein warned that if the sales tax weren’t approved by the time the legislature adjourns in June there would have to be a freeze on county payments to contract agencies for the last quarter of the year.
Another angst-producer is the proposal for targeted retirements to further reduce the county workforce. It’s hard to square workforce reduction with pronouncements of economic revival, but they don’t call this guy Magic Mike for nothing.
The budget is available on the county website, all 500-plus pages of it. Hard copy is due by the formal budget submission date on Friday.
The county executive praised the legislature for volunteering to cut $50,000 from its contract-agency account in order to help achieve a balanced budget. Left unsaid was that the legislature last year voted itself a raise for its 23 members which will cost about $90,000. “Different line,” said Ronk.
Sheriff Paul VanBlarcum cut his budget requests by some $500,000 despite an anticipated decline of over $1.3 million in revenue from boarding prisoners from Dutchess County. There was a moment of silence for dive team sergeant Kerry Winters, who died in a training accident last month. Law-enforcement representatives from 42 jurisdictions around the state attended Winters’ funeral in Glasco.
Carl Chipman, Rochester town supervisor and president of the supervisors and mayors association, was in the front row at the exec’s presentation, just to make sure there were no surprises in store for the towns.
Top of the suspicion list were rumors cash-strapped Hein might charge back to the towns some $2.8 million a year (based on 2011-12 records) that the county absorbs from residents attending out-of-county community colleges. There was no mention of chargebacks, though, as any working politician appreciates, the thought is often father to the deed.