Hugh Reynolds: Peril Harbor

While many will be observing the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor next Wednesday, the Ulster County Legislature will be in session working out the final details on County Executive Mike Hein’s proposed 2017 budget. Except for the county executive’s pre-emptive launch on the county comptroller, it promises to be just another sunny morning.

Like the events of Dec. 7, 1941, a date that will live in infamy, executive budgets are steeped in secrecy, carefully plotted and with many a surprise contained therein.

Number One was Hein’s slashing of County Comptroller Elliott Auerbach’s budget. A thorn in the executive paw and perhaps a future rival, the three-term comptroller saw his budget cut by some 20 percent, for reasons the comptroller says have more to do with power politics than fiscal considerations.

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Auerbach claims to have been blindsided by the executive, who, after advising him in late September of the intended cuts, declined to supply attendant rationale. That came after the election via a 59-page report, generated by the overseen-by-Hein Office of Accountability, Compliance & Efficiency, to the legislature. Though Auerbach called that document “laughable,” legislators seemed more impressed with it.

Auerbach got his day in court, as it were, before the legislature’s Ways and Means Committee two weeks ago. Not unsurprisingly, given his statistical firepower, the comptroller offered a myriad of graphs and charts to demonstrate the efficacy of his department which, without full staffing, he claimed would be unable to meet its constitutional obligation as watchdog of county finances.

Befitting an office populated with Cratchits, Auerbach detailed interesting statistics. One of eight counties with an elected comptroller, Ulster’s budget per employee for that office is among the lowest in the state. The comptroller’s $70,000 average is about $30,000 less than the county executive’s. Who knew?

To say that Auerbach got a cool reception from Ways and Means would be an understatement. Waving the 59-page report from the executive as though it were gospel, Chairman Rich Gerentine all but confirmed Hein’s judgment. Auerbach’s compromise, to cut his budget by about 2 percent, seemed to fall on deaf ears.

Testimony from county Finance Director Burt Gulnick, a Hein appointee, echoed the party line that the comptroller’s workload had been considerably reduced by Hein’s establishment of the Office of Accountability, Compliance & Efficiency (ACE), and independent-of-Auerbach accounting department, in 2014. If ACE is the place, it could conceivably replace the county charter-mandated comptroller, or so says speculation.

At one point, Gerentine asked Auerbach to justify his budget based on savings or wastage the watchdog had effected or uncovered. Obviously prepared for the question, Auerbach came up with a $3 million savings on a social services contract. Appearing unimpressed, Gerentine then asked him to project savings going forward. An obviously exasperated comptroller called that impossible. He failed to press his point that the cop on the beat (the comptroller) was a deterrent, and that it was impossible to measure something that hadn’t yet happened.

After the committee hearing, Auerbach groused about taking legal action based, he said, on the executive’s “arbitrary and capricious” reduction of his budget.

A&C it might have been. Mean-spirited and sneaky, too. But the odds of a judge ruling that Hein exceeded his constitutional authority in evaluating a county department would seem to be slim. Hein exercises similar budgetary control over the independently elected sheriff, district attorney and county clerk, with nary a whimper from those affected. It should be noted, however, that none of those departments are charged with watching over county finances.

Legislators, as indicated at the Ways and Means Committee hearing, are not much bothered with these matters. The executive does his thing in terms of reward and punishment, and they do theirs, which comes down to getting along by going along. The outcome of this confrontation is almost entirely predictable.

 

Footlights

I drove past that offensive (and since removed) school-play promo sign on the lawn of Kingston High every day without a second thought. Like school officials, I was unfamiliar with the history of And  Then There Were None with a noose as a symbol. The play, based on a 1939 Agatha Christie murder mystery, debuted in this country with a racially charged title, later softened to Ten Little Indians. Somehow, this sordid history, including the current title, escaped school officials, but not so a horde of indignant web surfers.

The play will go forward this weekend — break a leg, kids! — at the newly dedicated Wendell Scherer Auditorium even as the controversy simmers.

While refusing to finger administrative suspects, district officials soft-pedaled the embarrassing incident, calling it a “teaching moment” for staff and students. Indeed.

One wonders if the next KHS play might be called “Boneheads — A Teaching Moment,” starring a cast of clueless adults.

 

Winding down

The hotly contested campaign for congress between Republican John Faso and Democrat Zephyr Teachout ended not with a bang but a whimper; Faso stormed to a more-than-27,000-vote plurality. And this one was supposed to be close. Mid-October polls showed Faso with a surprising (for some) six-point lead, finally expanding to almost ten.

Faso, having digested the handwriting on the wall, went into cruise control. “I didn’t run a negative ad for the last two weeks of the campaign,” he told us during a recent visit to Kingston. “My opponent stayed negative until the end,”

In fact, he didn’t have to go negative. Negative ads are meant to bring down frontrunners.

The results do suggest that Faso, 64, could be around for awhile. On paper a toss-up, the district has now elected Republicans in three consecutive elections since the popular Chris Gibson came along in 2012. This may seem blasphemous in some quarters, but I wonder if even the revered Maurice Hinchey could have bucked that tide. Democrat Hinchey, 78, retired in 2012 after 10 terms in a much differently configured district.

In politics as in war, hard lessons are learned in combat. Democrats have been twice soundly defeated by fielding left-leaning newcomers, however attractive and well-funded. Perhaps it’s time to seek homegrown talent. Faso, for one, will not allow any grass to grow under his feet, and the clock is ticking.

 

Mall music

I’m told by people who know their stuff that shopping malls are rated in three categories, A, B and C. Going upriver, think Westchester, Poughkeepsie and the Town of Ulster. Hudson Valley Mall in Kingston, which is in receivership, falls somewhere between C and D — “dead.”

The buzz around local taxing authorities with a keen interest in this outcome is that the once $66 million-assessed mall could sell for considerably less than its current $19 million assessment. The upside is that it would be in the new owners’ interest to market and improve the 35-year-old mall. There are no plans that I’ve heard for parking meters in the mall’s vast parking lots. That’s a Kingston thing.

While hopeful of a positive outcome, local taxing authorities, like Ulster’s Jim Quigley, can only cringe as the other shoe hangs in the air, which is to say, further legal challenges for lower assessments based on sales price.

There is one comment

  1. endrun

    Auerbach v. Hein:”You can’t fix stupid”;
    “Break a leg”:applies literally to what ought be done to stupid pols, but alas, that mafia thing is more of a downstate thing culturally(and sometimes it actually worked, but is not applied in the more modern ear even there because they all do business together no matter how “indecent”;
    Faso tried to jail a constituent who asked for his help so we are supposed to have sympathy for his insistence on the fact he didn’t run negative ads in the last two weeks? Yeah…ok…
    Town of Ulster belongs with City of Kingston, absent stupidity of political comfort in little crony offices that have been around forever. However, the downside could be that Jim Sottile would then have influence over a broader swath of land and body politic–yep,so that’s a WASH right there then. BTW–where IS Mr. Sottile these days? Oh, right, trying to avoid the MUSIC resultant from the latest of his illicit acts toward me. Oopsie–doopsie!!

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