Hugh Reynolds: Blowin’ in the wind

There’s a war on heroin going on in Ulster County. But that may be hard to tell, by some county government standards.

District Attorney Holley Carnright was in the forefront, but his request for more staffing was left out of the 2017 county budget by the county executive and the legislature. Carnright had sought an additional full-time investigator to coordinate his department’s war on drugs. The job was pegged at $60,000 with perhaps another (unstated) third in benefits.

No soap. Legislators voted it down 18-4 at last week’s budget session, apparently satisfied with a last-minute finger-in-the-dike deal which Ways and Means Chairman Rich Gerentine said he’d brokered between Carnright and Sheriff Paul VanBlarcum.

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Under the highly unusual Gerentine compromise — this is executive stuff — the DA will assign Bill Weishaupt, his chief investigator, to head URGENT (Ulster Regional Gang Enforcement Narcotics Team), the county’s drug enforcement strike force, with no additional resources.

The Associated Press reports that incidents of drug withdrawal among newborn babies in rural areas have increased almost eightfold in rural areas since 2004.

When questioned on Monday, neither the sheriff nor the DA seemed entirely pleased with the negotiated arrangement, though both pledged to soldier on.

“I don’t go over there [to the legislature] very often,” Carnright said, “But I’ve been talking about this [epidemic] for the last three years. What I got [from the committee] was another thank you. For now, I’ll do what I can with the resources I have. I’ll be back next year.”

Citing a verse from Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” to the committee, Carnright did not go down without a fight, or a song, apparently to deaf ears. Maybe they’re heavy-metal fans? Referencing rising death tolls from local heroin and opiate overdoses, about one a month on average, Carnright recited:

“Yes, and how many ears must one man have

Before he can hear people cry?

Yes, and how many deaths will it take ’til he knows

That too many people have died?”

The answer, my friends, is not in the Ulster County Legislature.

“I figured, what the heck. A Nobel laureate. I was just trying to make a point,” Carnright said, “And no,” he added, “I did not sing. I do not sing in public.” Maybe he should have.

Carnright is heart-attack serious about what he calls “this epidemic” and not a little bit perplexed. You can hear it in his voice.

Speaking of previous priorities involving gangs and domestic violence, more or less held at bay, the DA said, “Right now, my horizon is heroin. This drug is unlike anything else. Once you’re addicted, you stay addicted. Deaths come for the most part from people who think they’ve kicked the habit and then go back to it.”

This is a problem that will not go away, he said. “We’re buying into this for the next two generations. This is the beginning of an upward curve. We’re not at the top.”

For Carnright, the father of grown children, what’s worse is that “kids have no fear of this drug, and they should.” He suggests a massive public information campaign, like the war on cigarettes. It’s all well and good for government to fund “worthy” public works projects, business development and the like, he said, “but under that headline, the next one says that drug deaths have surpassed deaths from violent crimes. At the same time, I get turned down for what I thought was the best way to go. Ironic.”

 

Sorting out the players

There are always turf issues involved with cross-department arrangements, especially when they come on the fly and out of left field. The district attorney, who prosecutes the drug dealers URGENT arrests, has always been a key player.

But the sheriff runs URGENT. VanBlarcum welcomes “Commander” Weishaupt (the DA’s title for him), who Carnright calls “the best man in the county for this job.” But the sheriff notes that an URGENT administrator is already in place. VanBlarcum had assigned a senior sergeant to run URGENT before Gerentine stepped in.

Under the new order, the sergeant will “run everything by [Weishaupt] on a day-to-day basis,” said the sheriff.

While Gerentine said URGENT will concentrate its activities on population centers like Kingston, Ulster and Saugerties, Carnright said he expected Weishaupt to extend the net to other areas of the county.

It sounds as though these people are reading from the same hymnal, though not necessarily from the same page.

County Executive Mike Hein has often stated his goal of making Ulster the healthiest county in the state. Two years ago, the administration announced its own war on drugs with a $200,000 appropriation.

Exactly what direction that war has taken is unclear, at least from law enforcement. County Health Commissioner Dr. Carol Smith didn’t return several phone calls for comment on an in-depth feature on the heroin crisis last week. That may or may not be an indicator of some kind of plan in the works. The county executive could recoup with some concrete plans and resources at his annual state of the county early next year. Carnright said they’ve had conversations on the subject.

At least the legislature sent a clear signal.

Before I start getting phone calls and e-mails from indignant legislators, the four who voted in favor of the DA’s request for another investigator were Chris Allen, Dean Fabiano and Mary Wawro of Saugerties and Dave Donaldson of Kingston.

 

Budget skirmishes over

As always, Hein gets the first and last word on annual budgets. Usually the dance is almost exactly the same, coming and going. In a post-budget vote statement he could have issued a month ago, Hein commended the legislature for authorizing “99 percent” of what he recommended back on Oct. 7.

In fact, what Hein recommended and what the legislature adopted, albeit with some zero-sum internal juggling by the legislature, was almost exactly the same number, $324.8 million. Re: 99, a 1 percent adjustment by the legislature would have amounted to about $3.2 million. Baaa.

I think we’ve said just about enough about Comptroller Elliott Auerbach’s quest to have restored the $200,000 cut in his office the executive recommended in October. That the legislature at least attempted to split the baby by restoring about half only reinforces where the power resides. In the end, the vote was 19-3, with perpetual Democratic rebels Dave Donaldson and John Parete — let’s call them the Windmill Brothers — joining Republican Dean Fabiano.

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Bottom line: Hein is the bear, Auerbach the buckwheat. I thought Auerbach made a good case for his department. He just didn’t make it with the people that count.

Hein and legislative leadership did show some sensibility in choosing not to fire a married and pregnant comptroller staffer targeted on the exec’s original hit list. Young (26) confidential secretary Dan Torres (or administrative assistant, depending on which budget one consults) got the axe.

Torres, like Auerbach, pleaded for his $52,000-a-year job before the legislature, but there would be no palm-slapping of foreheads or cries of “Eureka!” that night in chambers. Despite the historic date, Dec. 7, there were no Japanese fighter pilots yelling “Torres! Torres! Torres!” on behalf of the soon-to-be-departed Auerbach aide. (I apologize to young Torres for such a dreadful exit joke, secure in the knowledge that this up-and-comer with friends in high places will soon find employment with some other governmental agency.)

Where Auerbach goes from here is anybody’s guess. Probably home for the holidays. If he goes to court, as hinted, he might make a case against the executive’s “arbitrary and capricious” (his words) decision to reduce the comptroller’s staff. But any judge, if it gets that far, will also have to take into consideration the overwhelming bipartisan legislative approval of that recommendation. Judges don’t like to overturn slam-dunks.

Apologies to staff and management at Kingston’s Department of Public Works, who might have had problems finding their way to work after my feature on the new superintendent last week. I listed headquarters at East Chester Street. It’s East O’Reilly Street, since about 1913.

 

Coming distractions

Next week: The annual Christmas list, mostly nice but a few naughties among the 100-odd honorees.