Ulster County executive Mike Hein reflected with pride at his state-of-the-county speech at Ulster County Boces on February 2 about what he said were the many positive changes made in Ulster’s governmental, cultural and economic life since he took office in 2009. His overall theme was that Ulster County moves forward when people work together.
He also unveiled plans for 2017, including the possibility of raising the cigarette purchase age in the county from 18 to 21 and compelling chain drug stores in Ulster to take back unwanted prescription drugs.
“What I am about to say is so rare that we can’t find a similar combination in any other government at any other level, anywhere in the state of New York,” said Hein. “One, our spending is down across the board by over $30 million. Two, departments controlled by the executive branch are over 40 percent smaller. And three, the property-tax levy for this year in Ulster County is actually less than it was all the way back in 2010.”
In January, neighboring Orange County executive Steven Neuhaus signed legislation, effective June 1, that would make 21 the minimum age for buying tobacco products. Hein in his speech called for adding e-cigarettes to the list of items banned in public spaces under the Clean Indoor Air Act and the exploration of raising the cigarette purchasing age.
The opioid addiction crisis raging nationwide has taken its grim toll in Ulster. The county executive made proposals to combat it. “With so much at stake we refuse to sit back,” said Hein, “so we are charging forward with additional tools to help” addicts and their families. Like the suicide-prevention smartphone app the county unveiled a few years ago, one will be an app “that provides instant access to important resources” for addiction sufferers and those close to them.
The other plan, said Hein, is to help cut off old, partially unused pill bottles left in medicine cabinets. Hein called for the state to mandate that large chain pharmacies set up drop boxes so people can easily bring back no-longer-needed scripts for safe disposal. “Simply put: You should be able to return your unused prescription drugs to the very same place you got them, the pharmacy, and right now, you can’t,” said Hein. “We know these drop boxes work because we have installed them in our police stations years ago. However, for many these are inconvenient or intimidating and as such they are not the best location. The best answer is right back where they came from.”
If the state “fails to act” on this, Hein said he would “do everything in [his] power” to find a way to make chain pharmacies in Ulster install the boxes. He also announced a voluntary training program for county employees to learn how to use the lifesaving anti-overdose drug Narcan.
The executive also touted the county’s achievements in the environmental field. Ulster is the only “net carbon-neutral” county in the state, said Hein, in which “100 percent of our energy does come from renewable resources, and nobody else is even close.” An upcoming solar project “will allow us to actually generate 20 percent of our entire electrical needs.” A $250,000 state grant will be used for “a massive lighting upgrade” as well as solar hot-water heaters and an “ozone-based” laundry system at the county jail.
Hein views the economy
After years of underfunding infrastructure, Ulster’s “collective fiscal discipline and the strategic reform of county government” freed up resources to invest in fixing roads and bridges countywide. “I am pleased to report that by investing an unprecedented $46 million over a three-year period,” said Hein, “our Building a Better Ulster County initiative will improve 15 bridges and over 50 percent of all county roads.” He said that was three times the traditional pace of construction “and a real testament to the hard work, dedication and professionalism of our amazing Department of Public Works.”
Hein’s address was introduced by a professionally made video featuring members of the arts, charitable, public safety, business, healthcare, government and educational communities touching on the theme of working “together.” The video seemed to underscore the multifaceted reality of the Ulster County economy. Varied approaches are needed to bring prosperity.
Hein said the county, since 2009, has worked to set a stage for growth by lowering taxes on small businesses and encouraging diversification. The current county unemployment rate of 4.3 percent is “almost half” what it was when he first took office. He also said the county real-estate market “is healthy once again after years and years in the doldrums.”
He devoted a good chunk of his speech to the increase in film production taking place in the county, which, he said, took off like a shot when Ulster, after intensive advocacy by Hein, the county legislature and actors with local ties like Mary Stuart Masterson, Mark Ruffalo and Melissa Leo, was given the same level of tax breaks for filmmakers as other counties. The coming Stockade Works media production facility for Kingston is one of the early products of that labor; Hein said that according to Laurent Rejto of the Hudson Valley Film Commission, “a number of major motion pictures,” including a “Martin Scorsese film being shot in the Town of Saugerties and the City of Kingston right now” are being made or will be made locally.
Statler and Waldorf
Notable in the speech, delivered to a large and often responsive invited audience, included a riposte at Hein’s most persistent critics in the county legislature, legislators Dave Donaldson of Kingston and John Parete of Boiceville.
Hein began his speech referencing a piece of advice his grandmother gave him about surrounding himself with people who want to build things up, as there are always people who will try to tear them down. Later in the address, while talking about the upcoming Family Court facility rebuild, he came back to his grandmother’s warning about people who will “still try to tear things down.”
“But I take great comfort in the fact that it is usually the same pair of angry men who oppose virtually everything,” Hein said.
At that point, the slideshow behind him displayed a picture of Statler and Waldorf, the crotchety and constantly critical hecklers from The Muppet Show. “They opposed the monument to fallen soldiers at the county office building. They opposed the Patriot’s Project that helps homeless veterans. They opposed county budgets that lowered property taxes and countless environmental initiatives including the ones featured in National Geographic. They even opposed the Strive project that provided access to higher education for inner-city youth at absolutely no cost to county taxpayers. So I guess my grandmother was right when she said, No matter what, there will always be a couple of bad apples who try to tear things down. You see, my grandmother was very smart.”
After the speech, Donaldson and Parete shot back, both saying that Hein had misrepresented their voting records. On his Facebook page, Donaldson dug out from campaign finance records $1000 donations to the Hein campaign made by Donald Trump in 2010 and the Koch brothers in 2011. “Perhaps he is taking his clues of alternative facts from one of his donors,” Donaldson wrote.
In a letter to the editor sent February 6, Parete also pulled no punches. “The fact is both Dave and I voted to approve every project he declared we did not. To call him a liar would be accurate, and appropriate,” wrote Parete. “Some might say that’s harsh. The real question should be what is the reasoning for the lies. The fact is Mr. Hein has a serious character flaw. Our voting records are in the legislative office and are available to any and all. What would possess him to lie? Maybe the man cannot distinguish between right and wrong?”