Tipping a dainty toe into once-roiling waters, Assemblyman Kevin Cahill was non-committal a month ago on whether he would sponsor legislation to extend Ulster County’s 1 percent sales tax surcharge for another two years. “I’ll probably vote for it,” he said. That position represented a considerable change from the stubborn standoff between the county’s two leading Democrats, Cahill and County Executive Mike Hein.
Check that box. The Assembly website showed Cahill, Democrat of Kingston, listed on the legislative calendar as the prime sponsor for a home-rule bill to extend the tax, worth an estimated $30 million a year.
For second-term Republican state Sen. George Amedore of Rotterdam, co-sponsorship was no big deal. He carried the legislation in the upper house two years ago. Formal approval is expected next month, Cahill predicted.
Did sponsoring the legislation for the first time represent a rapprochement with Hein was in the works?
“Rapprochement?” he asked. “Can you spell it? No, nothing’s changed.”
Like the cobra and the mongoose, these guys need each other. Put another way, what fun is politics if there’s nobody to hate?
Rapprochement, a fancy word I learned while flunking French in high school, refers to a meeting of the minds, typically between sides unalterably opposed. That would be Cahill and Hein, locked in mortal political combat in what Hein repeatedly referred to as the “Cahill sales-tax wars” for the past few years.
Flexing legislative muscle in 2011, the sometimes-combative Cahill not only refused to sponsor sales tax legislation overwhelmingly approved by the county legislature and critical to county finances, but he also held it up in committee for several months, which cost the county between $3.8 million and $5 million in revenues.
At that time, Cahill blamed Hein’s intransigence on the county’s taking over Safety Net welfare expenses from the towns. “Hein played chicken, and it cost the county,” he said.
In response, a dismissive Hein said he had been working on those reforms before Cahill presented his conditions.
This was not mere gamesmanship. Cahill’s demand that the county pick up Safety Net and elections (to the tune of some $6 million a year) set a precedent.
In the breach, Hein worked around Cahill through Assembly surrogates, most notably Frank Skartados of Milton. Hein hailing Skartados as “our very own assemblyman” in this year’s state-of-the-county address was a poke in the eye to Cahill as well as one of the executive’s more obvious exaggerations. “Very own” Skartados, seldom seen north of New Paltz, represents just two of Ulster’s 20 towns: Lloyd and Marlborough.
Cahill’s district covers two-thirds of the county, including 118,263 residents spread among 13 towns and the City of Kingston. Two other assemblymen pick up the remaining 60,000 or so.
Unless he hears differently, Cahill says he has nothing more (at present) to ask for. He said nobody has asked him to ask. “I haven’t heard anything from town supervisors, though some were very unhappy with the sales tax distribution formula the [Kingston] mayor and the county negotiated last year,” Cahill said. They’ll be even less happy when the sales tax distribution cap in the negotiated agreement between a rookie mayor and a veteran executive kicks in next year.
Hein, for his part, made no mention of past unpleasantness. Neither did he bite on queries about Cahill’s metamorphosis from avowed enemy to emerging enabler. “This is the first step in the process,” he said via phone. “I am looking forward to moving forward. This should be [meaning it ought to be] a very straightforward process.”
Translation: don’t muck up the works, Cahill.
Hein did offer some thought on sales tax as a larger issue. “They call this a temporary tax, which it is,” Hein said. “But the reason we need the sales tax is the many unfunded mandates Albany has imposed since it was first adopted.”
Given that opening, I asked him about the Faso/Collins proposal whereby the state would assume all local Medicaid costs. Said to be about $3 billion a year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo stood unalterably opposed.
Hein didn’t differ, even if it could mean upwards of $40 million to his bottom line, but he didn’t agree, either. “These are very complex issues. These things do not occur in a vacuum,” he said. “If the state were to assume some $2 billion [sic] in local expenses, it’s logical to assume the state will get that money back from counties in some other ways. We need to have a very thorough discussion.”
Given that the other French word I learned was Nostradamus, I predict future fireworks. While relative peace may prevail in the short term, sparks simmer as these two warhorses circle each other.
Operating on parallel tracks, the two did manage to establish an important precedent, the sharing of county sales taxes with municipalities outside the formal county-city sales tax agreements, all of it coming from the county’s share. Who said what first or when really doesn’t matter. Precedents tend to endure. I would be surprised if town supervisors, hard-pressed to balance budgets in the fall and advance their own political futures, do not prevail upon their respective county legislators to dig even deeper into that pot of gold, projected at $111 million and slowly rising, called county sales tax.
The Roger rates The Donald
I found county GOP Chairman Roger Rascoe’s triple-A rating of President Donald Trump’s first 100 days hardly letter-perfect. Likewise Trump’s boastful claim of the greatest opening act ever. FDR had a pretty good start, even if the Supreme Court later knocked down a few initiatives.
Trump has created lots of noise and much anxiety these hundred days, but I didn’t see New Paltz professor Gerry Benjamin’s flat-out “F” as on the mark, either. Both grades illustrate the bitterly divisive times in which we live.
I’m not sure who’s complaining about Kingston Mayor Steve Noble attending a fancy cocktail party this month by the new owners of the former Hutton brickyard on the river. Community promotion is job one for any executive. Moreover, I don’t think anybody’s going to buy this ethic-centric young mayor for a few Swedish meatballs and a cocktail or two. The brickyard, a rotting eyesore for generations, has much potential.
The Hull group of Augusta, Ga., new owners of Hudson Valley Mall, are said to find Ulster Town Supervisor Jim Quigley’s “negotiating in the press” bothersome. Quigley knows a little ink can sometimes grease the wheels of progress, and the four-term supervisor, unlike so many others, has rarely been averse to discussing public business in public.
Let’s tune up the Anniversary Waltz. The White Eagle Benevolent Society of Kingston will mark its 125th anniversary this month. Founded by Polish residents in 1892, its present headquarters, White Eagle Hall on Delaware Avenue, was built in 1961.
Congratulations to the Rev. Edmund Burke of St. Peter’s Parish in Rosendale on his 40th anniversary in the priesthood last month. Father Burke, 73, known for succinct, incisive sermons, was pastor at St. Mary’s Church in Kingston for 18 years before being assigned to Rosendale four years ago.
And finally, congratulations to the Ford brothers of Kingston — Ed, 99, and Bill, 94. The brothers, born five years and eleven days apart, have been celebrating their birthdays together for quite a while. City historian Ed confirms they did not ride with Jesse James. But Ed was a newborn when the Red Baron was shot down in World War I.