Hugh Reynolds: Ulster County’s phantom workers

As if Ulster County taxpayers doling out $77.8 million a year in county property taxes weren’t enough, County Comptroller Elliott Auerbach revealed last week that some $2.2 million goes to line-item vacancies. There are 51 such phantom workers in this year’s county budget. Though some of these positions may be filled as the 1,300-member county workforce fluctuates with retirement, hiring and firing, transfers and the like, most of these lines will go toward creating a year-end surplus or be shifted elsewhere in the budget.

Big deal? Little deal? No deal?

It depends who’s spinning the numbers. The $2.25 million Auerbach detailed is in the larger scheme of things a rather small deal, amounting to about 3 percent of the county’s annual property tax levy. Challenged in the past, administration officials have said they need flexibility to manage a large operation like county government, with its $325 million budget. That flexibility also provides “monies moved around to cover expenses for which they were never intended,” according to Auerbach’s critique.

The comptroller’s argument will fall on deaf ears. The county legislature turns a blind eye to line-item vacancies to a point, that point being somewhere around $2 million a year. The administration this past year responded by creating some vacancies in Auerbach’s own department.

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The legislature should either come up with some kind of policy, or make sure its Ways and Means Committee plays the oversight role it’s supposed to play.

Some grouse, but few act. Cooperation, this year’s byword, seems not to include challenging long-standing administration fiscal policy.

 

Big bucks in Kingston

Speaking of building surpluses, Kingston Mayor Steve Noble announced recently that the city’s fund balance surplus had grown to over $5 million, about 13 percent of the current $40 million budget.

Just how the first-term mayor accumulated this hoard and how much was carried over from the previous administration was not detailed. At City Hall, they do not look gift horses in the mouth. They flood the media with happy-face email press releases.

I think we should look closer. Even if previous policy allowed for double-digit fund balances, some of which was used to pay down previous debt, this amount is beyond the pale. The state comptroller recommends a 5 percent fund balance, maybe 10, but not much more. State comptrollers since time immemorial have come down hard on school districts for squirreling away excess cash for those proverbial rainy days.

Taxpayers may look with favor on administrations that run regular surpluses rather than deficits or borrowing heavily for recurring expenses. But there should be limits even to good times.

Paying down high-interest debt as the mayor recommends is a good start. Setting up a capital fund with about half the surplus to deal with the inevitable sewer breaks, not to mention replacing or refurbishing an aging firehouse, would be prudent.

 

Verklarte nacht (Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”) 

At the Renaissance Westchester Hotel in West Harrison this Friday night, two Ulster County Republicans will be designated “rising stars” by the state GOP committee.

Legislature Chairman Ken Ronk of Wallkill is just entering his thirties with almost a decade in elected office, Ronk could go far, rise high.

First-term Legislator Ronald Lapp, 58, of Accord, the other riser, at first blush seemed a less likely designee. (County GOP Chairman Roger Rascoe made the nominations.) Fifty-eight may be the new 48, but really.

But wait. Wasn’t Lapp the newcomer who knocked off Democrat Lynn Archer two years ago, giving the Republicans control of the county legislature? If not a rising star, Lapp was at least a comet, and he’s back for another run.

So is Archer, she tells me. Something of a meteor in her own right, Archer defeated then-sitting chairwoman Terry Bernardo by 51 votes in 2013, and then lost to Lapp by 72 in 2015. The Lapp-Archer rematch could be the only legitimately contested race in the 23-member legislature. As Rochester goes, so could the majority.

 

Here and there

County nominating conventions will take place at the end of the month. The Democrats, as usual, will provide the drama. Three Dems, Julian Schreibman of Marbletown, Tony McGinty of Rosendale and Kevin Bryant of Kingston, are competing for their party’s nomination for state Supreme Court judge. Party Chairman Frank Cardinale has been mum on whether the annual convention, set for June 1 at 7 p.m. at the Kingston Best Western, will unofficially designate a favorite son. Not that it matters much. Last year, Sharon Graff won at convention over Sara McGinty, only to lose at primary.

Republicans will meet in convention on May 31 at 7 p.m. at George Washington School in Kingston, the site of the first and biggest anti-Faso meeting.

Supreme Court judges are officially nominated at judicial conventions in Albany in early September.

Assemblyman Kevin Cahill takes understandable exception to my characterizing Democrats in a recent column as almost as vicious as Republicans in his 1998 comeback campaign. To the extent that Republicans were off the charts that year, I can’t disagree.

State GOP Chairman Ed Cox, Tricia Nixon’s husband, probably doesn’t write his press releases, but give him credit for signing off on some memorable lines. To wit: “This week’s Academy Award goes to Chuck Schumer for his crocodile tears over FBI director Jim Comey’s firing. The Dems abandoned any semblance of credibility, twisting and turning like hot pretzels over their double-speak.”

Republicans trumping Democrats on double-speak? Cox may come to regret those words.

One of my shortest interviews was when I asked visiting fireman Cox at a recent county Republican dinner what it was like to be Nixon’s son-in-law. A towering Ivy League Brahmin, he looked down at me like I had “stupid” tattooed on my forehead.

Four-term Republican County Clerk Nina Postupack held a big fundraiser for her re-election campaign this week. Donors might have wondered how one campaigns against a county clerk as popular, and unopposed, like Postupack. I expect some kind of cross-endorsement with Democrat comptroller Auerbach may be in the works. No opposition in either race has yet publicly surfaced.

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