Hugh Reynolds: Sales tax wars have resumed

At the risk of beating a dead horse to death, to quote a former Kingston mayor, it appears that the Ulster County sales tax wars have resumed. But taking a different form, and with some new players.

We’re all familiar with the storied biannual clashes between Assemblyman Kevin Cahill and County Executive Mike Hein over the renewal of the 1990s-era “temporary” 1 percent sales tax extension. A few weeks ago we reported that this year Cahill, rather than blocking passage of the extender bill in committee as in the past, was the bill’s prime sponsor in the Assembly. State Sen. George Amedore was again to carry it in the upper house.

While there wasn’t exactly peace in the valley between Cahill and Hein, nobody was openly sniping at somebody else. Approval of the extension, worth an estimated $30 million a year to the county in annual revenue, seemed a lock. Now, maybe not.


Enter Republican congressmen John Faso and Chris Collins, co-authors of a bill that would have the state picking up the county share of Medicaid, with a positive impact on Ulster of around $40 million a year.

As Isaac Newton once observed in a bygone era, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The Cuomo administration was not going to stand idly by while the federal government drained some $2 billion annually from its bottom line, even if it offered a similar scale of relief to local taxpayers.

Hein predicted in an interview earlier this month that the state would figure out some way to get that money back from the locals. It now appears that the state sales tax might be the extraction tool.

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, who always speaks for the governor, may have let the cat out of the bag during a recent appearance. She suggested a 1.2 percent clawback of the (base) 3 percent sales tax the counties are allowed to charge would be sufficient to cover Faso-Collins Medicaid reforms. For Ulster, that would come out to about $40 million on its base 3 percent. Ulster’s $320 million-a-year operating budget would be seriously impacted.

Hein spoke to this possibility in his annual state-of-the-county address last February when he warned non-profits the county supports that the county might be forced to withhold funding for the last quarter of the year if the extender didn’t move forward. For the hardscrabble non-profits, this would be devastating.

In case anybody hadn’t memorized Hein’s speech, reminders were sent out last week.

Meanwhile, the wheels grind forward. The Cahill extender, absent any mention of Faso-Collins, was sent this week to the Ways and Means Committee of the Assembly (Cahill is a member). It will be packaged with numerous other county extenders for a vote before the full Assembly in June. That two-billion-dollar package would be a tempting target for cash-hungry state officials.

These are huge stakes, with significant consequences.


Legislative notes

The Ulster County Legislature, which has banned so-called memorializing resolutions, has become in recent months something of a speakers’ platform. Where half a dozen speakers on a variety of subjects were the norm at monthly meetings, the last two sessions have averaged 50 each. Speakers are given at least two minutes to talk.

Speakers tend to common themes, as with last week’s boots-and-jeans posse of middle-aged men opposed to the idea of a “sanctuary county.” Channeling Spartacus, all but one declared “I am Ulster” after offering personal testimony to family roots and community service. The exception was the guy from southern Ulster who concluded, “I don’t want this thing in Orange.” (Imagine if Kirk Douglas had said that in the movie.)

“You got the wrong county,” one of his buds scoffed as he returned to a seat in the audience. “I was close,” he replied.

Shandaken’s Kathy Nolan, a regular speaker, defended a sanctuary-county resolution “since nobody else did.” Nolan called for immigration reform on the federal level. Citizenship can take an average of 14 years, sometimes half again as long, she noted from one immigration study.

I doubt gender inclusion legislation, a hot potato, will see the light of day before the election. Jennifer Schwartz Berky, its prime sponsor, may have lost the war, but she scored a few points. During an overly long, circuitous debate, Chairman Ken Ronk declared he had never received anything in writing from minority counsel on the subject. “Not so,” said Berky, keying up her smartphone. “The letter [from last August] is right here. I’ll email it to you.”

What we have here is a failure or perhaps an unwillingness to communicate.

Majority counsel, naturally, agreed with the chairman that the resolution was “legally deficient.”

Tracey Bartels took umbrage at any lawyer (legislative counsel) telling the legislature “how to vote.” One of the brightest of legislators, Bartels well knows that lawyers give advice which elected officials are free to accept or reject.


Congressional stampede

And now there are at least five.

Plattekill’s Sue Sullivan has joined an already-crowded Democratic field bent on unseating John Faso.

Despite broadsides from every quarter, Faso says he doesn’t talk about politics, except maybe in October of even-numbered years. But does he welcome a-more-the-merrier division of opposition?

Sullivan, 52, offers a background in business development, environmental activism and healthcare, while projecting a left-of-center profile similar to U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. If Sullivan survives a million-dollar primary next year, she’ll be on the ballot with Gillibrand, a competitive daily double in these parts.

Republican attack dogs inside the Beltway are already busy branding Sullivan. To wit: “Nancy Pelosi deserves some credit for convincing Sue Sullivan to embrace her painfully out-of-of touch liberal agenda. While Congressman Faso travels the 19th District listening to his constituents [but not at town-hall meetings], Sullivan is touting her support for the failed status quo,” quoth a National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman in a recent release.

That the NRCC considers Sullivan dangerous enough to pummel at this early stage suggests she may be a legitimate threat in this swing district. The other four Democrats are Antonio Delgado, Brian Flynn, Jeffrey Beals and Gareth Rhodes, none of whom have yet attracted Republican ire.


And then there’s Zephyr. Professor Teachout advises she’s very busy these days teaching summer school and attending “loads of activists meetings.” Apparently, she’s never far from the fray.

Behind that bright smile, the man who beat her by 25,000 votes last year still sticks in her craw. “John Faso has shown himself to be cowardly, false and heartless, but you knew that already,” she wrote back this week. Other than that, he’s not such a bad guy, m’thinks. A rematch could be downright ugly.


Len again?

Former Independence Party chairman Len Bernardo running for Rochester town supervisor? On what line?

The answer is, on any line he can get. Bernardo, who confirmed his candidacy last week, said he was seeking the endorsement of town Democratic and Republican committees.

“Both committees?” I asked. “What about [voter] choice?”

“Choice?” he responded. “How about three lines?” He was including the Independence line. And only one candidate.

Bernardo is a well-known name in Rochester. Len ran for county executive in 2008 as a Republican. Wife Terry was elected twice to the county legislature and was county chairwoman when defeated for a third term in 2013. Terry ran a closer than expected race for county executive in 2015. That made the pair the only couple to lose races for that office.

Len Bernardo, who probably won’t get the Democratic nomination for this open seat, will face stiff opposition. And that’s not a bad thing.


Trump that!

Ulster Sheriff Paul VanBlarcum, no darling of the Democratic left, was invited to the White House last week as part of national law enforcement week. VanBlarcum led a sheriff’s delegation in memory of dive team sergeant Kerry Winters, 51, who died in a training exercise in Shokan last September.

Did he get to talk to the president? “Yeah, we all got to say a few words,” he said. “They took group and individual photos.”

The outspoken sheriff was asked what he thought of the president. “The guy can’t get a break from the media,” said the lifelong Democrat. “He could save a baby from a burning building and they’d accuse him of setting the fire.” Great line.

County Republicans cross-endorsed VanBlarcum last time after he buried their candidates in previous elections. Apparently, there’s no buyer’s remorse. VanBlarcum, at a recent Republican county dinner, got more applause than anybody else they introduced.

Speaking of political dinners, last week’s fundraiser at the Chateau in Kingston for County Clerk Nina Postupack was a sellout. And it wasn’t just Republican stalwarts who ponied up $95 a head. Is a cross-endorsement in the offing? Or are Democrats hiding a potential rival until the last minute? Postupack’s raising north of $30,000 (gross) at her dinner was designed to scare off all but the most resolute opposition.

There are 2 comments

  1. Steven L Fornal

    Re: Len Bernardo running for Town Supervisor in the Town of Rochester

    He most certainly does have stiff competition in the form of Mike Baden, current Chairman of the town’s Planning Board as well as the UC Planning Board. He also serves on the Rondout School Board.

    Mike Baden has attended virtually every town board meeting over the span of 13 years. He is extremely well versed on the various laws that govern Town Board activity. He has a deep grasp of what should be done and what can be done. He has shown himself to be fair-minded and exceptionally prepared

    Len Bernardo on the other hand, rarely has attended Town Board meetings preferring he get his information via rumor, gossip and third hand. At the county level during the last election he fully supported the CMRR even as it became clear that the “railroad” had stiffed the county re payments and rehabilitation of track and, when asked to begin to uphold its lease agreements decided to sue the county.

    Whatever you think about the value of CMRR, the FACTS remain the same: It violated its legal agreements for 25 years and Len Bernardo supported it because he thought there was enough support to translate into a compelling victory for his wife running for County Executive. That’s raw opportunism.

    Len’s preferred method of engagement is to denigrate performance of officials based pretty much wholly on supposition; meaning having received a bit of gossip to go on, he then manufactures a scenario that puts people in bad light even as that manufactured scenario is pure fiction.

    Also, the whole UCIDA fiasco re Len Bernardo’s business Skate Time 209– where jobs were promised for ten years of tax relief but only about 20 percent of those jobs were delivered –has to be answered for.

    Don’t get me wrong. I like Len. But, don’t think at all that he’s Town Supervisor material.

    As for another mentioned candidate for the position, current Councilman Brian Drabkin, it is quite unbelievable that ANY party would welcome him to the top spot. Mr. Drabkin has a long history of utter neglect when it came to educating himself for the various positions he held. Perhaps the town’s largest donor to the Republican party he has been duly rewarded with chairman positions on both the Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals.

    As Chairman of the Planning Board, he often did not have a grasp of process , did not understand SEQRA at all, and always showed a favorable bias for projects that figured large on land use: Like mines and logging and sawmills. Never had any problem with allowing such extensive land use in purely residential districts without ANY mitigation whatsoever. When a mine was opening across the street from my brand new home, when I put forth the rationale for limiting the noise, vibrations, dust, diesel fumes and heavy truck traffic he asked me if my house was modern. You know, he said, with lots of windows and wood. When I replied that it did, he suggested I put down rugs. That was his solution for commercial mining in a pure residential zone; for allowing a mine that put out no more than 52 truck loads of material A YEAR to increase that activity to 52 truck trips A DAY! Put down rugs…

    I’ve seen many, many times at meetings Mr. Drabkin asking why this or that couldn’t be done. Inevitably the town attorney has to tell Mr. Drabkin that the relevant laws and/or codes don’t allow it. You’d think a man that keeps occupying government positions would at the very least earn his pay by educating himself to the laws and codes that govern his board’s behavior. But, nope…

    Another case involved Mr Drabkin as Zoning Board of Appeals chairman allowing a Use Variance when throughout the process he kept repeating (it’s in the minutes!) what is required for an area variance. The ZBA, under Drabkin’s tutelage passed the Use Variance. Upon complaint, Mr. Drabkin was forced to undergo training by the UC Planning Director Dennis Doyle and Town Attorney Mary Lou Christiana specifically as it related to Use Variance requirements. By the way, a Use Variance in New York State is virtually impossible to obtain as every single permitted use must be considered when protesting a lack of return on a property. At the time of this snafu, the applicant had something like five uses already on the property gaining return. What Drabkin did was inexcusable if not illegal.

    Mr. Drabkin also has a habit of leaving meetings whenever he becomes irate or frustrated or simply desires to be rude. He has refused to attend to his liaison duties since taking office which is paramount to taking taxpayer money but not doing the work.

    One recent incident is indicative of Mr Drabkin’s odd ways. HE put forth a motion to have the town’s Zoning Review Committee go back to the table to fashion a solar code for just commercial use. The motion included mention that upon completion of the task, the ZRC was to send representatives to the Town Board to update them on the changes. Upon completion ZRC members appeared before the town board to update the members. Drabkin objected and, when told by the Supervisor that the presentation would proceed, Mr. Drabking collected his things and promptly left the meeting. Remember, the resolution for exactly what happened was his own.

    If the Town of Rochester wants a Supervisor that can handle the job, there is now only a single candidate capable of doing that: Mike Baden

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