Hugh Reynolds: Thoughts on budgets

As we squeeze the last few bucks out of holiday shopping, municipal budgets from county to the smallest towns are all snuggled up for the next round 10 months from now.

One factor of budget-making seems clear to even the casual observer. The bottom line isn’t how much they spend, but how close they get to last year’s tax levy.

Take Kingston. The mayor proposes spending another million dollars next year and the council’s finance chairman says let it ride. At the same time, the mayor taps the fund balance for a near equal amount. Bottom line, the tax levy drops an infinitesimal percentage.

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On the county level, spending goes down a (percentage) tick, the tax levy drops a tad and they apply $12 million from reserves to balance the budget.

About those fund transfers. While I write about it every year, I’ve never pretended to be a fiscal genius. If my checkbook comes out within five bucks to where I think it should be, it’s been a good month.

I think people should be concerned about these annual ups and downs, ins and outs of fund balances. Saving money for the proverbial rainy day is prudent. I’ve got a few bucks stashed under the bed next to the missing sock on top of the fuzz balls.

When government officials routinely appropriate rather large sums to balance their budgets, it seems to me the books weren’t really balanced in the first place. It’s like a floating crap game, with the public putting up the stakes.

Legislative oversight, I think, is a figment of the imagination. Sure, it sounds responsible for legislators on the campaign trail to tell constituents, “We hold the purse strings.” But in practice the budget is drawn by the executive, nibbled on by those legislators who care, and passed unanimously with minimal change. On town boards, trade the title executive for supervisor and council members for legislature. It’s pretty much the same scenario.

At least city and town officials muddle through on their own. The county hires a Westchester County accounting firm to review the executive’s proposal, for about $75,000 a year. Guys in suits with bulging briefcases and power-point presentations go over the exec’s budget line by line in public session with legislators. Bottom line, the tax rate rarely changes.

Reins on Auerbach tightened

County Comptroller Elliott Auerbach has made a few passes at this bipolar yo-yo process, only to be slapped down and punished by both the executive and the legislature.

As for the politics, Auerbach had to know he didn’t have a prayer for restoring a position removed from his annual budget last year. But he got close, missing by just one vote (out of 20) at last week’s legislative budget session. As a result, Auerbach, a charter-designated elected official, remains the only county department head without a confidential secretary.

I’ll concede for argument’s purposes that the former confidential secretary, New Paltz Councilman Dan Torres, spent more time on politics than filing or taking dictation, but politicking on county time has rarely been punished. A chastised Auerbach pledges that wouldn’t be happening going forward.

Even legislators harboring grudges for Auerbach’s having had the audacity to question some of their mileage vouchers a few years ago must have gagged on the logic offered by anti-Auerbachs for shooting down his restoration plea. Ways and Means Chairman Rich Gerentine apparently caught the comptroller off guard when he asked just what this secretary would be doing. Secretarial stuff, Auerbach replied in committee, like filing, answering the phones, postage, you know.

Not good enough, said the finance chairman, not for almost $80,000 a year (including benefits). Maybe Auerbach should have added doing one’s nails. Does the finance committee ask those questions of any other department head? I doubt it.

Gerentine also took umbrage at Auerbach suing the county for legal fees involving his attempt to have the courts reverse the budget decision. The comptroller lost on both counts, costing the county $8,988 in (outside) legal fees, according to official records. Auerbach paid his own legal expenses.

Off-line, Auerbach laments that he has “trained auditors” doing “secretarial work,” a notable waste of professional talent.

We move on.

Sales-tax redux

Officials in New Paltz, rather all of a sudden, have discovered they’re not getting what they contend is their fair share of sales tax revenues generated in their ZIP code area.

Alas, for the county’s 20 towns (and villages), “fair share” is dictated by Ulster County and the City of Kingston under contracts negotiated every 10 years. The current contract, negotiated by incoming Kingston Mayor Steve Noble and County Executive Mike Hein and ratified by their respective legislatures, dates to June 2016.

Under that contract, the county will retain 85.5 percent of the estimated $235 million in overall sales tax revenues next year (up some $17 million from this year) with the city getting 11.5 percent. The towns split what’s left, which is where New Paltz came in.

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Why is it, asks village Mayor Tim Rogers in a recent letter to the editor, that according to the state New Paltz generates some $11.3 million in sales taxes in its ZIP code but gets  back only $225,000? The answer is, read the contract. Only the city and the county have legal rights to sales tax distribution, under law. Everyone else gets crumbs.

Neither party has seen fit to increase the miniscule percentage the towns get. Under the contract negotiated last year, the county squeezed just a bit harder in negotiating a sales tax cap (beginning in 2019) on the city.

Unless things change dramatically, which they usually don’t, country-centric county legislators will continue to place as their first priority protection and retention, if not expansion, of county revenues. Places like New Paltz, Saugerties and Ulster, which generate substantial sales tax revenues for the county, have the numbers but not the votes.

For those who follow national news more closely than local, there’s an interesting parallel here. To borrow former congressman Maurice Hinchey’s colorful phrase, red-state Republicans are “placing the boot on the neck” of blue-state Democrats by limiting deductions on state and local taxes. The blues are battling back with the fact the so-called “high-tax states” send considerably more revenue to Washington than they receive from the feds. Former New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan made that case 40 years ago, to no avail.

Here and there

As Woodstock attorney Rod Futerfas pointed out when he ran for district attorney in 1979 against the impregnable Mike Kavanagh, the name Futerfas doesn’t exactly ring bells. Flashing forward, I noticed a recent New York Post article regarding one Alan Futerfas, Manhattan lawyer, as representing Donald Trump Jr. in this never-ending and as-yet-inconclusive Russian business. Sensing a possible local angle, I rang up Rod. He’d heard about it, he said, and he was not pleased.

Alan Futerfas, unusual surname notwithstanding, “is not a relative,” declared Rod, “and if he were, given the Trump connection, I would absolutely deny it.” No wonder. Trump took just 18 percent of the Woodstock vote last year, according to the board of elections.

The FBI used to go after gangsters like Pretty Boy Floyd, Machine Gun Kelly and John Dillinger, German spies in World War II, suspected communists and (eventually) the Mafia, but these days seem to be everywhere.

The FBI is investigating Andrew Cuomo’s budget practices. It seems, according to published reports, that Cuomo, after hiring a bunch of Barack Obama alumni last January, hid them in various state agencies he controls in order to hold down his own executive budget. While this may be rank deception, it’s hardly unusual in the murky world of Albany politics. Or closer to home, I suspect.

Which is to say, don’t the G-Men (and Women) have better things to do than gumshoe a potential Democratic presidential candidate?

Next week

The annual holiday gift list. Will the Grinch be kind? Ho, ho and ho.