Hugh Reynolds: About Sleeping Dogs

(Photo by Julie O’Connor)

Remember that famous Sherlock Holmes clue, “The dog didn’t bark?”

Last month, the Ulster County Legislature scheduled a public hearing on a proposal to designate the Office of Economic Development, currently part of the Planning Department, as a separate department. I took the attainment of departmental status as a promotion of sorts.

The public hearing was held last week. Nobody barked. When they ran this one up the flagpole, nobody saluted. Seventeen speakers, ranging from regional chamber of commerce head Ward Todd to Marlborough Town Supervisor Al Lanzetta practically fell over themselves in effusive praise of Office of Economic Development Director Suzanne Holt and her operation. But they all opposed the change.

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If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, was a common theme. The wonder is they didn’t bring a brass band.

“How the hell did this get out of committee?” I asked Planning Director Dennis Doyle. The usually loquacious Doyle, having also praised Holt and her staff to the skies, merely raised his eyebrows.

I asked the same question of committee Chairman Jim Maloney. He explained that legislative committees sometimes advance legislation to public hearing if only to hear from the public.

“No one spoke against it,” Maloney said. “There could have been another 100,” he added. It was obviously a well-orchestrated demonstration.

By rule, legislators don’t speak at public hearing even if called upon by speakers. But Maloney makes no secret of his standing. “Personally, I think the current setup is working fine. They do a good job.”

He thinks the funding should be increased. The office will receive something less than $250,000 in this year’s budget, with Holt’s $95,808 salary its main expenditure.

Have jobs been created?

Good job? I asked Maloney. Based on what, exactly? I asked whether he had ever seen an annual report on job creation or retention. He said he couldn’t recall, exactly, any such reports — the committee has legislative oversight of the agency — and nobody at the hearing spoke directly to that subject.

Speakers hailed Holt’s accessibility, her willingness to meet with anyone at any time, and the office’s record of steering applicants through a maze of agencies (they call it one-stop shopping).

Lanzetta praised the agency’s keeping of confidences between private and public entities during the development process, as if government secrecy was some kind of virtue. A certain degree of discretion is necessary during preliminary discussions, of course, but at the end shouldn’t somebody be reporting about what was accomplished or not? Here, I refer readers to the legislature’s apparent willing cluelessness about economic development in this county.

Repeated efforts to reach Holt’s office for comment on this proposed realignment were ignored.

That this office is probably more effective than what used to pass for economic development on a county level was cited by Todd, a former chairman of the legislature. Todd noted that the old Ulster County Development Corporation (pre-executive era) was unwieldy, with up to 36 directors on its board. Holt’s three-person agency has access to other county agencies. Under the direct control of the executive, it has been more quickly responsive and decisive, or so said speakers.

Some of this has to do with county politics, as usual. Minority Leader Hector Rodriguez, Democrat of New Paltz, is said to be the driving force behind this proposed realignment, though with barely discernible traction. Efforts to reach Rodriguez produced only missed messages.

Taking economic development from under the thumb of the executive and shifting some oversight authority to the legislature strikes me as an exercise in futility. What the legislature should be addressing is transparency, full disclosure and accountability in a program that seems more about wishing and hoping than demonstrated success.

Make no mistake. Economic development is vital to the county’s future. It shouldn’t hide its light under a bushel basket.

Elsewhere, it would seem that the lure of hefty revenues from short-term rentals, commonly called “Airbnb,” though the famous app isn’t the only way these deals get done, has finally caught the eye of the county executive. On Monday, March 19, County Exec Mike Hein put out another one of his “comprehensive plans” — this one to assist local municipalities in dealing with a growing surge of short-term domestic rentals outside the usual motel/hotel, bed-and-breakfast activity.

Left unmentioned in a lengthy press release was that County Comptroller Elliott Auerbach advised much the same almost exactly two years ago, to the collective sounds of silence from the executive and legislative branches.

By Auerbach’s March 2016 calculations, the county was “leaving on the table” some $500,000 a year in what he called easy revenue. Airbnb collected the rentals and supplied the statistics, he said, indicating some $14 million in yearly income. And that’s just one outfit, albeit the biggest. The county charges a 2 percent bed tax on more traditional rentals.

“It’s good to see the exec finally on board,” said Auerbach.

Town supervisors, some of whom praised the executive in his Monday press release, were briefed Tuesday morning at their monthly meeting in Kingston.

He walks like a duck

Given the timelines for weekly newspapers, Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro may have already officially declared for governor by the time this hits newsstands and subscribers.

If so, it has been a long, odd process. He walked like a duck. He campaigned around the state like a duck, but didn’t quack. Recall, Molinaro announced formation of an exploratory committee last year, toured the state, withdrew, and then said he might reconsider.

The last pre-announcement blurb from a site called “Molinaroforny” came out just before quitting time on Monday. To wit: “The race for governor is going Hollywood and our chances to win in November just got a whole lot better!”

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Molinaro was referring to TV’s Cynthia Nixon’s announcement that she would primary governor Andrew Cuomo in June.

I don’t think anybody named Nixon will ever be governor of New York, nor does at least one prominent pollster. A Siena Institute poll released on Monday showing Nixon down 66-19 to Cuomo. Molinaro polled marginally better at 57-29, giving pause to Molinaro’s claim that “a race we knew would be competitive is now a race we can and will win.”

They say those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. Zephyr Teachout primaried Cuomo four years ago, carried most of upstate, but wound up with just 33 percent of the vote. Celebrity aside, Teachout was at least twice the candidate. In any event, she’s joined the Nixon campaign as its treasurer.

Law and order

It looks as though the Town of Ulster is getting serious about providing suitable permanent quarters for its police department. Town officials say they hope to finalize plans next month for building a new police station on town-owned land at the transfer station, about a mile from the town hall in Lake Katrine.

Cops were “temporarily” housed in crappy rented trailers (at about $950 a month) next to town hall in 2010, then the hurricane hit in late 2011. Here, I’m not referring to Town Supervisor Jim Quigley, who took office in January of that year. The delays, he said, “are entirely mine, but you play with the cards you’re dealt.”

Quigley said the town could not afford a major capital project, what with sinking assessments and rising fixed costs. Translation: Forget about a new town hall, estimated at $10 million, unless IBM decides to return. A purpose-built police station with a town-court component would presumably be more affordable. Film at 11.

Here and there

Not to discourage more newcomers or wanna-be’s, but isn’t this “crowded field” for Congress getting just a little ridiculous? Last week, Luisa Parker of Callicoon out in Sullivan County threw her hat in the ring for the Democratic nomination, the eighth announced candidate. Diane Neal of Hurley announced as an independent candidate almost two months ago. We now have three women and six men competing to run against incumbent Republican John Faso in November. Deadline for securing signatures on nominating petitions is April 12.

And finally, some corrections. I tried to give readers a phonetic pronunciation of Assembly candidate Abe Uchitelle’s surname, but failed, according to Abe. It’s pronounced “you-sha-tel,” he told me. He’s running in a primary against incumbent Kevin Cahill, which can also be pronounced “kahl” by old-timers.

I had the Town of Marlborough in George Amedore’s state Senate district. That turf belongs to Bill Larkin.

There is one comment

  1. Bruce E. Woych

    …. shouldn’t somebody be reporting about what was accomplished or not? Here, I refer readers to the legislature’s apparent willing cluelessness about economic development in this county?”

    It seems that not only is the legislature looking to empower itself with authroity without demonstrated competance at actual oversight measures that will keep a pilot burning under actual performace. It seems, if I read this right, that the public revenue is being tapped as a knee jerk political response, and no real evidence of need or accountability is in open debate. Apparently Hugh Reynolds is the only watchdog on the case, and he is barking. (Thank you for old fashion journalism being provided; that too seems to be a premium in Ulster county these days grown scarce).
    It would be a fairly objective focus to open a public account of Legislative incentives, motivations and directions which rarely gets air with the exception of election times, and then only under conditional cover. Having raise the bar in that regare, at least for a sub-divison contract agency (that is not officially, as I understand it, a Governent elected branch despite its somewhat deceptive name); the quest for open reporting seems reasonable. Discretion between public and private interests is a darker concern when public scrutiny is left out of the picture all together. In that regard Hugh Reynold’s words are right ‘On the Money” > “What the legislature should be addressing is transparency, full disclosure and accountability in a program that seems more about wishing and hoping than demonstrated success.” Accountability must be assessed, but accountability to whom is a foundational question and should be made to the bottom up public, as well as a top down legislature seeking greater power authroity and raising revenue in the same motion. There is always a principle / agency question where public money is being invested in development.
    Having commented in that regard, there is no doubt that the Agency has a function that can serve Ulster county well; but keeping a tab on outcome seems basic common sense approach to open government generally.

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