Those who try to figure out how power flows in Ulster County government might find the following of interest. Let’s call it the last autopsy.
At issue was a three-year contract proposed by the Mike Hein administration to shift county autopsy services from a visiting pathologist to HealthAlliance of the Hudson Valley. (We used to call them Kingston and Benedictine hospitals, now they’re part of Westchester Medical.).
It seemed to make better sense to provide better service in-house. But some of the financial figures didn’t make sense. County Comptroller Elliott Auerbach called the change in cost “an alarming spike, largely unexplained.”
“The original  one-year contract with HealthAlliance was for $337,000, to include pathologist, toxicology and histology,” Auerbach said. “The proposed contract was for $491,000 a year for three years, for what looked like almost the same number of autopsies. There was also a sharp increase in personnel expenses.”
The comptroller conceded that services were being delivered sooner under the present contract, but “most things being the same” questioned the cost.
Administration officials cited a sharp increase in opioid-related deaths in 2016 as the reason for rising costs. Medical examiner records showed 142 autopsies overall in 2015, compared to 148 in 2016.
The matter was hashed out in committee meetings, with Auerbach’s people on one side of the table and the Hein administration’s on the other. The unanimous vote was to send the contract extension to the full legislature. Last week the legislature voted unanimously to approve it, with a 120-day exit clause.
Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rich Gerentine of Marlborough, calling himself “very concerned about the costs and very conservative with taxpayer money,” said his committee would ask for written reports from the comptroller and the administration, which it would appear they already have. Then they would make a final determination.
To me, “ready, fire, aim” comes to mind.
Enter politics. Auerbach is persona non grata in the executive wing and in the legislature. The same night legislators voted on the autopsy contract they again rejected Auerbach’s appeal to reinstate the position of his confidential secretary. Hein had removed that in the 2017 budget.
Both branches of government have made it abundantly clear they do not want the elected comptroller at the table, much less in the room. Absent forehead-slapping evidence, heretofore unrevealed, the legislature is not likely to reverse a unanimous decision.
But at least it paused and will for the record (again) review the comptroller’s findings.
For a watchdog relegated to the doghouse, that would represent progress. Maybe for the public as well.
With all the attention focused on the June 26 congressional Democratic primary, it’s easy to overlook primaries for Assembly and sheriff scheduled for just before the end of summer.
Apparently, the winter groundswell of party opposition to three-term Sheriff Paul VanBlarcum has erupted into something tangible. “I don’t expect to get the nomination [at the party’s May 21 convention], so it looks like a primary,” VanBlarcum told me last week. Retired state trooper Juan Figueroa of Plattekill announced for the Democratic nomination last winter.
Progressive Democrats, who control party mechanisms these days, don’t like VanBlarcum’s positions on guns and immigration. And there are lawsuits in the works alleging sexual and/or racial discrimination against the sheriff. Worst of all was that photo of him shaking hands with Donald Trump in the Oval Office. Ye gods!
“Nobody looks at my [law enforcement] record,” lamented the sheriff.
Should VanBlarcum lose the Sept. 13 primary, it now looks more than likely that Republicans, who endorsed him four years ago, will be more than happy again to offer their banner.
Meanwhile, Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, challenged at primary for the first time after eleven terms, has been busy shoring up his base.
Cahill, challenged by Kingston businessman Abe Uchitelle, held a fundraiser at the Rough Draft bistro/bookstore on Crown Street, only a few blocks away from Uchitelle’s Dragon 360 digital consulting business. About 100 supporters turned out last week, many from campaigns past, paying $35 for a few brief words with the guest of honor.
Uchitelle will sponsor a “Citizen’s Jeopardy Political Trivia” contest at the same Rough Draft, on Wednesday, May 2 from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. There’s no charge, but donations will be accepted.
Final jeopardy: He’s running an uphill but creative campaign for Assembly against a long-entrenched opponent … The answer: Who is Abe?
Benjamin plays Trump card
Among the notables at Cahill’s crowded fundraiser was former Republican legislature chairman Gerry Benjamin. Former Republican?
Sure enough. Benjamin who immigrated to our fair county from New York City as a Democrat some 40 years ago, switched parties for political reasons and won several terms in the legislature as a Republican from New Paltz. Benjamin, who runs a think tank on regional issues at SUNY New Paltz, confirmed that he is now an ex-Republican. He said that a Republican drove him to it.
“Donald Trump,” he said when asked. “I was embarrassed to belong to the same party.” He has not joined the Democratic Party. That might be at this point a bridge too far. He’s a non-enrollee, he said. Officially “Not Of Party” (NOPs) outnumber Republicans in Ulster by some 5,000 members.
Cahill opined that Benjamin was not alone. Trump, death and moving to Florida, he said, were the major factors for declining Republican numbers. Democratic numbers, meanwhile, are going off the charts.
What’s in a name?
Independent congressional candidate Diane Neal of Hurley made a big splash in announcing her independent candidacy at a Super Bowl Sunday forum in Woodstock, but nary a ripple since.
I found her personable, witty, a bit outrageous and outgoing. She worked the front of the Hornbeck Community Center like an old pro, with particular attention to the press table.
“You know, I have to come up with a name for my party,” she said. “There must be 40 of them on file. Got any ideas?”
I thought WTF might work. She thought that hilarious. There’s many a truth said in jest.
Contradictions in terms
This was one of those issues where sponsors got tangled up in their own footwork.
The move to extend county legislative terms from two to four years but to cap service at twelve years failed this month. “Huh?” said opponents. Two concepts in one piece of legislation? Heresy.
“I’m confused, and I think the voters [at referendum] would be, too,” said Kathy Nolan, Democrat of Shandaken. Voter confusion usually spells defeat.
Originally proposed by legislature Chairman Ken Ronk, the legislation was carried by newcomer Joe Maloney, non-enrolled of Saugerties.
The measure narrowly failed, 10-to-10, along party lines, with Dean Fabiano, Republican of Saugerties, joining Democrats.
There were light moments. At one point, Ronk offered the opinion that there were more bad legislators after a dozen years than good ones. Several legislators glanced in the direction of Democrat Dave Donaldson of Kingston and Gerentine, both 20-year men.
There is the possibility of bringing this legislation back to the floor, amended.