Ulster County budget takes on poverty, boosts arts, calls for free bus rides

County Executive Mike Hein outlined his vision of lean government and a commitment to progressive goals when he unveiled his proposed 2019 budget last week. The proposed spending plan includes new spending to address entrenched generational poverty and boost the county’s arts sector, while continuing to fund an ongoing upgrade of the county’s roads and bridges.

On Thursday, Oct. 4, Hein laid out his plan to a crowd of local politicians, business leaders and members of the nonprofit sector in a speech at the county’s new Family Court facility on Albany Avenue in the Town of Ulster.

In his address, Hein used the example of the new court building, which is located in the county’s former Business Resource Center as an example of how strategic planning could deliver “a government that respects taxpayers by reducing their burden while never sacrificing critical services for those in need.”

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Hein went on to describe the interconnected repurposing projects that allowed services and departments previously headquartered at the BRC to be shuffled around to make room for Family Court.

“Instead of building the traditional $20 million-plus courthouse … my administration instead proposed something very different,” Hein said. “A creative but complex strategy that could actually save our taxpayers millions.”

The proposed 2019 budget would total $328.9 million, a little more than $5 million over the 2018 spending plan. The property tax levy would fall by 0.25 percent to $76.51 million. To offset the tax levy, Hein’s budget relies on an $8.7 million appropriation from the county’s fund balance. That number, Hein noted, is nearly $4 million less than last year’s drawdown of the reserve fund.

The 2019 budget continues a slow and incremental tax cuts that has seen the county’s total tax levy fall a little more than $2 million below 2013 levels. The tax cuts followed a major paring down of the county’s workforce, including nearly 400 employees of the formerly county-run nursing home at Golden Hill.

Last year, Hein announced his budget at another new county facility, the “Restorative Justice and Community Empowerment Center.” The center, which will occupy an annex adjacent to the county probation office on Broadway in Kingston, is currently undergoing renovation and is slated to open early next year. The center is part of a larger “Brighter Futures Initiative” intended to address generational poverty by providing programming and resources to low-income, at-risk youth and their families. In addition to the money in the budget to fund operations at the center, another $4 million — courtesy of a grant from the Novo foundation — will fund anti-poverty programs aimed at Kingston’s poorest neighborhoods. Hein said the funding was part of a broader effort to address the cycle of poverty and the “school to prison pipeline” among low-income youth.

“The sad truth is, right now in America, if you are born into poverty through no fault of your own, then you are virtually guaranteed to die in poverty too,” said Hein. “That is wrong, so we have a responsibility as a nation to do something about it.”

Hein also announced a number of new initiatives or continuations of existing county programs including:

• A new “intermunicipal economic growth fund” controlled by the county will provide $200,000 in matching funds for villages and towns for “sustainable growth strategies,” including expanded parking, new signage and planning.

• Free UCAT bus service for all veterans, active-duty military and SUNY Ulster students. The budget also sets a July 1, 2019 target date for the merger of Kingston’s Citibus system into UCAT. The budget includes funding for an ad campaign and six months of free service during the transition.

• $25 million to continue the five-year “Building a Better Ulster County” infrastructure initiative. The money funds bridge replacements, improvements to county roads and rail trails, including the proposed 11-mile Ashokan Rail Trail and another trail connecting Cornell Street in Midtown Kingston with Kingston Plaza.

• The budget creates a new division within the Office of Economic Development to support the county’s arts economy and increases arts funding.

• The county will join a program through the New York State Association of Counties to create a “stop-loss consortium.” The group’s goal is the slow the rate of health insurance cost increases and prevent sudden, budget-breaking spikes.

• The budget will provide further funding for a program created last year to address the opioid crisis on a local level. New initiatives include better coordination of treatment services for inmates at the county jail and a partnership with Ellenville Regional Hospital to provide overdose survivors with access to counseling and treatment services.

Hein’s budget proposal will now go to the county legislature where lawmakers are expected to interview department heads and suggest changes in a series of meetings over the next six weeks. Legislative Minority Leader Hector Rodriguez (D-New Paltz) said he was encouraged by what he had seen so far, but added that it was too soon to tell what, if any changes might be needed to with lawmakers approval.

“I think it’s promising, but there’s a reason why it’s called a proposed budget,” said Rodriguez. “Now we have to look at the proof that’s in the pudding.” 

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