When he was elected Ulster’s first county executive ever 10 years ago, Mike Hein faced a blank canvas. He painted on it — energetically and vividly — and while not everyone in the county liked parts of the picture and some hate it altogether, the way I see it he left the county a better place than it was when he took up his brush.
Hein strode upon the stage of public life boldly, making himself into a relentless spokesman and advocate for our county. He’s set an example of leadership, professionalism and organizational skill his successors will not find easy (or maybe even desirable) to follow. And while many will view him as too strong for his own good and too locked into to his own way of doing things, I’m not sure someone less assertive and more seeking of consensus could have gotten as much done as he did.
He fundamentally changed county government in many ways, not least by getting it out of the nursing home business. That big change, which has its critics, helps a lot in keeping county property taxes down. While school taxes are a bigger deal, county taxes which go down a smidge each year is not insignificant.
I offer my sympathies to those who loved the Catskill Mountain Railroad and wanted more track for it. In the end, I think the rail vs. trail things comes down to personal taste, i.e. would one rather walk and enjoy the peace nature provides or ride and take a mind-trip back to a faded age of romantic infrastructure? Whatever the choice — I’m for the trail — the bigger deal may be the better relationship between the county and the city. Between the two, there’s peace in the valley rather than the century-long rumble in the alley. The potential benefits of that improved relationship outweigh the benefits of having a tourist train all the way to the reservoir.
Also praiseworthy is his administration’s efforts to make ours the “greenest” of New York counties. While we 180,000-plus Ulsterites won’t solve global warming on our own, we need to at least do our part and maybe inspire others to try harder as well.’
We didn’t like the way the whole sales tax thing went down, but Hein has proven himself to be a legitimate friend to Midtown Kingston. His work in the neighborhood, first in getting SUNY Ulster to open an auxiliary campus in an old grade school and more recently in the opening of the county’s Restorative Justice and Community Empowerment Center, is going to change lives in that community for the better. Marcus Molinaro in Dutchess and Steve Neuhaus in Orange would be well-advised to study, and copy, what Hein’s done in Kingston for Poughkeepsie and Newburgh.
Hein’s zeal and belief in what he was doing was what absolutely had to be done had, to be sure, a downside. If you didn’t see things the way he did, he was not in shy in the least about telling you where you were wrong. Sometimes this made him more enemies than he needed to make. But in journalism, if not so much in politics, you can’t judge someone solely on how many times they piss you off.
What’s next for Hein, besides a decent raise and a tolerable commute from Hurley to Albany? Who can say — it’s hard to believe commissioner of the ODTA is the last job he’ll ever have in public service. But I think for now, that state department, which does important work in helping people, will benefit from his leadership, and we’ll see what the future brings.
What’s next for Ulster? That’s a good question and a complicated one, with many possible answers. It could well end up a political knife fight for the ages, but it’s also a chance for the voters to take stock of where we are and think where we might want to head as a county. I expect some progressive voices to speak up, and maybe some conservative ones too. A progressive exec might, for instance, want the county to de-privatize mental health services or spend more money on that vital sector. A conservative exec might seek to cut taxes further by contracting out more of what the county does to outside entities.
For the legislative branch, which found itself unable to match Hein’s energy (and paid staff) it’s a chance to recalibrate the balance of power. But that largely depends on who the next inhabitant of the sixth-floor suite actually is — from village mayors to presidents, Democrats and Republicans alike, few executive branch types voluntarily give up what’s been passed down to them.
Say what, Marcus Molinaro?
Twitter is awful — a thoroughly toxic nightmare, a vast bowl of weaponized social media pus and a dangerous vector of the disease afflicting democracy. But I see it as my duty as the editor to look at it in case anything relevant emerges from the distasteful ooze. On Friday evening, Dutchess County Exec Marcus Molinaro tweeted the following: “Let me quickly dispel the rumor that I’m advancing a proposal to consolidate Ulster and Dutchess. One Executive & NYS previously agreed to fund such consolidation. (Or is it not a rumor? Our very best to Mike Hein).”
Make of that what you will — consolidation makes sense in the abstract but it has proven awfully difficult to enact in the real world, as nobody wants to give up control or their individual fiefdoms. But if it happened, what would we call it? “Dulster” seems to lack sparkle. “Ulstchess” isn’t that much better, but at least could be marketed as a boardgame?
Just one more thing
Next time they bring the county charter in the shop for an overhaul, they need to make it so if a county executive quits in the same year that he or she or they was going to be up for re-election anyway, there need not be a special election. Spending upwards of $375,000 for an election that will just be re-run a few months later is, frankly, ridiculous.