A bully pulpit is a conspicuous position that provides an opportunity to speak out and be listened to. This term was coined by United States president Theodore Roosevelt, who referred to his office as a bully pulpit, by which he meant a terrific platform from which to advocate an agenda.
The Ulster County executive’s office often carries a plywood podium with the Ulster County seal on its front to wherever the county executive is the major speaker. The pictures the media take at such events appear on screens and in printed publications. Sometimes what the county executive has to say is new and important. At other times, the news release merely repeats what already has been said in a slightly altered configuration of familiar words.
Truth to tell, the release last Thursday about the creation of the “first-ever Department of Economic Development” was more the latter than the former. But isn’t repetition supposed to be the mother of learning? Repetitio mater studiorum est.
Economic development was previously handled by personnel embedded in the county planning department. Executive Pat Ryan wants to emphasize the importance of a new separate department and other measures to support his initiative “to grow and diversify our economy for all.” He’s already announced the appointment of Lisa Berger to head the new department and earlier in October released a budget for it.
At a press conference last Thursday Ryan spent a few moments making the announcement behind the podium in one corner of the small room on the sixth floor of the county office building in Kingston. Then he moved to the other side of the room and sat at a table covered with a blue tablecloth with a placard announcing “Grow and diversify our economy for all” hanging to its front. Two small images of the county seal flanked the placard. A pair of county legislators and a handful of other notables stood behind Ryan. A photo op!
Very little is more certain than the appointment of Berger and the passage of a 2020 county budget confirming funding for the office. “This new department structure allows for robust leadership, transparent approaches to delivering economic development for all,” said the announcement of the 2020 executive preliminary budget on October 3, “and will allow the county to put funds behind a new approach to economic development in Ulster County by increasing spending by nearly 25 percent.”
The 2020 executive budget proposes four positions in the new Department of Economic Development. Regular pay for the four positions is budgeted at $292,046, including $98,101 for the director. Retirement, Social Security payments and health benefits will add $143,750 to that number.
In the 2020 budget, Berger will, for all practical purposes, be replacing the previous deputy director for economic development in the planning department, Suzanne Holt. And a new position of deputy director of economic development will replace one of the planning department’s business service administrators at similar pay.
An additional $275,000 is tucked into the $757,096 total departmental budget for professional services such as consultants. That’s where the new spending will actually go.
At the same time, the departure of the positions for business services from the Planning Department has reduced the planning budget (expenses minus revenues) from $1.81 million in the amended 2019 budget to $924,000 in the recommended 2020 executive budget. That transfer will be where planning expenses will be cut, allowing the prudent accommodation of the new positions in the new department.
The revised organizational structure for Ulster County economic development is merely the vehicle for the accomplishment of Pat Ryan’s ambitions. It’s a starting point. How well it will succeed will depend on the smarts, skills and inspiration breathed into it by its participants. Growing and diversifying our economy won’t be easy, but it’s a highly desirable goal.