Ulster County residents will see no change to their tax bills under a budget proposal put forth by County Executive Pat Ryan last Thursday morning, October 1.
Ryan’s proposed 2021 spending plan totals $333.82 million, $9.06 million less than the current budget and calls for no change to the tax levy. Property taxes are expected to account for $76.32 million of the county’s income; another $245.74 million will be generated by anticipated revenue including sales taxes and state and federal aid. The budget also uses $11.76 million from the county’s reserve funds.
The executive’s tentative budget is subject to approval and changes by the county legislature, which next meets (virtually) Tuesday, October 20.
Ryan’s 45-minute speech on the 2021 budget contained no single mention of two elements by which the county’s financial projections will sink or swim: the necessity of substantial federal aid to cash-strapped local governments, and how this particular local government will manage its budget in case the on-going pandemic delivers a second lethal hit to local; sales-tax revenues in the coming months. Instead, Ryan painted a hold-the-line no-layoffs picture at Quimby Auditorium on the SUNY Ulster campus in Stone Ridge. He was warmly applauded by the 40 or so socially distanced persons in the audience of the cavernous space.
With revenues down, cuts were needed to keep taxes unchanged. This includes $1.23 million in cuts to the sheriff’s department, previously announced as a “right-sizing” of the under-capacity county jail. The staff reductions were possible without layoffs due to attrition, according to the sheriff.
Other major cuts include $2.2 million to social services and $1.42 million to the public works budget.
Throughout his presentation, Ryan referred to the lessons of the county and community response to Covid-19, which he viewed successful. The major emphasis of this budget address was not the budget at all but the unveiling of an aspirational vision for Ulster County’s future.
It was the destination that was important.
“If we can arrive at the destination,” wrote Ryan in a glossy 32-page report entitled Building a People-Centered Economy that was distributed at Quimby Auditorium along with a considerably more modest four-page 2021 budget summary, “we will have built something special.” In his introductory letter to the report, Ryan asks the reader “to commit with us to the steps ahead that will lead us there.”
It was the buy-in that was central. Important though it was, balancing the budget – “We got through one hell of a year,” Ryan said – was to serve a greater goal: “We can build a real community here,”
The full-color cover of Building a People-Centered Economy showed four circles representing clusters of industries and occupations upon which the Ulster County economy is based. These were the agriculture food and beverage cluster, the makers and creators cluster, the clean energy and environment cluster, and the health, wellness and care cluster. In his budget presentation, Ryan briefly described each.
Ryan praised the “Project Resilience” program that provided food deliveries from local restaurants to residents in need. He said the goal of county government was “putting people first” through two interdependent goals: to grow a more equitable economy and to leave no one behind. That was putting people first at ts best.
Ryan discussed several specific initiatives for 2021. Two involve investments in new uses for two of the largest and emptiest buildings in the county, the Hudson Valley Mall and TechCity (a former IBM site) in the town of Ulster.
“We will make investments to transform the Hudson Valley Mall, which we all know has been slowly dying for over a decade, into a thriving hub for our future agricultural economy,” said Ryan. He was referring to a partnership with the Hull Group (the mall’s owners), Farm Bridge, Novo Foundation, NY State Empire Development and others. Ryan said the county was already known for its agriculture, and the new venture would build on that reputation and be geared toward providing high-quality organic food to the New York City metro area.
At TechCity, now a county property following its seizure for unpaid taxes, $225,000 will be allocated this year to ensure its upkeep. Future plans call for redeveloping the site as a “hub for artists, designers, manufacturers, and creatives.” $2.9 million over several years is earmarked to fund this transformation.
Ryan also spoke about investments in mental health, an issue he highlighted previously this year following a sharp increase in overdoses and suicides and more recently to argue HealthAlliance should restore inpatient mental-health services to Kingston. The proposed budget allocates $150,000 to place a full-time social worker into the county’s Emergency Management Department. “Residents who call 911 and are experiencing a mental health crisis, will be able to be met with the response of a social worker opposed to law enforcement,” states a budget summary. “This will ensure a trauma informed care response instead of incarceration.”
A total of $13.7 million will be allocated for mental health, with $871,664 going to mobile mental health, a help-line that connects residents with a trained counselor when “stress, depression or other mental health issues create a personal crisis” at no charge.
A total of $670,000 is dedicated to opiate use prevention. This includes housing vouchers at local hotels for those in need of housing while seeking treatment, and childcare vouchers to allow individuals to attend appointments. It also would assist residents in transportation costs and getting access to technology for telemedicine. Further resources would be used to fund a care manager who would work to ensure those struggling with addiction don’t slip through the cracks.
The budget also includes some good old-fashioned infrastructure projects. This includes $4.4 million to rebuild the Shawangunk Kill Bridge in Shawangunk, nearly $3 million to upgrade the Maltby Hollow Bridge in Olive, over $2 million on the Sundown Bridge in Denning, and $10 million on overall road paving across the county.
The scattering of county legislators in the audience and their colleagues now face the task of combining the aspirational and the practical into a working budget document. It won’t be easy.
With additional reporting by Geddy Sveikauskas.