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Million-dollar amendment

by Hugh Reynolds
December 16, 2010 12:20 PM | 0 0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
While Ulster County executive Mike Hein praised the legislature for adopting his budget almost as presented, deep down he was probably hoping for one more legislative vote. The vote for adoption was only 30-1.

Last year, with a divided Democratic majority unable to muster 17 votes, Hein’s budget went into effect by default. This year, with Republicans holding an 18-15 majority, legislators took all of nine weeks to study, debate and eventually add a minuscule $500,000 to a $351.5-million spending proposal. For the record, that’s 99.3 percent pure, almost better than Ivory Snow.

But perhaps we’re being too harsh on a Republican majority that gives all the appearance of sheep, with Hein playing the role of shepherd.

There were at least two attempts by dissident Republicans to hold Hein’s feet to the fire during the budget process that ultimately went almost exactly his way. In this legislature, a dissident Republican is defined as one who doesn’t automatically roll over when summed by the Democratic executive.

The first effort, as detailed briefly in our budget story last week, was designed to force Hein to choose between retaining executive staff and saving union jobs. A handful of Republicans proposed firing PR specialists Vin Martello and J.J. Hanson, along with March Gallagher, assigned to economic development in the planning department. The savings of over $200,000 in salaries would have retained six union jobs red-lined by the executive in his 2011 budget.

The gambit never got out of the finance committee, Chairman Rich Gerentine and colleagues ruling that going after Hein’s executive staff was political at best, “personal” at worst. Unsaid was that the righteous wrath of an easily offended Hein might have been visited upon the legislature, perhaps unto the innocent heads of the many relatives legislators have hired over the years.

The second, to redirect a federal-funding windfall to property taxpayers, at least got to the floor of the legislature last week. Freshmen Republicans Mike Sweeney of Saugerties and Carl Belfiglio of Port Ewen, advancing news of a last-minute $2.1-million federal grant recently confirmed, suggested applying a million bucks to reduce the $76 million “zero-tax-increase” levy Hein had proposed for 2011. This would have placed the executive in the difficult position of choosing to hold the windfall for that proverbial rainy day or submitting to legislative one-upsmanship. I mean, how you top “zero?” Sub-zero?

Fortunately for the executive, it never got to that. Sweeney and Belfiglio, despite impassioned pleas, were able to muster only seven other (Republican) supporters: Terry Bernardo, Jack Hayes, Jim Maloney, Laura Petit, Kevin Roberts, Ken Ronk and Catherine Terrizzi. Democrats, loyal to their Democratic executive, scoffed at the whole idea.

This year’s budget process again confirmed the executive’s control of county government. “Maybe we 33 knuckleheads are obsolete,” a disgruntled Brian Shapiro groused after watching several do-good budget amendments fail.

Maybe?

Republican impotence — some say collusion — will have consequences, probably within the next few months. By refusing to challenge Hein on what were legitimate budget issues, how do Republican leaders go about recruiting candidates to challenge the executive for reelection?

The short answer is, they don’t, unless they develop some backbone. For them, the best opportunity may have gone out the window last week.

A couple of notes

Given Hein’s almost 100 percent approval rating on the only two budgets he has submitted as executive, wags have it that the 2012 (election year) budget he will offer next October could be written in stone.

My apologies to readers for an inconsequential but none the less serious screw-up. I reported last week that only Sweeney and Belfiglio voted to reduce the tax levy by a million dollars. As noted above, nine of 31 legislators voted in favor. It’s no excuse, but I left the room before the vote was taken. Not good.

Financial consultants to the legislature warned that 2012 will be a very difficult year. The same consultants also warned that 2011 would be a very difficult year. Based on Hein’s sunny (zero-tax-increase) projections, this Chicken Little act is getting a little thin.

A number of legislators were wondering aloud at last week’s meeting whether the $70,000 the county paid budget consultants was worth it.

Harrowing memories

At last count, assembly candidates Tom Kirwan and Frank Skartados were within 60-some votes of each other in their undecided race in the mostly Newburgh area. With more than 30,000 votes cast and about 300 left to count, Kirwan held a narrow lead.

If anybody can appreciate what the candidates and their supporters are experiencing, it’s Ulster comptroller Elliott Auerbach. Two years ago, Democrat Auerbach went home election night losing by an unofficial 584 votes to Republican Jim Quigley. A month-long counting of over 3500 absentee ballots and affidavits gave him a 174-vote victory. Auerbach was reelected last month by over 5800 votes.

“My wife said she thought what we went through was bad, but this?” Auerbach said.

“I feel their pain. It’s a long, drawn-out process. We had only one board of elections to deal with. They have three and the courts.”

Auerbach revealed that his side thought they had it won by around Thanksgiving in 2008. Final results were confirmed about a week later. Quigley, a CPA, read the handwriting on the wall election night. “We knew if we didn’t come out with at least 1000 votes we were in trouble,” he said.

Reapportionment endgame

The Ulster County charter adopted by voters in 2006 could lose some of its luster once this reapportionment business plays out. Reason? The charter is silent on the end-game.

Will reapportionment be decided by a seven-member “non-political” citizen panel, as per the charter, or will the legislature have the final say? And will that be final, since the charter also requires the executive to pass on all legislation?

Dunno.

Presenting the reapportionment commission plan to the legislature — and with it, implied final authority — was discussed in detail by the charter commission, according to research done by county attorney Bea Havranek. None of that language made it into the charter presented at referendum in 2006.

I’m no lawyer, though I play one at the office, but it seems if the charter doesn’t require legislative overview the commission’s plan will prevail.

On one level, giving an appointed body (the commission) authority over an elected body (the legislature) is troubling, clearly undemocratic.

On the other hand, the current reapportionment plan was created by a local law passed by the legislature in 2001. One doesn’t require a law degree to appreciate that local laws can only be amended or rescinded by the originating agency, the legislature.

It should also be noted that the charter created an entirely new form of government. Is it bound by the actions of previous governments?

Lawyers should have a field day.

Who? Who?

Democrats seem to have gotten off on the right foot with this reapportionment commission. Republicans appear more wobbly.

Minority leader Jeannette Provenzano named Vernon Benjamin of Saugerties and Cynthia Lowe of Kingston as party representatives. I don’t know much about Lowe, but Benjamin, a former Hinchey aide and Saugerties town supervisor, is a known quality. He’ll protect the party’s interests and unless Provenzano is foolishly idealistic, so will Lowe.

It gets stickier on the Republican side. Majority leader Paul Hansut named Bill West of Woodstock and Mike Catalinotto of Saugerties. Like Benjamin, Catalinotto is an old party warhorse, but holds no office currently. West, as GOP chairman in Woodstock, remains in harness.

Remember, the intent of this charter provision was to mitigate politics. How does the GOP address that goal by appointing a town party chairman to the commission?

West, no stranger to controversy, was nonplussed when asked about the apparent conflict. The county attorney sent him a letter with legal research stating that party operatives were not considered public officials under long-settled case law, he told me.

Havranek was speaking to the letter of the law. But the spirit, as interpreted by charter chairman Gerry Benjamin and by Hein, is a far, far different matter.

Here, Republicans — with an assist from the Democratic county attorney — miss the forest for the trees. Hein, having seized the high road on this issue, can only be laughing.

Meanwhile, in Dutchess County, majority Republicans are doing it the old-fashioned way. Rescinding the authority of a citizen reapportionment commission, ruling Republicans said they’d reapportion themselves. In Ulster, a charter-mandated process can’t be changed quite that arbitrarily. ++

Hugh Reynolds’ column appears weekly.

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