Who shall pay for Safety Net?

by Hugh Reynolds
May 26, 2011 11:05 AM | 0 0 comments | 14 14 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Most of us, being neither public officials nor the poor at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, are not involved with the so-called Safety Net welfare program which has been a hot-button political issue for years. The last vestige of the (public) welfare state, the Safety Net provides minimal assistance for impoverished people who can’t make it on their own.

Before the passage of the 2011 state budget, the state paid half the cost for local assistance. With one exception, the counties picked up the other half. The exception is Ulster County.

In March, the cash-strapped state changed the formula to 29 percent state, 71 percent county, but offered offsetting revenues (for one year) for locals to meet expenses.

The bad news was delivered to towns via a “Dear Supervisor” letter from Ulster County social services (DSS) commissioner Roberto Rodriguez on May 12. County charges were retroactive to January.

For towns with significant safety-net populations, the budget implications, coming half-way through their fiscal years, were ominous. Rodriguez offered to meet with supervisors either separately or severally “to work with you to identify any opportunities that may mitigate this change.” He did not offer financial assistance, even though the county came out about $100,000 to the good in the exchange with the state.

In Ulster County, Safety-Net increases came to just under $1.26 million, with six towns and the city of Kingston ($533,448) bearing the brunt of it. Overall costs of the program last year approached $6 million.

Most of the Safety-Net population resides in Kingston and its environs. DSS data showed a $107,070 increase in Ulster, $65,969 in Esopus, $93,661 in Saugerties and $136,195 in Wawarsing (which has only two-thirds the population of Saugerties). And county comptroller Elliott Auerbach, an Ellenville native, thinks the economy is turning around?

In a curious twist, Rodriguez gave Ulster County Supervisor/Mayor’s Association president John Valk of Wallkill a heads-up the day after he sent out the bills. Valk invited Rodriguez to discuss the situation at the regular meeting of the association the following Tuesday morning at the Olympic Diner in Kingston. County executive Mike Hein, according to many supervisors, has been a regular at those meetings since taking office in 2009.

Hein briefly addressed the gathering but made no commitments on funding, according to Valk, other than to say he would support whatever action taken by the association and the legislature.

County legislators, assailed with phone calls and e-mails, jumped up (but not quite high enough) at their monthly meeting that night, demanding the whys and wherefores of this blind-sided incursion. Legislator Terry Bernardo’s motion to halt the process until questions could be addressed failed by just one vote, with minority leader Jeanette Provenzano voting against. She would later say there was insufficient information to take action, even though the action being considered was to gather more information.

Recall, Kingston was to be on the hook for over $500,000, almost the same amount the mayor gleefully announced in extra sales-tax revenue a few weeks ago. Provenzano faces a Democratic primary against freshman Mike Madsen, whom she easily defeated in a primary two years ago.

A special meeting between supervisors and legislators, chaired by Walter Frey of the Health and Services Committee, was held on the nineteenth. It was blissfully brief by county standards. Legislators declared a hold on all activity. “Don’t write any checks,” the supervisors were told, until the legislature had a chance to act in June. Presumably, the executive is prepared to make good the $1.3 million dunned by Rodriguez. Next year is anybody’s guess.

Who’s going to pay?

The controversy raises some interesting questions about “process” — in the polite phrase of Ulster supervisor Jim Quigley — and long-term policy regarding Safety-Net cost distribution.

Getting to the bottom line, the “process” Quigley referred to makes some wonder why Hein, who attends most supervisor association meetings, didn’t give town officials a heads-up before the Rodriguez letter went out.

Surely Hein was well aware of the letter. Rodriguez told town supervisors he discussed the matter with him. Good move on the commissioner’s part. No department head acts unilaterally in this button-down administration. Was this just another ploy to make the executive look good? As though he didn’t look good enough already.

The larger issue is county assumption of Safety-Net charges from the towns. It is something more than an anomaly that Ulster is the lone upstate county that charges the towns for this program. Does all such wisdom reside in Ulster?

Much of this comes down to town-county politics. For 14 of the 20 towns, Safety Net is somebody else’s problem. They don’t want county taxes on their constituents to pay the bills for what they consider “welfare people” in Kingston, Ulster, Saugerties, etc.

“I’ve been working for 17 years to get this thing changed,” declared Dave Donaldson of Kingston in voting for Bernardo’s resolution. If Donaldson, 58, lasts another 17 years in the legislature, God willing, he probably won’t see a change.

True, the cost has gone up dramatically, but for the majority of towns — and legislators — that’s still somebody else’s problem.

Another pipe dream is getting the state to assume all Safety-Net costs. In case legislators didn’t read recent dictates from Albany, the state is headed in exactly the opposite direction.

Time to ponder

In the wake of chairman Robin Yess’s sudden resignation last week, county Republicans have postponed their annual convention from June 2 to June 9.

It wasn’t all about a decent period of mourning for the departed chairman. Republicans, I hear, are still working on plans to at least name a stalking horse to run against Democrat Hein for county executive. If they have a “candidate” properly petitioned, after July 16, a party committee on vacancies could continue the search. Of course, a candidate chosen in late August would have even less chance against Hein than one nominated in June.

Buzzing around the political circuit is the suspicion on both sides that Hein and the Democrats may pull something with their committee on vacancies after the nominating deadline (on July 16). If Republicans don’t have a candidate in place, they’re toast.

Time to choose

Kingston Democrats will convene next Tuesday to choose a mayoral nominee. The race is between Ninth Ward alderman Hayes Clement and city attorney Shayne Gallo.

In a group of 50 or so veteran committee members, Gallo, the nostalgia candidate, would seem to have an edge. On the other hand — isn’t there one always? — Democratic aldermen to a person are backing their colleague. Presumably, aldermen have some clout with their own committee members.

The convention nomination is of course unofficial, and both candidates are committed to a primary. But it does give the winner some cachet with enrollees as “the party’s candidate.” I’m guessing — okay, predicting — the guy getting 26 votes at convention will in fact be the party nominee.

Here and there

Kingston alderman Bob Senor raised the ire of city cat lovers when he recently proposed an ordinance to treat feral felines in the same manner as stray dogs. Other aldermen turned tail and ran from angry constituents.

Last week, Senor was involved in a personal-injury accident on pockmarked South Wall Street. “Did you swerve to avoid a feral cat?” I asked him at a veterans’ memorial service in his ward.

Senor chuckled, painfully.

Named the culprit in the accident, but blaming the other driver, the alderman says he’ll fight in court, representing himself. And you know what they say about that.

I mistakenly attributed the remark at last week’s meeting of the legislature “… and then privatization came barreling through the door” to mental-health nurse Nancy Morgenstern. Morgenstern gave legislators a general assessment of recent events at the mental-health department from the perspective of employees. Another worker, whose name I did not get (but should have), made the colorful and quotable “barreling through” remark in addition to stating workers were afraid to speak out for fear of their jobs.

My apologies to nurse Morgenstern. ++

Hugh Reynolds’ column appears week

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