Suffering from what appears to be a severe case of buyer’s remorse, some Ulster County legislative Democrats are attempting to hold accountable their once-fair-haired county executive.
Pity the fools. Having reflexively supported and enabled County Executive Mike Hein even before he took office in 2009, Democrats like Jeanette Provenzano and Dave Donaldson have belatedly discovered they have a tiger by the tail, and he’s holding all the cards.
Here, they get no sympathy. From the get-go Donaldson and Provenzano turned a blind eye as Hein, the former administrator Donaldson once derided as “our waterboy,” built an empire behind closed doors. They gave him everything he asked for, without question, including what some saw as excessive staff and salary.
Recall the flap over Hein’s salary during the period when he was elected in 2008 and took office in 2009. Originally set by a legislative committee at $115,000 — a nice raise from Hein’s salary of $92,000 as administrator — it jumped to $125,000 and then again to the present $133,000, with the enthusiastic support of Democrats. Hein, before he served a day in office, was to be paid almost as much as Dutchess County exec Bill Steinhaus who at that point was entering his 18th year. Staff? All he had to do was ask. Nobody envisioned a chief-of-staff position when the office of executive was being debated during the charter adoption process. Hein got that and three other deputies; all paid $112,000 a year.
Donaldson, as transitional legislature chairman from 2006 to 2009, was in a unique position to monitor the executive before and during the start-up process, but he chose to go along. Provenzano, from her perch as majority/minority leader, was as content to join in the cheerleading.
This ancient history serves as perspective into the legislative mindset as the office of county executive was being established. Now, like lovers spurned, legislators express outrage that the minotaur they helped create has turned on them.
At issue, but really only a symptom, is Hein’s clever manipulation of the nursing home controversy. Working in secret for over a year to create the local development corporation (LDC) vehicle to market and sell the Golden Hill facility and swearing neutrality all the while, Hein, by linking the sale of the facility to passage of the 2012 budget, now has the legislature between a rock and a hard place. And there’s not a damned thing they can do about it. Adept at cajoling and recruiting legislators, Hein, by most accounts from both sides of the aisle, has at least 17 votes for passage of this package on December 5. He probably has 19.
All hail Hein, but shed no tears for his hapless latter-day critics, who are getting exactly what they deserve. The same cannot be said, unfortunately, for the constituents they represent.
If there’s a bright side, it’s that this local Wizard of Oz — a role Hein played to cheers in October’s annual Kingston Kiwanis Kapers — has been exposed as the worker of levers behind the curtain. Rather than the harmless old man depicted in the classic tale, however, this wizard is in the full bloom of power and exceedingly ambitious.
It’s too late to change the course Hein and staff have set on the nursing home. Opponents now can only hope to nibble at the fringes. But history recommends far more scrutiny of this administration going forward.
As the Hein administration enters its second phase — a new four-year term begins in January — it may be falling victim to believing its own propaganda. Witness the press release hand-delivered by Hein to the first meeting of the now superfluous special legislative committee named to review the LDC proposal for Golden Hill. The release, in the form of a letter to legislators from the county executive, proposed a “partnership” with the legislature while pledging cooperation and transparency. Amazingly, almost nobody gagged, that horse having left the barn when Hein established his LDC more than a year ago. Speakers at last week’s legislature meeting were at a loss to describe a strategy that declares itself neutral and promises open cooperation, but delivers the opposite. The word disingenuous didn’t seem to capture the real flavor of this nefarious process.
Provenzano didn’t get much support with an off-the-hook analysis on how cheap it would be to finance continuing Golden Hill deficits — estimated by consultants at about $2.2 million a year for the short-term — and build a new $75-million nursing home, all for only 55 cents a day per taxable unit. In a proposal that consultants suggested was a bit simplistic, the minority leader divided the county’s 84,836 taxable parcels into the projected costs, and presto! Nickels and dimes per day.
Unfortunately, $68 a year per parcel for the construction project and $95 to cover next year’s operating deficit, according to Provenzano, adds up to more than some households could afford or would choose to spend.
Off the cuff
Having frittered away most of its law-making authority to the executive, the Ulster legislature is left to debate memorializing resolutions long on philosophy but destined for a toothless fate.
A couple of symptomatic examples: One was to create a county animal abuse registry, the other suggesting the state keep some $16 billion in stock exchange taxes it charges and rebates to Wall Street.
No legislators opposed the proposal to record, capture and punish animal abusers. If such funding were available, might it have been better spent on protecting humans against predators? Kingston animal-rights restaurateur Merle Borenstein put things in perspective for her constituency in noting that her beloved cat has survived three husbands.
Of some consequence were studies cited that show people who abuse helpless animals are far more likely to abuse helpless people.
With everyone occupied about Wall Street these days, Legislator Pete Loughran was at least timely in demanding the state punish the “greedy” 1 percent by exacting billions in fees. Pursuant to a 1905 law, the state charges a fee for stock transactions. In 1975, Gov. Hugh Carey, in an effort to pump money into a teetering city, forgave the fee. The state continues to collect the money — $16 billion according to the legislator — but rebates it. Considering New York’s financial circumstances these days, do we really want to do that?
As noted, the executive has the votes to pass his LCD/budget package even if almost nobody seems worried about the prospect of selling more real estate to balance the budget. No big deal? Isn’t that akin to asking, “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how’d you like the play?”
Next year, the county office building might have a for-sale sign on it; later, Mike’s Used Cars out front, sheriff’s cruisers a specialty.
Consultants, paid $70,000 a year to crunch budget numbers for the legislature, say the proposed budget is “technically balanced,” since the sale of the nursing home is an anticipated revenue, like sales and property taxes.
Not that it matters now, but the executive was seen as — what’s that word again? — disingenuous for “eliminating” the consumer fraud bureau while quietly transferring its director, Janet Caffo, a sixth-floor favorite, to a top administrative position in the Office for the Aging at the same salary. Hein worked a similar shuffle a few years ago when he “reduced” his executive staff by eliminating the public-relations guy. Former Marbletown supervisor Vin Martello was transferred to the health department, at full salary, and another PR/assistant budget officer hired.
Has anybody seen retiring legislators Walter Frey of Saugerties or Frank Felicello of Marlborough since before the elections? There are no plans, I am told, to dock these truants for their $833-a-month pay (before taxes). Frey lost a primary and the general election. Felicello chose not to seek office this year.
Jim Maloney of Ulster, he of many hats, is emerging as a leading contender, along with Terry Bernardo of Rochester, for county legislature chairman next year. Twelve is the magic number — exactly the Republican majority — which probably means both candidates will need a few votes from minority Democrats.
Outgoing legislature chairman Fred Wadnola will be remembered as an easygoing presiding officer who let everybody have their say, sometimes ad nauseum.
Last week, retiring seven-term legislator Alan Lomita had had enough of bombs across the aisle over things other than the issues at hand.
“Mister Chairman,” Lomita pleaded, “will you please preside over this meeting?”
Wadnola, looking as if he’d just woken up, moved the question.
I’ll miss Lomita. He was head and shoulders above most of his colleagues, and would have made an excellent chairman.