Revelations that Ulster County Executive Mike Hein received $11,500 in campaign donations over the last two years from the developers of the proposed Park Point student housing project in New Paltz, with an additional $5,000 in contributions from their Albany-based, county-connected law firm, have further roiled the muddy waters gurgling around this controversial project.
The donations began around the time some two years ago when the Rochester-based Wilmorite, a development corporation, filed a request for a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (Pilot) agreement with the county’s Industrial Development Agency. Agency members are appointed by the county legislature, its staff by the executive. Under the company’s proposal, some 90 percent of taxes on the $50 million project would be forgiven for the first few years, rising gradually through the 25-year term of the proposed agreement to full payment. Critics charge that Pilot would collectively cost the town, village, school district and county some $30 million in taxes over its term, about the amount developers say they’ll pay over the same period.
Developers also note the 42-acre parcel just south of the village is currently owned by the college foundation and pays no taxes at all. A small slice of a large ($50 million) loaf is better than nothing at all, they argue. But critics claim the slice being offered wouldn’t cover the additional expenses associated with police, fire and other public services attendant to a new housing project with some 700 residents.
News of the donations to Hein appeared last August on a blog called New Paltz Current, operated by SUNY New Paltz student Roberto LoBianco, who contributes to the college newspaper The Oracle. At that time it seemed to cause hardly a ripple.
LoBianco, as I did, gleaned his information from official sources: campaign expenditure and contribution statements filed by Hein’s campaign committee with the state board of elections. Hein did not return calls for comment for that or this article.
With the possible exception of public-finance advocates, most people aren’t much concerned about politicians accepting campaign contributions from individuals or businesses with whom or over whom they might have influence. In the parlance, it’s called “pay to play.” No elected official would ever admit to being influenced by campaign contributors. Some have even gone to jail denying they did favors for contributors.
As former congressman Maurice Hinchey, who raised millions, used to say, “These are just people who happen to agree with what I’m already doing.”
Legislature economic development committee chairman T.J. Briggs was nonplussed. “It’s the way they [developers] do business,” he said.
This is not to suggest Mike Hein is or isn’t a pay-to-play politician, even though persons or corporations who regularly do business with the county show up at his fundraising events and on his official campaign contribution statements.
Except for a golf outing in New Paltz with some Wilmot family members (photo taken at the annual Doug Shepard memorial in 2011), Hein has maintained a low public profile on what has escalated into a controversy over taxes and exemptions. To all intents and appearances, the executive has publicly exercised none of his considerable clout one way or the other on the Park Point project. “He’s been strictly neutral,” one of Park Point’s sharper critics told me, “so there’s nothing wrong with his taking money from those people.”
Advice to Mike Hein
New Paltz Town Supervisor Susan Zimet, walking that fine line between supporting the concept of augmenting badly needed student housing and vigorously opposing the Pilot being recommended, says she has no problem with Hein accepting donations from its developers. Given Hein’s stature as a rising young Democrat in the state, she said she’d have been “surprised” if Wilmorite hadn’t come calling. As for its propriety, Zimet, these days a staunch Hein ally — elections board records show she accepted a $250 campaign donation from Hein two years ago — offered no opinion.
Zimet, in any event, had bigger fish to fry. Near pandemonium broke out at Wednesday morning’s IDA meeting when it was revealed that New Paltz village Mayor Jason West, at a meeting with Wilmot and staff last week, entertained a suggestion from developers of trying to move the whole project into the village. In exchange for annexing the property now outside the village boundaries, New Paltz village would have its antiquated sewage treatment plant rebuilt while reaping an estimated $200,000 in property taxes from Wilmorite.
Zimet, who spoke at length on the Park Point project at the IDA meeting, proclaimed herself “horrified” at the prospect of the village intervening “behind our [the town’s] backs.”
“I’m done,” she declared, storming out of the room while feverishly fingering a smart phone.
No village representatives were at the IDA meeting to confirm or refute the report, which one IDA member characterized as “word-of-mouth.”
Meanwhile, it comes as no surprise in these quarters that the county executive has prudently chosen to avoid publicly that political snake pit called Park Point.
Were Hein to side with developers, critics might point to those campaign contributions. They might also remind residents that “no-tax Hein” (he’s held county tax increases to almost zero in his last three budgets) would, by supporting the project, in effect lay off 90 percent of the tax burden the first year on other taxpayers. Were he to oppose the project, on the other hand, he might be seen as anti-development. If there’s one tag Hein would like affixed to his legacy, I would think it’s that he was tenaciously pro-development, any lack of accomplishment in that area notwithstanding.
To paraphrase Lincoln, better to keep one’s mouth shut and be thought a knave than to open it and remove all doubt. For Hein, this is a no-win situation — except for that campaign loot.