In a ceremony that featured generous dollops of mutual praise doled out by Ulster County executive Michael Hein and a handful of county legislators, both Democrats and Republicans, from among the 16 who supported it, the 2013 Ulster County budget became law with Hein affixing his signature to it on Monday, December 10. Only five legislators opposed the document (two were absent from the vote) and none were in attendance.
“This really is historic,” said Hein. “It highlights the transformation of Ulster County government for the good of the people. We’re talking about taxes going down for the first time in a decade.”
The $359-million budget slightly reduces the tax levy for the coming year and includes several areas in which significant changes will be instituted in areas where major municipal expenditures are made.
The document calls for the institution of flow control over the entirety of Ulster County’s trash, compelling private carters as well as the public to tip all trucks and bring all garbage to the county’s Resource Recovery Agency (UCRRA), for fees that the county may set.
“Flow control starts January 1,” said Hein, in an interview after the bill signing ceremony. “The UCRRA has an obligation to administer this. The RRA is overseen by the legislature; it appoints the entire executive board.”
The hope is that with all the trash directed to the county, instead of the approximately 80 percent it now takes in, the RRA’s revenue will be sufficient to break even. (The agency has fallen short over the last decade, often to the tune of $2 to $3 million per year.) When that happens the county is liable through its contract with the RRA to provide the funds, called a Net Service Fee, to make the agency break even. But Hein acknowledged that should the agency still fall short of the break-even point, the county would then be required to kick in, though no funds for such an eventuality appear in the budget.
Hein did not comment on the possibility of the county building a landfill, as has been advocated by at least two members of the RRA board of directors, and suggested by others at a public hearing on the flow control aspect of the budget.
“Policy rests with the Ulster County Legislature,” he said when asked about a landfill. “There’s no question that there needs to be an honest and open discussion about solid waste. The legislature is the proper forum for that.”
Hein said that he had not yet analyzed the critical State Comptroller’s audit of the RRA (see accompanying article.)
The budget also features the first phase of a three-year process in which the county will take over from the towns collection of, and payment to the state for the so-called Safety Net, a last-resort social services package that provides some cash for the most indigent among us. The budget calls for the county to pay one third of the bill in the first year, but all have been stung by the state’s lowering its share of the payment from 50 percent to 29 percent. “It’s $1.7 million of tax relief for towns and the city of Kingston. It’s all about equity — we’re all in this together,” he said.
As for the town of Saugerties, which apparently failed to include its two-thirds payment in its own 2013 budget, Hein was succinct. “Nineteen towns fully understood and balanced their budgets the right way. One town took a different path and now must adjust,” said Hein. If the town cannot, or does not pay, its share of the Safety Net costs will come out of sales taxes that it would be due from the county. “It would create a great inequity to all the other 19 towns to allow one to avoid their legal obligation as handed down by the state of New York.”
Hein also touted the sale of the Ulster County Health Care Facility at Golden Hill in Kingston to Susquehanna Realty of Johnson City for $11.25 million, a deal which the local parties understand will keep the facility open, though its employees will no longer be on the county payroll. Hein pointed out that the facility is fully funded in his 2013 budget so that operations will be maintained while the deal is being completed.
Hein had included some $9 million in revenues in his 2012 budget in anticipation of such a deal. He said that the funds would have been borrowed in that year, while working out the sale. But the funds never came in, nor were they borrowed. Asked how he overcame the nearly three percent shortage of revenues that failed to materialize, Hein says it was a product of scrimping. “Because of aggressive budget management we were able to avoid the need for any bonding. We managed to save it throughout the year.”
Hein summed it up. “We’ve taken on the hard issues, we’ll see what comes,” he said. “Services are still going to be delivered. I don’t believe either party has a monopoly on fiscal responsibility. I’m proud to be a fiscally responsible Democrat in a magnificent county.”