Take-Away: To many, the Ulster County Legislature seems like an obscure body with vague powers, but the people you elect to it have the power to spend vast sums of your money and to make decisions that will seriously impact you. It’s worth a carefully considered vote.
Back Story: When you paid your County/Town taxes this year, did you notice that the largest number on the bill was the County General Tax? Ever wondered what you’re paying for?
The 23-member Ulster County Legislature, elected every two years, approves and can amend the budget crafted by County Executive, Mike Hein. The county’s $324 million 2018 budget will be realized through a combination of our County/Town taxes, a bed tax (on B&Bs and other forms of lodging), state aid, federal aid, a combination of other revenue sources and transfers. And, 36% of the budget comes from sales tax, highlighting the importance of tourism, and of buying local.
The budget supports the 40 departments of the county, and an example of where our tax dollars go is the controversial Law Enforcement Center In Kingston. The project, overseen by the county legislature, opened in 2007 and went over the original budget by about $20 million. Principal and interest from the financing of the center will cost the county $4,371,000 in 2018. The huge facility contains 484 beds and the Sheriff’s Office. Revenues from housing prisoners from other counties (board ins) were intended to defray operating costs, but these revenues have fallen precipitously as other counties expand their own jails. In 2014, revenues were $1,746,401. As of December 7, 2017, that figure had fallen to $292,698. When the last payment is made, in 2029, the jail will have cost Ulster County taxpayers $87,677,000.
In addition to supporting county departments, the budget pays for unfunded mandates, which require local governments to perform certain actions with no money provided. They are opposed by many. For example, indigent defense is an unfunded mandate born by the county, despite the fact that the constitutional right to legal counsel is a state, not a county obligation.
County legislators are paid $14,000 per year; minority and majority leaders make $16,000; and the Chair of the legislature makes $23,500. Legislators have access to family health insurance, for which they pay 15% of the cost. They also may opt to pay into the NYS retirement system to obtain pension benefits. Legislators meet once per month for the regular session, with possible additional committee meetings, hearings caucuses with their respective political parties.
Six- term county legislator, Tracey Bartels, our Gardiner representative, was re-elected in November. Significantly, Tracey chaired the committee that investigated cost overruns at the jail, the construction of which she opposed, but was already underway when she was elected. If you have any questions or concerns about the legislature, you can reach Tracey at firstname.lastname@example.org.