Have you ever wondered just what the Ulster County Legislature is tasked to do? I have. Many of us know that they approve the County budget and fix the tax rate which determines the county tax we pay, but for more information I contacted Dr. Gerald Benjamin, Distinguished Professor of Political Science at SUNY New Paltz and former Chair of the Ulster County Legislature.
Professor Benjamin, who chaired the Ulster County Charter Commission, which operated from 2004-2006, describes counties as legally and politically complex governments, in part independent and responsive to voters, in part “branch offices” of the state.
From the mid 1960s onward, all responsibility for county government resided in the Legislature, but the Charter produced by Professor Benjamin’s commission—approved by the voters in 2006—created a new framework. The Charter provides for separation of powers through the election of a County Executive, with Mike Hein, elected in 2008, currently serving as our first. With the aid of a professional staff, the Executive runs the operations of the 40 departments of the county, executes the policies enacted by the legislature, prepares the budget, is responsible for the quantity and quality of services provided Ulster citizens and sets an agenda. As for the Legislature, it approves or revises the budget, oversees county spending, approves any expenditure over $50,000 and proposes local and county laws and resolutions.
Dr. Benjamin says, “Mike Hein has displayed a high level of competence, bringing the County through some hard times.” Dr. Benjamin feels, however, that the legislature may be failing to enhance its own institutional power as a co-equal branch of government. He explains that when a partisan leader (Democrat or Republican) heads an executive branch, loyalty to the legislative institution may be broken in favor of loyalty to a political party. Cohesion in the legislature, and, therefore a more robust exercise of its power, depends on overcoming partisan differences.
This, Dr. Benjamin admits, is not easy to do. “I don’t fault the Executive. I fault the legislature for not defining a role for itself. And that‘s a function of legislative leadership.”
By the time this issue of The Gazette goes to press, the county legislature will have chosen new leadership and I’m sure Dr. Benjamin will be watching closely.
Tracy Bartels was re-elected to the legislature in November as the representative from Gardiner and two election districts in Shawangunk. She describes the legislature as primarily a policy-making body and takes very seriously the responsibility of that body to approve the Executive’s budget. “It should be a deliberative process rather than a rubber stamp.” Addressing the county tax bill we all recently received, Tracy explained that the Legislature has the most influence over the discretionary portions of the budget—the categories of Mental Health, the Road Patrol, the Department of Public Works, and SUNY Ulster, among others—less than 30% of the approximately $336 million dollar budget proposed for 2014. Most of what makes up the tax bill covers unfunded state mandates like Medicaid. “Unfunded mandates exceed all revenue from property tax,” she states. Sales tax and bed tax (tourism) are two of the revenue sources used to make up most of the rest needed to run the county.
Previously, more than one legislator could represent a district, but the 2011 adoption of single-member districts of approximately equal size reduced the total number of legislators by 10 (increasing the responsibilities of the remaining 23 legislators) and made for greater accountability, which Tracy welcomes.
Like Tracy, Ken Wishnik, representing New Paltz and a part of Esopus, was re-elected to the Legislature in November. Ken serves on the Environmental, Energy and Technology Committee as well as the Economic Development, Transportation and Tourism Committee. As the representative from New Paltz, Ken may introduce resolutions or advocate for or against legislation that affects his constituents. He recently introduced a resolution opposing a PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) agreement by the Ulster County Industrial Development Agency for the Park Point New Paltz Application.
Wilmorite, the developer, is a for- profit corporation that proposes to build and operate a $58 Million housing project for SUNY. Park Point is requesting tax relief worth around $32 Million over 25 years which would impact taxpayers in New Paltz as well as all those who pay taxes to the New Paltz School District, whether or not they live in the Town of New Paltz.
SUNY New Paltz favors the proposal as positive for the local economy and essential to the college’s competitiveness in a challenging future environment for higher education; voices in the community including those of the New Paltz town and Village boards as well as the Gardiner Town Board have been raised in opposition to it.
Rank and file legislators like Tracy and Ken earn $10,000 per year and have access to health care and pension benefits. The Chair and Minority and Majority leaders earn more. The body meets once a month at the County Office Building in Kingston, but committees may meet an additional once or twice a month. Ken views his time on the legislature as a service to the community. “I believe that everybody should consider serving on the Ulster County Legislature. I view it as similar to jury duty. It may be demanding, with few rewards, but it’s a great way to serve your community.”
When asked about the Executive’s relationship with the legislature, Deputy County Executive Ken Crannell proudly noted a list of accomplishments that he says could not have happened without a productive relationship with that body. Topping the list: County spending for 2014 is $24 Million less than 2013. As noted on your recent tax bill, County property taxes had a zero percent increase. Crannell stated that despite tough economic times, the county is in a strong financial position. As a result, Ulster County’s bond rating has been upgraded, resulting in a lower interest rate for borrowing. “Delivering high quality services to residents while controlling property taxes has resulted in favorable economic outcomes for the county.” No small feat given the economic pressure on local government since the start of the Great Recession in 2008.
For more information on the Ulster County Legislature, go to ulstercountyny.gov/legislature. All of the legislature’s meetings, including caucuses and standing committee meetings are open to the public. To reach Executive Hein’s office, go to ulstercountyny.gov/executive/office.