Budget shuffle

I’ve been covering budget hearings since Hector was a pup, so I should not have been surprised that after months of softening up the public with predictions of really dire fiscal consequences from the pandemic, that county executive Pat Ryan’s second annual budget, released last week, was almost ho-hum. Projections on the loss of sales tax revenues, for instance, went from a catastrophic estimated 17 percent a month ago to 6.2 percent (about $9 million) by the time the budget was presented.

Not only did Ryan retain more than 90 percent of the county’s 1,400 workers, the 100 who accepted early retirement (with dental and vision benefits) were excised almost painlessly, saving the county $10 million a year in pay and benefits. There were no furloughs, layoffs or firings.  Contrast that with a local economy on its knees where people are losing jobs, maybe homes, and where some places will never reopen. I hate to see anybody laid off but it sure is good to work for the county. As the late mayor T.R. Gallo used to say, “I chose to work for the government because government never goes out of business.”

Overall spending, which jumped some $12 million last year, was reduced by $9 million for 2021, to about $334 million, near 2019 levels.

Speaking of 2019, the year Ryan was twice (via special election) elected to office, his 2021 budget anticipates a $2 billion increase in county-wide assessments. The real estate boom is for real! (By comparison, the entire assessed value of the city of Kingston is just north of $2 billion.)

Time-honored tactics were in place: Some $12 million was skimmed off a $19 million fund balance, about average for the last few years. If history repeats, the surplus will be replenished before the end of fiscal-21.

There were no discernable reductions in programs. The sheriff kicked in a million dollars from a declining jail operation that now seems to have more corrections officers than inmates. The sheriff said Ryan didn’t take away any of his surplus military gear, Humvees, guns and gear, points of contention between the two liberal Democrats last summer.

And of course, the county property tax levy remained static, which politically translates into a “zero increase.”

Ryan took the podium at Quimby Theater on the SUNY Ulster campus at 10:10 AM, went on a bit much (I thought) about how he and the community have handled the Covid 19 virus. Modestly, he accepted a standing ovation from the 50-odd government connected attendees and then launched into the future.

Some of it sounded a bit ambitious, like converting Tech City and some shopping malls in the town of Ulster into quasi-government operations. At the former IBM complex there’s a major roadblock named Ginsberg and I don’t think he was related to the late Ruth Bader.

Overall, I’d give the young exec an A- on this budget. I just wish I knew how they got from Armageddon last summer to guns and butter this fall.

Budget notes – Seating was scarce in the cavernous Quimby auditorium where only 50 “invitees” were allowed. Most of the legislature stayed away, including chairman Dave Donaldson of Kingston. He and Ryan have been bickering of late.

I yanked the blue tape off a seat (once removed) to sit next to former colleague Jesse Smith, now with Kingston Wire. The Freeman’s Grande Dame Pat Doxsey grabbed it when I wandered off to get comptroller March Gallagher’s take on the new budget. Eventually I settled into a nearby seat marked “Congressman Maurice Hinchey and Allison” (one of his wives).

I hope the legislature doesn’t spend $100,000 or more this year to hire accountants to rubberstamp the executive’s budget, as in days of yore.

Unlike his predecessor (MIke Hein), Ryan is a real stand-up guy. Literally. Ryan invited media to a press conference immediately following his presentation where he fielded every question. Hein just walked off stage, leaving it to henchmen to field questions from media.

An even-tempered type, Ryan seemed genuinely outraged over Westchester Medical reneging on its agreement to maintain in-county public mental health services in exchange for some $92 million in state aid for new construction at its Kingston hospitals. Westchester took the money and moved services to Poughkeepsie on a “temporary basis.”

Fatherhood seems to suit the executive. He’s dropped 20 pounds to 210 (he says) since baby Theo was born 14 months ago. At that rate he should have at least three or four more kids.