Field of dreams

County executive Pat Ryan was in fine form for his third budget presentation, speaking with the kind of concern, empathy and sincerity he typically exhibits to know familiar themes.

Not to make too much of this, but it would appear from Ryan’s remarks that we are approaching the best of times even as the worst lingers: a third wave of the pandemic, drug deaths, desperate housing shortages and entrenched poverty.

The good news is that county government, thanks to Uncle Sam, seems to have the resources to begin addressing in real terms many of these issues. In short, the county is swimming in cash.

The signs are sprinkled throughout the budget Ryan proposed last week. In returning to his record spending plateau of $551 million presented to an incredulous public in 2019, Ryan will use only $4.5 million of the county’s fund balance, he says, to support another zero-property tax increase. Historically, the fund balance has been tapped for at least $10 million a year, sometimes more than twenty, to produce the politically popular “zero tax increase.” Actually, former executive Mike Hein was slightly better with his tenth of a percent tax reductions.

How does Ryan do it? Well, there is that massive federal cash infusion and a boom in residential real estate and there was some belt-tightening last year, the latter entirely foreign to Ryan’s philosophy of government.  A near 19 percent projected increase in sales tax revenue, almost $25 million for the county, covers a lot of expenses.

Ryan is proposing what amounts to a full-employment budget for 2022 in restocking the county workforce to the levels he inherited from Hein. Forced to order “gut-wrenching” furloughs and early retirement incentives during 2020, Ryan says he’ll refill the more than 125 county positions lost last year. Truly, it takes a pandemic for the county to tighten its belt.

Ryan’s stated priorities in this budget are the restoration of mental health services abandoned by Hein, the always elusive and ill-defined economic development, workforce housing and the war on drug abuse.

It wasn’t all happy talk. Projecting himself as an affable, easy to like type, there are clearly some issues that get his goat. Ryan did not mince words in calling Westchester Medical’s moving of mental health services to Poughkeepsie “morally reprehensible” nor describing TechCity owner Alan Ginsberg as “a bad actor.” But we knew that.

Ryan wants to get the county’s nine school districts involved in his mental health and drug education efforts in pointing to their collective $54 million in federal Covid relief funds. If I know anything about local school superintendents, they’ve probably got $100 million on the drawing board and will be reluctant to spare a dime.

The county has only $34 million in such funding, primarily for capital projects. Questioned by reporters, Ryan said “zero” of federal funding will go to support his proposed budget. Buy that and I’ll sell you a rusting bridge in Rondout. These people know how to juggle the books.

If there was a cloud hanging over this field of dreams, it was Ryan’s record of roller coaster budgets. He came into office with a $330 million budget, which quickly ballooned to $550 million. The pandemic drove it back down to where he started, but now he’s proposing what some people consider a return to normal.

Former Kingston mayor Ray Garraghan liked to say that “everybody’s smart when they have money.”

We’ll see.

NOTES – The Ryan budget was pure political theater, staging it in the county’s self-described “field of dreams” just west of the fairgrounds outside New Paltz. Ryan said it was the first outdoor budget “in history,” a bit of political hyperbole we’ll let pass, but necessitated by the pandemic. The field is beautiful under the Shawangunk ridge. But couldn’t they have planted some corn in the outfield of one of the ballparks? For a minute there I thought I saw Shoeless Joe Jackson.  

New Paltz town supervisor Neal Bettez hosted some 100 or so invited guests. Despite the hometown crowd, interruptions for applause were scarce.

I counted nine county legislators in attendance from a full house of 23. Seven aren’t running for reelection (a few lame ducks showed up) and some work for a living. The legislature will host a series of regional hearings on the proposed budget. Typically, most play to empty chairs.

I don’t like to pick on boo-boos by colleagues; God knows I’ve made my share, but this one was just too precious to pass.

Ryan got a nice round of applause when he called for “a leap boldly forward and bring everyone in our community with us.”

It came out in the paper as “body-leap forward.” At least they didn’t call it booty leap.

I’ve worked with Freeman County reporter Pat Doxsey for years, and she’s doesn’t screw up direct quotes. I suspect some invisible desk jockey got his or her sticky fingers on that one.

Ryan rarely mentions his “predecessor” by name but still lobbied a couple of grenades in his direction within this budget message. First, he declared the county’s fiscal affairs on “the strongest footing in well over a decade” (Hein’s time), and then deplored the dismantling of the county’s mental health services (under Hein) to the tender mercies of Westchester Medical.

I suspect he was sending a signal to the predecessor, currently between jobs, that he need not apply to the county for employment opportunities.

Let’s end with a little humor. Kudos to the numerous volunteers that make last weekend’s annual Hudson Valley Garlic Festival, the second largest in the country, such a long-running must-see event. Proceeds go toward worthwhile community causes in Saugerties. Good for all concerned, but why not a small portion for mouthwash?

Blog note: Beginning this week, probably on Thursdays, we’ll run a second edition. There’s just too much going on to squeeze into one offering.   

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