Ulster County Executive Candidates Share Their Visions At A Chamber Forum
Two candidates are running for Ulster County executive in November’s general election. It’s a rematch of an April 30th special election, after the county’s first executive, Democrat Mike Hein, left for a position in New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration.
Democratic County Executive Pat Ryan told an Ulster County Chamber of Commerce crowd Tuesday that he hit the ground running when he took office in June. He says his vision going into the general election remains the same.
“How do we build on the success we’ve had and take it to the next level, and I talked this morning about in basically four months the accomplishments we’ve already been able to achieve, from moving us to 100 percent renewable; doubling our energy with a solar array; holding the line on, lowering taxes to the lowest level in a decade; over $3 million to tackle the opioid epidemic,” Ryan says. “So the vision, I think, is largely the same. We constantly tweak it but now it’s about how do we execute that, how do we refine it as we go along.”
Republican Jack Hayes, a Gardiner resident like Ryan, says the budget looks good, but is cautionary.
“Even though we come up with a zero budget, that’s occurred by using reserves. So when you use reserves, obviously you don’t have that buffer for the day when you need it. So that has changed,” Hayes says. “And the budget looks great, but it’s not sustainable with a deficit type of situation. We need more growth.”
Ryan says the county has seen economic growth, with increases in sales tax and tourism revenue. He responds to comments from Hayes that the recently proposed $340 million-plus budget relies on reserves.
“No, we’ve basically held in standard line of the fund balance, it’s in line with how it’s worked in the past. The comptroller’s looked at our budget and given us the highest rating. S&P [Standard & Poor’s) continues to give us AA bond ratings. And every validator of our financial responsibility remains really strong, so I think we’re in good shape there,” says Ryan. “To be able to add services and new initiatives while cutting taxes, that’s the goal. That should always be the goal.”
Ryan says tackling the opioid epidemic is among his top priorities in a county that ranks second worst in the state in terms of overdoses per capita. With state bail reforms set to take effect in January, Hayes, formerly with the New York State police and once a chair of the county legislature’s Re-entry Task Force, questions whether the budget includes enough to address the reforms.
“I don’t believe there was adequate funding for mental health or probation, which is the two areas where the new laws that come into effect in January are going to push people because they’re not going to go to county jail; they’re not going to go to state prison; they’re going to be put back into the community. Very expensive,” Hayes says. “Trying to treat a person with addiction is a very difficult situation. I have rarely seen any person be cured of addiction in one rehab.”
The state bail reforms include eliminating cash bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, including drug felonies. Ryan says the county is well prepared.
“We don’t know exactly how it’s going to play out, right, but we did add significant funding to the district attorney’s office. We added seven new public defenders to make sure that we’re balancing the scales of justice. We added more support for our probation department, who will pick up some of that load on criminal justice reform, and we’re continuing to implement this Raise the Age legislation for 16- and 17-year olds,” Ryan says. “So we factored that into our budget. I think we’re in good shape, but we’ll see how it goes and we’ll be ready to adjust and make sure that we implement it the right way.”
Hayes wants to see a different approach to economic development.
“There’s a confusion as to whether or not we’re open for business. We say we’re open for business, and then when the business comes, people have a protest and say, you can’t do that here. So I think that’s got to be clarified. I think that’s a dialogue that has to happen with the county, the county planning board and local planning boards,” Hayes says. “If local communities don’t want development, then there shouldn’t be a situation where we’re telling people to go to that particular community.”
And he wants to see more attention paid to communities in need of revitalization, like Ellenville.
“I think we have to be a little bit more imaginative than we have been,” Hayes says. “I know that Ellenville is a great resort area, it’s got, whether it be sports. It was the original location of the Ulster County Fair. I wouldn’t mind looking at that again and seeing if that was a possibility.”
“So one of the big things I’ve been doing is getting out to every town and hearing on the ground. I spent two hours two weeks ago down in Ellenville in a town hall. And we actually spent most of that time talking about economic development ideas We had the town leadership, the village leadership, business owners, and we were brainstorming how the county can invest both in infrastructure, in workforce development, and then also in direct support to businesses that are going on there,” Ryan says. “So that ties right into the vision I talked about when we launched the economic development office. We really have to broaden this definition. It’s not just how many jobs and what are unemployment numbers? It’s what the quality of the jobs? What’s the housing situation, can workers afford to live?”
Early voting begins Saturday. There are seven early voting locations in Ulster County — Woodstock; Ulster; Kingston; Rochester; Wawarsing/Ellenville; New Paltz; and Lloyd.