Ulster County Exec. Pat Ryan Proposes $351M Budget
Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan is proposing a roughly $351 million 2022 budget. The first-term Democrat says it calls for investments in housing, infrastructure and mental health services. WAMC's Jim Levulis spoke with Ryan Wednesday about his plan and more.
Ryan: The great news is we're in one of the strongest financial positions the county’s been in in well over a decade. We've seen a major economic recovery after the challenges of the last 18 months. And so because we're on such strong financial footing, we're able to both hold the line on taxes for another year in a row, which is great. And make major transformative investments in a set of really key services. Number one priority for us is reinvesting in mental health and addiction recovery across our county, which is desperately, desperately needed right now.
Levulis: And that comes on the heels of the county's behavioral health taskforce issuing a recent report identifying gaps in the county's mental health and addiction system while proposing solutions to support and expand current services. So how will your budget address those gaps identified in the report?
Ryan: Yeah, I really want to thank we had nearly 30 leaders in the mental health field, family members that have been impacted and a wide set of folks participating in that. And that really lays the groundwork for the set of investments that we're going to start making. So we're not only going to surge more resources to direct services for our residents. But we're also going to reinstate a Department of Mental Health focused exclusively on mental health and addiction recovery services. It's something we used to have, that we eliminated over a decade ago. And I think we've really seen the effects of that decision. So we're really doubling down on reinvesting in that area. We're also planning to use some of our federal rescue plan funds to build a physical hub of community care, a mental health and addiction recovery center in Ulster County. And this is partly in response, unfortunately, to our main hospital, Westchester Health Alliance, pulling out desperately needed inpatient mental health beds right at the time when we needed them most. So we're, we're still fighting that fight. But we're also going to make the investments here at the county level to make sure our residents get the support that they need.
Levulis: And overall, if I understand it correctly, your budget proposal totals $351 million, is that accurate?
Ryan: That's right. $351.1 million operating budget. In addition to the mental health and addiction recovery investments, we're making unprecedented investments in housing and addressing the urgent need for supportive housing, for workforce and senior housing and veteran housing, and really housing for a lot of our frontline health care workers that risked their lives who increasingly can't afford to live in our community. We're dedicating over $8 million to accelerating our economic development efforts, including $4 million for direct business relief for our small businesses. You know, we saw Amazon thrive, we saw the big box stores thrive during the pandemic, but our small businesses, retail, restaurants, tourism, were forced to close. So we've got to do more to do right by them. And then finally, really leaning into generational infrastructure investments in roads, bridges, water, sewer and also our trail infrastructure here in the county, which has been a great respite during the pandemic, but also a big boost to our economy.
Levulis: How much money is Ulster County receiving in federal COVID-19 relief aid? And how is that being spent?
Ryan: So we're receiving $34.5 million which we can spend and will spend over the next few years. We're treating that from a sort of budget wonk perspective separately from the $351 million operating budget that I mentioned. So over the next three to four years, we're outlining long-term really capital projects, we're thinking about not necessarily spending that money, but really investing that money in things that we might never have been able to do, like building a mental health and addiction recovery center, like using those funds to knock down our old county jail and build 160 units of workforce and senior housing, like providing direct business relief to our small businesses. So those are some of the things we're doing as well as infrastructure investments. But I really think we're at this moment where we'll look back and whenever we get to the pandemic, and I'll tell my two-year-old when he's old enough to understand we were at this really pivotal, transformational moment and ask ourselves what did we do? Did we really make wise long-term investments that'll pay dividends for my son and the future generations and that's really what we're doing here.
Levulis: And in the 2021 budget, you've stated that the county is halfway toward its goal of 100% renewable energy by 2030. You were also recently selected as the new chair of the New York State Association of Counties Climate Resiliency Committee. What are your goals in regards to that role? It's a statewide role.
Ryan: Yeah, I was really excited and pleasantly surprised and honored to take on that role. Ulster County long before my time, has been a leader on environmental issues on climate action. And so the idea is for us to both serve as a model for neighboring counties and governments across the state. You know, earlier this year, I rolled out a comprehensive green new deal for Ulster County plan that really serves as a model of how local governments and county governments can take concrete and immediate and long-term actions to address climate and resiliency. So in that role, I'm excited to both learn from other leaders and colleagues across the state to help nudge the parts of the state that maybe aren't as aggressive on climate action. But this is something that I think is really on now my generation to take much more aggressive action to address and really listen to the younger kids, the high schoolers and the middle schoolers that have been pushing me to say, ‘We have to get more aggressive here.’ So I'm excited to take that on.
Levulis: You mentioned the pandemic earlier, and a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for healthcare workers has gone into effect statewide in New York. In many places, those who haven't gotten the shots have been suspended. What's your understanding of the staffing situations for medical and care facilities in Ulster County?
Ryan: So right now, we're in good shape. We've been working with our hospitals in anticipation of this, making sure that at the end of the day none of our residents lose access to the care they need. The good news is we've been for many months working on our overall vaccinations in the county, we're at 81.4% of adults in Ulster [with one vaccination according to state data.] That's pretty well, they are doing pretty well compared to other parts of the state. So we're proud of that. And that helps leave a pretty small gap to close. And so we'll see how this bears out. But I think right now we're in good shape. I mean, our focus remains on just getting as many people as we can vaccinated, getting the boosters out now, which we, you know, just received guidance from the state on that. So we're ready to ramp that up and then making sure that as schools are reopening we really remain, you know, safe there and focus there, which so far, has gone very, very well across Ulster County.
Levulis: And in working with the state, Governor Kathy Hochul has been in the post for about a month now following the resignation of Andrew Cuomo. What has been your experience working with her administration so far?
Ryan: She is phenomenal. She's a breath of fresh air in terms of her style and approach. She's engaged, she's available, she's thoughtful, she's decisive. And she does the job with integrity and with an ethos of servant leadership, which is something I believe is core to public service of really putting those you're serving ahead of yourself or in your own interest. So it is a been a bright month in New York State I think thanks to her leadership, and, you know, in Ulster County she had visited many times as lieutenant governor. She knows our issues. She knows the needs, and I'm excited to continue to work with her to partner with her, and to really follow her lead.
Levulis: And then I, of course, want to ask you, Attorney General Tis, James made some recent comments that would lead many, some to believe she plans to run for governor in 2022. Would you like to see her on the ballot?
Ryan: Well, she'll definitely be on the ballot one way or the other. She's you know, doing great as attorney general, I think her report was a huge service to the people of New York State. And, of course, thank her for that. And a lot of her other initiatives. She’ll actually be up here this week checking on what's happening in our county and, in particular, her leadership on the opioid settlement work. We just announced the county will be receiving, Ulster County over $7 million to invest in our addiction recovery services, which helps us tremendously to tackle that problem. She's just led on a whole host of issues. So we appreciate that. We're thankful for that. In terms of the political side of things, we're in the middle of a pandemic, we're trying to get schools reopened, we're trying to get booster shots out. That's where my focus remains really on the residents of the county.
Levulis: Have to ask you though, as it pertains to 2022 the governor's race, are you ready to throw your support behind anyone just yet?
Ryan: I don't think it's really a time for politics. I think it's a time for economic recovery, a time for making sure people still in hospitals are, you know, supported, making sure our workers are supported and making sure people have a roof over their head and food on their plates and educational opportunity. So yeah, not thinking about that very much right now. But I appreciate the question.