Party leaders tout accomplishments
Every year at this time, the Majority and Minority leaders in the Ulster County Legislature address the entire body, touting the Legislative accomplishments of the past year and putting forth their respective party’s plans for the future.
Kenneth J. Ronk Jr., [R-.Shawangunk], who is in his second year as the Majority leader, began by telling legislators on the other side of the aisle “I have thoroughly enjoyed working with you last year and am excited about the things we can accomplish in the year ahead.”
Ronk said legislators have taken the first steps in addressing long-standing issues surrounding the Resource Recovery Agency [RRA]. He acknowledged that finding a solution has been a “polarizing” issue; one that hit an ideological nerve and crossed geographical boundaries. He urged legislators to remain “vigilant” in efforts to ensure there remains a strong oversight on this agency.
Ronk said some in the Legislature believe there have been serious inequatiies in the way costs for Safety Net [social services] recipients have been charged back to the towns in the county. He said that by working together the Legislature developed a 3-year plan that will provide mandate relief to all towns in the county without increasing county property taxes.
Ronk said through “unparallel compromise and bipartisanship” the Legislature, in late 2012, successfully completed the first revision to the Ulster County Charter. He said he was particularly proud of the changes made to the Ulster County Board of Ethics.
“No ethics board should serve at the pleasure of one person or body,” he said. “We as a Legislature, instead, gave board members a set term, so as to strengthen the Board of Ethics for years to come.”
Ronk noted that while the county executive develops a draft budget, it is the Legislature that adopts the final budget. He said through a shared effort from these two branches of government the residents of Ulster County will see a tax decrease in the upcoming budget.
Ronk said in 2013 the Legislature will have to grapple with the rising cost of state mandates while simultaneously having to deal with drastic cuts that are being made in state funding. He said the county will be forced to either make deeper cuts in programs and services or “realign” non-mandated services such as the Golden Hill care facility or the Mental Health Services. Ronk said if Albany ignores Ulster County “we will be forced to continue to cut the important things we believe County government should be doing [and] to pay for what state government passes the buck on.” He said shifting expenses to the local level “is not a recipe for success. No matter what pocket it is coming out of; our taxpayers still foot the bill.”
As a member of the Ulster County Fire Advisory Board, Ronk said there is a need to upgrade the emergency services radio system. He said the county cannot afford a $27 million upgrade that was proposed by Blue Wing consultants on an 800 MHz radio system, but he urged his fellow legislators to continue seeking short and long-term solutions to solve the county’s communications problems.
Ronk also advocated for upgrades to three burn centers spread across the county so that firefighters can train in simulations nearing the heat levels they will experience in actual fire scenarios.
Ronk recommended completing updates to the administrative code. He proposed two amendments of his own: have the Legislature receive updates on contract negotiations from the county executive no fewer than once and no more than four times a year. He said he will also seek to require that the Legislature receive quarterly sales tax figures shortly after the county executive receives them.
“We are a co-equal branch of government [with the executive] and will be treated as such,” he said.
Ronk urged his colleagues to begin discussing a larger meeting location because they often exceed the current chamber fire code capacity of 97 persons – a clear safety issue.
Ronk closed his address by discussing the need to preserve and maintain civility in the way legislators conduct themselves in the public arena.
“We must endeavor to disagree without being disagreeable to the best of our ability. We must strive to treat each other with the respect we wish to receive. We owe that to ourselves, to our colleagues and to our country,” he said.
Minority Leader Dave Donaldson [D-Kingston] said when Democrats took over the majority position seven years ago, after being in the minority for nearly three decades, they inherited significant problems.
“After years of extremely high property tax increases, huge budget shortfalls and seeing building projects spiral out of control [Ulster County Jail], we were handed the reins of government,” he said. “We understood that massive reforms were needed.”
Donaldson said Democrats undertook a course of action they called “better government at a better price” with the goal of moving Ulster County toward “sustainability, while protecting our most vulnerable.” The creation of a County Charter and the election of a county executive grew out of this sensibility, but he stressed that “we must continually rework, reevaluate and reform to assure a better government for the people of this county.”
Philosophically, Donaldson said “good government” is not about memorializing resolutions, issuing press releases, spouting platitudes and making shallow policy recommendations, but it is about “taking risks and standing up to the status quo for the betterment of the greater good.” He said this requires “working with all shareholders regardless of their partisan stands or opinions.”
Donaldson noted several achievements: a county budget that reduces property tax rates; county takeover of the Safety Net and the creation of a better funding stream for the RRA. He said Democrats partnered with the county executive, despite opposition from the majority leadership, to create a first-time homeowner’s tax break.
Donaldson said the county is in the process of creating a Veterans Homeless Shelter. He said he is proud of the Legislature for passing the Hydraulic Fracturing Brine Prohibition Act, which prevents by-products from this controversial drilling process for natural gas from being spread on county roads in winter as a de-icing agent. He thanked Legislator Ken Wishnick [D-Esopus] for bringing forth this important, first-of-its-kind law in New York State.
Donaldson also thanked Legislator Tracy Bartels for pushing to have audio recordings of all committee meeting readily available on the county website for public access.
Donaldson said it was his party that established “real accountability” with the Ulster County Industrial Development Agency [UCIDA] by requiring greater oversight on those who were granted tax breaks. He said this will dispel the “myth” that tax breaks are handouts to the wealthy and the agency will regain the trust of the taxing agencies. In the end, this will attract quality projects.
Donaldson said his party was “instrumental” in procuring county funding to begin the county executive’s STRIVE program, which includes funding from the Dyson Foundation and the state, to establish a “welcomed presence” of the Ulster Community College in Kingston.
Donaldson said the full Legislature partnered with the county executive in a battle with the NYC Department of Environmental Protection [NYC DEP] to secure funding for homes in Wawarsing that were either damaged or destroyed because of the city agency’s “lack of diligence” in the repair of water leaks. He said this joint Legislature/county executive bond has also held the NYC DEP more accountable for their flooding of the Esopus Creek.
Donaldson praised the state, county, town and village police forces for providing excellent protection to the public. He said, however, that due to state mandates and the property tax cap, it is time to establish a Law Enforcement Sustainability Commission to “examine present policing policies and what may be considered as best practices in the coordination of services.”
Donaldson said Democrats have been strong advocates on increasing the availability of mental health services in the schools, saying schools “are on the front lines of today’s most pressing health and mental health challenges.” He said the county executive has formed a Child Mental Health Work Group that will examine the possibility of forming public/private partnerships to see if mental health clinics should be housed within school districts and be paid for by identifying the proper providers.
Donaldson chastised the Legislature’s leadership for doing nothing at a recent meeting to stop a member of the public from verbally attacking a legislator and again at another meeting when someone prevented him from participating in a discussion.
“The Legislature must never allow a bully mentality to run our democracy,” he said. “It is the duty of our leadership to run meetings in a manner that protects the ability of all members to represent their constituents, regardless of how heated an issue may be.”
Donaldson called a proposed rules change that would require 10 votes to get a resolution released from committee “contrary to good government.”
“It is clearly an attempt to control what can be voted as well as creating the ability for some to hide from taking a stand,” he said. “Let us not try to emulate the dysfunctional New York Senate.”
Donaldson concluded by offering an olive branch to the other side of the aisle.
“I know I am speaking for all of the Democratic Caucus when I say we will continue to work diligently with our Republican friends and the county executive in our pursuit of creating a better Ulster County,” he said.
By MARK REYNOLDS