Hein takes heat for cuts to comptroller’s office
Ulster County legislators have been asked to restore funding to the county Comptroller’s Office in response to what comptrollers from other New York counties described as revenge cuts by Ulster County Executive Michael Hein amounting to $175,721.
All five speakers at a county budget hearing on Tuesday said the proposed $695,221 budget for the independently elected office would force the comptroller to conduct fewer investigations because of the 20 percent reduction.
Among the speakers was Albany County Comptroller Michael Conners, who said the Legislature should be glad to have someone who carefully examines government leadership.
“It is something that you have to look at — that the Legislature has a representative that looks over the executive’s budget for you, helps you with the audit process and the functions of looking at expenditures,” Conners said. “You want to make sure that’s going to be there. When you start to cut somebody by 20 percent of staff and no one else is cut by anywhere near that, it becomes clear that you’re looking at a targeted retribution.”
Hein on Wednesday said the budget for the comptroller’s office budget simply was too high.
“... The [county’s former] nursing home, which used to be a $30 million portion of county government, with over 300 positions that the comptroller used to have to provide oversight for ... and other portions of the government overseen by the County Executive’s Office, are actually reduced by 40 percent,” Hein said by phone. “So it’s not unreasonable to have something that resembles a proportional reduction in the Comptroller’s Office.”
He added: “I don’t believe any elected official should be above tightening their belt to protect taxpayers.”
Onondaga County Comptroller Robert Antonacci told Ulster lawmakers Tuesday that he was subjected to similar cuts after announcing that pay raises had been illegally approved for his county’s legislators. He said he declined to certify payroll for the county and took lawmakers to court to overturn the salary hikes.
“My executive (Joanne Mahoney), without any doubt, [in] a revenge budget, tried to cut my staff 25 percent,” Antonacci said. “She eliminated my entire payroll staff, wanted to take that oversight out of our office. We fought hard and our Legislature returned those positions back to our office.”
Ulster County Comptroller Elliot Auerbach spent several minutes at Tuesday’s hearing introducing all seven staff members in his office, noting that at least two will lose their jobs if the proposed cuts are allowed to stand.
“They are busy protecting the public’s interest from waste and abuse — seven people who understand that it is more costeffective to prevent fraud than to detect it,” he said.
Following the hearing, Auerbach said animosity from Hein, a fellow Democrat, seems to be the result of comptroller reports critical of popular programs.
“I think some of our audits seem to touch on sensitive nerves,” he said. “A couple of them have been pet projects of the sixth floor (Hein’s office) — one of them being the electric car chargers, one being the ethics and campaign finance recommendations that we made.”
Auerbach said that, “with the electric car chargers, we felt [it] was literally giving away taxpayers’ money by allowing people to charge for free.” The Ulster County Regional Chamber of Commerce ultimately agreed to pick up the costs associated with the chargers.
Auerbach said the Patriots Project, a Hein initiative to house homeless veterans, also is coming under scrutiny.
“We’re in the process right now of auditing, along with the state comptroller ... the homeless veterans’ situation in Ulster County,” he said. “While the Patriots Project has done some great things, I don’t know that it’s solved the entire homeless veterans problem in Ulster County. The Patriot’s Project saw 52 veterans go through it and not 52 individual veterans; there’s some recidivism.”
The overall county budget for 2017 that Hein has proposed totals $324.82 million, which is about 1.7 percent smaller than this year’s spending plan. The proposed budget has a property tax levy of $76.89 million, which is down 0.25 percent from the 2016 level.