Guns and butter budget

“Capt. Pat doesn’t work here anymore.”  Clerk to the legislature Victoria Fabella.

Here, I apologize to one of my favorite legislative clerks (right after the late Randy Roth), but leads like the above don’t fall into a columnist’s lap every Tuesday afternoon. Besides, it fits the occasion.

At the odd and inconvenient hour of 4:30 p.m., acting county executive Johanna Contreras began her 16-minute presentation of the proposed 2023 county budget.  During the milling around period that always precedes and follows such events, I noticed that the three flags behind the podium were out of order. The county flag was on the left (as the audience faced it), the American flag in the middle and the state flag on the right. United States Flag protocol requires that the American flag to always be on the left, preceding any other.  On flagpoles, the American flag is always highest.

As a veteran and a self-described flag-waving SOB, I notice such things. I approached the legislative clerk who has jurisdiction over such ceremonial events in legislative chambers, or so I thought.

“The flags are out of order,” I said to Fabella, who was sitting in the third row of seats designated for legislators and county department heads.

“Not our job. This was an executive operation,” she said with a glance toward executive offices to her left. Not much rattles the unflappable clerk.

“Capt. Pat wouldn’t have made that mistake,” I said, referring to former county executive and army officer Pat Ryan, who resigned after being elected to congress on Sept. 9.

“Capt. Pat doesn’t work here anymore,” she replied, with just a hint of what I perceived as a mischievous smile. Mona Lisa, move over.

Indeed. Gone and apparently almost forgotten after 33 months in office, Ryan’s name was barely mentioned, if at all, by Contreras, the woman he hired as a deputy executive in January and appointed his successor, nor in the press release the acting executive put out the next day.

Without casting aspersions, there is it seems a delicious irony here. Ryan, during his brief tenure, almost never mentioned Mike Hein, the man he succeeded. “My predecessor” was about as close as he got.

The erasure of Ryan from public consciousness took another turn. Contreras spoke to a “two-month” budget process ending in early October, which in actuality begins in May, six months after the legislature adopts the budget. The inference was that Ryan, out campaigning for congress in a special election he won in August, had little, if anything, to do with the 2023 budgets. Contreras, barely five months into the job when the budget process began, would have had minimal experience with the intricacies of a $278 million budget (as formally presented this week.).

“So, who put this budget together?”, I asked senior deputy executive Marc Rider before the acting exec took the podium. Always spare with words, he replied, “Lots of people. Call it a team effort.”

Contreras concurred, though it does raise the question of just who will be running county government until the acting executive’s term runs out on Dec. 31. Contreras, as designated head of state with all the authority of an elected executive, is a logical assumption, but then there’s that “committee” that put together the budget.

Will she dance with the team that brung her, or be the leader of the band?

                                                                                *****

BJUDGET NOTES – The hyperbole by elected executives Hein and Ryan during their terms was carried forth in what could be called “the second act.” Hein left his chief of staff Adele Reiter in charge in 2019 until a special election could be held. Reiter, true to form, had almost nothing to say, publicly.

Contreras seemed a different cut in speaking to the “generational impact” of the programs (the unnamed) Ryan set in action and which would be liberally supported by the $27 million increase in this proposed budget.

“Generational?” A generation in politics is but one election cycle. In fact, it is often debated as to whether a legislature has any obligation to carry forth the laws and rules enacted by its predecessor.

And there is at least a real chance of electing a conservative Republican executive next month who might have very different ideas about obligating future generations to the policies of present leaders.

It might have been a slip of the tongue, but the exhortation by Contreras that the county had to “restore” trust in government raised more than a few eyebrows.

Buttonholing the exec after her brief presentation, I asked her what she meant by that. She asked me what I meant. An intelligent young woman with a master’s degree in public administration, she knew exactly what I meant.

“To restore public trust suggests there was not public trust before,” I said in plain English. No way was that what Contreras meant, I knew, but that’s what she said.

An aide quickly came to her boss’ assistance. “Perhaps we should have said improve on public trust,” she offered, with a nod from Contreras.

Contreras spent about the first third of her budget presentation going over her own record as a deputy to the mayor of New York immediately before coming to Ulster That she felt it at all necessary before an audience of county officials suggested to me, at least, that after almost a year on the job she is yet an unfamiliar figure to officialdom, if not the public at-large.

Freeman county reporter Patricia Doxsey did a much better job of covering this year’s initial budget presentation than I, as demonstrated by the above. However, as a reporter, Doxsey was not allowed to state an opinion in what was a straight news story. Enter me. This is by any definition, a guns and butter budget, something for everybody and in historic abundance. The proposed budget adds 48 new positions to a workforce of about 1,300. Ryan’s last budget proposed as many. Is this sustainable?

Contreras also talked about the need to provide good, well-paying jobs, with benefits. Obviously, the county is doing the best it can.

Contreras made only passing mention of federal Covid money pouring in to county coffers. Maybe she didn’t notice those Brinks trucks circling the county office building every day.

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