Tip of the iceberg

What is the definition of “efficient?” 50 percent 30, 20? How about ten percent?

Ten percent, spoke county comptroller March Gallagher after a review of the heretofore seldom-heard Ulster County Service Center.

Established by the county late last year to handle the flood of Covid calls, the center, according to Gallagher, handled just over 6,700 inquiries in January, which rapidly declined (as did the original disease to be replaced by something more contagious but less dangerous) to under 500 by October. That’s more like 93 percent. Gallagher calculated that the staff was “idle 89 percent of the time.”

About that staff. With a budget of $341,000, the four-member office includes an executive director at $84,000, an assistant executive director at $75,800 and two people to answer the phones, at an average of $67,000, on the rare occasions when they now get calls. In effect, the office employes two grossly over-paid managers to watch over two other over-paid staffers. I mean $67,000 to answer the phone with almost no ringy-dingy? Mercy.

Adding insult to injured taxpayers, outgoing acting executive director Johanna Contreras recommends full staffing at $341,000 in her proposed 2023 budget, which goes to the legislature on Dec. 5 for final approval.

Is this any way to run a government?

A few legislators, like Laura Petit, D-Esopus, think not, though nary a word has been heard from the executive branch charged with direct oversight and administration of all programs. Legislators grouse that this was intended to be a one-year operation funded by federal grants, but that program executives, busy watching staffers fielding maybe one call every 90 minutes, had been less than forthcoming with operational information. Maybe they were too busy?

Gallagher dug it up and just in time for budget presentation.  Where was the administration? Where was the legislature?

There’s more to this, which gets us to icebergs. If this debacle be but the tip of the iceberg – and the bulk of icebergs lurk 90 percent below the surface – what does it say about the rest of county government?

Gallagher doesn’t address that question. Rather, she suggests raising the volume of calls to the agency by rerouting calls to it now sent directly to other county agencies. Got a problem with social services? Call the service center. They’ll call social services. And round and round we go.

Most if not all things being political in county government, there is too the question of timing of the comptroller’s late-November public disclosure of gross inefficiency in a however minor county department.

A loyal Democrat, Gallagher’s breaking of this story in say, mid-October, might have influenced two major races in the Nov. 8 election. Republican candidate Jim Quigley, who ran on an efficiency platform, would have jumped on this one with both feet.  Would this wheel-house issue have picked up the 10,000 votes Democrat Jen Metzger buried him by? Maybe not all, but a bunch. It will surely be a factor should Quigley follow through on his threat to run for county exec next year against Metzger.

Worse, Metzger, whose feel-good candidacy obviously appealed to voters, would have had to produce some credible answers as to how she would clean house as executive, without stepping on the tender toes of running mate and former executive Pat Ryan who enthusiastically endorsed her candidacy.

Then there’s “landslide Ryan” (to quote a post-election headline in Hudson Valley One) who eked out a 2,100-vote victory over Republican Colin Schmitt.  Running with pants on fire, the last thing Ryan needed was critics rummaging around his former administration three weeks before the election.

Gallagher, to her credit, will continue to issue well-researched critiques of county government. That such are routinely ignored by other branches of government does not mean she shouldn’t continue doing so. Like the iceberg floating in the ocean, we’d like to see a lot more of this and politics be damned.

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HONEST, ABE – Kingston Democrat Abe Uchitelle’s proposed salary increase amendment to the county budget may or may not make it to the floor next week, but Uchitelle wants understood that it wasn’t his amendment, per se; it came from a legislature-appointed periodic salary review board. Previous news accounts, including mine, left out that important bit of information.

To which, in all due respect, I say, so what? It doesn’t change the panel’s recommendations – $15,000 across the board for top officials and a $2,000 raise (to $16,000) for legislators. Or the rationale that other, larger counties pay higher for similar positions.

To which I respectfully say, so what? The legislature appointed the board to provide cover for what it had no stomach to face on its own. Perhaps the department of motor vehicles should issue special license plates for legislators with CYA emblazoned.

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MUCH ADO – I read in the daily where the Esopus town board is prepared to rescind a resolution it passed in September to deed a 0.06-acre of town-owned land on Sleightsburgh Spit on the Rondout to a developer. An acre is roughly 42,000 square feet, meaning the property in question, sold to the developer for $250,  would be all of 25 square feet, about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.

MUCH IS PROMISED, BUT – Neighbors and Scenic Hudson protested on environmental grounds. Shakespeare said it better.

The headline in Northern Dutchess News read “High hopes for Dutchess County’s newly elected state senators.

The story written by Mark Adams of Fairacre Farms noted, however, that Rob Rolison, R-Poughkeepsie, as Queen City mayor, said he had little knowledge of agriculture issues and that Michelle Hinchey, D-Saugerties, wasn’t available for an interview. Hinchey, beginning her second term in January, is likely to be reappointed chair of the senate Agriculture Committee, and she hasn’t the time, or can’t schedule it, to talk to the leading farmer in the Hudson Valley?

And Rolison didn’t exactly commit to seeking appointment to Hinchey’s committee as requested by Adams. Two state senators on that committee would give our region considerable clout where it counts.

“High hopes,” indeed.