Executive versus legislature
There were two public meetings regarding the final report from the Sullivan County Charter Review Commission to the Sullivan County Legislature in recent weeks. The commission recommended that the county change from a government with a legislature and an appointed county manager to one with an elected county executive and an elected legislature. The easiest way for that to happen would be for the legislature to agree to have the question go to a voter referendum.
At the meeting held at the government center on October 19, Hal Smith, the administrator of the Sullivan County Jail, questioned whether the change would be economically beneficial. He said, “There are 57 counties in New York State outside of New York City; 18 of those have an elected county executive. On September 17, the New York State Comptroller’s Office released a fiscal stress report. In his report he identified Broome and Monroe counties with the designation of significant fiscal stress. Both of those counties have an elected county executive. He further identified Erie, Franklin, Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester as having moderate fiscal stress. All except one of those counties have an elected county executive.”
Bruce Ferguson, a member of the commission, responded to Smith’s remarks at the meeting on October 26. He said Smith’s information was true, but, “There’s a difference between a correlation and a cause... All five of the largest counties in New York State, which have populations of from 1.5 million in Suffolk to 750,000 in Monroe County, were considered stressed, according to the comptroller.” The stress he said was more likely related to financial strain of large urban population in these counties than the form of government.
He continued, “There are 52 other counties outside of New York City… and 13 of them have county executives; eight, like Sullivan have a legislative form of government. Only one of the 13 executive counties is financially stressed, as is one of the eight legislative counties.” So viewed that way, the executive form has the edge over the legislative form in terms of which is more likely to result in financial stress.
In his remarks, Smith questioned whether it’s true that a county executive has more clout in Albany than an appointed manager or a county legislative chairman has, as has been asserted by people like Dr. Gerald Benjamin. He said if that were so, the license to build a casino should have been awarded to Ulster or Orange county.
Ferguson responded, “The state made the determination about the casino based on which proposal would best provide, in the words of the state, ‘economic assistance to disadvantaged areas of the state.’ The report by the gaming facility location board also noted that a casino in Sullivan County would have the ‘potential to revive a once-thriving resort destination area, that has experienced a significant downturn....’”
Perhaps the most important point addressed was how much the Ulster County workforce was reduced after the state switched to a county executive. Smith said someone he knows in Ulster government informed him that the “majority of the reduction came from the decision of the county executive and the legislature to sell the county nursing home.”
Ferguson acknowledged that the commissioner’s report did not include the impact of the sale of the nursing home, but “I think Mr. Smith has greatly overstated the impact of that sale. Ulster County Finance Commissioner Burt Gulnick, Jr. says that even after factoring out the one-time sale of the nursing home, the county has trimmed its workforce by about 300 people, through attrition, without any lay-offs, since they went to county executive. That’s still a 19% reduction in county employees over the last eight years.”
He also addressed property taxes: “Ulster continues to roll back property taxes year after year. Today the county’s tax rate is lower than it was in 2011, and a further reduction is promised for next year.” He had information on tax increases in Sullivan for only three years, because that’s what was available on the county website. For 2016, taxes went up by .85%, in 2017 they increased by over 4.5%, and next year is a proposed 2.3% increase.
Members of the commission for 30 months studied the question of whether changing to a county executive would be beneficial to Sullivan County. At the end of the process, 12 of the 13 commissioners expressed the view that it would be beneficial.
Very few people turned out to the meetings where this proposed change, which could lead to fundamental changes in county government, were discussed. Fortunately, the meetings can be viewed online at tinyurl.com/y98hdner. The arguments we’ve heard to this point indicate that switching to a county executive reaped large benefits for the taxpayers in Ulster.
For this change in our form of government to happen, a referendum must be put before the voters, and the easiest way for that to occur is for the legislators to allow it. It’s certainly a question that the voters should have a chance to answer at the polls in 2018, and we urge county legislators to seriously consider enabling them to do so.