Ulster County Executive Mike Hein delivered his eighth annual State of the County Address on the campus of Ulster Community College last week before a crowded room filled with residents, business owners, legislators, town officials, county department heads, dignitaries, family and friends.
Hein began by saying that when he took office what was needed was an entirely new way of thinking about how county government could best serve the residents of Ulster County.
“We chose to innovate and create entirely new models that are now replicated all across New York. If we had just shied away from tough choices or innovation, then we never would have addressed the looming crisis at Golden Hill [nursing home] or restructured County government, delivering millions in tax cuts and millions more to our towns and City governments,” he said. “If we were willing to accept the status quo as the only choice, then homeless Veterans would have no choice but to sleep under bridges, vulnerable seniors would be stuck on waiting lists and more inner-city kids would be struggling to access higher education. The dream of a world-class rail trail system would have remained only a dream and our long-neglected roads and bridges would have simply begun to crumble.”
Hein said he took the opposite approach by reinventing county government “from the ground up” that resulted in a disruption of the status quo. By working hard and partnering with others there is now a $7.8 million community college satellite campus in Kingston that was completed on time and on budget using grant funding from private/public sources resulting in zero impact to the taxpayers. He said there is a new model ‘Meals On Wheels’ nutrition program for seniors as well as a Senior Care Coordinator to help the most vulnerable of the county’s population who “find themselves hospitalized, frightened and alone”; a 32-bed “Patriots Home” for returning Veterans in need; a proposal to link the rail trail by the Ashokan Reservoir to the Walkway Over the Hudson along with consideration given to a railroad/rail trail agreement on the Ulster-Delaware Corridor and a $30 million commitment to upgrade the county’s roads and bridges; more than 10 times the infrastructure investment made in 2000.
Hein noted one special accomplishment.
“Most of all, I am proud to say that the long overdue County monument honoring those who gave their lives fighting for our freedoms is long overdue no more,” Hein said of the new tribute that stands on the grounds of the county office building. “If this is what it means to be a disrupter in government then I am thrilled to have an administration full of disrupters: smart and dedicated people whose only focus is making things better for the great people of Ulster County.”
Hein pointed out that the county has taken bold steps to protect the environment, by installing new LED lighting, investing in more modern water fountains to lessen the number of plastic bottles, increasing the number of electric vehicle charging stations and requiring, by executive order, to have the county buy 100% of its electricity from renewable sources.
Hein said the changes made by his administration have made Ulster County the sole county in the state to become net carbon neutral. He said this year more than 10 acres of utility scale solar will be installed at the SUNY Ulster Stone Ridge campus as well as at the former landfill in the Town of Ulster with the goal of having Ulster County government 30% energy-independent by 2020, “something unheard of in the state of New York.”
Hein said Ulster County has made “massive” upgrades to their Veterans operations by doubling the number of accredited Service Officers to help Vets cut through red tape at the VA and by expanding the FAVOR program to also allow spouses of Vets to receive discounts at hundreds of local participating businesses.
Hein said the state of the county is strong because his focus has put the needs of people above the vagaries of politics.
“Simply put, embracing innovation and change works. Taxes are down, spending is down, unemployment is down, private-sector job growth is up and there is more access to critical services for our citizens than ever before, because collectively we were courageous enough to reinvent government and reject the status quo,” he said. “Instead of a government on the edge of insolvency, which is where we started, we are now ranked as the most fiscally sound County government in our region by the State Comptroller’s Office, all while providing millions in relief to our local governments.”
Hein said he understands the pressure that ever-rising taxes places upon businesses and families in the county. He pointed out that since he took office, county government is now 30% smaller and spending has been reduced by $32 million that has resulted not only in reducing everyone’s county property taxes but allowing for expenditures in infrastructure, enhanced services for those most in need and relief to the towns by taking over social programs and election costs.
“We have to disrupt the entire system. It will collapse if we do not, and our taxpayers will be the ones that suffer,” Hein said, adding that the state has proposed a $20 million challenge grant to help counties “succeed in reinventing sustainable government.”
Hein said there is much work ahead in 2016: finding a new location for Family Court, developing a sustainable long-term policy for dealing with solid waste produced in the county’s communities, deciding where to locate a new fire training facility, passing a responsible breeder’s law for pets, developing legislation to protect children from cyber-bullying, adding a Family Advocate to help individuals and families obtain treatment for heroin addiction and understand insurance coverage, take action to further protect residents from the potential of explosions posed by oil trains passing through the county and by the proposed Pilgrim Pipeline that will move volatile oil north and south along the NYS Thruway.
Hein said Ulster County has more artists, movie stars, producers, writers, directors and studio executives per capita than anywhere in the state yet is excluded from a tax credit program that helps upstate counties compete for film and television productions.
“To drive home how absurd and unfair this is, 84% of all upstate New York counties are included in this program but we are not. That is fundamentally wrong. Film and television productions have the ability to go anywhere in the world and these tax incentives are critical to successfully competing and attracting the millions of dollars that are spent locally,” Hein said, adding that this has also squelched inquiries about siting film and other media production facilities in the county. “With our growing tech sector and large number of local residents already in the business, we are uniquely positioned to engage the entertainment industry.”
Hein has enlisted the help of actress, director and producer Mary Stuart Masterson, who lives in the area and was in attendance, to attract a production facility to the county. He said a coordinated effort to lobby Albany, as they are in the process of developing a budget, should be made soon.
Hein concluded his address with a bold and powerful challenge.
“I invite you to join me, to be a disrupter too. To demand more and to embrace the fact that Ulster County’s future can be limitless if we are only willing to try. Together we have proven that we are capable of profound change,” he said. “Let us dare to make Ulster County even greater. Let us dare to be innovative. Let us dare to be bold. Imagine what is possible if we do.”
By Mark Reynolds