What evil lurks at 401 State Street?

NOW CHILDREN! PLAY NICELY together. Remember, please, that we’ve just given you your allowance for 2011 and, frankly, that $150 million is a lot of money to spend here in Columbia County.

Actually it’s $149,271,586 that the county Board of Supervisors plans to spend in 2011 to operate all the services county government. The amount, along with where all that money will go, is laid out in the budget adopted last week by the board. It’s online at the county website, http://columbiacountyny.com.

The run-up to the vote on the budget produced little debate or discussion except a few voices raised in protest at the proposal to end the sales tax exemption for small purchases of clothing and shoes. Sales taxes are the most regressive type of taxes because everybody must pay them regardless of how much money they have. So in the middle of a prolonged recession with high levels of unemployment it seemed like a needless punch in the gut for people with the fewest resources.

That sales tax increase is expected to yield nearly half a million in additional revenue next year. Add to that the room and board fee increases of $15 a day at the county’s Pine Haven Nursing Home and more fees charged by the County Clerk’s Office. Whether you see these changes as heartless or prudent, the money had to come from somewhere, and the supervisors faced big costs, some of them beyond their immediate control, including a 30% increase in payments to the state Retirement System.

Another place the money could have come from is the property tax. And maybe the lack of a public outcry prior to the budget vote stems from the board’s decision to keep the property tax levy flat: a 0% change from the current year.

The silence didn’t last long. The Board of Supervisors adopted the budget Wednesday, December 8. On Friday, December 10, the Register-Star newspaper published a long letter from the chairmen of the county Republican, Conservative and Independence Party committees — Greg Fingar, Matthew Torrey and John James Miller, respectively — demanding that Hillsdale Supervisor Art Baer, a Republican and the board’s budget officer, be “removed from all responsibilities and duties associated with the board.”

The letter lists 10 actions by Mr. Baer, many of which he took when he was chairman of the Board of Supervisor, before he lost that seat two years ago to Roy Brown (R-Germantown). Leading the list was the county’s purchase of the old Ockawamick School in Claverack, which was supposed to become the county office campus but which sits practically unused. The letter writers also fault Mr. Baer’s support for the return of the sales tax on clothes as harmful to small businesses and blame him for the proposal to employ a professional county administrator.

At points the letter verges on hysteria, describing Mr. Baer’s actions as “atrocities” and charging him with every imaginable economic misstep except parking gum on the bottom of his desk. The tone is so overheated that it gives county Democratic Committee Chairman Chris Nolan an opportunity to ridicule their efforts to depose a politician they once supported. Mr. Nolan, who admits he doesn’t like Mr. Baer, declined to sign their letter.

Aside from their unfortunate choice of words, the letter from the three party chairmen does highlight some big-time mistakes and political misjudgments over the last few years, some of which are appropriately attributed to Mr. Baer’s leadership. And while the writers omit mentioning his notable accomplishments, like creating greater financial accountability in county government, that’s politics. Except for one thing.

If they want us to believe Art Baer is an evil puppet master pulling all the strings of county government, that must mean the elected officials they support, who control a majority of the votes in the Board of Supervisors, are dupes of Mr. Baer, slavishly doing his bidding. But aimed at what –countywide conquest?

Mr. Brown, whose term as chairman of the board runs to the end of this year, was actively involved in developing the plans to purchase the Ockawamick School, and it was he who proposed hiring a county administrator. Mr. Baer has made himself an easy target to demonize, but if he really is the power behind the throne and the sole architect of the county’s fiscal woes, then the criticism of the party chiefs would be better directed at the person who holds the gavel and the people who support him, including, it seems, the party leaders themselves.

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