Did Hull at Union help or hurt Sch’dy?

When I first saw the anti-Hull mailers in Schenectady, I said this is the unions. They were slick an

When I first saw the anti-Hull mailers in Schenectady, I said this is the unions. They were slick and professional-looking, and they didn’t so much hammer Roger Hull, candidate for mayor, as knee him in the groin.

One featured a jukebox with his supposed greatest hits — “The Tax Man,” “Whole Lotta Takin’ Going On,” “Baby I’m a Rich Man,” and so forth.

The other showed a restaurant check that he supposedly skipped out on, and declared, “Roger Hull stuck you with the tab by refusing to pay for basic city services and removing millions in property tax from the tax rolls,” referring to Hull’s 15-year tenure as president of Union College.

There was no indication of who paid for the mailers or who sent them, and there was no mention of Hull’s Democratic opponent, Gary McCarthy.

“Has to be the unions,” I said. “They might not even have told McCarthy about it, just to keep him covered.”

But I underestimated McCarthy’s insouciant openness.

When I called and asked him if he knew who had sent the mailers he freely acknowledged that he had, he and his campaign committee. No secret about it.

It reminded me of when, in his capacity as acting mayor, he had denied Hull’s son a commissioner of deeds certificate that would have allowed the young man to collect petition signatures. I had expected some kind of devious excuse-making for such an obviously political maneuver, but no. “I don’t want people working against me,” he volunteered, without any coaxing on my part.

Sometimes I wish all politicians were so upfront.

As for why there is no mention of him or his campaign committee on the mailers, that’s simple. It’s not legally required. The Federal Communications Commission requires it in federal races and also in television and radio ads, but in printed ads for local races, you can do what you want.

The substance of the ads is the charge that, as president of Union College from 1990 to 2005, Hull hurt the city that he now wants to lead. It’s a charge that Hull vehemently denies, citing the many improvements the college made to its neighborhood, adding up to more than $5 million worth of what he calls payments in lieu of taxes.

He calls McCarthy “a career politician who can’t distinguish between fact and fiction,” and asks rhetorically, “How can we trust anything he says when he sends out material he knows to be false?”

One mailer says, “As Union College president, Roger Hull took over $8 million dollars of property off the tax rolls, leaving Schenectady property-taxpayers to pick up the slack,” which puts the worst possible face on the college’s rescuing of a few blocks of derelict houses, beautifully restoring them and putting them to student use.

It cites the Times Union of April 29, 2005, as its source, but that’s just window-dressing. The Times Union of that date noted that the college paid $170,000 a year for water and sewer services from the city and quoted President Hull as saying, “We have made a major investment to turn a part of the community around.”

The same mailer says, “Roger Hull advocated for a higher, regressive Metroplex sales tax than what was ultimately agreed to,” and cites this newspaper of June 13, 1998, as its source, but that’s just more window-dressing. There was no such report on that date, though there was a report on an earlier date that Hull, along with his partners in Schenectady 2000, Neil Golub and George Robertson, were proposing a 1 point increase in the county sales tax to fund a new and innovative agency to be called the Metroplex Development Authority.

It’s true that as the plan was discussed and negotiated, the 1 point increase eventually became half a point, so the sales tax rose from 7 to 7.5 percent, not to 8 percent, though it’s also true that Democrats by and large opposed and tried to undermine the Metroplex idea, which turned out to be probably the most productive idea in Schenectady’s recent history and, if anything, Hull deserves a lot of credit for it.

But then there is Hull’s counterclaim that he rendered unto the city $5 million in payments in lieu of taxes, known to municipal law buffs as a PILOT, in which he includes the cost of renovating a ball field in Central Park, developing a tutoring center near the campus and forgiving $246,000 that the city owed the college.

All of which was undoubtedly to the benefit of the city as well as to the college but hardly qualifies as a PILOT. A PILOT is a deal negotiated between a developer and an Industrial Development Agency, in which the developer receives certain incentives including tax breaks to encourage him in his endeavors and agrees in return to make certain payments to the city in place of taxes. It’s a contractual arrangement.

John Van Norden, the city’s corporation counsel, tells me the city has PILOT agreements with some private developers but not with any nonprofit corporations like Union College, though conceivably it could.

Former Mayor Brian Stratton tried repeatedly to coax contributions out of the college to support the city budget, but without success.

A year after Hull left as president, the college put out a statement in response to the requests, reiterating, “As we have said in the past, a PILOT is not feasible at this time.”

PILOT or not, my own view is that regardless of how you do the cost-benefit accounting, as long as McCarthy can keep attention focused on Hull’s role as president of Union College he will prevail, there being no great sense of identification with the college on the part of ordinary Schenectady folks.

If they keep thinking of one candidate as coming from Union, they will vote for the other candidate, is my guess.

Anyway, at this point I am enjoying the campaign every bit as much as I expected to. McCarthy is demonstrating the political wiles for which he is known, and Hull the lawyerly intelligence for which he is known, and we have a horse race.

clear words from court

On the litigation front I noticed that the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, ruled last week in favor of the SPCA of Schenectady County in its effort to obtain from the state Education Department a list of veterinarians. The department had refused on the grounds that some of the vets’ addresses were home addresses and therefore confidential.

The court decision was noteworthy for its exasperated tone. It said State Ed could have provided “a redacted list with a few hours effort and at negligible cost.” Instead, the case dragged through three courts, “demanding the attention of 13 judges, generating four judicial opinions and resulting in a delay of disclosure of almost four years.”

The court continued, “It is our hope that the Department, and other agencies of government, will generally comply with their FOIL [Freedom of Information Law] obligations in a more efficient way.”

To which I can only say, Hear, Hear.

cough it up

Perhaps you’re wondering what became of the dispute in Schoharie County that I reported earlier this year in which the county treasurer refused to pay about 10 months’ worth of salary as a goodbye gift to the departing director of public health.

The county attorney and the Board of Supervisors agreed to the generous settlement behind closed doors and without the formality of a resolution or a vote.

The treasurer, Bill Cherry, said if he signed a check under those circumstances it would constitute an illegal gift of public funds. Since he is the only official authorized to sign checks on behalf of the county, there was a standoff.

Eventually, to no one’s surprise, the departed public health director, Kathleen Strack, filed a lawsuit to get the money she thought she was due, which would be in the neighborhood of $50,000.

My sympathies were entirely with the treasurer, but alas, the courts do not consult me on these matters, and the other day the Honorable Eugene P. Devine of state Supreme Court, Schoharie County, ruled in favor of Ms. Strack and ordered Mr. Cherry to cough up not only the secretly agreed-to severance payment but also damages and interest from Jan. 15.

He concluded that “although no formal vote or resolution ensued, the Board did provide the requisite approval.”

So the score for open government last week was one win, one loss.

Categories: Opinion

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