Mike Hein's Campaign to Reinvent Ulster County, N.Y.

A New York county manager who made the jump to elective office is looking to fundamentally change how local government operates.
by | July 11, 2013 AT 11:00 AM
Mike Hein
Mike Hein

Mike Hein says it was the opportunity to make fundamental and sweeping changes that led him to make the move from the professional side of public management to elected office. Hein was Ulster County, N.Y.'s last county administrator under its old council-manager government. Now he is Ulster's first-ever elected county executive, and it was a taxpayer revolt that landed him in the job.

In 2006, the county had a $100 million jail-construction project that was three years behind schedule and $30 million over budget. The resulting 39 percent property-tax increase so outraged voters that they changed the county's form of government, creating the office of county executive. Hein ran for the job, won with a large majority, and took office in January 2009.

He didn't have to wait long for his first opportunity to begin changing the way government in the county operates. As any northern politician will tell you, snow-plowing is a big deal. Ulster County has 20 towns, and each town has an elected supervisors and an elected highway superintendent. Early on, Hein gathered these 40 or so people together and asked them, as the experts, how plowing the roads in the county ought to work.

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After they had all weighed in and a consensus on an ideal plan had evolved, Hein asked, "Does this look anything like what we have now?" They all laughed, he remembers, and then set about moving toward the ideal system they'd agreed upon, which included changes as basic as coordinating work so that trucks plow across town lines. Hein says six of the towns have signed on and that many of the rest are expected to do so.

Hein is part of a new breed of state and local government officials that I'm seeing around the country, leaders who recognize that we are in an age of permanent fiscal scarcity and design their strategies accordingly. Despite the atmosphere of hyper-partisanship in our public life today, these new leaders are far more pragmatic than they are ideological, and the innovations they come up with are likely to embrace ideas from both the right and the left.

That was well illustrated by the deal Hein was able to craft to keep the county-run nursing home open. The facility required an annual operating subsidy of $8.8 million that was growing, making it likely to eventually outstrip the county's fiscal capacity and join the numerous county-run nursing homes in New York that have closed. The county would have lost 300 jobs, and the nursing-home residents, many of whom cannot afford quality care, would have been displaced.

Hein is a Democrat, and the county's 23-member legislature is closely split with 11 Democrats, 11 Republicans and a Conservative Party member who caucuses with the Republicans. The deal Hein put together to keep the nursing home open blended a conservative approach -- selling the asset to a private operator -- and a liberal one -- giving the majority of the nursing home's existing workforce the opportunity to keep their jobs and to remain as union members. The plan will generate $11.25 million in one-time revenue, eliminate the subsidy and put the property on the tax rolls.

Ulster County voters seem to like the things Hein is doing: In 2011, he was re-elected without opposition. And now, as president of the New York State County Executives Association, he is touring the state looking for innovations in local government -- ideas that could be more broadly applied -- and has launched an initiative called PAYGo NY as a vehicle to spread them. He's finding no shortage of good ideas or of government people who think like he does. Two decades after the book "Reinventing Government" launched a movement, it is being given new life by this new generation of leaders.