Local government innovations are important. But sharing those successes with leaders in other communities is what turns a good idea into a systemic solution that fundamentally improves the way government works.
Just ask Mike Hein. As the county executive for Ulster County, N.Y., Hein has made it his mission to seek out and share creative solutions to problems that confront New York’s local governments. Facing heavy cuts in state aid and stagnant revenue, including a state-imposed cap on property taxes in 2012, many New York governments have been digging deep to find new ways to survive. Lawmakers in Albany have been pushing counties to share or consolidate services.
So Hein got them talking to each other. Using his platform as then-president of the New York State County Executives Association, Hein in 2013 hosted a series of forums to highlight the new survival skills that local governments were cultivating. Out of that grew the Municipal Innovation Exchange, a database launched earlier this year and managed by the New York State Association of Counties. Now filled with more than 2,000 innovations and examples, the exchange is a resource where local governments can learn from the experiences of their peers and quickly find out how others solved similar problems. How can a city and county centralize their public works functions? Can two counties share a medical examiner?
Hein hopes the database can help future leaders sidestep the knee-jerk, we-don’t-do-that-here reaction he faced in government when he became Ulster’s first county executive, in 2008. “This gives people easy access to strong, fleshed-out ideas so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time,” he says.
Meanwhile, Hein has implemented plenty of creative solutions at home in Ulster County, about 80 miles north of New York City. He ended veteran homelessness in the county for essentially zero dollars when Ulster purchased a vacant group home owned by the state for $1 -- and then sold the State University of New York-Ulster president’s home to pay for renovating the property. (Hein personally called the college president himself to tell him he’d have to move.) To boost inner-city enrollment at SUNY-Ulster, Hein is turning a former elementary school in the county seat of Kingston into a satellite campus. His health department developed a suicide prevention app and is now making it available to other counties for free. And he privatized the operations of a costly-to-run county nursing home, closing an $8 million budget deficit and getting what had been a budget buster back on the county’s property tax rolls.
Hein’s brazen style and focus on outcomes has caught the attention of people in and out of New York state. “Anybody that pushes as hard as he does is not going to please everybody,” says Matt Chase, executive director of the National Association of Counties. “But he’s very performance-driven, so he threads that needle really well. He’s been a really innovative leader in bringing together county leaders and schools so they can control their own destiny.” -- By Liz Farmer
*This article has been updated with the correct year that Hein became Ulster County Executive. He was elected in 2008, not 2006.
Read about the rest of the Public Officials of the Year here.