Competing for Putnam County executive seat
By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong
Incumbent County Putnam County Executive MaryEllen Odell and the man who wants her job, Legislator Sam Oliverio, Wednesday night (Oct. 22) traded views on county financial bonding, the Butterfield redevelopment project, the pay one of them should receive come January, and other issues.
Oliverio, a Democrat, and Odell, a Republican, both agreed and differed on various points during their relatively short debate — the last act of a multi-candidate, multi-race series of confrontations on a rain-swept night in Carmel.
A veteran legislator and educator who previously has run for office as a Conservative Party candidate as well as a Democrat, Oliverio, of Putnam Valley, mentioned as accomplishments successfully promoting the health and safety of the public through legislature-driven initiatives, including oversight of the Indian Point nuclear power facility, attention to infrastructure and environmental protection, and advising sound county financial practices. “I’ve been an advocate, a watchdog” of careful use of taxpayer money, he said.
Among other things, that means “I’ve fought not to pull money from our surplus,” he said. His tenure on the legislature ends this year due to term limits. Likewise, he endorsed bipartisanship, saying his record in the legislature as the lone Democrat reflects it and he gave it as a reason for voting for him for county executive Nov. 4. “One party rule is dangerous,” Oliverio said. “Putnam County has to be inclusive” and open to varying perspectives.
Odell cited her work “to regain the confidence of the people” in the county’s leadership. After serving in the legislature, she ran for county executive in 2010, but lost to State Sen. Vincent Leibell, who soon afterward was caught in a financial scandal and went to prison, not to Carmel. Odell came back to win the county executive post in 2o11 and now seeks another term.
She highlighted her fiscal management, rooting out of fraud (as in Medicaid scams), and budgets that address needs while complying with the tax-increase cap; improvements to transportation for veterans and senior citizens, assembly of an administration of high-caliber individuals from both government and private sectors, and more. “We’ve been able to run government services almost like a business,” she said, emphasizing “almost,” because governments, unlike businesses, “don’t make a profit.” Challenges remain “and it’s hard, but every day we’re getting in front of it,” she said.
As he often has at legislative meetings, Oliverio focused on bonding – a form of loan to underwrite government activities. “My problem is not so much with bonding. My problem is when we wave the credit card around” — in essence — and incur debt to pay for equipment like trucks, instead of using cash, he said. “I’m not against bonding for reasonable, long-term projects” but oppose it for non-enduring items, he explained. “We’re $70 million in debt. That’s half our budget.”
Odell responded that her administration found itself dealing with prior unmet demands. “We had to clean up 20 years of projects,” she said. Moreover, “this administration has bonded less than what was on the books when we came in” and likewise the county has a solid credit rating, she said.
County executive pay
As another savings, Oliverio proposed cutting the county executive’s salary to $102,000, or about three times what a legislator receives. “I’m very comfortable cutting that salary down,” he said. “We need to tighten the belt.” Odell’s salary for 2014 is $148,635. Oliverio related the issue to ongoing tax burdens. For example, “our school taxes are onerous,” he said. “They’re killing us.” He also predicted the public would benefit greatly “if we tied all our taxes to income” instead of property values.
Odell replied that decreasing the county executive’s compensation sounded like a campaign ploy. “Do you really believe this is going to move us forward,” she wondered — and asked if Oliverio, assistant principal of Putnam Valley High School, has ever been willing to reduce his own pay as a school official.
“Yes, I have,” and similarly “I didn’t take a pay raise four years in a row,” Oliverio answered. He advocated a county executive pay cut in part because “you lead by example.”
Butterfield and county services
The candidates concurred on the merits of locating some services in the western end of the county — specifically, in Philipstown — and backed the Butterfield redevelopment project. Both commented in much the same vein as on earlier occasions.
“The western end of the county has been underserved for way too long,” Odell declared, mentioning assorted county offices — some that would collect fees now lost when residents go elsewhere — and services, including a new senior citizen center, that she wants to locate at Butterfield. In fact, nothing in the county offers more promise than Butterfield, she said.
Oliverio reiterated his call for a presence at Butterfield in premises ultimately owned, not rented in perpetuity. “Philipstown is lacking services. I agree,” he said. “Butterfield provides us with this great opportunity. Let’s do a lease-buy. I totally support increased services on the western side of the county.”
The forum was sponsored by the Putnam County Courier and News and Recorder newspapers and held at Carmel’s VFW hall.