By Nathan Mayberg
MONTICELLO September 29, 2006 In one of the most candid conversations in years by an elected official in Sullivan County, Sullivan County District Attorney Stephen Lungen took on everything from casinos to crime and county government during his appearance at the Sullivan County Charter Commission meeting on Monday. The commission is studying the county’s charter, or constitution, and examining whether to recommend changes to the government structure.
Lungen was the latest of several high ranking county officials to give insight to the commission, on the operations of county government over the last several months. But he blew away his predecessors with his frankness and opposition to what has been the norm and status quo of county government for nearly a decade. It was Lungen’s state of the county.
And nothing could be more important or have the potential impact that the possibility of a casino would have on the county. For years, he said, no county official ever asked for his opinion on the subject or let him voice it. It wasn’t until the New York State Assembly held hearings on the five casino proposal last year, that Lungen and Sheriff Dan Hogue sat at the same table and expressed their concern for the myriad impacts the casinos would have on the justice system and other county services. And when they did, Lungen said they were roundly criticized from pro-casino forces.
Three casinos or five casinos would have made it impossible on the county’s infrastructure, he told the charter. “One casino will bring us over the top,” he stated. If the casino adds 5,000 employees, which is a distinct possibility, that will mean more crime and an increase in the local population, he said.
The casino issue was always political, stated the county’s DA for a quarter of a century. “Me and Hogue were never asked because we were the last ones they ever wanted to hear from.”
On Monday, Lungen said the $15 million a year impact fee from the proposed casino at Monticello Raceway, would not begin to approach the impact the gaming facility would have on his office and others.
“When they build the casino, they will build it faster than mushrooms grow,” he said in a reference to the proposed mushroom factory in the Town of Mamakating. “They will be up and running in 18 months after the permit is issued,” he stated.
He believes there will be a huge gap between the time the casino is built, all the impacts that come with it, and the first check the county receives from the St. Regis Mohawks. Lungen believes there should be $25 million in seed money up front.
“The amount of money we are going to get is a total losing proposition in the county.” Between the impact on roads, crime, the schools and other infrastructure, $15 million won’t even be close, he said.
Commission members and the public appeared to agree with him and some were astonished that his input had not been solicited.
Dave Colavito of Rock Hill, who regularly listens in on all the meetings but is not a member, said “it is remarkable that you haven’t been made part of these issues… intolerable.”
Robert Green, who chairs most of the meetings, pointed out that Lungen’s office is already stretched out, and will likely need further assistance with a casino.
“I’m only a small office. Other offices will be dramatically altered,” he concluded.
County Manager Or Elected County Executive?
The strongest voice thus far in favor of an elected county executive over the currently appointed County Manager, also came out of the words of Lungen.
Although he said his office has not been affected much by the legislature or the previous Board of Supervisors during his tenure, the DA said he never understood the reason for switching the form of government to a legislature in the first place. However, he was against the weighted voting, which gave more power to the larger towns. As a conservative, he said he believes in less government. The legislature has created a new layer of government in his estimation.
And most importantly, in his view, the County Manager needs to be the CEO running the government. “The legislature shouldn’t be running the daily chores of the government. That is why you have a county manager,” he stated.
Historically, he stated, the county manager works for and answers to the legislature. His power has been questionable, he stated. Therefore, Lungen gave his support for an elected county executive who would be responsible to the voters.
In addition, Lungen shot a lightning bolt at legislators by questioning why the county was facing such massive deficits when there is so much expansion occurring throughout the county. Indeed, the county has seen a substantial increase in new homes, sales tax and mortgage tax collections over the last few years, yet its budget shot up more than $20 million last year and it has a debt load of approximately $60 million. Much of that debt has been tied to the landfill. “We need a captain,” he concluded.
State of the County
Lungen’s synopsis of the county in terms of crime was not positive. He described the crime situation as “horrible.” There have been dramatic increases in crime over the last three years, he stated. “We are a rural county with urban problems.”
Outside of New York City, Lungen estimated that the county’s crime rate was among the highest in the state. One of the major reasons in his view, was the profitability of drug trafficking here. And the DA noted a significant increase in gun violence, particularly in Monticello. In fact, one day after the meeting, there was a shooting there. Similarly, Lungen said crimes against children have become routine, occurring weekly.
The DA has put together a family response team, community policing unit and is forming a squad to counteract crime in Monticello, yet crime is not getting better, he said. Lungen said his office has been aggressively prosecuting cases. In fact, last year, they handled 390 felonies, up by more than 100 over the previous year.
Commission member Sandra Schultz said to him, if they had a magic wand, what could they give him? While she meant powers through the charter, Lungen said if they had a magic wand, he would wish children stayed away from drugs. “We would see a dramatic reduction in crime,” he stated.
“I am sick of seeing editorials about non-violent drug offenders,” he stated. He blames the majority of crime as being related to drugs. For example, home burglaries in this county are another constant problem also caused by the drug epidemic, he stated.
He said the country needs to figure out how to prevent drugs from moving into their communities and to figure out why so many children feel the need to use drugs. Without drugs, the population in this country’s jails would shrink by more than one-third, he said. “Without drugs and alcohol, I can shut down my office and play golf.”
Now to top it off, the administration of the New York State Police has forced him to handle all traffic tickets. The majority of state legislators passed a bill which would revert the handling of tickets back to the state police, but it was vetoed by Governor George Pataki. Lungen described the current situation as “a nightmare.” He said he would need two or three new assistants to handle it.
Lungen said he has been fortunate to keep a team of eight assistant district attorneys, half of which have been with him for more than a decade. They could be making more in private practice or in other counties, he said. Some of their salaries are paid through grants. Lungen’s salary is partially paid by the state as well. His office has a total budget of $1.3 million.
In addition to being left out of the casino picture, Lungen said he has been shut out of the plans to build a new jail something he might be able to help out with as a prosecutor with more than three decades of experience in the county. After that statement, legislator Leni Binder invited him to attend the legislature’s next meeting on the jail plan.
The charter review commission is scheduled to meet again October 23 at 4 p.m. at the Sullivan County Government Center with Department of Public Works Commissioner Robert Meyer. Also slated to be spoken with in the near future will be personnel commissioner Pamela Rourke.
The charter hopes to complete its recommendations by May, which will give the legislature about 4 months to review the changes and put up a new charter for a countywide referendum in November 2007.