Five Questions With: Orange County Executive Steven M. Neuhaus
John Jordan | September 22, 2022
GOSHEN—Now in his third term of office, Orange County Executive Steven M. Neuhaus is looking beyond the COVID-19 pandemic to the future of Orange County.
Neuhaus, at a recent meeting of the Alliance for Balanced Growth, did not hold back and offered his frank assessment of the economy and what he believes is the proper use of federal government financial incentives.
Based on his sometimes blunt comments there, Real Estate In-Depth felt it had to sit down once again to get County Executive Neuhaus on the record on those and other key issues.
A life-long Orange County resident, Neuhaus and his two sisters were raised on a working farm in Southern Orange County that is still operational today. He attended Monroe-Woodbury High School and took courses at SUNY Orange during his senior year. Neuhaus went on to receive a Bachelor Degree in History/Political Science from Mount Saint Mary College as well as a Master Degree in Public Administration from Marist College. He is also a graduate of Orange County’s Leadership Orange program.
Neuhaus recently was promoted to the rank of Commander in the U.S. Navy Reserves effective Oct. 1, 2022. Neuhaus became a commissioned Officer in the Navy in December of 2007. He served on active duty earlier this year in Europe with the U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Sixth Fleet is the Navy’s operational fleet and staff of the U.S. Naval Forces in Europe and Africa.
He was previously on active duty with the U.S. Navy from November of 2018 to June of 2019. During that time, he served with the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force, spending most of his deployment in various locations throughout Iraq in Support of Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S. military campaign against ISIS. The County Executive also served overseas in South Korea in 2017 and North Africa in 2011.
Neuhaus, a Republican, was sworn into office on Jan. 1, 2014 after having served as the Town of Chester’s Supervisor for six years. He ran unopposed and was elected into his third term of office as county executive in November 2021.
He lives in Chester with his wife and four children.
Real Estate In-Depth: At a recent meeting of the Alliance for Balanced Growth, you said that the county plans to use its surplus, mostly COVID relief funds from the federal government, for infrastructure spending and perhaps a tax cut for taxpayers. Can you elaborate on the amount of funding you plan to earmark for infrastructure and some of the projects to be funded as well as other specifics of your plan?
Neuhaus: So, we are doing phenomenally well financially and our surplus is coming from two sources. If we never got the ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) money we would have been completely solid in this county. That’s how good (financially) we are doing thanks to conservative budgeting and a lot of great sources of income, much of that being sales tax. A lot of counties balance their budgets on property tax. However, because we are so big on economic development with companies like Medline and tourist destinations like LEGOLAND New York, we are bringing in close to $5 million in motel tax alone. So, we have two big pots of money we have surplus monies in—one is sales tax and the other is ARPA.
Some counties are using ARPA money for social programs and things like that. For the most part, all of my ARPA money is going towards infrastructure. We have $75 million coming in. We are going to put in at the end of the day about $20 million for a new Medical Examiner’s office and also all sorts of other major infrastructure projects. We also have a massive amount of sales tax (revenue). I am talking tens of millions of dollars in sales tax surplus. My unrestricted fund balance is close to $200 million at the end of this year. I have an $830-million budget so that is a ton of money. So, what are we doing with it? Tens of millions of dollars are being allocated to paving our roads. We’re doubling the number of miles we are doing this year. We are spending money on culverts and bridges. Basically, what we did is I brought in my DPW and Parks Commissioners and asked: ‘What is on our to do list that we are not doing right now? Usually, that is what you put into your capital plan and say we’ll borrow and we’re going to get this road done in five years and we’ll do this (job) in two years and buy equipment. A big part of (this plan) is we are going to buy new dump trucks and other heavy equipment that we use for DPW to do work in-house. You are going to see tens of millions of dollars in sales tax alone going towards whether it be physical infrastructure improvements or buying the equipment and maintaining that equipment in-house.
With the rest of the money, I am doing a major budget presentation at the end of the month and we are going to do a major (property) tax cut. We have to because there is so much money coming in because in my opinion if you are not using it for county services or county infrastructure, it’s got to go back to the taxpayer and that is what I am going to be announcing on Sept. 28 (Neuhaus public budget presentation). … When I present my budget in a couple of weeks you are going to see some massive infrastructure projects listed on it, you are going to see a property tax cut for the taxpayers, and I am thinking a significant one in the tax levy and the tax rate. You will also see less debt. We are paying cash for stuff. So, if you have this money why borrow when you can pay in cash?
We are also looking at major development of parks. We are redoing every one of our playgrounds. So, if you have a child that is autistic or a child in a wheelchair or a grandma or grandpa that has limited mobility, let’s make the park accessible to everybody. … We are also going to add 10 miles to the Heritage Trail heading out towards New Windsor that is going to open up economic corridors for bicycle shops and ice cream shops and businesses like that.
Real Estate In-Depth: Would the more prudent policy be to set some of those surplus funds aside for reserves since some economists are predicting a possible recession in 2023?
Neuhaus: Definitely. I am an optimist at heart, a proud American. I still believe we are the best house on a bad block. The whole world is a little upside down with war, (high) oil prices, inflation, you name it. However, I have to run a government. I have to be a little Nostradamus in the future and be able to predict where the economy is going to go. If it goes bad, am I going to have surpluses? So, we are beefing up our surpluses as high as we can go in every account. We will have the maximum amount (of reserves) we can have in there just in case. I always have believed in a rainy-day fund. God forbid we have another pandemic or we get sucked into World War III in the Pacific or with Russia. I spent a lot of this year either out in the Pacific monitoring the Chinese expansion in the entire Pacific, not just the South China Sea, as well as with first-hand knowledge in Europe that can easily suck us into a crisis and the U.S. is front and center in both of those theaters.
Real Estate In-Depth: Recently, you unveiled a plan to turn the former Camp LaGuardia property in Blooming Grove and Chester into a public park. From what we understand, there were some interested buyers in several RFPs issued by the county. Can you explain why you choose to reject those proposals and the rationale for making the former men’s homeless shelter complex a public park?
Neuhaus: In May, I grabbed all our department heads, including our new County Attorney Rich Golden who I think is one of the best municipal attorneys in the Hudson Valley if not the state…, and we sat in a big conference room with the bids. Every one of the three bids was contingent on approvals of the local communities and was also contingent on sewer and water, which does not run with the land. When Camp LaGuardia was shut down in February 2007, the Town of Blooming Grove petitioned to have the sewer rights removed. Now we are at a sewer crisis and shortage in a part of Orange County and with getting a pocket (sewer) plant approved by the New York State DEC, as well as finding water sources and getting them approved in a timeline that these three bidders needed on it, the (County) Attorney recommended to the Chairperson of the Orange County Legislature (Katie Bonelli) and I that we would never get this approved. You are going to be dealing with this for three, four, five years before you see the first penny. We then presented it to the legislators and the majority of the legislators said we would rather see a park there. We don’t have a park in southern Orange County. Let’s go with that concept. … I was all set going into that meeting that I was going to pick one of the three bidders, but then when that was presented to me that you are not going to see this in your term as County Executive or the next term that made me think we have to do something with it. Listen, I run by it every morning, including this morning. It looks like a site for “The Walking Dead.” So, I have instructed my staff to just start maintaining it and cleaning it up right now in anticipation of us owning it for the near future, which it looks like we would have owned it no matter what we did with it. But, as a good military commander, I keep every option open.
Real Estate In-Depth: With the opening of LEGOLAND New York, and tourism becoming a more significant part of the county’s economy, is the planned expansion of Route 17 a key project for the future of Orange County and its future growth?
Neuhaus: It is not only key; it is vital and required. What I am disappointed about is that I am still hearing from New York State it is going to be three years of studies (before construction could begin). Three more years of studies before you even start to see a plan and then you are going to have to fight for more funding to get that plan implemented. I think New York State gets an F+++ in infrastructure maintenance and it is one of the biggest impediments of economic development besides their aggressive anti-business platforms in the DEC and their lack of putting any real money forward for really good economic development projects.
Their lack of maintenance in infrastructure is a disaster—(Route) 17M is an embarrassment. We just spent a half hour talking about where I am putting my extra money, the state is giving it away like candy to social programs that do little to help anybody. They should be putting their money into infrastructure, safe streets, safe neighborhoods.
Editor’s Note: Real Estate In-Depth noted that Gov. Hochul has committed $1 billion to the Route 17 expansion project. Neuhaus then responded:
I want to see asphalt being put down. I don’t want to see studies. That road has been studied for 60 years. … They just finished doing some major upgrades on it. All they need to do is just add a third lane in there. I am happy they are talking about doing something with it. I am very skeptical that I now have to wait another three years of studies to actually see anything done. So, anybody reading your newspaper right now is going to say, ‘I am not going to see anything for the foreseeable future.’ That is frustrating. … This thing is like “Sasquatch,” it’s like urban folklore that there is going to be a third lane on Route 17.
Real Estate In-Depth: While COVID is not over, are there any lessons to be learned from how government, and particularly your administration, handled the fight against the spread of the pandemic?
Neuhaus: … While everybody gets some type of pass because they never had seen this before in this generation, however, I think that Main Street got beat up by Wall Street. What does that mean: the Main Street businesses were forced to close and big businesses like Walmart and Target stayed open, which were vital services, people needed to get key goods in order to survive. But, I think that we can look at this and approach this a lot differently and prioritize not only public safety and public health, but also the continuance of economic growth and letting people work. And I think businesses adapted themselves too. People had to come up with websites so that people could order online.
I think going forward, we need to make economic development and the continuance of economic vitality a priority at the same time as public health. I think we were very restrictive. I think the damage it caused to schools, kids and education and socialization was a big deal. …
Every 911 call in the county gets sent to me. Last night we had a suicide, we’ve had people jump off the Mid-Hudson Bridge, suicide numbers are through the roof. The District Attorney (David Hoovler) and I are talking about addiction issues. So, there are a lot of negative impacts that came out of COVID and we need to make sure that if we had something like that impacting us again, we approach it in a different way.