Guilderland’s Koff challenges incumbent Hidley

ALBANY COUNTY — Incumbent Albany County Clerk Bruce Hidley, a Democrat, has a challenger in November, from Guilderland. Republican Howard Koff is running against him on a platform of tax reform for seniors, although the county clerk position has no jurisdiction over taxes.

Koff says he hopes to use the run — and, if he wins, the position — to bring attention to this issue.

Bruce Hidley, 59, who lives in Watervliet, said that during his first term he has made many technological advances related to scanning and digitizing records and streamlining procedures. He replaced Thomas Clingan, who had served as clerk for 25 years.

“I believe we’ve gotten a lot done already,” Hidley said, “and if I get re-elected in November, I certainly have a lot more that I want to do with technology.” He said he wants to be able to branch out to areas in the county — mentioning Altamont and the Hilltowns as examples — that may not currently have the same technological advances that the county has been able to make because of grants it has received, and help those municipalities to digitize their records.

The county office now has a new vendor, for which Hidley collected bids, that handles the indexing, cashiering, and scanning of the office’s records. Deeds and mortgages from 1980 to the present are now viewable online, he said. Hidley is currently working on a proposal to get the deeds and mortgages for the preceding 20 years, from 1960 through 1980, online too.

The county office is making progress in terms of electronic filing, Hidley said; it has a proposal into the Albany County Legislature, which would need to approve any contracts with vendors who would provide the e-filing services that would allow clients in, say, California, to file deeds without having to visit Albany County.

In 2015, the clerk’s office implemented a system of electronic filing of property-transfer records, he said, calling that “a big undertaking when I first took over.” Now, when those records are filed in his office, Hidley said, they “electronically go to our Real Property Tax Office, and immediately get filed with the municipalities in Albany County.”

As to challenges remaining, Hidley said he plans to continue to scan deeds and mortgages online.  

Hidley said he is a big proponent of funding improvements through grants. As an example, he mentioned a pair of shared-services grants won jointly by the county clerk’s office and the city of Albany, in 2016 and 2017, from the Local Government Records Management Improvement Fund. “We’re the only joint records-management program in the state of New York,” Hidley explained.

The grant will enable the two offices to scan all of the city of Albany’s marriage records, Hidley said. Most of those records are currently stored in “big bulky books,” he said, but the grant money will allow the city and county to scan those records so that, when individuals come in to the office, employees will have the records on their computers. Those records will not be accessible online.

The second of the two grants will also allow for digitizing of the city of Albany’s building and compliance department’s records, Hidley said. The building department is located on Henry Johnson Boulevard, but the majority of its records — “nearly all of them” — are stored in City Hall in Albany on Eagle Street. Scanning all of those documents will save building-department employees from  having to travel from Henry Johnson Boulevard to City Hall to access the records they need. This same grant will also allow the county to digitize all of the deed books kept in the Hall of Records.

Hidley implemented a new, electronic Freedom of Information Law request system, he said. As soon as a request comes in, it’s sent directly to the department heads who need to respond to it. As the five-day period in which the department can respond to a request starts to come to a close, an automatic alert goes out to the department heads, reminding them that it’s time to either respond or let the requester know that a 20- or 30-day extension is needed.

In 2016, Hidley implemented a new and more durable plastic pistol-permit card, to replace the old plastic ones, he said, adding, “You should see some of the photos on the old paper permits that people come in with that they’ve had for 40 years.”

Hidley spends a lot of time preparing grant applications and putting forward related legislation, he said.

Hidley runs the Hall of Records and is the County Records Management Officer. He does not act as the county historian; the person in that position is appointed by and works with the Albany County Executive, he said.

He has two offices, he noted, one at the Albany County Courthouse on Eagle Street and the other on Tivoli Street, at the Albany County Hall of Records, where the county stores about 4,000 cubic feet of records. The Tivoli Street office has a dedicated section where members of the public who are researching genealogy can go to locate records. Hidley runs “back and forth to both places,” he said, referring to the two offices.

“I love what I do. This is the greatest job to have,” Hidley said.

He continued, “I love dealing with the public. I love dealing with my fellow elected officials in Albany County and throughout the municipalities in Albany County.” He called it “a job that’s a challenge” and noted, “Every day there’s something different that comes up.”

Challenger Koff

Howard Koff, 76, said that he sees this race as an opportunity for “maximum visibility at a county level” on an issue that he has been concerned about for some time and where “there’s a great injustice going on”: tax fairness for seniors.

Koff is a former United States Justice Department attorney with 50 years of tax-law experience and has served as chairman of the Public Advisory Council of the New York State Ethics Commission.

He received a bachelor of science degree from New York University, and his law degree from Brooklyn Law School, where he served as editor-in-chief of the Law Review. He also earned a master’s degree in tax law from Georgetown Law School.

New York has the highest property taxes in the country, and that’s bad enough, Koff said, but it is especially bad for seniors, because it is a regressive tax. He explained, “It doesn’t change: Your income could drop by 75 percent, but your property tax doesn’t change.” He called this “one of the principal causes of people losing their homes or leaving the state.”

He said that he has developed a creative solution to the problem. His “Fairness for Seniors” tax plan would eliminate property taxes in the state. Instead, the state would take over those costs and raise income taxes to meet the need. The state would be the fiscal-collecting agent for the localities, Koff said, while the localities would maintain local control of budgetary matters.

There would be means testing, Koff says, so that those who are least able to pay — such as retired elderly people — would get much-needed relief. “Basically I’m looking for tax fairness for our seniors that have been long-suffering here,” he said.

No one else has talked about this issue, which “cuts across all party lines,” Koff says. If he can win or make a strong showing, he says, it would “send a big message to the legislature,” and tax fairness for seniors would become an issue in the 2018 gubernatorial race.

Koff has run for office before: In 2011, he ran against incumbent John Bailey for Town Justice in Guilderland.

Koff said that he is a fiscal conservative who would look at a zero-based budget.

He faces an uphill battle. The county has more than twice as many enrolled Democrats as Republicans — 92,778 to 36,208.

One of Koff’s concerns, related to the records kept in the office of the Albany County Clerk, is vulnerability to cyber and other attacks. “They have very important records,” he said, and he would want to work to ensure their safety, not only from cyber attacks but also from electromagnetic pulse attacks that could potentially knock out power in huge swathes of the country at once.

“If we lose power across the country, millions and millions of people will die; forget about records,” he said. He added, “What we need to do is make sure the grid is secure.”

During his political coming-of-age in the 1960s, he said, he was inspired by two Kennedys, John Fitzgerald and his brother, Robert. “You go in to make it a better world,” he said. “That’s basically been my philosophy.”

He would like to have a televised debate with incumbent Bruce Hidley, “so everybody can tune in on an important issue.”

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Editor’s note: Howard Koff is the father of Altamont Enterprise photographer Michael Koff.

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