Recently, the Rockland Business (RBA) Association, in partnership with Hudson Valley Pattern for Progress, released a white-paper study entitled "The Rockland County Budget Crisis - How it happened and plotting a course to fiscal health." With much conversation surrounding this report, this County legislator will offer two simple words. Thank you.
A few of us in the County legislature have been consistently speaking to the folly that often has become policy when proposed by the administration, only to be adopted by the legislative leadership and majority. This “white paper” is both a "must read" and an ally in our endeavor, and a rallying cry for the community of Rockland that will hopefully result in true change in County government.
The truth is that these findings are as near as the legislative minutes on record over the past few years. The timeline is unmistakable with a cause and effect that is irrefutable.
Nearly five years ago, on February 7, 2008, as part of my report as Minority Leader of the legislature, I pointed to a just released report from the Rockefeller Institute that stated “we are in a recession or will soon enter one”, and that we should immediately make preparations as many States have because “these matters could very well be percolating as we speak tonight, and does not bode well for our County.”
My report a year later again pointed to those warnings and urged County government to move quickly to minimize the impact, saying simply that “We lost the one thing we could not afford to lose; valuable time”. I called for 4% department cutbacks and an immediate implementation of zero based budgeting.
$1.3 million of bogus revenue from red light traffic cameras was included in the 2009 budget, knowing full well that only municipalities of a million or more could establish red light cameras. This was accepted by the Legislature’s Budget and Finance committee. In voting “No” on this budget on December 7, 2008, my comment was “Maybe someone is selling a bridge, but I for one am not buying it.”
The most flawed action was the administration’s proposed borrowing of $17.8 million to cover an operational deficit in the 2011 budget, ostensibly to establish a Public Benefit (PBC) Corporation. My comment at the budget vote on December 7, 2010 was “The problem with the approach? I wish there was only one”, followed by a list of reasons detailing why this was pure folly. Our own auditor’s warnings were disregarded; the PBC was never created; the deficit skyrocketed; and we were facing massive layoffs and a full blown financial crisis within the year.
This year’s approved budget was damaged by over a $30 million shortfall going in, due to the assumption by legislative leadership that $17 million of sales and real estate taxes, along with the administration’s gross overestimation, and the legislature’s Budget and Finance committee’s acceptance, of a claimed savings of $17.8 million in workforce concessions, with less than $4 million actually realized.
These are not numbers on a page; they are real dollars coming out of our pocket. This shortfall is roughly TWICE the amount of property tax that would be generated by the proposed 18.4% tax increase. In short, if just either one of these 2012 budget items were realized, or even just half of both, there would not be a need for ANY County property tax increase for 2013, with enough money left over to maintain basic, critical services such as the law enforcement and our roads And now our projected deficit has ballooned to $114 million!
Obviously many in government avoided being interviewed for this initiative, including those most accountable for both steering the County financial ship of state and arguably the most knowledgeable of all the details in the white paper – the County Executive, the Chair of the Legislature, or the Chair of the Budget and Finance committee. I freely answered inquiries, as I did not sign up for part time government service at the age of 55 to keep secrets from my neighbors.
Einstein properly observed that we cannot do the same thing over and over again and expect different results. We need transparency and bold, outside the box thinking that is results oriented rather than politically driven. Yes, the State mandates and delivery of services that are facing County government are problematic, so it is a given that the answer is not maintaining the same model nor approach. The handwriting is on the wall, or in this case, contained within the RBA report, and it needs to be heeded by those who have the ability and the responsibility to move our County forward.
With crisis comes opportunity; with challenge comes the ability and need for real leadership. Working together, and utilizing all the resources found within the people of this great County of Rockland, it can be done.