Over the weekend I was not surprised to see that both the NY Times and the Journal News were commenting on Rockland County's ride towards fiscal disaster.
The Journal News stated that:
Rockland leaders have cooked up elaborate but familiar plans, including added taxes and more borrowing, to address a projected $80 million deficit. As alarming as that figure is, the harsher reality is this: There are scant assurances that the contemplated remedies will get the county out of its bind.
Still a mystery is how the county will wean itself from a longstanding pattern of overestimating revenue, virtually ensuring overspending. Lacking better budget forecasting, the county could quickly end up where it started — on shaky fiscal ground.
The hole being dug for taxpayers keeps getting deeper.
This theme was continued on the front page of the New York Times in an article entitled Deficits Push N.Y. Cities and Counties to Desperation.
In it we read:
C. Scott Vanderhoef, the Rockland County executive who was the Republican Party’s nominee for lieutenant governor in 2006, said his county’s $52 million deficit had accumulated over the past four or five years. The county legislature rejected proposed layoffs and service cuts in the budget, so the county is seeking to issue bonds to help bridge its budget gap.
“We don’t want to become Erie County or Nassau County,” he said, referring to two counties whose finances are overseen by control boards. “I think you’ll see a dropping off of the programs that many counties now view as important — law enforcement, economic development, parks and recreation. Those kinds of programs will disappear. Counties will become welfare and Medicaid managers.”
Even as there are glimmers of a national economic recovery, cities and counties increasingly find themselves in the middle of a financial crisis. The problems are spreading as municipalities face a toxic mix of stresses that has been brewing for years, including soaring pension, Medicaid and retiree health care costs. And many have exhausted creative accounting maneuvers and one-time spending cuts or revenue-raisers to bail themselves out.
Pension costs are a particular problem. The stock market collapse of 2008 decimated public pension fund investments, and municipalities are now being asked for greater contributions to make up for the losses. The impact has been drastic: Three percent of New York property tax collections were used to pay pension costs in 2001; by 2015, pension costs are expected to eat up 35 percent of property tax collections.
Things are so bad that our County government doesn't even know what its deficit is. Vanderhoef says its about $50 million while the legislature has asked Albany for about $80 million. All of this reminds me of Will Rodgers' observation that:
"A government's budget is like a mythical bean bag. The politicians vote mythical beans into it, then reach in and try to pull real ones out."
Rockland County has a population of just over 300,000 yet it is governed by one County Executive and five Town Supervisors whose combined salaries and benefits exceed that of the President of the United States who governs a population of over 300 million. Further, they are kept in power by block voting and the manipulation of party lines by patronage appointments.
Further, these 'Governors' do not seem to know the basics about budgeting, controlling unions, controlling tax increases or stopping patronage. My view is that we need to demand that the State Oversight Board takes control of Rockland County's finances now and remove decision making power over the county's budget from those who have brought this crisis situation down on our tax heads. Longer term we need to get rid of all of the Towns, Villages and other petty fiefdoms that duplicate services with salaries, pension costs and patronage and replace this failed set of local systems with a single Rockland County streamlined government run like a modern business corporation.
The present bunch of 'fiefdom chiefs' are "people who, if they saw light at the end of the tunnel, would go out and buy some more tunnel."
That's my view! What's yours?