George Orwell is known for having written three of the most widely read books of the 20th century - the satirical novel Nineteen Eighty-four describing a society tyrannized by 'the party', the allegorical novella Animal Farm, and the poignant Down and Out in Paris and London. Orwell’s name has entered the English language as the adjective ‘Orwellian’ which describes something that brings to mind the totalitarian society described in ‘Nineteen Eighty-four’ where citizens are fed fabricated stories, forced to worship a mythical government leader called Big Brother and are indoctrinated to believe nonsense statements such as “war is peace” and “slavery is freedom”. ‘Orwellian’ is sometimes also used to describe a peculiar, nonsensical thought process in which ideas that are obviously self-contradictory are accepted as true, based on the fact that an authority figure is asserting them.
Recently, the Clarkstown Town Board held two public meetings – one to receive public input about the Town’s proposal to override the State mandated 2% property tax cap and the other on the Town’s proposal to impose a 6.2% increase in property taxes for 2013.
As New City patch reported: The Clarkstown Town Board unanimously voted to override the state’s two percent state property tax cap and also to put into place the 2013 budget of $137,301,805. The budget for the coming year increases taxes by 6.2 percent. During two hours of public hearings, Clarkstown residents made suggestions for budget cuts, asked for line-by-line explanations and criticized the amount of the increase.
Prior to the public meeting the members of the Clarkstown Taxpayers Group had published an article entitled A Modest Proposal in which they provided numerous ways to cut expenses and get a budget under the 2% cap. They introduced many of the same points again in the public meeting such as those described in Tom Nimick's Opinion Piece 'No Attempt to Meet the Tax Cap':
There is a 2% tax cap in place. Does the Board have any intention to honor its responsibilities with respect to the tax cap? The answer was NO.
Once the transfer of costs from the County to the Town became clear, what actions did the Town Board consider to prevent those costs from breaking the Tax Cap? The answer: No measures were considered.
Did Supervisor Gromack propose a deficit budget again for 2013? The answer was YES.
As Nimick points out, the issue is employee benefits, particularly pensions. For several years the State set the rate of contributions to pensions artificially low. Everyone knew that they were too low and that they would result in significant increases in later years. The prudent measure was to set aside additional money towards pensions in a reserve fund that reflected the actual cost of the pensions. Did the Town Board do that? The answer is NO. The Board paid the artificially low rate and then irresponsibly claimed that they were "holding down costs". This year the higher rates finally arrived - the piper must be paid - and the Town blames the State.
Does the Board know who would be paying the increased cost for the police and their pensions, the CSEA and their pensions, the bonded debt and the deficits? The answer is YES. People like you and I and Teresa Mastropolo, 81, a Valley Cottage woman and her husband, Carmine, 88, a World War II veteran who had to tap in to their life's savings to pay their taxes while the Town gave a $75,000 part time job to Frank Sparaco, a County Legislator and $87,000 to Jay Savino, the head of the GOP in the Bronx, to fill out tax cert forms.
Where were the Town Board's priorities when they voted to approve the 2013 budget? Were they on the side of the Mastropolos and their life savings or on the side of the PBA, the CSEA, the 'Savinos and the Sparacos' with their fat salaries and pension benefits?
The answer was transparent when the Board voted, without discussion among its members, to approve its own proposals for the 2013 Town budget while Vinny Reda, Head of the Rockland County Republican party, and patronage employee, Frank Sparaco, looked on.
During the meeting I asked a very simple question which illustrated the immorality of the Town towards tax paying residents and especially senior citizens and which, incidentally, provided a regrettable example of Board members’ disdain for those who attempt to petition them on important issues. The following is the text of my exchange which was interrupted by the Town Attorney:
Hull: I would like to address my question to Mr. Borelli and Mr. Hoehmann for a response. (Turning to Borelli…) The Board gave a 2.5% increase to the police every year for the next 5 years. We have the highest paid police force in the State if not in the United States. Four police officers alone ….
- At this point noticing that Town Attorney, Mele, had leaned over to Mr. Borelli and was whispering in his ear. I paused my remarks and quietly observed the pair. They seemed to be quite unaware that I was no longer speaking. My question was specifically addressed to Mr. Borelli who was no longer giving me the courtesy of his attention. I sat silently until Ms Mele concluded her side-bar conversation realizing that as far as Mr. Borelli was concerned he clearly considered what Ms Mele had to say was much more important than what I, as a member of the taxpaying public speaking directly to him, was saying. This is typical of the disrespectful and disdainful practice in which many of the Town Board members indulge during public meetings – conducting side conversations when members of the Town are addressing them. Ms Mele exhibits the most egregious behavior in this practice especially in side-bar conversations with Supervisor Gromack. She seems to be of the mistaken opinion that she needs to constantly render advice to Board members on citizens’ statements even when she has not been invited to do so by any of the elected officials. Why Mele sits in the midst of the Town Board members while other support staff are relegated to seats on either side of the Board members is a mystery to me. And so I waited, bemusedly, as Nineteen Eighty-four's 'Frank Borelli' Winston pondered 'Amy Mele' O'Brien's doublespeak wisdom ....
O’Brien: You are a slow learner, Winston.
Winston: How can I help it? How can I help but see what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four.
O’Brien: Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane.
Hull (noticing that Borelli had looked up): I was addressing a question to you, Mr. Borelli, but you saw fit to hold a side conversation so I thought that I should stop.
Councilman Borelli: Sorry, what were you saying?
Hull: I was saying you gave 2.5% increase to the police every year for the next five years. We have the highest paid police force in the State if not in the United States and this is the third highest taxed County in the whole of the United States. Four police officers alone take home $1 million annually according to the Journal News. Social Security will go up 1.8% next year. How do you justify a 6.2% tax increase and a 2.5% salary increase for the police with our senior citizens getting 1.8% next year?
Councilman Borelli: I think we have spoken about this before, Mr. Hull, the 2.5% was an agreed settlement with the PBA and based on what the arbitration process brought us which was 3.4%, the 2.5% arrangement or settlement with the PBA in our eyes was a fair agreement between the police department and the Town. If we had taken our chances and gone to an arbitration process I believe that we would have ended up seeing a bill of higher than 2.5%. So a reasonable decision was made to settle for a number that was in our best interest and also in that of the police department.
Councilman Hoehmann: Let me just add to that we followed very closely, in the height of the economic downturn, the arbitration rulings that were coming back which were in the 4%, 3.9%, 5% range. We were fortunate that we were able to get a number that was significantly lower. I also just want to correct that we are no longer the #1 highest police force in Rockland County and by the end of the term of this contract I think we are going to be number 4 or number 5. So Ramapo is higher. They have given consistent 4% (raises) for 10 years …much higher … and I believe our police numbers are down significantly so we are heading in the right direction.
Given what the system is people want to talk about the tax cap of 2%, it was great that the Governor and the Legislature passed that but they didn’t give us any mandate relief and we exercised our option going to arbitration and the arbitration numbers were very, very high. We decided based on what was before us and what our available options were that we would strike a deal with the police at a number that would be significantly lower than what we would have expected in arbitration. If you don’t believe me check the arbitration rulings even the ones that are coming out now.
Hull: I do believe you, George, but what I have heard just now from you and Mr. Borelli is that the Board has succumbed to what is basically a threat from the PBA ….
Councilman Borelli: I didn’t say that.
Hull: That you were under a threat of blackmail? …..
Councilman Borelli: There was no threat … there was no threat.
Hull: This is my personal view of this. There is no State mandate against layoffs! ….
Councilman Hoehmann: No, but there is a public safety issue …
Hull: Ok but then I would ask you if we retain the same number of police officers would the police …. in view of the fact that we are asking senior citizens who are going to get only a 1.8% rise in Social Security to pay for them…. would the police consider giving back the 2.5% increase you have given them over the next 5 years? Have you asked them if they would take part of the pain? You are asking Senior Citizens to pay a tax increase of 6.2% while you give expensive police officers 2.5% under an arbitration threat. I feel that is blackmail. (Applause)
My request was met by silence from both the PBA representative and by Supervisor Gromack. Perhaps they had seen the movie Wall Street and recalled this exchange:
Bud Fox: How much is enough?
Gordon Gekko: It's not a question of enough, pal. It's a zero sum game, somebody wins, somebody loses. Money itself isn't lost or made, it's simply transferred from one perception to another - Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.
Mr Gromack has been very successful in transferring "obscene" amounts of taxpayers' money into the hands of the best paid police force in the USA and into the hands of political operatives such as Frank Sparaco and Jay Savino. He blamed his predecessor for the outrageous police salaries and now he blames the County for transferring costs to the Town, as if it matters to any taxpayer who sends them the bill. I can give the Supervisor credit for two things – fixing the blame and funding the patronage.
Needless to say Supervisor Gromack offered no invitation for the board to discuss my comments instead he continued with a ‘let’s get on with it’ attitude saying …
Supervisor Gromack: OK, anyone else?
"Does Big Brother exist? Of course HE exists. The Party exists. Big Brother is the embodiment of the Party. Does HE exist in the same way as I exist? YOU do NOT exist" - Nineteen Eighty-four
The Board had already made up its mind before the meeting began. It went through the motions of ‘listening to the public’s inputs’ which it then promptly ignored as motions were made to pass both items without discussion among the board members. YOU, the taxpayers, do NOT exist!
"Comrade Napoleon would be only too happy to let you make your decisions for yourselves. But sometimes you might make the wrong decisions, comrades, and then where should we be?" - Animal Farm
“The art of taxation is to so pluck a goose that one obtains the largest possible amount of feathers with the smallest possible amount of hissing.”
On January 04, 2012 I used this quote in my first Opinion Piece for New City Patch when I wrote that my new year had begun with the receipt of a tax letter from Loretta Raimone, Receiver of Taxes for Clarkstown, demanding that my taxes be paid by January 31, 2012 “without penalty”. Back then I felt like 'hissing' as her letter of demand reminded me of a comment by the English Writer, Terry Pratchett, who opined:
“Taxation is just a sophisticated way of demanding money with menaces.”
But dutifully I paid my taxes with Supervisor Gromack's promises ringing in my ears from the November 2011 election. During the election campaign Gromack, who has never held a Corporate job in his life, had just defeated businessman, Ralph Sabatini, with promises to the electorate that he had the magic ability to provide the taxpaying 'geese' of Clarkstown with zero rise in taxes - a "major achievement" he touted of his prior two years as Clarkstown's supervisor.
Sabatini, on the other hand, had repeatedly warned that the zero tax increase was a sham and Mr Gromack was simply raiding Clarkstown's reserve fund 'piggy bank' to pay for his profligacy and for patronage appointments for his friends and that sooner or later the bill would become due.
But the election was over, the 'geese' had voted, and so I began the year with an open mind troubled only by Terry Pratchett's whispers in my ear:
"Michael, the trouble with having an open mind is that people will come along and put things in it."
And indeed he was right - my open mind has became loaded with troubling issues about Supervisor Gromack and I now wonder if Clarkstown has become a truly Orwellian society.
Consider the following:
1) The Republican party headed in Rockland County by Vinny Reda did not support its own candidate for supervisor, Ralph Sabatini, in the 2011 election thus tacitly endorsing Democrat Gromack. But that was not surprising since Democrat Gromack was the candidate whose name Reda put on the Republican line in the election of 2009 and he wished to do so again. The Republican minority leader, Frank Sparaco, according to Sabatini betrayed him by supporting Democrat Gromack with a targeted campaign mailing three days before the election.
2) Gromack began the year 2012 by giving the Head of the Bronx Republican Party, Jay Savino, an $87,000 patronage job to fill out forms for the Town's tax certiorari cases. There was no proper bid process. Savino’s bid was made orally and one other firm knowing of his oral bid wrote that they would not submit a proposal as it was not possible to do the work for the amount that Savino claimed.
3) The Head of the Conservative Party, Ed Lettre, was given a new title as Head of the Architecture & Landscape Commission with of course the usual gratuitous raise of several thousands of dollars which appears to be some strange ritual of increase that Gromack provides to him annually. Lettre now earns north of $175,000 while he blunders his way through the corridors of power in Clarkstown's Town hall.
4) Having once called the police salaries "obscene" Gromack proceeded to give them compounded annual raises which amount to 13% over the coming five years. His police chief earns more that the Chief of Police in New York City and the Chief of Police in Los Angeles.
"The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which." - Animal Farm
5) Gromack created a part time position in the Highway Department which permitted Wayne Ballard to hire the Head of the Minority Party in the County Legislature, to a $75,000 twenty-five hours/week part time job to answer the telephone in inclement weather. Sparaco reportedly controls the Independence Party election line (his mother-in-law having been carted off to prison) and Gromack was that party's candidate in 2011. Two Hundred and Sixty job applications were passed over for Sparaco but you know …..
"All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others" – Animal Farm
6) Knowing his tax shell game was about to come to an end Gromack tried to hide part of the Town's tax needs by putting a 1% surcharge at the last moment on the School Tax bill. It was a surprise to the School board but it provided an excellent example of ‘Orwellian doublespeak’. The Journal News reported that the school surcharge showed up as a 'cost' on the school bill but the money will be 'savings' for the Town that will allow the Town to ‘lower’ the tax rate for the 2013 budget.
Supervisor Gromack's fiscal analysis in his own doublespeak went like this:
"The $1.5 million raised from the school tax fee would not be a burden on taxpayers because the town would end up lowering town taxes for the coming year. In other words, while the school taxes would increase, homeowners’ share of town taxes would decrease. A $1.5 million increase in revenue would allow the town to lower its tax rate by 2 percent. This is money that is coming from town residents and going back to town residents in tax relief.”
"Doublethink is the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them." - Nineteen Eighty-four
If you are still wondering if you came out even on that shell game Mr. Gromack may have enlightened you when he was quoted in an issue of Our Town as saying:
"The surcharge does not affect the residents' tax rate. It is a charge to the residents ....."
Assistant Superintendent for business in the Clarkstown School District, John LaNave, who had ironcally just hired three ‘geese management’ firms was astounded about the surcharge added to the school tax bill and will perhaps excuse me when I paraphrase his Orwellian situation by saying:
"Mr LaNave, of Manor Farm, had locked the school's hen-house for the night, but did not remember to shut the poop-hole and Supervisor Gromack crawled through it." - Animal Farm
I may have 'hissed' alone at the beginning of this year but now that the first year of Clarkstown’s ‘Sun King’ two year term is nearing its end the hissing from other taxpaying geese has risen to a raucous level. But as Orwell might say ......
"It is only when people are somewhere near starvation level that they have anything to sing about." - Nineteen Eighty-four
The following is a transcript of just two public comments at the Clarkstown Town Board meeting of October 02, 2012 during which numerous taxpaying 'geese' hissed long and loudly.
Ralph Sabatini - Republican Candidate for Supervisor 2011 ....
At the last Town Board meeting, I asked what Clarkstown was planning to do to offset costs shifted to the Town by the County. It appeared that Stony Point, Ramapo and Orangetown were all facing the same problem and responding with cost cutting measures of varying severity including small but symbolic wage reductions for the town managers.
The answer I received was another history lesson. I was 'reminded' in the answer of: 1) 74 open positions that were eliminated 8 years ago; 2) The AAA Bond rating; 3) The large Tax Relief Reserve (resulting from the sale of the transfer station). But, NO mention of any cost cutting, leaving my question unanswered. This was followed up by a handwritten note to me from Alex reiterating the history, but offering no further information.
One week later I found that the real answer to the question was to charge the School System for collecting their taxes. A more blatant example of “passing the buck” (literally) could hardly be conceived.
Next, I read in the papers that the Tax collecting shift has been rescinded for 2013, but the Town is facing a 6.2% Tax increase, largely due to the County but also to pension and benefits costs and yet in the several articles discussing the looming problem — not one mention of costs being cut to soften the blow — in fact, the only specific relief cited was a $5 million raid on the Tax Reserve.
Can I assume that no concrete actions are being taken or even discussed and that you simply intend to “play it forward” and make it someone else’s problem?
A West Nyack Resident (angry and rebellious) ......
I didn't think I would have to be back here so quick. Now we are talking 6% tax increase where the cap is 2%. R-E-D-U-C-E. Reduce! Reduce! Reduce! That, Alex should be your key word. Reduce! NOT increase! Reduce!
So how do you reduce? Reduce the salaries of all of these folks that are making $100,000 - $150, 000 a year (prolonged applause). Reduce the Town cars like the insurance guy who has a Town car and the reason he has one I was told is "in case there is an insurance emergency" (prolonged laughter). It's sad - it's not funny! That's what I was told, Alex, by your chief of staff.
You're brilliant! You have the Democrats tied up ..... you have the Republicans tied up .... you have the Independents tied up ...... you give them all these patronage jobs (Savino - Republican, Lettre - Conservative, Sparaco - Independence) ..... it's absolutely HORRIFIC what you are doing.
Take the Highway Department you now have a mouthpiece for Wayne (Ballard) for 75,000 bucks a year (25 hours per week part-time). On top of Wayne's $150,000 salary .... on top of Nancy the open quote close quotes "secretary" who makes $100,000 .... before the garage door opens it's 325,000 bucks. All you need is one monitor to make sure that the guys who make 80,000 bucks driving the trucks aren't working two hours a day. Wayne and I know that!
You have a Chief of Police who makes more than the one in New York City and the one in Los Angeles (prolonged applause). Cell phones galore! Why don't you the Town Board volunteer and give back YOUR 40,000 bucks - it's not a full-time job and say: "No, I don't want a pension, I don't want hospitalization". Because we are paying for it.
(Speaking sarcastically) You are here for the good of the community - not for the money - right? (prolonged applause). Alex, it is getting to the point you are pushing everybody out! I was here the other day and walked around. A third of the people are doing nothing, repeat nothing. You can lay off a third of the people here and you wouldn't skip a beat.
It's up to the point that you have got us railroaded. You don't want term limits - you want to keep this cushy job where YOU make 50,000 bucks more than the guy in Orangetown (Supervisor Andy Stewart). STOP LIVING ON MY BACK (prolonged applause) Wake up! Wake up! You have a Parks department - ten people in the Parks department making 112,000 ... 120,000 bucks. We have got 3 parks - they are open 2 months a year - what is everybody doing for the other 10 months? Alex, you were not elected. You were pushed into this. I know YOU do not represent US. I know you don't. Give me a patronage job like you give to everybody else. Shame, shame on you, sir!
"Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until they have rebelled they cannot become conscious." - Nineteen Eighty-four
As I wrote in a blog last January Thomas Paine reminded us that “what at first was plunder had assumed the softer name of revenue”. But looking at the poor ragged geese at the Town Board meeting trying to be heard I think that Paine had his statement backwards. What at first was 'revenue' for the Town of Clarkstown is now assuming the harsher name of 'plunder' and for this I say to the Sun King of Clarkstown.
"All year the animals worked like slaves. But they were happy in their work; they grudged no effort or sacrifice, believing that everything they did was for the benefit of themselves and not for a pack of idle, thieving human beings." - Animal Farm
And so I leave the senior citizens of Clarkstown, with an invitation to come and watch your impoverishing continue as the County Legislature repeats Clarkstown’s example and votes to override its 2% tax cap and present you with an 18% increase in your County Tax. You will then understand this piece of cold comfort from George Orwell as he ‘enjoyed’ the life of a tramp in two of Europe’s cities writing:
"It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing that you are at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of ‘going to the dogs’ - and well, here are ‘the dogs’, and you have reached them." - Down and Out in Paris and London
Michael N. Hull is a member of the Clarkstown Taxpayers Group the goals of which are to reduce local taxes and local government expenses and make local government and local public officials more responsible and accountable to the citizenry.
Picture courtesy of http://www.gutenberg.org/files/14818/14818-h/14818-h.htm