This is the text of the 2013 State of the County Address delivered by Rockland County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef to the full legislature on Tuesday.
2013 MESSAGE TO THE LEGISLATURE
C. Scott Vanderhoef
Good evening, Chairwoman Cornell and ladies and gentlemen of the Rockland County Legislature. Congratulations, Legislator Cornell on being selected to serve as Chairwoman for a ninth consecutive year. I look forward to continuing to work with you on a number of important projects in the coming year.
Good evening also to our distinguished officials, guests and residents who are watching this from home.
This is the 20th year – and the final year – that I come before you to present my annual Message to the Legislature. I have had the pleasure of working with many Chairs of the Rockland County Legislature – Chairman Charles Holbrook, Chairman George Darden, Chairman Tom Morahan, Chairman Ken Zebrowski Sr., Chairman Ilan Schoenberger, Chairman Salvatore Corallo and, since 2005, Chairwoman Harriet Cornell, along with many of you.
Looking back over the past two decades, Rocklanders have celebrated great victories and endured heart-breaking tragedies. We have attained remarkable achievements and weathered difficult hardships. There is so much for us to be proud of, and such wonderful memories. I remember the pride we all felt in celebrating our Bicentennial and watching the Tall Ships sail up the Hudson River. We watched as new buildings were constructed and our County complex was modernized with a Courthouse expansion and new offices for the District Attorney and County Clerk. We also built a new wing to the Rockland County Jail, a new Technology Building at RCC, a new Archives Building, a new facility for Planning and Public Transportation, and a new Radio Communications Center.
We created more than 2,000 units of affordable housing, began the School of the 21st Century, initiated an award-winning GIS mapping system, reduced the welfare rolls, brought a VA clinic to Rockland, established a Hazardous Materials Team, installed a Reverse-911 System, and unveiled a new website. Our accomplishments also include purchasing more than 1,200 acres of open space and creating 10 new County parks – including the first riverfront County park, the spectacular Haverstraw Bay County Park along the Hudson River.
At times our spirits soared with accomplishments and optimism. At times our spirits have been shattered and torn. On September 11th 2001, we watched in horror as our country came under attack by terrorists. The attack resulted in the death of 80 Rocklanders – taken far too early from their family and friends.
Rocklanders suffered when Tropical Storm Floyd, Tropical Storm Irene and Superstorm Sandy all left a path of devastation in Rockland including flooding, downed trees, and destruction of property.
In addition, many residents have struggled financially after home values plummeted and unemployment rose during our nation’s economic downturn or what has become known as the “Great Recession.”
Through it all, Rocklanders have persevered. We pulled together to support our friends and neighbors through all these hardships and tragedies. What we have learned is that we are resilient and we can come through adversity.
Through it all, our workers fulfilled the mission of Rockland County government: We shall serve the people of Rockland County well by providing needed services in a high quality, ethical, courteous, timely and cost-effective manner – a mission that is a challenge to regularly fulfill, but drives our daily actions and decisions.
Changing the Delivery of Services
Our work continues. In County government, it is a critical year with important work to be done. We will continue to reinvent and reshape County government to adapt to changing times. In fiscally challenging times, when we cannot do all that we want, we must reassess our core missions to help those most in need and provide for the health and safety of our residents. Financial constraints aside, we must alter our service delivery with compassion – not simply shutting down services, but finding new ways to deliver services to our residents that are more cost-effective for our taxpayers.
Let me give you some examples:
- In January, we seamlessly transferred responsibility of the Prenatal Clinic in Nyack from our Health Department to Nyack Hospital. There was no interruption in service for patients. The location of the clinic, the doctors and the midwives all remained the same.
- We’re moving ahead with plans to relocate Mental Health emergency services and psychiatric inpatient services from Summit Park Hospital to Nyack Hospital. Once construction at Nyack Hospital is completed, we expect that the services can relocate by early next year.
- Our Mental Health Department has also worked this past year to successfully transfer the operation of the Methadone Treatment Program to the Lexington Center for Recovery.
In the case of our Adult Home, which we closed in November, we were able to place all of the 22 residents in other facilities. Credit goes to Commissioner Sherwood and her team at DSS for not stopping there. They followed up to make sure the former residents were doing well in their new homes and organized a successful reunion of the residents around the holidays – so successful that the residents have decided to get together again.
Creation of a Local Development Corporation
As we adapt to the changing times and continue to re-evaluate the core mission of County government, it’s time for us to finally take action on Summit Park.
Approximately 15 percent of every homeowner’s average County property tax bill goes to keeping this hospital and nursing home open.
Based on the continuing loss of money and the changes in the health care industry, we have recommended that we create a Local Development Corporation and transfer the Summit Park assets to the LDC to sell all or part of the facility. It will improve the financial health of the County. As you are well aware, the bond rating agencies are watching and awaiting your decision.
Summit Park has a long, proud history and all of us know someone who has received excellent care there, but the healthcare industry is rapidly changing and counties can no longer run nursing homes as efficiently as private industry.
According to the New York State Association of Counties, just over the past year, seven New York counties have sold, merged or transferred ownership of their nursing homes. Many more have already gotten out of the business or are considering doing so. From Ulster County to Fulton County, from Essex County to Suffolk County, New York counties are deciding that they can no longer afford to run nursing homes.
I first proposed taking action on Summit Park in 2010. Since then, we’ve had meetings in my office, numerous Legislative discussions, we commissioned several reports and had consultants come before you several times to answer your questions. I urge you to take decisive action by creating a Local Development Corporation as soon as possible.
Road to Financial Recovery
Despite some doubters, the County is on the path to financial recovery and I thank you for working with me to accomplish this. We’ve endured some difficult times. From 1994 to 2004, the County maintained an average of about a $14 million unappropriated fund balance. The Mirant certiorari wiped out our fund balance and then the recession hit and hurt our revenues from the sales tax and mortgage recording tax.
During these difficult times, our residents expect and deserve leaders who are willing to make difficult decisions. My administration has done just that.
Through early retirements, not filling vacant jobs and layoffs, we have cut staffing levels to the lowest level in more than 30 years – and we now serve many more residents with more programs and services.
Furthermore, over the past year, we have successfully negotiated contracts with three County unions that included salary freezes, deferred payments and increased health contributions for new employees. We’ve instituted tight spending controls on all departments and have significantly cut the use of overtime.
Less than three weeks ago, we closed on the sale of a County-owned building on Main Street in Spring Valley for $4.2 million. We are also in the process of selling the Chase building on New Hempstead Road for $4 million and expect to finalize that sale this spring.
Thank you for working with me to once again ask the State to give us permission to borrow money to pay down our deficit. In 2013, we have stabilized the County’s finances. The deficit reduction bond and the creation of an LDC are the final pieces necessary to return our County to fiscal health.
Unfortunately, as we improve our finances, the state keeps requiring us to pay bigger bills for programs and services that we have no control over and must provide. New York State requires counties to pay for more than 40 state-mandated programs using local tax dollars.
After we worked together last year to successfully cut spending and increase revenues, we got hit with a whopping $33 million increase in unfunded state-mandated costs for 2013, including $16.7 million in increased pension costs, $5.6 million in increases at the County jail and $2.7 million in Medicaid increases.
It’s frustrating and disheartening. My fear is that without comprehensive and substantial mandate reform, years from now County government will be reduced to not much more than a provider of Medicaid and special education services.
Throughout my years in office, I’ve tried to be a strong, consistent voice for state mandate reform. I hope you will continue to work with me to educate our residents, community groups and state lawmakers about the unfair burden of unfunded state mandates and the need for immediate reform. A 2 percent property tax cap – approximately $1.6 million – is simply unattainable when it comes along with $33 million in extra expenses. We must continue to work with the New York State Association of Counties (NYSAC) and County leaders around the state to advocate for significant mandate reform.
Serving Our Residents
As we dealt with financial challenges over the past year, the quiet, yet critical work of our County workers went on. Our workers filled potholes, processed passports, registered people to vote, collected delinquent child support, gave out flu shots, cared for Alzheimer’s patients, prosecuted criminals, guarded prisoners at the jail, made sure home contractors were licensed, inspected restaurants, maintained our parks, helped veterans apply for services, cleaned up from devastating storms, responded to emergencies, and so much more.
And while our County workers handled the day-to-day business of County government, we’ve taken on some bigger projects as well. The reconstruction of New Hempstead Road is the largest capital project ever undertaken by our County Highway Department. When the project is completed this fall, we will have a wider, safer street from the Palisades Interstate Parkway to Main Street in New City. The new road will also improve the look of our County seat with new sidewalks and decorative streetlights, which are consistent with the New City revitalization.
We have also completed construction of a new $8 million Radio Communications Center at the Fire Training Center. The radio room is being outfitted with the County’s new interoperable radio communications system. The $30 million system has been in development for about five years and operates with 10 communication towers throughout the County. The new system is up and running and being tested. We expect to be fully operational by July. For the first time ever, our fire, police and EMS will be able to easily communicate with one another on a dedicated County channel in an emergency.
In addition, we will be revisiting plans for a new Highway garage, which was shelved in 2008. It simply does not make sense to have expensive equipment like snow plows and sanders sitting out in the open, unshielded from the elements.
We have offered to let the Hi Tor Animal Care Center build a new animal shelter on County-owned land. It is not the piece of parkland that they requested, but if the Hi Tor Board of Directors is willing to negotiate in good faith, we believe we can find a solution that is agreeable to both the County and Hi Tor.
We are also working with the President of Rockland Community College, Dr. Cliff Wood, to explore the possibility of building residence halls on the Suffern campus. Statewide, 17 out of 30 community colleges now have residence halls. Based on changing demographics for Rockland, enrollment at RCC is expected to decline in the future, which would inevitably lead to cuts in programs and classes at the college. The County is interested in constructing residence halls because it is believed that dormitories on campus would stabilize enrollment and become an important revenue source for RCC.
As we move ahead with modernizing facilities, we are also updating and improving bus services. For example, we are installing electronic fare boxes on TOR buses, streamlining fare types and making the transition to swipe cards. A solar-powered bus shelter is now being tested and we plan to upgrade five to 10 shelters each year to provide illuminated information for customers. The TRIPS fleet will soon include smaller, more efficient and accessible vehicles and we are exploring a pilot taxi program for seniors who use TRIPS. In addition, we are studying ways to reduce operating costs, including route improvements and alternative fuels.
The biggest project about to get underway is the $3.9 billion construction of a new Tappan Zee Bridge. This, of course, is a state project, but the County has been very involved. I voted in support of this project as a member of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council (NYMTC) only after the Governor responded to concerns that I shared with the County Executives in Westchester and Putnam about a lack of mass transit on the new bridge.
We received assurances from Governor Cuomo that there would be dedicated bus lanes on the bridge from the start – an idea I discussed during last year’s Message to the Legislature. Governor Cuomo also agreed to construct a bridge that has the capacity to add Bus Rapid Transit or Commuter Rail Transit in the future. In addition, the Governor has set up a Mass Transit Task Force, which I am proud to serve on with Chairwoman Cornell.
We were fortunate to have our Commissioner of Planning and Public Transportation, Tom Vanderbeek – an engineer with a lot of experience in the private sector – serve on the Selection Committee, which reviewed and evaluated the construction proposals and recommended that Tappan Zee Constructors be chosen as the contractor to build the bridge.
Our team will continue to stay involved. We aim to have a new, safer bridge constructed with mass transit capability, affordable tolls and minimal impact on our residents and the environment. I’ve already met with Tappan Zee Constructors in my office to discuss our priorities.
The construction of a new TZ bridge will be a boon to the local economy and bring lots of new jobs for our residents.
Meanwhile the Rockland Economic Development Corporation (REDC) and the Industrial Development Agency (IDA) have been busy at work – both with new leaders this past year. Last March, the IDA announced its new Executive Director Steve Porath and in April the REDC announced its appointment of Michael Di Tullo as President and CEO. Both have had an exciting first year on the job.
I signed off on IDA incentives that lured two major companies to Rockland in 2012. Raymour and Flanigan moved its distribution center into the former Dress Barn headquarters in Montebello, bringing 300 jobs to Rockland. I’m proud to announce tonight that Raymour and Flanigan has committed to investing another $10 million at the site to create a “Super Regional Distribution Center.”
By the holiday shopping season at the end of this year, the Shops at Nanuet should be completed. The development at the former Nanuet Mall is described as a “vibrant, open-air, town center with brand new shopping, dining and entertainment options.” The Shops at Nanuet will bring about 1,000 new jobs to Rockland.
We’re working on other projects as well. The REDC has an action plan, which includes using the newly-formed Real Estate Council to showcase prime business properties in Rockland. We look forward to continuing to work with the REDC and the IDA in our combined efforts to attract and retain more businesses in Rockland.
Outreach to Residents
We have had a very busy and productive year in County government. Unfortunately, many residents don’t realize all the programs and services our County government provides for them. That’s why we will be showcasing our services this Sunday at the third annual County Government Day – from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Rockland Community College. It’s done in conjunction with Youthfest so our departments will have youth-friendly activities for children, while providing information to parents about our many services.
In another effort to reach out to our residents, we have formalized our Speaker’s Bureau to make it easier for schools and community groups to have County workers address them on a variety of topics. We’ve always gone out to the community to speak, but now it’s easier than ever for schools and groups to request a speaker. We’ve created one form that is available on the homepage of our website and can be e-mailed to us. Schools and community groups can request a topic and we’ll make the rest of the arrangements for them.
We are also very proud of the County’s new website which was unveiled last year. Rocklandgov.com has a brand new look and a much more user-friendly format. Special thanks to Denis Troy and his team at MIS for designing the new site, getting it up and running, and training staff in our departments to update it themselves. The new website allows residents to quickly and easily access all sorts of information and download forms. It’s a lot more convenient for residents than having to call or stop by a County office.
The new website was a lifeline for residents in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. We posted critical emergency information on a special Storm Update page and were constantly updating it. While many residents didn’t have electricity in the days that followed, they accessed information on their smart phones, tablets and laptops. The devices were charged at warming centers, at work or at the homes of family and friends.
We also used the New York Alert System, Facebook and Twitter to keep our residents informed and to encourage conversations about what grocery stores were open and what gas stations were pumping gas.
Department of the Year
Superstorm Sandy was one of the most devastating storms in Rockland’s history. Hurricane force winds brought down numerous trees and wires. Immediately after the storm, 75 percent of our roads were blocked and about 90 percent of homes were without electricity. Many homes and businesses still had no power more than one week later. Residents were forced to sit in long lines to purchase gas for their vehicles and generators.
Stony Point, Piermont, Nyack and Haverstraw were particularly hard hit by the unprecedented Hudson River tidal surge and numerous homes were destroyed. Our Emergency Operations Center (EOC) was activated to coordinate the response to Superstorm Sandy for two weeks – longer than ever before.
The Office of Fire and Emergency Services – under the direction of Director Gordon Wren – coordinated the County’s response to Superstorm Sandy. Our response included setting up an emergency shelter at Rockland Community College, deploying several response and rescue teams and distributing state assets such as National Guard Units, generators, pumps and barriers.
In the aftermath of the storm, the Office of Fire and Emergency Services worked closely with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to open a FEMA Disaster Recovery Center at Provident Park Baseball Stadium to help Rockland residents apply for disaster assistance.
In recognition of their impressive response and recovery efforts in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, it is my pleasure to announce tonight that the recipient of the 2012 Department of the Year is the Office of Fire and Emergency Services. Congratulations to Gordon Wren and his team for fulfilling the mission of County government.
Superstorm Sandy Aftermath
We continue to review the storm response and I recently spoke to the Moreland Commission, as did Gordon Wren. The Moreland Commission was established by Governor Cuomo to investigate New York’s power utilities with respect to Hurricane Sandy and several other major storms. I was especially critical of Orange and Rockland Utilities lack of communication with its customers, who were desperate to find out when their electricity would return. We’ve suggested that the utility improve communications, use an incident command system, provide a key decision maker to be stationed at our EOC and have utility crews partnered with municipal highway crews so that roads can be more quickly cleared of trees in the aftermath of a storm.
There were so many emergency responders who responded heroically as the storm lashed out at our County. The Stony Point Fire Department and Piermont Fire Department were out in the middle of the night in floodwaters rescuing residents who were trapped in homes and vehicles.
Our community pulled together in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. Numerous organizations reached out to help the victims of the storm, but there are a few I would particularly like to recognize and thank for their efforts. The Stony Point Conference Center housed and fed those who were left homeless, without being fully reimbursed. The North Rockland Business Association aggressively raised funds to help victims of the storm and the Piermont Fire Department Ladies Auxiliary set up a shelter in Piermont.
Tonight, I also want to recognize: all of the first responders who worked the night of Superstorm Sandy to keep us safe; all of the road crews who cleared our roads of fallen trees in the aftermath of the storm; all of the local officials who checked up on their residents and worked tirelessly as they dealt with unimaginable loss and destruction; all of the County workers who worked around the clock manning the EOC; and the County workers who kept government services running in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. Let’s remember that many of these first responders, officials and County workers were helping others while they were also dealing with damage to their homes, no heat or electricity at home or work, and no childcare with schools unexpectedly closed for one week. But through it all they did their jobs admirably and without complaint, serving the residents or our County. They all make us proud to be Rocklanders.
De Flumere Award
At the height of Superstorm Sandy, a tree crushed a house on Robin Street in Pearl River, tragically killing 51-year-old Jeffrey Chanin, a loving father and husband, who is greatly missed by his Pearl River community. The rescue of Jeffrey’s wife and teenage daughters was heroic. I am awarding the prestigious Rockland County Medal of Valor to a brave team of first responders who worked in extremely dangerous conditions.
They are indicative of the response by so many emergency workers during this crisis. When the first responders arrived at the house, wind gusts were in excess of 60 miles an hour, electrical wires were down and arching, and tree branches continued to fall.
The rescue operation was very challenging. The tree had crashed through the house, trapping victims on all levels. Structural support for the house was severely compromised and the first responders needed to tunnel their way through debris to reach the victims. Jeffrey’s wife, Lise, and two of his daughters were injured and brought to a local hospital. If not for the dedication, knowledge and professionalism each agency provided during this heartbreaking event, the outcome could have been even more tragic.
The Rockland County Medal of Valor is named in honor of its first recipient Al DeFlumere. Tonight I am proud to honor the first responders who risked their lives to save others: members of the Pearl River Volunteer Fire Department, the Pearl River Ambulance Corps, the South Orangetown Ambulance Corps, Rockland Paramedics, the Orangetown Police Department, and the Rockland County Technical Rescue Team. Congratulations for your selfless and heroic actions. We will have a special ceremony in my office to present you with the Medal of Valor later this month.
We are also so pleased that Lise Chanin is with us tonight. She is here with her son Eric, a member of the Pearl River Fire Department, who was working the night of the incident, but was held back from responding when fellow firefighters realized that the incident was at his home. We are so sorry for your loss. Thank you for being with us tonight as we honor the first responders, who rescued you and your daughters that terrible night. Please know that are thoughts and prayers are with you.
At the beginning of tonight, I was reminiscing about where we have been and the experiences we have shared over the years. What the past has taught us is that we are capable of remarkable accomplishments. When difficulties befall us, we come together to support each other. We are resilient. And so we look to the future.
It has been a pleasure to serve the residents of Rockland for the last 19 years. For the next 10 months, I will be working as hard as ever to complete the important work we have begun.
I look not only to the end of this year, but beyond. Rockland County is my home, and no matter what the future holds, I will always want the best for this great County and all of its residents.
God bless you and good night.