Editor’s Note: This is the text of Christopher Carey’s address.
County Executive, Madam Chair, Fellow Legislators, Ladies & Gentlemen:
I am honored to stand before you tonight, and consider it a privilege, to deliver the Legislative Minority Address on behalf of my colleagues on the lower tier.
I appreciate the trust and confidence the minority members have placed in me, after having served only one year as a Rockland County Legislator, and I hold that trust very seriously.
My focus tonight, unfortunately, cannot be on the many great tasks County employees accomplish every day on behalf of the taxpayers of Rockland. Instead, my focus tonight remains the same since the day I swore allegiance to this office and that is the concern of the continuing downward fiscal crisis facing Rockland County.
The crisis did not appear overnight and will not disappear overnight.
And, one branch of government cannot place blame on the other branch of government.
We are both in this together, and only together will we solve the problem.
Until we begin to make headway in alleviating the issue, our taxpayers and our employees will bear a disproportionate amount of pain as we diligently work to right our financial ship.
I will not dwell on how we got into this mess, but rather, how we can get on a working path during the next 4 to 8 years to get out of the mess. Both the Legislature and the County Executive, working together, must concentrate over the next two full terms to resolve and restore financial stability.
The Recession of 2008 and our reliance on sales tax revenue, created a perfect storm of financial instability. Reaction to this crisis by Rockland County government was slow. We did not make small incremental cuts to the size of the County workforce each year to keep pace with reduced revenues. We waited for the economy to recover to refill the County coffers with sales tax revenue. Recovery did not come as expected, and we are still waiting for that turn-around five years later.
At the close of 2011, the County deficit stood at $96M. One year later our external auditors projected the deficit at the end of 2012 as high as $114M!
The potential $18M deficit increase from 2011 to 2012 came, despite the introduction of several new tax increases passed by this Legislature in 2012.
During this same period of time the problem was exacerbated by New York State placing an additional $33M in unfunded State mandates on Rockland County.
How do we resolve our problem?
I believe we must institute a comprehensive multi-year plan that includes strategic cuts; I believe we must work closely with our local State representatives to induce the Governor for relief from the many state mandates; and produce small targeted revenue increases to help us bridge the gap.
I understand that State mandate relief is not something that we can depend upon. However, I also believe that State inaction does not justify inaction on our part. I also believe we need to look at ways of streamlining how we deliver these State mandated services. As stated previously, this problem was many years in the making and it will take many years to fix.
Before we can pull together a comprehensive multi-year plan we as a Legislature need to answer one critical question – “In light of the new fiscal realities the County now faces, what is the revised role of Rockland County government?”
The answer is not “business as usual” for then, as a body, we would be failing to do our job. I understand that the County Executive plays the major role in developing the County’s strategy, but the Legislature cannot sit back and wait for the County Executive’s plan. We must also develop our own vision. I believe that the County Executive and the Legislature are co-equals when it comes to running County government. It is important for the Legislature to document our mission in County government. Without strategically understanding the complete role of County government, how can we determine where to implement cuts, and where to invest?
The days of the County spreading cuts evenly among departments has come to an end. All County elected officials must be willing to answer the hard questions.
What services are essential? What services are warm and fuzzy and feel good to have?
What can we afford? Where is duplication? Prioritization of services must be established across all departments.
What services is County government uniquely qualified to provide?
What services can be better served by private industry at the same quality, yet at a more competitive price?
What services should be done by other levels of government? How can this be effectuated?
A major decision the County has been wrestling with for the last two years is what to do with the Summit Park Health complex. Mental Health will be moving to Nyack Hospital in January of 2014, and only the Hospital and Nursing Home will remain with the County.
The County Executive has recommended the formation of a Local Development Corporation, or LDC. This LDC allows the transfer of the Summit Park Health assets into a lock-box and includes the appointment of a professional Board of Directors. The Directors will be industry experts and will determine the best way to sell off the building and transfer the license for the Hospital and Nursing Home to a 3rd party. The importance of forming the LDC is that it takes the decision out of the hands of the County and puts it in the hands of an appointed Board that has professional expertise in the Health Care industry. Potential buyers want the control placed in the hands of an LDC and not in the hands of County government.
Businesses are looking for certainty when it comes to business deals. Businesses believe there is less certainty when dealing with elected officials, and that professional members serving on an LDC Board is the correct path. Despite the best efforts of well-intentioned individuals, County government does not have the expertise to run a healthcare-focused operation. The sensible plan is the establishment of an LDC.
The selling of Summit Park assets and the transferring of the operating license to a new buyer represents only part of the problem at Summit Park. We must also deal with the $8.2M in annual allocated costs that are attributed to Summit Park. Direct costs may actually be more or less than $8.2M, but in either case there needs to be an elimination of the vast majority of these allocated costs, or the County will not realize any long term savings. If the County decides to shift this $8.2M in allocated costs across the remaining departments in the County, we have achieved nothing. I am seriously concerned about this possibility. Over the last few years, the County has had several rounds of voluntary retirements and one round of forced cuts. Yet, we have not realized any major restructuring or consolidation within County government.
In my opinion, the formation of the LDC and the sale of the Hospital and Nursing Home, along with the elimination of most of the $8.2M in allocated cost to the Health complex, represent the best strategic decision the County should make.
Albany no longer supports municipalities remaining in the health care business. We would be having this discussion about closing the Hospital and Nursing Home even if there was no deficit. Many other County Governments in NY State are also selling off their hospitals because this is not a core service that Counties should be offering. The new model of Managed Care being implemented does not include Counties as direct providers of service.
Many of my colleagues are struggling with this decision because several of them helped to build these institutions from scratch. It is a difficult decision, but the changing economic realities, and healthcare in particular, compel us to make that decision.
Not making past hard decisions has prevented County government from investing in projects that would reduce costs and improve productivity. A minor example, yet costly in dollars and time, is having our employees still prepare paper timesheets, instead of electronic timesheets which are a basic tool of private industry. We have many computers but not the budget to implement software programs that save time, money and resources. We need to change priorities.
I look forward in the coming months to engaging in conversations with my colleagues and the people of Rockland County on what is the true and authentic role of local government. I believe this discussion and conversation is long, long overdue. We all agree there are certain functions and tasks that the County absolutely must fill—and I believe there are others that we must not perform. I hope there are many in this body that will agree with that sentiment. I ask my colleagues to begin discussions tomorrow. What should we do, what should we not do. What is the cost? Can we afford it?
The 2010 Census revealed an unusually strong SOS distress signal that more than one in every three counties in the United States is dying off. A record number of counties are losing residents due to aging adults and weakened economies. They are moving elsewhere in search of jobs. Taxpayers are overburdened and mad as hell. The SOS message that we must telegraph to all of Rockland County is that we will Stop Our Spending!
NYS, Rockland County, and all of our towns and villages cannot continue double digit tax increases each year and expect that the future will remain bright and filled with promise.
We must work smarter; together we must develop a strategic vision for local governments that is radically different from what we have in place today. In short, while we may be fearful or unsure, we must ensure that discussions and brainstorming about the true role of local government will continue in depth until we find the solutions. If we fail to do so, Rockland County could become another census statistic.
This year we will elect a new County Executive. 2014 is a golden opportunity for the new County Executive and Elected Legislators to begin to share our collective visions for the future. I look forward to putting Rockland County back on the path less traveled.
Thank you. God Bless America!