Rockland County Legislator Jay Hood called it a horrible tax, the worst that’s ever come across his desk. Rockland County Legislator Michael Grant called it the most onerous tax the legislature could raise, and yet the only one they could use to get funds for the county to operate through the rest of the year.
And so, at Tuesday night’s special legislature meeting, a resolution passed by a vote of 14-3 in favor of a new four percent tax on utility bills, which is expected to raise just shy of $12 million per year. The resolution will take effect June 1.
The new tax was just one resolution that legislators spoke out against, but passed Tuesday night. The entire legislature met as the committee of the whole to vote on resolutions as part of the midyear budgeting adjustments to close a $21.1 million gap in the county’s 2012 budget.
“Nothing on the agenda tonight represents what we want for Rockland County. This is not our plan. For that matter, it’s not the county executive’s plan either,” said Legislator Alden Wolfe. “This is what others see as the alternative to a four-penny per $10 increase in the sales tax. Solely because of the lack of action in Albany, this is what we’ve been forced to consider.”
Vanderhoef was at Tuesday’s night meeting and spoke about his proposals at the beginning of the night.
“We submitted to you a proposal which is terribly, terribly difficult,” he said. “It’s difficult from a government standpoint, it’s difficult in terms of fees, it’s difficult in terms of raising fees, but it solves the budget problem for 2012. It closes the gap.”
The county executive urged the legislators to pass the resolutions Tuesday night.
“My proposal, in an effort to keep us from being downgraded once again by Moody’s and [Standard and Poor’s], is precisely what kind of thing they’re looking for to avoid downgrading us again with junk bonds. And what’s at stake is borrowing to keep the county going, keep our operations going. We can’t go down that road,” he said. “So tonight, it’s not just the audience here. Moody’s is watching what happens tonight and how you decide to move forward. They are watching, S&P is watching. We have a meeting on June 14th to tell them the progress we have made to try and get them to change what their perceived notion of Rockland County is. Action is going to be required, and again, it’s not helpful to go back and point any longer to Albany. Now, we need to do what’s required to keep county government operating.”
Because of the , if Rockland were to borrow money, it would have to pay three times as much interest on it, said Legislator Michael Grant.
“This cash flow is absolutely critical to us,” he said. “If we don’t take some of these actions tonight, and those actions include raising revenues, and there are only certain revenues we can raise, Moody’s will downgrade us again, and that triple we’re going to pay in interest is going to go up again if we can find someone to lend us the money.”
At Tuesday’s meeting, two of the resolutions passed that will shift payments to towns and villages. The first was to charge the towns and villages for their full election expenses for the year of 2012, of which the county used to pay for some.
The other involved students from Rockland who attend community colleges outside Rockland. Whereas the county was reimbursing those schools the non-resident tuition of Rockland students who attend there, state education law says Rockland can charge back this cost to towns. This chargeback would be $1.8 million in 2012.
Both resolutions passed by votes of 11-6, with legislators Hood, John Murphy, Christopher Carey, Frank Sparaco, Ed Day and Doug Jobson voting against both. One reason some said they voted against them is because they often complain about the state passing the burden of certain things onto the counties, and this seems like the same thing, except with the county doing it to the towns and villages.
Other resolutions that passed related to the home rule legislation, which they passed back in January, but was not brought to the state level by state representatives.
“That home rule request was to take our estimated deficit of $80 million, ask the state for a bond allowing us to bond that money over 10 years and to raise the sales tax by three-eights of one percent,” Legislator Ilan Schoenberger said.
He added they would’ve paid back the bond with the sales tax, which would’ve been put in a lock box supervised by the state comptroller and would’ve expired once the deficit bond was paid off.
The first resolution was reaffirming the home rule legislation was the best option to fix Rockland’s deficit, which passed 13-4. The second resolution requested that New York State Legislature introduce home rule legislation authorizing the county to finance the deficit by the issuance of bonds. The difference in this bond is that the legislature is asking for $95 million over 20 years, and there’s no sales tax increase.
to help the county’s financial issues was discussed a few times at the meeting, as well. Wolfe said he felt the county’s plan was better because Zebrowski’s “has pretty much the same fiscal protections that ours does, but it adds what I consider to be an intolerable dose of politics.” Zebrowski’s calls for the the formation of a task force appointed by the state and the county to monitor Rockland budget, as well as the county developing a multi-year budget.
After the meeting, Zebrowski released a statement about his plan.
“My deficit reduction taskforce provides sufficient oversight and enforcement so that taxpayers can be confident that the county’s fiscal house will be put in order. The taskforce will ensure that spending reductions will be part of the tough decisions needed to close Rockland County’s deficit. The decreased temporary sales tax contained in this plan coupled with the oversight is preferable to the permanent tax increases, layoffs and cost shifts onto the towns that were proposed in the county’s alternative plan tonight.”
Vanderhoef’s plan also called for the elimination of 150 jobs, but the legislators weren’t presented with a list of those positions until about 5:30 p.m. Tuesday and didn’t have time to really look it over. Schoenberger also said the list seems a bit incomplete and asked for the full list by Friday so the legislature could talk about the positions possibly being cut at their meeting next Tuesday.