Rockland County government officials can follow several different paths to bring the county back to a solid financial footing according to recommendations put forward by Hudson Valley Pattern For Progress. The Rockland Business Association (RBA) hired the research firm after its board of directors determined an in-depth study of the county’s mounting debt and how it got there was needed. The research covered a six-year period.
RBA President and CEO Al Samuels unveiled the 35-page document at a press conference Monday morning. The researchers, Jonathan Drapkin and Adam Bosch, recommended the county obtain financial assistance and oversight through one of several mechanisms: secure deficit reduction bonds through the state, create a county deficit reduction task force, elect an independent treasurer or comptroller, form an audit advisory committee or participate in the state comptroller’s fiscal stress monitoring system.
Drapkin and Bosch pinpointed specific actions to stem the growth of the budget shortfall. Use of year to date receivables would create more realistic sales tax and mortgage tax projections. In the past, they said county officials increased projected revenues without any validation.
“Time and time again over these years, the legislature’s own consultants warned them that the estimations for sales and mortgage tax were too high,” noted Bosch. “I want to add that those consultants warned them with a great degree of accuracy. Time and time again the legislature did not adopt their suggestions to change the projected revenues which is why ultimately you end up with these big shortfalls.”
Bosch said sales tax revenues have been over-projected by $70.3 million and mortgage tax revenues have been overestimated by $12.4 million. The cumulative shortfall of $82.7 million may be higher once 2012 ends.
Summit Park Hospital & Nursing Home have had operating deficits of $139 million.
“That only adds to (the) fiscal stress of the county,” he said.
Another misstep on the county’s part was projecting revenues before the mechanism was in place to receive them. Bosch pointed to red traffic light fines caught on camera and sale of Summit Park through use of a Public Benefit Corporation. He said these amounted to $38 million in unrealized revenue forecasts. Bosch said all the deficits added together totaled more than $250 million.
Another potential solution would require a hard look at non-mandated services and possible elimination of them to cut costs.
They commended the county executive for moving forward to sell the Summit Park Nursing Home and Hospital and recommending the closure of the county pharmacy and free prescriptions for county employees. According to the analysis, the county could benefit from a re-examination of the Sheriff’s Police Unit and county Department of Public Works and how their services could be incorporated with the towns and villages to lower costs and create greater efficiencies.
Additionally, the report called for the county to form a Council of Governments with elected leaders from the towns and villages to meet regularly and discuss more cost effective ways to deliver services without passing costs down from one level of government to another.
Drapkin said the county's low bond rating, one level above junk bond status, is a continuing cause for concern.
"When Standard & Poors and Moody's both conclude that the bond rating ratings for Rockland County are the worst in New York State, it matters because the overall deficit for the county is over $100 million," said Drapkin.
He said it is widely believed that when the deficit reaches 10 percent of an annual budget it is significant, however, Rockland's deficit is exceeding 14 percent.
While addressing how to handle the budget deficit, a shift in the county’s demographics was noted. More than 21 percent of the county’s residents are eligible for Medicaid, the highest percentage of any of the surrounding counties in the lower Hudson Valley. Formation of a county task force to set up job skill training programs and job creation was suggested.
Samuels said the RBA underwrote the $20,000 study because of members’ concerns about the county’s attractiveness to new businesses. He said the cause of the current financial situation must be understood so corrections can be made to avoid recurrences in the future. Samuels said they want to work with the county and the RBA’s executive board will meet at the end of the month to discuss the report.
When reached late Monday afternoon, the Chairman of the Rockland Legislature's Budget & Finance Committee Ilan Schoenberger said he had not seen the report.
The spokesperson for the County Executive's office Ron Levine said, "It is interesting that the RBA released its report to the media,on a Federal holiday, when county offices are not open in observance of Veterans Day. We will be happy to respond when we receive a copy of the report."
“We will as an organization adopt what we will do,” he said, adding he hopes the reports is a catalyst for business and government to work together.
The report is available online at the association's website and has been sent to government officials, civic groups, senior citizen organizations and other community groups.