$15 Million More in the Hole

Rockland County budget news gets even worse 

BY SARA GILBERT

The Rockland County Legislature met Tuesday, July 24 to receive news that despite tax hikes and 100 layoffs, the county is an additional $15 million in debt so far during this budget year, bringing the grand debt total to an estimated $95 million.

Acting County Finance Director Stephen DeGroat brought the bad news during the mid-year report. Legislators also worked on updating the county’s multi-year plan at the meeting. This is the first time the legislature is approaching the county’s budget with a mid-year review and a multi-year plan that projects five years ahead.

Chairwoman Harriet D. Cornell had pushed for this new system in the hopes that it would keep legislature and the county aware of progress and not allow another $95-plus million deficit to occur in the future.

“This is new for us too,” she reminded the legislators and residents.

At the 7 p.m. meeting, where less than 20 people were present at the Allison-Parris County Office Building in New City, the legislature struggled to understand what exactly was included in the snapshot of the county’s finances they were looking at.

Legislator Alden H. Wolfe was outspoken. “The plan should be how we’re going to fix this $15 million deficit,” he said. “What’s the plan?”

Wolfe, along with Cornell, said they plan on creating a Joint Task Force where they will work to “solve these problems.”

Chairman of the Budget and Finance Committee Legislator Ilan S. Schoenberger was quick to point out that this report is a snapshot of the finances right now and not all-inclusive for the year. “It’s a fluid thing and there’s still a possibility of things to happen that’ll have an impact on the year.”

“We won’t know what the 2012’s budget is until this time next year,” said Schoenberger. “That’s the way it is everywhere.”

Rockland is still waiting on official audits to get the exact number of its debt and legislators complained that the county’s auditors are currently behind schedule and also noted contracts with the civil servant unions are not solidified yet.

Cornell agreed with Schoenberger that this was just a mid-year glance, but also said some items in DeGroat’s report are unclear. She said assumptions were made about what will or might occur in the future and these need to be clarified.

“We’re collecting money from hotel, motel, energy taxes and all the unfortunate layoffs. All these are helping,” said DeGroat. “But the bleeding stops when we break even.” And right now there is a remaining $15 million deficit even after all the increased taxes and cost cutting over the past months.

Legislator Michael M. Grant agreed with Wolfe that the main problem to focus on is “How can we fix this?”

According to Grant, contracts with the unions have been in the works for almost a year now and he’s feeling impatient.

“I’ve been hearing nothing but promises since before Christmas,” he said. “I’m not blaming one side, but something needs to be done. We need a laundry list of things that we’re going to do.”

CSEA President P.T. Thomas responded that the following day, on Wednesday, July 25, he would be putting the unions’ “best and final offer on the table.”

“We’re willing to give up all sorts of things,” he said. “But we were not getting anything in return,” responding to why negotiations have been taking so long.

“What else do you want from these people? They are not making a lot of money,” Thomas said, referring to CSEA workers. He noted that the county workforce is 800 less than it was one decade ago.

In a new effort to cut back on expenses, the county has decided to stop paying for several services they historically provided to the towns. This includes the board of elections, tuition reimbursement for community college, narcotic task force and police intelligence unit.
In response, the towns decided to bill the county for any county road maintenance, lights, hydrants that they were paying for on county roads. And in response to that, the county is investigating reverting ownership of those roads back to the towns. Schoenberger said the roads originally belonged to the towns.
Town of Ramapo Supervisor Christopher St. Lawrence was present and spoke briefly about the conflicts between the county and towns.

“We do not want to fight,” he said. “I think it’s important that the public and the rating agencies see us working together.”

He commended the county on implementing this mid-year review and on everyone’s hard work.

He admitted that the recent added costs to the towns are a burden they were not prepared to handle when they first made their budget, but they would figure it out.

“Budgets are a constantly moving scale,” he said. “And besides, maybe we should be taking over some of the county roads and helping out in that way.”

Schoenberger agreed that the county always prefers to work with the towns and not against them. “We want synergy, but unfortunately we sometimes get a different message.”

Legislator Toney L. Earl commended St. Lawrence on being present and voicing his opinion. “I wish others had come as well,” he said. And he also thanked Thomas on shedding light on the union negotiations.