While some have taken issue with the Rockland Business (RBA) Association initiative of partnering with Pattern for Progress in an effort to quantify the path Rockland government has taken to the financial crisis we are in today, no one can quarrel with the results. Your editorial correctly calls this a “must-read for county politicos and concerned taxpayers,” as it is spot on. In response, this county legislator will offer two simple words. Thank you.
A few of us have been speaking to both the folly that all too often has been policy proposed by the administration, and then adopted by the legislative leadership and majority. This effort is an ally in that endeavor, and a rallying cry for the community of Rockland that will hopefully result in true change in county government.
The truth is that these findings are as near as the legislative minutes on record over the past few years. The timeline is unmistakable with a cause and effect that is irrefutable.
On February 7, 2008, as part of my report as minority leader of the legislature, I pointed to a just released report from the Rockefeller Institute that stated “we are in a recession or will soon enter one,” and that we should immediately make preparations as many states have because “these matters could very well be percolating as we speak tonight, and does not bode well for our county.”
My report a year later again pointed to the warnings and urged county government to move quickly to minimize the impact, saying simply that “We lost the one thing we could not afford to lose; valuable time”. I called for an immediate implementation of zero based budgeting. What we got instead was some passing mention of a zero based budgeting “philosophy.”
$1.3 million of revenue from red light traffic cameras was included in the 2009 budget. How unrealistic was this? NYS law, which authorizes only municipalities of a million or more to establish red light cameras, had to be changed and frankly that was never going to occur. The LegisIature’s Budget and Finance committee accepted this. I voted “No” on this budget, and on December 7, 2008 my comment on this was “Maybe someone is selling a bridge, but I for one am not buying it.”
The most flawed action was the administration’s proposed borrowing of $17.8 million to cover an operational deficit in the 2011 budget, ostensibly to establish a Public Benefit Corporation. My comment at the budget vote on December 7, 2010 was “The problem with the approach? I wish there was only one”, followed by a list of reasons detailing why this was pure folly. Our own auditors warnings were disregarded by the legislature’s primary checkpoint, the Budget and Finance committee. The result? The borrowing passed by the minimum nine votes; the PBC was never created; the deficit then skyrocketed; and we were now facing massive layoffs and a full blown financial crisis within the year.
And this year’s proposed budget has already been damaged by two other items you raised. First was the failure to achieve state legislation enacting a sales tax increase and real estate tax, along with the $13.6 million and $3.5 million respectively that the legislative leadership anticipated. Then another shortfall came with the administration’s overestimation, and the legislature’s Budget and Finance committee’s acceptance of, a claimed savings of $17.8 million in workforce concessions. How much of that was achieved you ask? Less than 20 percent.
These are not numbers on a page; they are real dollars coming out of our pocket. This shortfall is roughly TWICE the amount of property tax that would be generated by the proposed 18.4 percent tax increase. In short, if just either one of these 2012 budget items were realized, or even just half of both, there would not be a need for any county property tax increase for 2013, with enough money left over to maintain basic, critical services such as the Sheriff’s Patrol and Highway.
Is it any wonder why many in government avoided being interviewed for this initiative? I freely answered inquiries, as I did not sign up for government service at the age of 55 to keep secrets from my neighbors. Worse still is the fact that not one of the three people most accountable for steering the county financial ship of state and arguably the most knowledgeable of all the details in the white paper – the county executive, the chair of the Legislature, or the chair of the Budget and Finance committee – have offered any detailed response to the report.
Albert Einstein’s words tell us that we cannot continue doing the same thing over and over again and expect different results. We need transparency and bold, outside the box thinking. Many point to challenges such as state mandates and delivery of services that are facing county government as being problematic. While that may be the case, it is a given that the answer is neither maintaining the same model nor approach. The handwriting is on the wall, or in this case, contained within the RBA report, and it needs to be heeded by those who have the ability and the responsibility to move our county forward. Working together, it can be done.
Edwin J. “Ed” Day
Legislator – District #5