BY MICHAEL RICONDA
The Rockland County Legislature narrowly voted 10-7 to approve a revised version of the December 2012 budget, making major cutbacks while avoiding the layoffs of contract-safeguarded employees and restoring some programs which were initially eliminated.
The budget produced significant dissent for a variety of reasons, with opposing votes from Legislators Day, Moroney, Low-Hogan, Meyers, Sparaco, Carey, and Wieder.
Blame for difficulties in putting together and passing it was levelled on a variety of factors, including unfunded mandates from Albany and slow action by County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef.
Legislator Nancy Low-Hogan stated that poor auditing, a failure to adequately address the deficit, and an unwillingness to make significant cuts in appropriate areas produced a weak budget which fails to provide critical services for county residents. Low-Hogan stated that her position was informed, in part, by her experiences in public service, which she said convinced her that programs such as nonprofits provide crucial services for the most vulnerable of citizens.
“We need to have salary cuts, perhaps across the board among higher-compensated employees,” Low-Hogan said.
Legislator Joseph Meyers expressed agreement with Low-Hogan, calling the budget “disheartening” and stating that cuts had to be made to appropriate areas.
Still, the proposal inched by with the required majority of votes. Legislator Alden Wolfe, who supported the measure, stated that the impact of the legislature’s changes was “profound.”
“I can say with a straight face that I believe the budget that is proposed tonight, with the proposed changes, is the most balanced budget I have ever voted on,” Wolfe said.
The budget, which initially outsourced CSEA-backed employees in laundry, radiology, cook, and security positions, was modified to reflect the existing union contract, which does not allow layoffs of CSEA members for budgetary reasons.
Also included were cuts to employee overtime, the abolition of certain vacant positions, the closure of the county employee pharmacy, and cuts in hospital services, including neonatal programs for new mothers. In sum, the cuts reduced county expenditures by $7,585,838.
Other previously included cuts, such as the elimination of Sheriff’s Mounted Patrol Unit, Highway Department layoffs, and mosquito control, were reinstated into the budget, with legislators stating that these programs which were too important to cut even temporarily.
The sale of the Summit Park facility’s nursing home was not included in the final 2013 budget, as it will require additional time to organize and will likely appear in the 2014 budget.
Several program and position restorations were approved in the budget, including the restoration of various contract agencies such as Cornell Cooperative Extension and the Nathan Klein Institute. The total expenses related to restorations come to $6,169,173.
When both the cuts and restorations are taken into account, $1,416,665 is left over. These funds will be set aside for unforeseen expenses which might arise in the 2013 fiscal year. On the revenue side of the budget, a property tax increase of roughly 18 percent was also approved.
With the proposal passing through the legislature, its final stage is approval by the county executive, who can sign, veto, or modify the proposed budget before giving it his approval.
Prior to the final vote the Rockland County Legislature held three public hearings and votes beginning at 6 p.m. on December 4 on various budget and tax items, including a tax cap bypass and measures which provide taxpayers with greater information on how their money is spent.
The first hearing was on the Rockland County Deficit Reduction Act (RCDA), a bill which establishes a special reserve account to hold $10 million in funds each year which can only be used for the purpose of paying down the deficit. The measure is an alternative to a $80 million deficit bond which the county requested from the state.
Should the deficit bond be approved and provided by the state, the funds from the bill will be unnecessary. According to Legislator Ilan S. Schoenberger, the measure is preferable to the deficit bond because the county could pay down the deficit with in-hand money while having a contingency plan at the same time.
“If the state does not give it to us, we have to get it ourselves,” Schoenberger said.
The proposal passed almost unanimously, with the sole opposing vote coming from Legislator Joseph Meyers. Meyers objected to the opening of a reserve account with no cash in hand, which he said might look suspicious and send the wrong message about its purpose.
The second hearing addressed an override for the 2013 tax limit, which raises the maximum real property tax which the county can levy. If the override goes into effect, it will be in effect for the 2013 fiscal year.
Legislators disagreed on the wisdom of raising the county’s property tax, but most agreed that the inability to override the state-mandated sales tax cap and a lack of cash flow required a bypass of the 2% property tax cap.
Legislator Alden H. Wolfe specifically blamed unfunded state mandates which require additional tax revenue to maintain critical county functions.
“Counties are seemingly set up to fail through this burden of state mandates, and we really don’t have a choice,” Wolfe said “If you are voting against the lifting of the cap, then you damn well better be prepared to offer $13 million in cuts to local share, because that’s the difference.”
Dissenting from the majority, Legislator Frank Sparaco defended his opposing vote by saying that the budget could not accommodate the 18 percent tax because nothing in the budget offsets its effects.
“The truth of the matter is that if I felt that this was fair-with balanced cuts and tax increases-I’d be willing to negotiate, but I just don’t see it that way,” Sparaco said.
Sparaco also added to the legislators’ frustrations with the timing of the budget’s presentation by the county executive, stating that it was “insulting” to be provided a budget which did not factor in the 2% tax cap on such short notice.
The legislature also approved two additional tax education measures. The Rockland County Mandate and Taxation Information Act approved the inclusion of an insert detailing county revenues and expenses with county tax bills.
The insert includes a description of state mandates and their impact on county finances. The Rockland County Taxation Transparency Act performs the supplemental function by inserting an additional tax flyer, which summarizes county income and expenses, as well as the effects of mandates and an optional flyer for towns.
The tax resolutions, which passed unanimously, also sought to address what Legislator John Murphy compared to a publicity campaign to raise awareness of the role of state-levied expenses which impact county taxes.
Optional inserts which provide similar information as it relates to town finances would be made available by both bills, as well.