In subplot, Hoehmann says Town of Clarkstown often ducks competitive bidding processes
BY CHERYL SLAVIN
A host of troubles appears to be dogging the Rockland Sewer District No. 1. Last October the district was ordered to pay almost a million dollars to the New Jersey village of Upper Saddle River for damages caused by sewage overflows on Saddle River Road. More recently the state Court of Appeals refused to overturn a lower court eminent domain ruling, thus bringing the total cost of the yet to be built Hillburn/Sloatsburg wastewater treatment plant to a whopping $181 million.
Now the sewer district faces two more controversies in the form of opinions handed down by county attorneys. County bond counsel Harris Beach PLLC has issued an opinion that bonded debt could not be approved for a facility that mixed county and town functions, thereby nixing a deal whereby sewer district money would have paid for a Clarkstown emergency services vehicle garage. Additionally, county attorney Thomas Humbach wrote a recent memo to Executive Ed Day that elected officials who serve on the sewer district commission should not be paid the $2300 stipend they’ve been receiving at least since the year 2000, and that any monies paid should be returned. And in the midst of all this, long time sewer district chairman Julius Graifman has tendered his resignation, citing health concerns.
Prior to its June 5, 2014 meeting the sewer commission had approved an “Intermunicipal Agreement” with the Town of Clarkstown for an $11 million upgrade to the town’s sewer infrastructure. At the June meeting the commission agreed to add, at an additional cost of $2.5 million, an “emergency equipment storage facility equipped with security and monitoring systems to house vehicles, trucks and miscellaneous equipment used by the Town to respond to emergency situations at all hours.” The resolution does not refer in any way to the storage of Town police vehicles or emergency equipment. Sewer Commissioners Kevin Connell and Andy Stewart both agree that the intent of the resolution was to provide storage for sewer equipment only.
However, Clarkstown Supervisor Alex Gromack, who also serves as a commissioner, presented this project to the town board as a way to store town police vehicles and emergency equipment that cannot fit inside the current police garage, for no cost to the Clarkstown taxpayers. He later told the Rockland County Times that he had thought such a use had been approved by bond counsel, and only learned afterward that in fact the county’s bond counsel, Tom Miles, stated the opposite.
Since that opinion was issued, Gromack says that the project has been changed to reflect use only by sewer district vehicles. However, Clarkstown Councilman George Hoehman continues to question the need for a 19,000 square foot building to house only a few pieces of sewer equipment. He also questions the $2.5 million price tag of the facility, as well as the over $425,000 that Clarkstown has already paid to design and engineering consultants for the project.
“For a long time the town has regularly been using the professional services exception as a way to avoid the competitive bidding process and award inflated contracts to just a few vendors,” he alleges. He has only recently been able to persuade the town board to adopt the state Dormitory Authority guidelines for such pricing, but not before the money was paid out for the emergency vehicle warehouse.
Gromack counters that all the town money spent on the warehouse will be reimbursed by the sewer commission. He was less clear, however, when asked whether that money would be bonded, claiming that he didn’t know exactly how the money would be sourced. The meeting minutes make clear, however, the intent to float a total of $13.5 million in bonds, thus contradicting his assertions that the facility would be built at no cost to taxpayers. It just won’t be taxed through the Town of Clarkstown; all sewer ratepayers will still have to bear the cost.
Another development that has also affected Gromack, and every other elected official sitting on the sewer district commission centers around the yearly commission stipend they have received over and above their government salaries. Sewer district law clearly states that the supervisors of Clarkstown, Ramapo and Orangtown will serve on the commission, but that only non-elected commissioners may receive compensation. A March 19, 2015 memo by county attorney Tom Humbach now states that not only are they not entitled to it, they must pay back that which they already received.
For some more recently seated commissioners, this might be only a few thousand dollars. For others, like Gromack or Ramapo Supervisor Christopher St. Lawrence, the amount reaches into the tens of thousands. Gromack asserts that he learned he sat on the sewer commission when he became the town supervisor, and he never questioned the small yearly stipend. Rockland GOP leader Lawrence Garvey has issued a public statement that the three supervisors are “as thick as thieves,” and further asks: “The total sewer district law is three pages…in 10 years or so on the board he (Gromack) couldn’t be bothered to read three pages?”
Gromack now avers that in light of Humbach’s memo, he will continue to serve without compensation. He and Stewart have questioned how to repay the money, though, given that they have already paid taxes on it. The question how the stipend came to be paid to government officials is still unanswered.
In the midst of these issues, the one person who might be able to provide the best answers is not currently available. Sewer District Chairman Julius Graifman, who is 88-years-old, has announced his resignation effective in May, citing health concerns, and through his assistant Mike Saber has told the Rockland County Times that he is not able to answer questions. However, his retirement from the commission exactly at the same time that questions continue to swirl about its financial doings has contributed to the negative perception around the already embattled district.
There will be a public hearing next week at the county legislature on the proposal to bond the $13.5 million.