By Rockland County Executive Ed Day
Sixteen months ago, I took the helm of a listless and disorganized operation plagued by out of control spending, soaring debt and a massive, $138 million deficit. Since my first day in office, I, along with members of my administration, have worked hard to find common-sense solutions to our money problems. We slashed wasteful spending. We shrunk county government. And, we continue to provide the critical services that our residents pay for.
My marching orders to straighten out county government included one very simple concept: make sure things are done right. Let’s be certain official business is conducted properly and aboveboard. Questionable deals, “fuzzy math,” blatantly improper or illegal practices and appropriations will not be tolerated in the Day administration.
In our efforts to restore fiscal integrity, County Auditor Robert Bergman identified several areas of spending that require change. One involved community college tuition chargebacks. More recently, County Auditor Bergman discovered that several members on Rockland County Sewer District No. 1 had received thousands of dollars in salary to which they were not entitled. As a matter of record, the County Legislature appoints and oversees all activity of the Sewer District.
I have the charter duty to oversee the county’s fiscal health and the mandate, as a county-wide elected official, to protect and preserve my constituent taxpayers’ monies and ensure that the operations of this county government are undertaken judiciously, in order to avoid waste, fraud and misappropriation.
With these legal and moral duties in mind, I have determined that, based upon questionable acts of the Sewer District, a full, forensic audit and review must be undertaken to investigate the unauthorized payments to elected officials serving on the Sewer District’s Board of Commissioners. I have formally requested the Legislature initiate this action.
Legislation that created the Sewer Board does not authorize payment to public officials who serve on the board. They are not and have not, since the 1960s, been authorized by law to receive payment. Contrary to their own rules, the Rockland County Sewer District No. 1 routinely certified payrolls submitted to the County Finance Department that enabled these improper payments.
In the weeks since the unauthorized payments were identified, a recommendation to recoup the payments has been forwarded to the Rockland County Legislature, as it is their responsibility to act. After sitting with the Legislature for more than a month, no action has been taken to place the matter on the agenda.
According to information uncovered by the county auditor, the Legislature, for years, has failed to recognize many other improprieties in the Sewer District, including: the service of a local elected official on its Board since 2003 without any appointment by the Legislature; and, salary payments to a now-former elected official who was required to vacate the position in 2009.
In addition, the board was missing a critical member following the death of Clarkstown Legislator VJ Pradhan in 2008. This vacancy occurred during protracted litigation involving a controversial land deal in Ramapo which resulted in a $12.7 million judgment against the Sewer District. While the Legislature is entitled to a position on the board, it failed to fill the post. This lack of oversight may have contributed to the ongoing irregularities, including the improper salary payments and the attempted use of Sewer District bonding powers for the benefit of the Town of Clarkstown.
In our first 16 months, we’ve improved county operations and made great strides to strengthen Rockland’s financial condition. Our efforts are starting to pay off. We’re running a leaner, more nimble government. We’re doing more with less. And, for the first time in many years, we’re even expecting a small budget surplus, which will be applied to our massive deficit. But, we cannot fully heal without ridding our county of improper and reckless spending practices. The actions of the Rockland County Sewer District No. 1 provide an unfortunate example.
The people elected me to run this county honestly and prudently. I never forget that it’s “the people’s money” that keeps our wheels moving. I will not rest until all others in county government respect the taxpayer.