BY SARA GILBERT
The Rockland County Legislature held a special meeting on Tuesday, May 29 at the Allison-Parris County Office in New City to discuss proposed mid-year budget adjustments.
The meeting addressed the county’s more than $80 million budget deficit and how to fund government operations which has led to a drastic downgrade of the county’s debt by Moody’s Rating Agency. New tax plans were discussed and ultimately passed, and more possible layoffs will be discussed during the regular meeting on Tuesday, June 5.
Also delayed until that meeting were any further discussion of cuts to contract agencies. Several legislators asked that the county executive propose further cuts than he did on Tuesday.
“We are all going through a difficult time, but we will emerge,” said Legislature Chairwoman Harriet Cornell, at the start of the meeting, where more than 200 residents were gathered.
County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef laid out the main issues. Vanderhoef ripped into state lawmakers, stating that by failing to back the legislature’s original five-year plan which was based around an increase in sales and other taxes as well as a 10-year deficit bond, “The state has failed us. They essentially told us to go to hell.”
There is now a $21 million gap for this budget year because Albany did not approve major parts of the plan originally laid out last fall.
“I don’t want to finger point here,” said Vanderhoef. “But we are at the bone!”
According to Vanderhoef, “if you vote for these amendments tonight, by 2013 or 2014 we can come out of this mess.”
The first amendment in discussion was the Home Rule request, which would impose an additional three-eighth of a percent of sales tax. It passed 13 to 4. However this will likely be struck down by state lawmakers.
“A sales tax hike is preferable because it doesn’t land on just one person, everyone helps out,” said Legislature Alden H. Wolfe, who went on to reprimand Senator Carlucci’s decision-making over the past few months.
Carlucci was working with the legislature on this plan, Wolfe said. “And at the last minute announced he wouldn’t be introducing it to the New York Senate. Carlucci called our plan a fantasy. He didn’t allow us time to come up with another plan and present it and he claimed he would come up with a new plan but the silence has been deafening. Now, tonight, we exchange our fantasy for a hard bite of reality.”
Legislator Joseph L. Meyers feels the finger ought to be pointed elsewhere. “What we are faced with now needed to be done a long time ago,” he said. “People have been hoping for a miracle… but if the county had been saving all along for a rainy day, it wouldn’t be like this.”
Cornell argued that the county didn’t do anything wrong, “We’re in a difficult situation and we’re dealing with it together.”
She added that the county provides mandated services, but also non-mandated services. “Maybe you don’t even know we provide them, but if they weren’t there you would notice,” Cornell said, using the examples of health inspectors and police investigation teams.
The second item discussed was requesting that New York State allow Rockland County to finance a deficit of $95 million with the issuance of a bond. This was approved unanimously.
The next item discussed is an amendment that would add a 4 percent sales tax to energy, this would result in raising about $12 million. This was passed 14 to 3. This is not subject to state oversight and you can expect to see the onerous tax on a future energy bill.
“I will call this today and forever the Carlucci Energy Tax,” said Wolfe, feeling if only Carlucci had acted differently the county would not be in this difficult position.
Meyers said he supported the amendment and retorted, “Our problems did not start with him [Carlucci] and I don’t think we should be vilifying him.”
According to Legislature Toney L. Earl, “We’re not angry or attacking him [Carlucci]. It’s just the way he handled it,” by which he means Carlucci said he would back the plan and bring it to the Senate only to change his mind at the last minute.
Legislature Michael M. Grant sees it all as a difficult discussion, but the only way out. “The decisions we make here will be felt for years to come,” he said, hopeful that the energy tax will bring a better future.
“It is imperative that we raise revenue,” said Grant, mentioning how the state is mandating more personnel hired to work at the jail but not providing more funding to help with that.
“If you can’t support the things here tonight, then show me what you’re going to do to create the money. Do not just vote ‘no,’” Grant plead.
The legislature received the list of roughly 115 personnel to be cut at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday and did not get a chance to thoroughly review it prior to the meeting. Therefore it is planned to be discussed in detail at their regular meeting on Tuesday, June 5.
“We have been cutting and cutting [positions],” said Legislature Ilan S. Schoenberger. “I am very disturbed that still even with all this cutting of personnel, below what it was 30 years ago, we’re still cutting.”
Legislature Christopher Carey suggested focusing the personnel cuts more on the tops of the organizations. “Are they too top-heavy?” he asked.
Grant agreed, and said that he expected a memo from each department about what these jobs are and how their loss would impact the organization. “There’s something wrong with this picture,” he said.
Legislature Patrick J. Moroney wanted to make sure that all negotiations with the unions would be concluded prior to any decisions about cuts. “I don’t want to find out later that we could’ve saved some of these jobs but didn’t because we didn’t completely follow through with the negotiations,” said Moroney.
The legislators then argued over whether to makes towns pay the approximately $1.4 million it costs to run elections, as had been the case prior to national government reforms due to the Bush-Gore election.
Ultimately the lawmakers voted 11-6 to pass the buck on to the town, justifying it because towns would be gaining 6 percent of the new sales tax revenue from the energy tax. The entire $1.4 million will be added to town budgets for the 2012 budget year.
While the increase cost of elections almost washes out with the increase in sales tax revenue for towns, the towns go into the red on the community college reimbursement deal. State law requires local governments to cover the out-of-county costs of students going to nearby community colleges.
This comes to about $1.8 million annually, over $1 million which goes to students attending the Fashion Institute of Technology, which is far more expensive than any other SUNY two-year school. The legislature passed this law 11-6.
The legislature unanimously voted to set a public hearing on establishing a new $10 fee every two years on your driver’s registration.
Dylan Skriloff contributed to this report