BY MICHAEL RICONDA
New City – In a productive night for county government, the Rockland Legislature approved a number of major resolutions including a request that the New York Legislature allow a bonding and refinancing of county debt and a new program to encourage voluntary resignations from county positions to save money.
The request for the NYS Legislature to issue bonds aims to refinance $96 million in county debt, allowing the county to manage its deficit in an effective manner. As per state requests, the resolution also requires the county executive to submit his annual draft budget to the state comptroller for review and suggestions before sending it back for review by the legislature for their own alterations consistent with comptroller recommendations.
Legislator Ilan Schoenberger expressed hope the oversight would encourage the county executive to act quickly and effectively to present a budget for which he would be held accountable.
“This law will hold the county executive’s feet to the fire to make sure that any budget he sends us has to be balanced,” Schoenberger explained. “It cannot contain questionable revenues and cannot contain questionable expenditures, because if it does contain revenues or expenditures that are questionable, the state comptroller, as an independent third party, will come forward and say, ‘It’s missing things that it should have.’”
The review process is a state-desired inclusion in response to poor revenue and expenditure estimates in recent budgets. In the past, legislators frequently blamed County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef for such flawed, last-minute budget submissions which cast doubt on Rockland’s ability to effectively manage its own finances.
The bond issuance had been an urgent concern for the legislature, which had been encouraged by Deputy Budget Director Steve Grogan to act quickly before interest rates increased in the coming months as anticipated.
Pressure also came from State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who expressed concerns over the accuracy of revenue estimates in this year’s budget. Years of inaccurate revenue estimates have bogged down county finances and, in the eyes of the State Comptroller’s Office, suggested a need for state oversight into county finances.
Most legislators were comfortable with outside recommendations from the state comptroller and the vote for the request was unanimous. However, several legislators did express concerns about the budget submissions’ timetables, which they felt were too constraining.
Legislator Ed Day proposed tabling the resolution until the legislature could meet with state lawmakers with the hopes of amending the state bill to require the comptroller to send an amended budget at least 15 days before adoption, a significantly longer amount of time than the 10 days outlined in the current bill. According to Day, this would be a stronger incentive for the county executive to cooperate.
“Part of the problem is the problem we’ve had putting numbers together, and oftentimes it comes from across the hall,” Day said.
Other legislators, including Schoenberger and Joseph Meyers, expressed doubt that the timeline would be too restrictive. Schoenberger addressed timeline concerns by explaining that the timelines were doable so long as both branches of county government worked together effectively.
“These time periods, as abbreviated as they are and as difficult as they could be, need not necessarily be that way if we’re all acting together and working in good faith towards the same result,” Schoenberger argued.
The Democrat Schoenberger encouraged the Republican Day, his potential rival in the upcoming county executive race, to withdraw his motion to table, explaining the legislature had to put forward a united front and send a clear message that the county was serious about eliminating its deficit. Day responded that any united front should be directed toward the best possible deal, not the one up for an immediate vote.
Ultimately, however, the motion to table failed, with the only votes in favor coming from Legislators Day, Paul Moroney, Douglas Jobson and Chris Carey.
The Rockland Legislature also approved the controversial voluntary separation incentive program, which would allow certain county employees to receive an incentive package in exchange for resigning from their positions. The majority of the legislature approved the resolution, with the exceptions being Legislators Joseph Meyers and Michael Grant.
Most legislators supported the resolution, expressing concerns over its effectiveness but still holding it as a necessary cost-cutting tool. Legislator Carey acknowledged worries, but explained that his yes vote was intended to “err on the side of savings.”
Grant expressed skepticism of the program from the beginning, calling it “neither targeted nor a retirement program.” He also suggested it guaranteed no savings, but could backfire by gutting county programs.
“I’m just not comfortable with it,” Grant explained. “
Legislator Meyers joined Grant, but explained his vote against the program came from his experience with a history of similar, ineffectual programs. He did, however, express support for a measure targeting specific positions for elimination.
In other news from the legislature, the body approved a resolution requesting the New York State Thruway Authority to name the Spring Valley Toll Plaza after late Rockland County Times publisher, Armand Miele, rechristening it as the Arman Miele Toll Free Plaza. The idea has been approved by Miele’s family to honor his successful efforts to make the toll plaza free for commuters.
The legislature supported the measure overwhelmingly, with the only dissenting votes coming from Legislators Alden Wolfe, Michael Grant, and Nancy Low-Hogan. All three expressed respect for Miele’s work, but questioned whether a toll plaza could or should be named so soon after the honoree’s passing.