Legislature passes 2014 budget, including 9.9 percent tax increase

BY MICHAEL RICONDA

New City – After months of talks and consulting with both private accounting firms and State Comptroller’s office, the Rockland County Legislature adopted an amended budget proposal for the 2014 fiscal year, including a 9.9 percent property tax increase.

The $760.9 million budget is buttressed by the Rockland County Deficit Financing Act, state home rule legislation which allows the county to finance $96 million of its debt with deficit bonds. The remaining $30 million or so of the county’s approximately $127.5 million deficit will be managed through a combination of anticipated growth in revenue and cuts to various departmental budgets.

The ability to bond the county’s debt came in exchange for an annual requirement that the Comptroller review future budgets and make recommendations. As per state recommendations, 2014 property, energy and sales tax revenue were also adjusted for accuracy shortly before passage. The Comptroller said that in 2015 the county must begin to paying an annual toward the deficit note.

“We can stand here and say with a straight face that what we are about to vote on is a balanced budget for 2014,” Legislator Alden Wolfe said.

Not all legislators agreed. Legislator Joseph Meyers said he believed the budget would again overestimate revenues, although not nearly as much as in recent years.

Included among the new revenue is a controversial 9.9 percent property tax levy, an additional tax burden of about $101 per homeowner. Along with the budget, an override of the state’s annual two percent tax levy limit was passed 13-4 to permit this increase. Legislators Sparaco, Jobson, Moroney and Meyers voted against raising the tax cap.

Jobson voted for the final budget, which broke the tax cap, because according to law if a proposed final revised budget is rejected by the Legislature the county executive’s preliminary budget then takes effect. Nonetheless, the budget was supported by only 11 out of 17 legislatures, with nay votes coming from Legislators Joseph Meyers, Aaron Wieder, Patrick Moroney, Christopher Carey, Frank Sparaco and Ed Day.

Perhaps most surprising was the nay vote from future county executive Day, who explained that though he helped to craft the budget and would work with whichever plan was presented to him in office, he could not vote for a 9.9 percent tax increase out of principle. He confessed his vote was “symbolic” and that he didn’t want to send a message to Rockland’s voters that a 9.9 percent tax increase is at all acceptable.Legislator Meyers expressed similar concerns, arguing that though the proposal was balanced, smarter revenue choices and deeper cuts would have saved money without further burdening Rockland taxpayers.

“I’m very worried where the money will come from next year,” Meyers said.In response to concerns, Legislator Grant, who voted for the budget, explained a steadily strengthening market made current revenue estimates reliable, particularly with new business ventures such as the Shops at Nanuet, and that a no-vote was effectively a vote against the best possible option.

Faulty revenue estimates plagued Rockland finances in years past and garnered skepticism from credit rating agencies and the state about the county’s ability to produce reliable budgets. In the most recent example of such budgetary incompetence, the county had to reduce projected 2014 revenue from an energy surcharge tax added to budget last year from $14 million to $8.7 million, because lawmakers had failed to factor that many residents were not subject to the tax. This failure caused a large gap in 2013 revenue.

Though several vacant positions will be eliminated and the size of government will decrease with the new budget cuts, no layoffs or program cuts were implemented. The sole exception is the transfer of inpatient mental health services to Nyack Hospital halfway through 2014, which will eliminate positions working in Mental Health.