The $11 million stalemate

How a social media post became a public spat over the deficit premium and the first ideological battle of the Ed Day-era in county government

BY MICHAEL RICONDA

The destination of $11 million is the source of disagreement between the Rockland Legislature and the county executive Photo credit:  WIKI
The destination of $11 million is the source of disagreement between the Rockland Legislature and the county executive
Photo credit: WIKI

Questions over an $11 million deficit premium earned from the sale of deficit financing bonds have provoked some contentiousness between County Executive Ed Day (R) and Legislator Alden Wolfe (D), who both seem to have their own ideas on how the premium should be spent.

The question is simple enough, but growing acrimony between the two resulted in an interesting social media exchange and scornful reports from local figures who maintain the issue has been blown up by Wolfe beyond acceptable levels.

On one side, Wolfe insists the premium can only legally go toward paying back interest and that there was no immediate need to allocate the funds. On the other, Day counters the premium could also be used for debt service.

The argument began with an assertion by reporter and Clarkstown activist Michael Hull that inaction on the $11 million premium could mean the county would be billed an extra $250,000 in borrowing costs. Hull sharply criticized Wolfe for vacillating on the matter in a potentially costly fashion.

Hull’s argument echoed the sentiments of Day, who released a prior statement in the Rockland County Times last month pressing for action to unfreeze the funds, if not allocate them.

“My administration believes our case is clear and compelling,” Day stated. “We asked for a certain course of responsible action – apply all the premium proceeds to the deficit. But there are two choices – both technically correct – again with ours highly preferable and supported by nearly every expert we can find.”

In response, Wolfe opened the County Legislature last week with a tirade against Day, referring to the statements as inaccurate and bullying.

As Wolfe continued to insist there was no inaction and the money was not frozen, he chastised Day for comments made on Facebook and accused him of contriving a crisis to control the legislature.

“Trying to force us to make decisions through distortion and intimidation may have worked for him in the school yard but it certainly doesn’t work for us here in Rockland County government,” Wolfe said. “It’s unbecoming and the county executive should know better particularly given his experience on this board where 17 legislators from all corners of the county, chosen by our neighbors to make independent decisions in their best interest.”

Wolfe announced that no vote would be put forward until a clear plan was presented to the legislature, which he said is in accordance with the county’s independent financial advisers. A vote was ultimately brought in spite of Wolfe’s wishes, but was split along party lines and failed to pass.

In effect, Wolfe attempted to shift the argument to whether or not the county executive had provided the legislature with enough information. Others on the legislature were more supportive of Day’s position. Legislator Joe Meyers (D) contended Day was acting proactively and had done more to address the deficit than past administrations.

Meyers went on to say he would like a vote on the matter and favored healthy debate rather than absolute statements on where the premiums could be allocated.

“I didn’t ask for a plan,” Meyers said. “Maybe the leadership asked for a plan, but I as one of the 17 legislators didn’t ask for a plan and I would like to have my say on this by voting on it. I would like not to have others decide for me what I need before I can vote on something.”

Another vote to allow the premium’s use for deficit financing in the legislature’s Budget & Finance Committee on June 10 fell flat as well. That evening, Wolfe grilled County Finance Commissioner Stephen DeGroat for new information on a proposed budget plan, but when faced with DeGroat’s statement that the plan was not available at the moment, Wolfe grew frustrated.

“In the absence of such a plan, why should we treat this item differently and go against the advice of our auditors?” Wolfe asked.

Wolfe was not alone, either. The resolution received unanimous opposition from the legislators who were present, at least in part due to statements Day made which legislators perceived to be slights against the entire body. Legislators Joseph Meyers, Patrick Moroney, Ilan Schoenberger, Douglas Jobson and Aron Wieder were all absent.

The continued argument and legislative inaction on the matter prompted another response from Day, who laments the $250,000 in additional expenses might now be unavoidable.

“We expect our legislators to make decisions. We do not expect them to interfere with operations. But, continued political grandstanding by some has led to an inability to make important decisions about this County’s finances. This inaction is starting to impact operations, and not for the better.”

The legislature was not the only arena of debate. Prior to Wolfe’s defense of his stance before the full legislature, county executive releases and articles related to the discussion prompted responses from other officials, including Clarkstown Democratic Chairwoman Kristen Zebrowski-Stavisky.

“The $11 million premium can go to pay down the deficit or it can cover the interest payments due in 2015-2016,” Zebrowski-Stavisky wrote. “The legislature is simply asking for the plan to cover those interest payments if the premium is put towards the deficit now. They want to know if the county executive expects to cover interest with a property tax increase.”

Regardless of who is correct, one thing is certain: Neither the relationship between the executive and legislative branches of government nor the county’s fiscal state have seen any improvement since the bickering began.

CORRECTION: In reference to the first legislative session, the original article reads, “A vote was ultimately brought in spite of Wolfe’s wishes, but was split along party lines and failed to pass.” In fact, the vote was to waive the rules, not consider the question itself, and the motion was brought by Leg. Wolfe as a courtesy. The motion failed, but found support from Leg. Joseph Meyers and Leg. Christopher Carey.