BY MICHAEL RICONDA
NANUET – Hoping to reach out to Rockland residents and elicit support for continued changes on the county level, Rockland County Executive Ed Day held the first of a series of three town hall-style meetings at the Nanuet Public Library on Tuesday.
Day, who was elected in January, made a point to engage the public in a question-and-answer session which was also live-streamed on the County’s website. During the exchange, he touched upon a variety of topics ranging from budgetary and cost-cutting issues to transportation, charter reform, the upcoming privatization of Summit Park Hospital, and housing and quality of life concerns.
On county finances, Day frequently touted his efforts to scale down the size of government. He pointed resolutions of managerial issues, overtime control and the cutting of $3 million in county jobs- many of which he argued were redundant upper-level positions-as evidence that his administration was committed to efficiency.
“You need to stay with the program to keep going,” Day said of county programs and employees.
Day also assured residents that “county government is operating in the black” thanks in part to belt-tightening and responsible action on budgetary issues such as repayment plans for deficit bonds which netted the county a Moody’s credit rating upgrade to Baa2 and positive outlook in late July.
Questions about affordability for seniors elicited a broader response, with Day stating that household fiscal responsibility was critical, but that the county was working with towns, villages and school districts to relieve tax burdens as much as possible.
Day also pointed to economic growth he hoped to foster in the county, including his efforts to find a suitable replacement for Pfizer, which has announced plans to leave its campus in Orangetown. According to him, he was in talks with Orangetown officials to market the property and other similar sites in an effort to bring business into the region and reduce tax burdens on residents.
“Revenue is necessary,” Day said. “If we bring wealth in, it mitigates the need for additional taxation.”
Cooperation was a major theme in Day’s answers, a contrast with the frequently divisive tone of interactions between the County Executive’s office and the County Legislature. Day credited the legislature with a renewed interest in dialogue with his office, one he said had been absent in the recent past.
“The legislature has had more interaction in the last 8 months than in the last 8 years in the previous administration,” Day proudly stated.
On other points, however, Day acknowledged the political head-butting which has led to several vetoes and overrides of particular legislative resolutions. On the point of charter reform, he argued that the two branches worked “very well” on most of the proposed changes to the County Charter.
Still, Day continued to express dismay that his office’s suggestions of a “two hat rule,” term limits and public votes on legislative vacancies were scrapped from the final version of the bill, prompting an executive veto and a subsequent legislative override. Day encouraged voters to reject the changes when they are placed on a referendum ballot in November and to argue instead for a complete bill with all suggested reforms.
Once again chiding the legislature’s judgment, Day also promised stronger enforcement of housing laws to combat illegal and unsafe housing. He also argued an upcoming legislative override on a bill he vetoed would allow dangerous structures to be grandfathered into a village on historic grounds.
Alluding to his experiences with apartment blazes as an NYPD officer, Day was particularly steadfast on this point, even threatening legal action if the override was successful.
“Our county attorney has said straight out that our county legislature is not empowered to change the health code,” Day warned.
Day’s final criticism of the legislature addressed an override which would require county buses to be washed daily. Discussing the matter, Day mentioned legislative support for the bill was spurred in part by a bus fire in Pearl River last winter.
In contrast, Day argued the washes would cost almost $4 million and serve a primarily cosmetic rather than safety purpose. Estimates have placed the cost at up to $900,000 per year over the course of the county’s four year contract with transit provider Brega Transportation Co. The legislature has argued at least part of the funds can be allocated from $300,000 in non-allocated, non-local share funds.
A developing issue on the minds of many Rocklanders is the privatization of services at the Summit Park Hospital and Nursing Care center. Day stated at the session that the county was working to disentangle the county from its role at Summit Park while attempting to obtain the maximum value from the fiscally insolvent facility.
The county currently has a signed agreement with Sympaticare LLC for a 99 year lease on the facility, a $36 million value with a net value of $10 million after outstanding bonds, legacy and closing costs are paid. Day argued the sale presented an opportunity to compress space and dedicate money to the deficit. He suggested it might even serve as a model for future consolidations of county properties and departments.
Day was also careful to pay Summit Park employees their dues, arguing it was not them but rather past mismanagement which “wrecked this asset” and caused its current losses of almost $2 million per month.
On other matters, Day expressed a determination to assist residents but also a wariness of over-involvement of the county in local or private matters. Citing the judgment of the county’s planning department, he expressed strong disapproval of a proposed poultry slaughterhouse in a residential area of New Square
Day also argued that the decision might ultimately be up to the Village Board of New Square and that if they can override the county’s decision, his hands might be tied.
“If New Square wants to build it, they need a super-majority in the village board,” Day stated.
At the same time that he opposed its placement, he also explained he had sought alternatives which might appease all involved. He described meeting with the Deputy Mayor of New Square to discuss alternate sites, but ultimately found no satisfactory property for the plant.
Similarly, on the issue of Hi-Tor Animal Shelter, Day pointed to his signature of a letter of intent so the organization can build a new shelter on a larger plot of land in Pomona. However, on the internal conflicts which have plagued the shelter, he stated the county had few options except to continue searching for revenue streams to feed the organization.
Day is expected to hold two more town hall meetings. The second meeting will be at Fieldstone Middle School in Thiells on October 22 while the third will be held at the Suffern Free Library in Suffern on November 20. Both are scheduled for 7 p.m.