Crafting my Proposed Budget for 2015 has been a challenge, to say the least. The grueling process has been filled with hours of number-crunching, spirited debate and difficult decisions. As I’ve said repeatedly, it’s my job to make the tough choices that affect the 320,000 residents of Rockland County. While my decisions may not be accepted by all, I know they will move the county forward in a responsible way.
I’ve always attacked challenges head-on and this budget was no different. Many of the tough decisions I made were based on our $138 million dollar deficit, unfunded mandates from the state and obvious revenue hurdles. In the past, Rockland County has spent too much and borrowed too much. The people elected me to change these bad habits. It’s become clear that change isn’t always easy.
In my proposed budget for 2015, I made the painful, but necessary decision to eliminate all county funding for the so-called contract agencies receiving taxpayer assistance. These agencies include organizations close to my heart: Jawonio, ARC and Garner Arts Center. Last year, we provided $3.1 million in total funding to these groups. However, with dozens of County positions set for abolishment, I cannot, in good conscience, continue to use scarce public funds to subsidize a long list of nonprofits through earmarks of taxpayer money.
The fiscal plan I unveiled October 16th calls for laying off 111 county employees. The overall budget includes a two-percent property tax levy increase, reduced from worst-case scenario projections of more than 13 percent earlier this year. Under my proposal, the average tax bill in 2015 will increase by a mere $1.67 per month. Without the draconian cuts to contract agencies, I’d be left to consider even more job cuts and a higher tax rate.
Let me take a moment to explain the intricacies of contract agency funding. Laying out the facts in a “big picture” will hopefully temper the rhetoric that’s surrounded this controversial issue.
Last year, Rockland County conveyed more than $14 million to local contract agencies, mental health and social services vendors doing business with the County. More than $9.85 million supported essential state and federally-mandated services, including drug counseling and treatment, meals for the needy and programs for the developmentally disabled. Under my proposed budget, this funding will continue next year to a variety of public assistance vendors strongly relied on by many of our residents. These “Pass-Through Funds” for critical needs and community development will NOT be reduced in 2015.
The balance of the $14 million last year, $3.1 million, was gifted to contract agencies with no focus or regard to standards of performance. In simple terms, these were “no strings attached” conveyances with very little oversight. It is this funding that has been eliminated in my tentative 2015 budget, representing only 18-percent of the overall government monies dedicated to local health and social services vendors.
For decades, not-for-profit contract agencies received their funding directly through the County budget process without having to bid for taxpayer dollars. The County Executive proposed a budget that allocated money for these nonprofits based only on available data and past practices. The County Legislature reviewed the proposed budget with a focus on contract agencies, as these organizations lobbied legislators for additional money.
In Rockland County, a culture developed in which these contract agencies and legislators perpetuated the status quo, whereby agencies that were funded in the past were funded annually regardless of County finances, the evolving needs of the community and changes in the outcomes produced by these agencies. In short, the structure for funding contract agencies inherited by my administration lacked a consistent, performance-based, transparent process for awarding service contacts. As we work every day to reduce spending and lower taxes, this practice handing out “member items” has become unacceptable. Rockland County can no longer afford to subsidize these earmarks on the backs of our residents and business owners.
Going forward, I’ve charged my Executive Staff with creating a robust process by which the County awards funding to contract agencies based on unmet resident needs and outcomes. With strict County oversight, agencies will be pushed to achieve specific community objectives and program goals. This will certainly discourage “member item” spending by vocal legislators or well-connected constituents.
In New York State, there is wide variation in philosophies, practices and concerns relating to how County governments decide to fund nonprofits. A few upstate counties no longer support nonprofits with public money. Most others, including Westchester County, have drastically reduced funding, forcing the agencies to rethink the way they operate and be more creative in the way they provide services.
As we continue to redesign the way we do business with nonprofits, I encourage their boards to utilize any fund balances they have. Some of the contract agencies offer important services in our community and we do value them. Unfortunately, we simply cannot afford to maintain the level of support we’ve provided in the past. When times were good, we maintained or increased support. As we work to stabilize our fragile finances, we needed to look across the board and make the appropriate cuts. We simply have nowhere else to turn for operating funds. We cannot continue to overtax our residents.
The people of Rockland County have demanded less spending and lower taxes. I was elected to bring about change and restore confidence and accountability in County government. As such, our Legislative Leaders should not act surprised when deep cuts result in reductions or eliminations of programs and services.
I encourage lawmakers to respect the thoughtful consideration that was invested in the budget process by my office and our commissioners. Based on that foundation of understanding, we can move forward together with a commitment to finding solutions that respect our taxpayers.
We’ve made some extremely difficult choices this year and are delivering what I believe is an honest, responsible budget, which is mindful of all of the residents of Rockland County.