NEW CITY – After a late evening of extended discussion on two different plans, the Rockland County Legislature passed its draft budget proposal and rejected a rival compromise plan with deeper cuts and a more significant allocation toward deficit reduction on Thursday night.
The Legislature voted 15-2 for their own plan, which fully restores nonprofit contract agencies, hospital laundry and security positions and all but one position with the Sheriff’s Department, a 90 percent restoration. To pay for the cuts, the Legislature had to reduce the county’s required minimum deficit reduction allocation from $10 million to $4 million, though the budget includes a $5 million as a goodwill gesture for bond markets.
As it voted for its own plan, the Legislature also voted against a plan proposed by County Executive Ed Day, which cuts deeper into county finances. The plan, which was pushed as a compromise by Day and presented by legislative ally Christopher Carey, would have restored 75 percent of contract agency allocations and 23 of the 37 positions cut from the Sheriff’s Department in exchange for a lower $7 million annual deficit reduction allocation.
Regardless of the job restorations and the exact debt service allocation, the Legislature was determined to pass a budget that stayed within the state’s two percent tax cap. To do so, the body’s budget includes a $284,792 million rejection of new positions and raises, the abolition of 16 vacant positions for $923,547 in savings, and minor adjustments to utility and general service allocations, insurance-related expenses, and contingency funds.
In effect, the county’s property tax levy will increase by only $2.1 million in 2015, or about $20 for the average Rockland homeowner.
“The 2015 budget, as amended, recognizes the causes of Rockland’s current predicament, identifies solutions and positions county government to move forward with greater certainty and financial stability,” Legislator Michael Grant stated during his presentation of the legislative budget.
The two sole votes against the budget and for the compromise were by Legislators Joseph Meyers and Legislator Carey. The relatively low support for Day’s plan-even among fellow Republicans-reflects dimly on chances of a successful veto, as a super-majority override would likely defeat any challenge.
Nonetheless, Carey pushed for Day’s compromise budget amid the skepticism of fellow legislators. He argued that even if Day’s budget was not passed that night, a similar “alternative budget” would likely make the rounds in the future and should be taken with all seriousness.
“I don’t see this as window dressing. I see this as a real proposal,” Carey stated. “I look at this as a major missed opportunity on the part of this legislature.”
Legislator Meyers praised work of county employees and emphasized their right to fight for their jobs, but favored deeper cuts. He argued the county remains fiscally stressed and had a “need to cut bone,” even if it meant limited layoffs and a higher annual deficit allocation.
“The sky is falling in Rockland County, I’m sorry to tell you,” Meyers said.
Meyers also argued his prior opposition to the Rockland County Deficit Reduction Act, the law that mandated the initial allocation of $10 million, was based upon an inability to predict where the money would come from and expressed a similar reluctance to pull back from an obligation which was so difficult to meet in the first place.
On the other side of the debate stood Legislators Ilan Schoenberger and Alden Wolfe, who both argued the alterations to the RCDRA were still in the spirit of the law because they maintain the current plan to pay off the deficit within 10 years of the law’s initial passage.
Wolfe went even further, criticizing Day’s public characterization of the amendment as “kicking the can down the road” and calling the county executive’s own $7 million figure arbitrary.
“What is irresponsible is for a body to make policy decisions based on what someone thinks a rating agency might do,” Wolfe said.
Day has frequently argued that a deficit allocation below $7 million might be perceived as a bait-and-switch by bond markets and rating agencies who saw the RCDRA as a step in the right direction and signaled they were optimistic on Rockland’s fiscal viability.
The decision to reject the layoffs was greeted with an overwhelmingly congratulatory and gracious response from public employee advocates who filled the audience for the final vote. Sheriff Louis Falco, an outspoken critic of the cuts to the Sheriff’s Department, applauded the legislature for making tough decisions while countering an opposing plan which was made “without knowledge, logic, or wisdom.”
Supervisors Howard Phillips of Haverstraw and Alex Gromack also praised the legislature for crafting a budget which they argued would not burden towns with county charge backs, which were proposed under Day’s compromise budget. Phillips argued Day’s plan was inconsistent and would shift costs to municipalities, which would then be forced to cut rebates or services.
“You can’t balance the county budget on a yo-yo approach,” Phillips said. “This year we’re charging, next year we’re not charging, this year we’re not charging, next year we’re charging.”
Other legislators similarly critiqued Day’s budgets and signaled their strong support for both the Sheriff’s deputies and nonprofits who would have been affected. Legislator Barry Kantrowitz characterized Day’s plan as inconsistent because it allocates money toward unnecessary salary and communications expenses but slashes positions.
“Planning a budget means more than making hard decisions, but making smart decisions,” Kantrowitz said.
Legislator Jay Hood, a frequent critic of Day’s budget approach, argued Day had been dishonest during budget negotiations, did not place thought into issues of need and failed to effectively communicate with the legislature, county agencies and departments.
Though Hood stated he had no bad blood with the county executive, he argued Day opted to take an unreasonable and unnecessarily divisive hard line approach.
“It’s not right what he’s done in the last ten months,” Hood said. “They just see it one way.”
Legislator Frank Sparaco took a harder line. Though Sparaco had largely been a no-show at budget meetings since his indictment for campaign fraud in November, he made appearances at the Budget & Finance Committee to support the legislature’s plan.
Characterizing the current political climate as acrimonious, Sparaco went so far as to say it was “almost impossible” to work with Day.
Though the budget passed with relatively little resistance and will likely survive a veto, Day has still vowed to oppose it. Shortly after the budget passed, Day released a statement calling the budget “flawed” and confirmed he will pursue a veto.
“While it is commendable that legislators followed my lead to hold to the state’s two-percent tax cap, they did so in an irresponsible way,” Day said. “Their decisions will undoubtedly send us down the road to the past where we spent too much. I cannot sign this budget in its current form.”
Day has five days to reject specific changes with line item vetos before the bill returns to the legislature for a final consideration.