BY MICHAEL RICONDA
NEW CITY – Rockland County Executive Ed Day highlighted his efforts to improve the county’s financial condition and eliminate redundancy and waste during his 2015 State of the County on Tuesday, promising more fat-trimming during the coming fiscal year.
Day has had a tempestuous year in office, particularly during budget season when he locked horns with the legislature over cuts to the Sheriff’s Department and county-supported nonprofit agencies during an unsuccessful push for a more exacting county budget.
As a strong fiscal conservative, Day continued to call for further reductions of government bureaucracy and alleviated burdens on residents and businesses. However, Day opted to avoid discussion of past conflicts, concentrating instead on efforts to create a “culture of responsible spending” which he argued allowed his administration to successfully keep the county’s tax cap below the two percent state maximum and lead the county through a Moody’s credit upgrade.
“Since my first day in office, I, along with members of my administration, have worked hard to find common-sense solutions to our money problems,” Day announced before a packed legislative meeting. “We slashed wasteful spending. We shrunk county government, we consolidated key functions, we cut expenses, we reduced borrowing costs, we restricted hiring, we cut unnecessary travel and we continued to provide the critical services that our residents pay for.”
Perhaps his most ambitious statement was a pledge to pursue a $17 million dedication toward deficit reduction in the 2016 budget. Though such a large increase seems lofty compared to this year’s $4 million dedication, Day insisted it would be a feasible, fiscally-sensible option to demonstrate the county’s commitment to debt service.
“This payment represents more than three times the amount we put toward deficit reduction in the Legislature,” Day said. “We’ll get there by continuing the conservative, common-sense management of our county’s resources.”
The $772 million 2015 budget was initially slated to contain a $10 million allocation favored by Day, but that figure was reduced by the Legislature to $4 million to free up funds for position and program restorations.
Such a task would undoubtedly require extensive cooperation with the Legislature, and Day seemed willing to play ball. In contrast with his occasionally chilly interactions with the body in 2015, Day’s speech took on a conciliatory tone as he stressed a need to leave past conflicts behind in favor of “consensus and collaboration.”
“If we are mired in partisanship and personality clashes, nothing positive gets done,” Day warned.
The fiscal growth platform was a major talking point for the county executive, who opted to encourage skilled labor training, the expansion of the tech sector and high-end industries, incentives for new investors and financial support for existing businesses and labor through lighter tax burdens and the promotion of a friendly, accommodating business climate.
County progress occurred on multiple fronts in 2015, especially in health administration and state assistance. In particular, he emphasized the successful transfer of Rockland’s mental health outpatient services to Nyack Hospital, the securing of $15.6 million in state funds for 23 in-county projects and the near-complete sale of Summit Park’s hospital and nursing care facilities.
Day also announced fruitful but ongoing advocacy for toll relief on the new Tappan Zee Bridge and repeated the frequent call by county officials to end burdensome state mandates, going as far as demanding a state mandate relief package for beleaguered counties.
Day announced more than a few future plans for the county, as well. During the speech, he presented plans to modernize, maintain, or replace transportation, water and sewage systems, noting that seven major infrastructure projects were slated to occur in 2015. Included among those projects is a new Highway Department facility with greater protection for vehicles and equipment and a compressed gas filling station.
A good portion of his plans focused on code enforcement and compliance, major issues which helped to buoy his campaign and win voters dissatisfied with over-development and the rampant flouting of local housing laws. In response to persistent issues with building code violations, illegal modifications to residences and dangerous living conditions, he announced a new county-wide initiative to enforce building codes with a rental registry with regular inspections, an online portal for investigation requests and a streamlined, transparent, but confidential process with regular updates for reporting residents.
“We simply can’t wait for a child or one of Rockland County’s bravest to die in a converted attic or hidden stairwell,” Day stated. “Our message tonight to unscrupulous landlords or anyone participating in the illegal housing business is this: We’re coming after you.”
In his reference to the hazards posed to first responders by housing emergencies, Day used the opportunity to laud guest Marc Miller, a Spring Valley police officer who rescued a woman, her son and his dog from a burning apartment in the Village on November 23. Miller was presented by Day with the 2015 DeFlumere Medal of Valor.
On the related matter of zoning changes and development, Day promised to also enforce compliance on a county level. A frequent critic of overdevelopment, he reiterated his opposition to what he argued were risky zoning changes at new housing developments at Skyview Acres in Clarkstown and Patrick Farm and Pascack Ridge in Ramapo.
Day stated that the Planning Department will scrutinize all such zoning changes to ensure full adherence to environmental and safety regulations. Additionally, he promised County Attorney Thomas Humbach would take action if the towns opt to pursue developments unsuited to the land.
“This administration will not allow Rockland County to lay vulnerable to overzealous developers who ignore the will of the people at the cost of our infrastructure and quality of life.”
Other items Day emphasized included a continued review of the results of a countywide behavioral health survey and ongoing enforcement against fraud and abuse of public benefits such as welfare.