BY KATHY KAHN
In Rockland, you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows– it’s an ill wind sweeping families and Millennials away, taking them to other locales or out of state altogether to avoid the burdensome property taxes and dismal inner workings of Rockland that have taken root over several years.
The missteps are outlined in a 2016 “White Paper” the Rockland Business Association commissioned from Pattern for Progress last year was released last week. The 76 page report analyzes growth patterns, the out- and in-migration and the seeds planted that have eventually have overgrown the county’s tax base and economic vitality.
The report is aptly named “A Crushing Burden: Why is Rockland County So Heavily Taxed? An examination of property taxes in Rockland County, NY, and recommendations related to controlling them.” (The complete version can be found at www.rocklandbusiness.org. Click on the link at right to access report.)
The county eventually crashed down in 2011-2012, putting Rockland in financial freefall. It led to the election of Republican Ed Day, who promised to try to turn the county around in two terms. At the time, Day said if he could not get the job done in eight years, it would be time for someone else to step up to the plate. So far, he’s managed to pull the county out of significant financial crisis but with more to be done and more to come from the reading of Pattern’s White Paper.
What has caused this toxic brew? Many causes that crept up slowly and increased even as money wore thin—high public salaries and pensions, along with school district salaries and benefits, some of them the highest in the state— significantly impacted real property tax owners, whose own salaries could not keep pace with the six-figure salaries doled out over several years—Rockland has the highest teachers’ salaries in the United States, according to Pattern’s White Paper.
The influx of Spanish, Haitian and Latino students who need special education and who require English as a Second Language classes and the growing ultra-Orthodox population and its yeshivas, many which are provided public busing, is another factor that has caused not just fiscal distress but public animosity towards the growing population of the insulated religious community.
School taxes have always been a bone of contention in many counties, but Rockland also faces the six-figure paychecks many of its local police departments dole out. As of 2014, the 163 full-time employees of the Town of Clarkstown’s police department earned “an extraordinarily high median salary of $180, 307,” cites the Pattern Report, “and fully 27 percent of the Clarkstown PD was earning over $200,000.” In Ramapo, Police Chief Peter Brower was the highest paid local government employee in New York State, with annual compensation in his last year (2015) of $367,000.
The Town of Ramapo leads the county in growth, with 58 percent of the county’s overall growth as of 2015. Ramapo has the highest in both county and state non-profit religious and non-profit educational tax exemptions. It also has a high number of properties granted exemptions as Clergy residences.
In county where the median income is $83.000 a year, there is a disproportionately large number of public officials making twice what the average household earns and a disproportionately large number of poor working-class families and religious enclaves depending on the county and state to feed, house and support them.
Three years ago, RBA president Al Samuels told members Rockland is one of the most community-minded counties in New York, but the numbers flooding in for aid were overwhelming the county and its coffers.
Residents need to become more open-minded about business opportunities that come their way—as in the case of Legoland—and realize that relying on property owners to cover the costs to keep Rockland “as is” is not working. Rockland County has been lifted significantly out of the financial quagmire it was in by a new administration, but more needs to be done– and cooperation of the county’s Legislature is an absolute necessity. Salaries across the board must be brought in line with reality and those who apply for public assistance must be more carefully vetted before receiving services.
Rockland’s opportunities to grow and become an affordable place to live for residents now and in the future is not going to be easy to achieve unless all who live in the county are willing to make it happen, including those who are licking the whip cream off the top of the cupcake.