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Contentious Tues Rock Co Budget Hearing

by Cliff Weathers

Now that County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef has proposed a too-little-too-late austerity budget, which slashes funding for non-profits, veterans, and vital county-provided services, the public outcry is about to reach a crescendo. Frustrated county residents are about to descend upon the County Legislature budget hearing Tues 11/15 at 7p, and it will undoubtedly be an emotional display with a lot of vitriol and finger pointing.

Vanderhoef’s proposed budget will slash 544 county employees from the payroll and stop county funding for the Summit Park nursing care facility by next summer. In addition, property taxes will skyrocket with a surcharge of $160 to be imposed on Rockland County property owners in addition to their existing tax bill. The surcharge will unfairly penalize lower-income property owners, especially retirees and others on fixed incomes. Topping this off, Vanderhoef proposes that taxes increase by 2 percent and  a new cellphone tax, the latter being a scheme that proved very unpopular several years back.

Rockland County is mired in the worst financial crisis in its history. Because of fiscal neglect and mismanagement by Vanderhoef, it is grappling with a deficit of $52 million, that will assuredly climb past $80 million by year’s end.

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Accountants hired by the County Legislature to review the county’s finances last year implied that the county’s situation was all but hopeless. Auditors at Bennett, Kielson, Storch & DeSantis said the county might eventually need third-party oversight. Now this is looking to be less of a warning and more of a reality.

Rockland County’s fiscal problems have also led the Moody’s credit-rating service to recently downgrade the county’s bond rating, which has led to higher interest rates for bonds as compared to other municipalities deepening the debt ditch significantly.

The State Comptroller performed an audit on Rockland County’s finances and the findings have been damning. The Comptroller’s office said the county improperly added $17.8 million in revenues to its budget from the sale of the Summit Park Nursing Home–which may not even occur–and it unwisely borrowed the same amount of money to close a gap in this year’s budget. The Comptroller’s office also said that the county’s reserves are meaningless.

In the past several years, budgets proposed by Vanderhoef have resembled Enron-style accounting. While some workforce cutbacks were put in place, they may have been too little, too late. The auditors said that labor agreements and legacy costs nullified savings from these cutbacks. Further, Vanderhoef’s revenue projections–especially those from sales taxes–have been wildly overestimated and the county has mismanaged its expenditures based on these poor assumptions. Mortgage taxes have fallen over the past several years and state and federal aid has decreased as well. Recent job losses from large employers such as Pfizer, US Gypsum, and Dress Barn will undoubtedly hurt the county finances going forward.

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While all this was going on, Vanderhoef sneaked through a 12.5 percent raise for himself two years ago even though it was not approved in the budget.

Cliff Weathers publishes the political and community affairs blog, Left Of The Hudson.

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