Last Thursday, the Legislature approved a 2015 revised Rockland County Budget that I believe will send us down the road to the past where we spent too much. While some legislators have praised the “prudent, fiscally sound” plan, I know it’s a budget peppered with phony revenues, wasteful spending and unfunded liabilities. From my vantage point, the Legislature failed to make tough decisions, failed to make long overdue reforms and failed to act in the county’s best interest.
The budget I proposed on October 16th established critical goals: holding property taxes to New York State’s two-percent cap and restructuring this organization to live within its means. Extraordinary tough choices were made and priorities established, which meant people and programs were cut. It was a workable plan for the future that achieved real, year-to-year savings, while still honoring the Legislature’s law mandating a $10 million payment to reduce the deficit.
In crafting my budget, I knew great caution was necessary in predicting future revenue. I also knew continued borrowing for operating expenses was unsustainable. By approving a spending package which lacks the slightest hint of austerity, it’s clear that most of your legislators knew the same things, but chose otherwise.
With a 15-to-2 vote, the Legislature voted to amend the Deficit Financing Act, reducing by $5 million the amount to pay down our $138 million deficit. By compromising this law, full financial restorations were made to the Sheriff’s Office and nonprofit contract agencies. While this move will save jobs today, it’s a prescription for financial disaster tomorrow. The decision to continue spending might be appropriate for a county flush with cash or unconcerned with fiscal prudence, but Rockland is neither.
In simple terms, the Legislative majority changed the rules in midgame to avoid making the same tough decisions I faced. By raiding the Deficit Financing Act, they took the easy way out. My original budget proposal faced our circumstances head on. The Legislature’s budget pushes the hard choices off their plates.
In addition, Legislators made some changes in my Proposed Budget that inhibit the administration’s ability to successfully manage operations. Their unwise decision to cut the County’s utility account by several hundred thousand dollars may result in insufficient funds for gas and electricity by the end of next year. Including a contingency account of only $100,000 in a total budget of $772 million is best described as irresponsible. These alleged “savings” included in the Legislature’s budget are sleight of hand… $1.7 million in gimmicks that may ultimately add to our deficit.
Despite claims from some legislators that “the sky is not falling,” Rockland County remains in a precarious financial state. Lower tax revenues, coupled with increasing operational and pension costs, threaten to hamper our economic recovery. I remind all that our county came dangerously close to defaulting last January. Our bank account showed a balance of only $42,000. The Legislature’s approach to the budget may lead us to the edge of the same fiscal cliff – a near-default – next year.
While our ongoing efforts to right-size this government have shifted Rockland’s credit outlook from negative to positive, we still have a long way to go. If certain legislators continue the status quo on spending, a downgrade is possible and the deficit may grow. More painful reductions may be necessary.
In the spirit of compromise, I worked with Legislators Christopher Carey and Joseph Meyers on an alternate, bipartisan budget in the hopes that an offer to meet in the middle would spur action towards the balanced solution. Instead, the Legislative Majority chose to present me with an all-or-nothing approach, one that has serious consequences for local taxpayers, and that I do not believe is in line with our shared commitment to build a better Rockland County.
Compromise is never easy, because each person must give up something that is important. Compromise requires agreement on items that we don’t agree with. It’s clear that the Legislature’s majority had no intentions of compromising to reach a fair, responsible and balanced solution. I believe the people wanted us to work together to solve the county’s money problems. But, for now, they will have to wait.
Our county’s current fiscal imbalance is unprecedented, unsustainable and, if unaddressed by the Legislature, a major threat to our quality of life and our economic vitality. That said, please know that I will work every day to make the reforms you elected me to deliver.