Sometimes you just have to shake your head. Last week, the Democratic Majority members of the Rockland County Legislature once again proved how little they care about the fiscal health of our County, the dedicated employees who work here and your property tax burden.
It has been common knowledge since March that we are facing a fiscal tsunami from reduced sales tax revenue and increased expenditures from fighting the pandemic. In mid-July, we came to critical mass as our sales tax receipts continued dropping like a stone with a projected 50% drop; a $40 to $50 million shortfall for 2020 alone according to the New York Association of Counties (NYSAC). With a crisis identified, I reached out to the Legislature, meeting with their leadership on August 4th.
My Administration laid out a financial plan based upon those independent projections and designed to address the temporary fiscal crisis we are facing. We laid out what we had done since mid-March to reduce expenditures, including going on an austerity budget; instituting a hiring freeze; getting on FEMA’s list for reimbursement of COVID related costs; eliminating non-essential purchasing; cutting $18 million from the current budget; and eliminating job positions saving nearly a million dollars.
It would be fantasy to think that we can do nothing in the face of a $40 – $50 million sales tax revenue reduction and now that we are facing an $8 to $20 million cut from the NYS government for THEIR mandated programs that we manage the situation is even more critical. In addition, we have already trimmed our workforce by nearly 22%, or about 470 positions, since I took office in 2014.
Now, to deal with a projected $20 million shortfall going into 2021, we had three obvious options left. A 15% property tax increase, 200 layoffs or a temporary institution of a 1/2 of 1% additional “COVID sales tax.”
We felt that this temporary solution with sales tax which would be spread out over more people and would keep the burden off the backs of already overburdened homeowners and small business owners was the best of these unfavorable options.
It would also generate revenue from people who live outside the county, again taking the burden solely off the local taxpayer and residents. An example is an estimated 76% of the shoppers at the Palisades Center are from out of the County, spending their money here and thereby helping to fund our expenses.
Finally, this small increase, an additional nickel for a $10 purchase, was temporary so it would last only while the COVID impact did. We left supporting documentation with Legislative leadership and asked that if there was any doubt or any questions to simply call us.
We told them that timeliness was critical as this would be a 3 month process involving State government and the need for three different actions by the County Legislature in order to implement it, so it would need to be voted on at their next meeting one month later.
In short, I was very clear that in order for this to be included in the 2021 County Budget the Legislature would have to act at that September 1st meeting so we had some measure of certainty we were submitting a balanced budget. Also, a key point is that it would not be finalized until the end of that process, but action last week would have left us “at the ready” if conditions failed to improve. This process would have also allowed us to retract this part of the plan if conditions did improve beyond what we had forecast.
Imagine my chagrin when the vote came in defeating the proposal along party lines, accompanied by repeated claims from the Democratic Majority that “we need more information!” One month of ruminating over this while a crisis grew and not one phone call, question, meeting, or email from ANY of these legislators. One month of not even looking at the information we supplied.
On top of that, the sale of the Sain Building, which would provide critical revenue during these tough times was pulled by the Chairman and not even brought up for a vote. His reason? He did not want to “rush to judgment” on the issue. Bear in mind this proposal for a sale was first introduced FIVE years ago AND later called a “top priority” by the previous Chairman in January 2019! Some “rush.”
My door remains open, but I have yet to hear ANY realistic alternatives from ANY of these legislators. One said, “cut overtime”; another said, “focus on Economic Development”; and another raised the possibility of having a Rockland County Income Tax!
The first two are comical and the third one is ridiculous. And why did they not bring these “ideas” forward over the past month? The last thing we wanted to do was to add any cost to taxpayers but that said, this is a well thought out, balanced and TEMPORARY solution to a crisis that will pass, thus a small, sunsetted increase in sales tax that will expire. The added cost to your $10 purchase? A nickel! Yes only 5 cents.
To generate a similar amount of revenue, a county property tax increase in the area of 15% would be necessary and would be permanent; have a longer negative effect on the county; and must be avoided at all cost.
Finally, to do nothing, as happened in 2008 with the Great Recession, will again lead to what we fixed over the past six years: massive deficits, double digit property tax increases, no money in the bank and the collapse of our now excellent bond rating.
In closing it is important to know that the following five legislators who were there in 2008, did nothing then and are the same ones who voted down this plan are Legislators Wolfe, Soskin, Cornell, Grant and Hood.
We will continue to do everything possible in my administration to protect residents of this county. Your physical and financial health are my top priorities, and I can assure you the hard working and dedicated employees within county government feel the same. With the help of the Republican Minority of the County Legislature, we will chart a course through this crisis and build back stronger and healthier than ever before.