I have a simple rule to guide the departments that make up Rockland County government: Remember who you serve and whose money you spend.
When I became head of a government that was near bankruptcy three and half years ago, most County departments were performing admirably under difficult circumstances. But others had lost sight of their responsibilities to the taxpayer.
High on the problem list was the combined Office of Community Development and Commission on Human Rights – both critically important functions of County government.
In Human Rights, it became apparent that we lacked strong leadership to reach out to our many diverse communities to promote understanding and ensure fairness for all.
In Community Development, we inherited nearly incomprehensible books that failed to adequately track where the taxpayer’s hard-earned money was going.
I’m happy to report that we have made major progress on both fronts – with new leadership, a new commitment to accountability and a new push to make sure that there is a level playing field in Rockland County.
Just last week I named Constance Frazier to the position of Commissioner of Human Rights, a job that includes the Office of Community Development. Connie is a strong leader with decades of management experience in large, diverse school districts all over New York and New Jersey.
And a couple of weeks before that, I visited Hyenga Lake, once the worst rental housing in Rockland, and now a model public-private partnership that provides high-quality, affordable housing to people over the age of 55.
A man who was very close to being homeless came to me with tears in his eyes to thank me for a program that provides him with a voucher to subsidize his rent. He is one of 59 people, mostly older, who are receiving the rent subsidize in all neighborhoods of Rockland County. The money came from a fund at Community Development that had been unused for so long the federal government was about to take all of it back.
You read that right: Federal money that could have been helping our seniors pay for safe and affordable housing was in our bank account but unused because of a failure by that department’s management to manage.
That unused money was discovered and put to good use by Dr. Penny Jennings, who found many others things amiss in that department. You may recall that some Legislators did not like her efforts to clean house.
We are undeterred.
The push for accountability in Community Development has already yielded results. We have brought all but three of our Section 108 loans up to date and collected $50,000 in defaulted loan payments. We entered into an $800,000 contract to help pay for a 55-unit complex for low income families in Spring Valley. We re-established the First-Time Home Buyers program and helped four Rockland families achieve home ownership. All using federal funds.
At the same time, we are trying to straighten out the finances. We’ll have the results of a forensic audit soon and we will share that information.
And now we have Connie Frazier at the helm.
Throughout her career, her mission has been to ensure equality. She has worked to make sure that children of all races and ethnicities are treated fairly and have access to education and all the opportunities that goes with it. In those roles, she has managed large numbers of people and large amounts of money. Her work has been innovative and comprehensive.
She has been an active member of the NAACP in Nyack and Spring Valley for more than 40 years. And she has been a member of the Nyack Board of Education, the Nyack Village Planning Board, the Rockland County Mental Health Association and many others.
The final chapter has not yet been written in our efforts to get this combined department back on track. But we are well on our way toward making sure that this department remembers that it serves the taxpayer.