Thirteen months ago, I took office as your county executive knowing the challenges I inherited were stubborn and steep. Rockland County was broke and broken. The people elected me to fix this government and lift up our entire community.
Part of our efforts to create a more efficient and effective operation involves the collection of unpaid debts and monies owed to the county. In November, our Department of Finance conducted a public auction of 75 county-owned tax delinquent properties. In the weeks leading up to the auction, we collected $2.5 million owed on several delinquent parcels, which were removed from the block. Auction night generated another $2.1 million for the county coffers.
This month, our Deputy Commissioner of Finance contacted all five Rockland County town supervisors to collect another debt: community college chargebacks.
Community colleges in New York are funded by three sources: the state, the counties and students. A chargeback is a partial tuition payment on behalf of students who attend community colleges outside their county of residence. State education law obligates counties – which front the payments – to collect the fees from the hometown. In simplest terms, the county is collecting a debt (caused by another unfunded state mandate) owed by the towns.
While town officials and some legislators oppose the chargeback shifts to the towns, the County has the law on our side. In October, the state Court of Appeals sided with Nassau County in its move to pass chargeback payments to the Town of North Hempstead. In his decision, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman wrote the cost is an “appropriate charge” to the towns.
The court ruled definitively: these chargeback costs are debts of the towns. This issue isn’t about shifting costs to the towns – it’s about collecting a debt from the towns. And as unfair as chargebacks are to all taxpayers, this decision does not add one penny to your overall tax bill.
Our Finance Department has no discretion in this matter – it is legally charged with debt collection. Additionally, the Appellate ruling is not open to legislative decision-making or opposition by the towns, issues that were argued extensively and dismissed. Words like “unfair” and “unreasonable” are irrelevant in the face of the court ruling.
As we work to fix the county, I encourage our supervisors and local residents to help fix the larger chargeback problem. We must change state law to make certain these tuition reimbursement charges are no longer borne by the towns or the county.
State Assembly members Ellen Jaffee and Ken Zebrowski have introduced legislation to amend education law on chargebacks. The proposed revisions aim to make the state reimburse the counties with chargeback payments related to bachelors and masters degrees at community colleges and the Fashion Institute of Technology, while removing the counties’ authority to pass the costs onto local municipalities.