As I said during my Inaugural Address on New Year’s Day, reinventing Rockland County demands that we break the bad habits of the past and embrace opportunities for our future. This government has spent far more than it receives for too long. A $138 million dollar deficit and serious money problems have been the result. These are inherited problems that cannot be fixed with accounting gimmicks or continued borrowing. These are problems that require the resolve to make tough decisions.
The 2015 Executive Budget I proposed last week includes a modest property tax increase of 2%. This will mark the first time Rockland County meets the state-mandated property tax cap introduced by Governor Cuomo in 2011. As proposed, the average Rockland homeowner will pay an additional $1.67 per month or $20 in County property taxes next year. Make no mistake: getting to this place involved a series of tough decisions.
The budget I am recommending supports 111 fewer full-time positions in 2015, resulting in the estimated savings of $6.8 million. The proposed layoffs follow 69 reductions this year, resulting in $4.8 million in savings. The additional workforce cuts include all 37 members of the Sheriff’s Office Patrol Division, a move designed to eliminate duplicative police services and return the department to its core function of patrolling County properties.
While the move to cut the non-mandated Patrol Division has been loudly criticized by some, I know it was done out of necessity. At a cost of nearly $7 million each year, the two Sheriff’s vehicles that routinely patrol the entire county have little impact on public safety. According Sheriff Falco’s own records, the Patrol Division last year responded to only one “back up call” each day to assist our robust town and village police forces. Even more troubling, department statistics show an average of just one “call for service” per shift for each officer in 2013. And, what most people don’t know is that only two Sheriff’s patrol cars regularly cover all of Rockland. These figures do not bear out the dramatic cries opposing departmental change.
It’s time for the Sheriff’s Office to be restructured for maximum efficiency. Our mandate to pay down the deficit has certainly fast-tracked efforts to slime-down the department. I believe the proposed layoffs will push Sheriff Falco to make meaningful changes to his police force. We simply cannot afford a “back up” patrol division that exists to augment our town and village police departments. It’s nice to have, but not critical to our communities as we watch every penny.
While many County-level jobs are poised to disappear in the 2015 budget, the decision to eliminate the Patrol Division and Mounted Unit was made with an even greater deal of reluctance and pain. As a former NYPD Detective Commander and Baltimore Police Chief of Detectives, the thought of reducing police jobs has tormented me. But, tough decisions have to be made. And, please know I would never propose any cuts that would compromise public safety.
Even as we continue to make fundamental changes in the way County government operates, many of our costs continue to climb and unfunded state mandates continue to haunt us. These financial pitfalls have led to drastic cuts to our so-called contract agencies.
Throughout our communities, agencies including the Hi Tor Animal Care Center, Meals on Wheels, Rockland Center for the Arts and many more, enhance our quality of life. It pains me to have to cut County support to these agencies, which provide important and culturally significant services to our residents. My longtime, personal involvement with several of these nonprofits only exacerbates the pain. However, with County positions set for abolishment and a mandatory $10 million payment required for the deficit, we simply cannot subsidize them at the expense of property taxpayers.
As proposed, all external contract agencies will see a 100% cut in County funding. No one wants to see this happen, as we all have our favorite nonprofits, but it’s not responsible to subsidize funding for these agencies on the backs of our residents and business owners.
Making these budget reductions has been the most difficult experience of my first term so far. However, the document I submitted to the Legislature last week presents a balanced fiscal plan that creates a forward-thinking approach to keeping the County’s fiscal house in order. It’s a responsible budget that cuts more than $7 million and tackles other necessary reductions for a long-term solution to our problems. Simply put, status quo wasn’t working. We are done kicking the can down the road.
While we’ve made great strides in streamlining county government during the past nine months, much work needs to be done. As stewards of the local economy, we must always look for new ways to cut expenses before spending any additional taxpayer dollars.
New taxes are never the answer to Rockland County’s budget woes. In fact, increasing the tax burden on local businesses and families will simply hamper economic growth. Despite deep cuts to the contract agencies and the Sheriff’s Office, my proposal will preserve core, essential services at a nominal cost to taxpayers, while honoring the Legislature’s law mandating a $10 million payment to reduce the deficit.
My proposed 2015 budget lays the foundation for economic growth, job creation and our improved quality of life. With a $138 million deficit cloud hanging over this county, it is critical that legislators do not make irresponsible changes that would balance the budget on the backs of Rockland’s families and businesses. The budget process isn’t about political parties or elections, but rather the 320,000 people of Rockland County that we were elected to represent.
With the confidence of the residents of Rockland County as the wind beneath my wings, I pledge to work with residents and the Legislature to return fiscal responsibility to our government. The months ahead will not be easy. They will involve difficult, but necessary changes as we continue to align our operations into structural balance. There will be shared sacrifice, but through that shared sacrifice, Rockland County will emerge as a stronger and more vibrant community. Let’s keep Rockland County moving forward.