Between A Rock And A Hard Place? Enough Already!

"Rock, Hard Place" Road Sign with dramatic clouds and sky.

At the last Clarkstown Town Board meeting the need for the Town of Clarkstown to make extensive repairs to Executive Boulevard in Valley Cottage was again discussed. This road is the only outlet from one of Clarkstown’s dense commercial business areas, and it has been utterly neglected for far too long.

The decision to spend the money to fix it, on the surface, seems to be an easy one. However, the financially insolvent Town of Clarkstown doesn’t have the money on hand to pay for it.  The Town has over $114 millions in bonded debt and its bond rating has been knocked down a level along with a warning that further downgrades are likely if the Town doesn’t get its finances in order. Bonding additional debt is far from an ideal situation, especially if the work to Executive Boulevard cannot even be completed before the onset of winter.

That important question – regarding the viability of completing the work – could not be answered at the September 28th board meeting due to the absence of current Superintendent of Highways Wayne Ballard. Oddly enough, Ballard was present the last time this subject came up about going into additional bonded debt to repair a couple of Clarkstown’s other roads. But that was before Ballard lost a Primary Election to Frank DiZenzo for the Republican Party’s nomination as Superintendent of Highways in the forthcoming November election.

The fact that the Town is in this “between a rock and a hard place” position in the first place is simply dumbfounding. How a Town with the most commercial rateables in the county combined with sky-high residential property taxes cannot afford to spend $1.6M to fix a commercially vital road is a stunning illustration of the fiscal mismanagement that has taken place under Supervisor Gromack.

Shirley Lasker & Alex Gromack

Shirley Lasker & Alex Gromack

The main reason Clarkstown doesn’t have the cash on hand is that Supervisor Gromack and Deputy Supervisor Lasker have been using the Town’s reserve funds as a “Property Tax Relief Fund,” and trying to convince the citizens of Clarkstown that has been a good move.  If you remove the political spin from that “Relief” label, you are left with the fact that the Town’s reserve funds have been consistently raided to cover operating losses. This gimmick has kept tax increases artificially low given the Town’s massive expenditures while our reserves have dwindled to the point where they can now only be touched in the event of a true emergency. Any further depletion of that fund will likely result in further credit downgrades and higher interest costs leading to higher taxes.

This “fiscal leadership” strategy of Mr. Gromack and former Deputy Supervisor Lasker equates to the captain and first mate of the Titanic having seen an iceberg straight ahead and then having gone below deck as if it didn’t exist. It is a reckless policy that has the now put the town in a position where it is unable to afford to pave its roads. This indisputable fact is a damning condemnation of the Town’s fiscal leadership.

Ed Lettre golfing with Alex Gromack

Ed Lettre golfing with Alex Gromack

The entire Town Board voted for a now-completed revitalization of Main Street in New City. Many viewed it as a worthwhile investment in our infrastructure with an estimated cost of $15 to $17 million for the three phase project. Supervisor Gromack and the Town’s Clerk of the Works, the Conservative Party Leader, Ed Lettre, instead somehow managed to let those costs spiral completely out of control to an estimated $30 million dollars. No one can, or has given, an actual cost of the completed project. No one has explained where that additional $15M came from, but it is crystal clear where that money would have been better spent: by making the necessary road repairs and resurfacing of EVERY road in Clarkstown on Superintendent Ballard’s “wish” list with an estimated cost of $12 millions. The Town would still have $3 millions to spare that could have gone into a paving surplus fund to cover higher costs as a result of a particularly harsh winter.

What is particularly galling is that Supervisor Gromack, in his thirteen glossy re-election campaign mailings to date, has often repeated that he has obtained over $73 millions in grants. Is this statement designed to lead the average citizen to believe the New City Revitalization was grant funded?  The sad reality seems to be that the vast majority of the $30 million was bonded debt to be paid for by Clarkstown’s residents. If the funding came from grants, then why not map it out for the public to see?  In fact, according to various statements in the press only $1,500,000 of the $30,000,000 project was covered by state or federal grants. Perhaps that is why Gromack and Lettre have no desire to lay out the actual costs before the public?

In any event, that money is gone and we are left trying to find the $1.6 million to repair Executive Boulevard. At the last town board meeting, Gromack and Lasker pulled an appalling political stunt designed to put the Town’s fiscally responsible councilmen in a no-win situation. By adding a proposal to bond that additional $1.6 million dollars in debt onto the agenda at the last minute with no prior notice to Councilmen Hoehmann and Borelli, Gromack and Lasker virtually assured the measure would fail.

Was it because they would then be able to accuse the two Republican councilmen of being “against” fixing our roads? It was going down almost exactly as they seem to have planned it, until Hoehmann and Borelli proposed two reasonable but unexpected compromises. Both of these as I shall describe below were rejected.

Councilwoman Stephanie Hausner

Councilwoman Stephanie Hausner

A reasonable question was raised to see if it could it be determined, in a subsequent meeting with the now perpetually absent Highway Superintendent Ballard, if Executive Boulevard could be fixed immediately using funds unspent from the last budget. Borelli and Hoehmann indicated they would support an “advance” on next year’s paving budget by approving the bonded debt now and taking the additional funds from next year’s budget. Councilwoman Hausner took great exception to this interrupting Hoehmann repeatedly and stating that SHE believed his proposal would take away “too much money” from next year’s paving budget. Hausner’s Democratic peers quickly agreed there would be no deal on that offer; this essentially means they believe next year’s paving budget is $1.6 million dollars too low and they have no plan to address that looming shortfall.

Borelli, County Executive Day, and Hoehmann

Borelli, County Executive Day, and Hoehmann

Borelli and Hoehmann then suggested to leave the 2016 paving budget untouched and to look to cover the cost to fix Executive Boulevard by finding savings elsewhere in the capital plan next year. It was suggested that the members of the council not up for re-election and who are guaranteed to be on the town board in 2016 (Hausner and Hoehmann) would together make a pledge to find $1.6 million in savings in next year’s budget to offset the cost of fixing Executive Boulevard immediately. The Democrats seemed to be unsure how to handle this and stuttered on about how they had no concrete idea where that savings might come from next year and so that excuse was used to avoid making any promise and to avoid reaching this excellent compromise.

Supervisor Gromack then attempted to rescue Hausner by climbing out of the hole that he and the two councilwomen had fallen into by launching into an angry diatribe about how HE had saved the Town money in all of his years as supervisor and he listed all the things he has apparently done to “keep taxes low“. He stated that he was going to proceed to force a vote on taking on additional bonded debt now as he had originally proposed in the agenda for the meeting and that the two Republicans “could vote it down if they wished”.

And so they did leaving Gromack to snatch defeat from a compromise victory in a stunning, stubborn exhibition of political pique.

Moments earlier it was clear to the public that a bipartisan solution was at hand; the town would take on more debt, fix the road immediately, and reduce the debt by an equivalent amount in the 2016 budget for a zero change in the bonded debt.  The result?  Executive Boulevard will have to wait to be repaired next year – Councilmen Borelli and Hoehmann would not support an addition to the long-term town debt without a plan to balance off that additional debt while Gromack, Lasker and Hausner would not support any cost offset to additional taxpayer debt.

During the discussions between the Town Board members, Councilman Hoehmann reiterated his belief that all of Gromack’s pique could have been handled rationally beforehand if only he and Councilman Borelli had been given notice that a new bonding item was coming up for a vote that evening. Hoehmann pointedly asked Gromack when the bid for the work was received and why he wasn’t notified about any bids before he learned it would be up for vote after he had sat down in the meeting. Mr. Gromack claimed he was “unsure and would have to check“.  Yet Councilwomen Hausner and Lasker were certainly aware of both the bid and the proposed bond vote. It was hardly an answer that indicated a good faith attempt was made to avoid this impasse. Councilman Hoehmann then suggested in his closing remarks that if a determination could be made that work on Executive Boulevard could in fact be completed prior to the winter that the Town Board should try to work out a compromise and take the matter up again at its October meeting.

No responses came from the supervisor or his two colleagues and the bond vote failed.

The theatrics of this meeting has led me to believe that this whole affair was staged so that Gromack and Lasker could attempt to deflect the public’s attention away from the almost inconceivable truth that their fiscal incompetence is the reason the town can’t afford to pave its roads. The fiscally deadly combination of using reserve funds to keep tax increases artificially low and the failure of Gromack and Lettre to contain costs on the revitalization of downtown New City are the primary reasons that Executive Boulevard and other streets have gone unrepaired – not because Councilmen Hoehmann and Borelli didn’t want to risk further damage to our credit rating and once again raise taxes.

Clarkstown’s insolvency means it doesn’t have a mere $1.6 million to fix a road without having to put the cost onto the backs of future generations through debt. That is the real issue. The Town of Clarkstown is in this situation due to Gromack and Lasker’s neglect of their fiduciary duty to the taxpayers. No amount of political theatrics, glossy mailers or desperate spin can change these facts.

About Jeff Gillies

Jeff Gillies currently resides in Bardonia and has roots that go back four generations in Rockland County. He is a graduate of Villanova University and Albertus Magnus High School. He has lived most of his life in Rockland County and grew up in Congers.

About the Author
Jeff Gillies currently resides in Bardonia and has roots that go back four generations in Rockland County. He is a graduate of Villanova University and Albertus Magnus High School. He has lived most of his life in Rockland County and grew up in Congers.

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