Even with increased public scrutiny and U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara watching, Rockland County Sewer District #1 (RCSD) continues to believe it can operate however it pleases. The latest example of their complete disregard for the taxpayer can be found in the district’s 2016 budget proposal which calls for a 10.9% tax increase.
For those who wonder how their tax bills seem to rise even when the town and county don’t raise taxes, look no further than the line item on your bill for the Sewer District. The board of commissioners of this organization includes stalwarts of fiscal mismanagement such as Christopher St. Lawrence and Alex Gromack. Additionally, Thomas Ninan, whose work in nearly destroying the New City Library was somehow deemed as a positive, was recently appointed to the board despite his inherent and easily apparent conflict of interest as a Unit President of the CSEA.
Also on the board is Rockland County Legislator Aney Paul, who has yet to offer an original thought on anything of consequence as she enters her second term. These are the people who have been given ‘carte blanche’ to raise taxes and waste money as they see fit. As for who is supposed to be watching them, that task falls to the blind eyes of Alden Wolfe and Aron Wieder as the Chairman and the Majority Leader of the Rockland County Legislature. It’s no wonder the RCSD is the subject of a federal probe. It’s long overdue to be a target of a full forensic audit as well.
In late 2014, the District was ordered to pay fines and legal fees of $950,000 to Upper Saddle River, NJ for repeated pollution flowing into the Saddle River. The fines were paid from the vast surplus of over $25 million dollars on hand. At the same time, the RCSD was facing a lawsuit over an eminent domain case that Christopher St. Lawrence cited as the reason why the RCSD had built up such a large surplus of taxpayer funds.
In that lawsuit, the RCSD had taken over a 64-acre parcel of land in Hilburn and valued the property at $320,000. The owners of the property had a very different valuation in mind, and sued the RCSD asserting the land’s actual value was $9 million dollars. This was quite a discrepancy, one in which one side was clearly way off base in its assessment. If you haven’t guessed which side that was, we can tell you that the judge in the case clearly did not align with the RCSD’s figure. In March of 2015, he handed down a property valuation of $8.1 million dollars and tacked on another $4.6 in interest and legal fees to the RCSD tab. The RCSD walked away $12.7 million dollars poorer, but was still able to pay the money from its surplus, i.e. your tax dollars.
The next boondoggle for the RCSD involved a ruse in which Clarkstown’s Town Supervisor Alex Gromack attempted to secure $2.5M in RCSD funding in order to build a facility that was either a sewer pump station and storage facility or a police garage and remote operational facility for the Clarkstown Police Department depending on whose version of the project you happened to hear.
The proposal was ultimately offered as a comingled police/sewer facility and the project was ruled illegal by county attornies. Supervisor Gromack eventually had no choice but to pull the police functionality from the facility and the Rockland County Legislature approved the project. If you were wondering why the Rockland County Legislature had to get involved, the reason was that the RCSD decided against using the money on hand and chose instead to add another $2.5 million dollars in bonded debt to the taxpayers. The bond needed the approval of the legislature, and of course this was granted over the objections of Legislators Christopher Carey and Lon Hofstein, who then called publicly for a forensic audit of the RCSD.
With two major lawsuits now settled, the uncertainty of the financial risk involved in those cases has been removed. One would also presume that the district’s legal bills would be remarkably lower with those lawsuits off the books. Yet somehow, there is still a need to raise the budget by 10.9%? As usual with the RCSD, something doesn’t pass the smell test here. Thankfully, the County Executive seems to agree.
We understand that a letter was sent from County Auditor Robert Bergman to Legislative Chairman Alden Wolfe dated November 19, 2015 in which the topic of this dramatic tax increase is addressed. In addition to calling the proposed increase as one that could be “shocking to the public,” Bergman states that this prompts a need for a further review of the district’s expenditures. Most notably, he calls for the legislature to submit to an outside audit of the RCSD as an avenue to reduce the burden on the taxpayer.
The people of Rockland County can no longer afford to sit idly by as the RCSD sneaks tax increases through on a line item that far too many of us have previously ignored. Something is obviously very wrong with the political management of the Rockland County Sewer District #1. Rather than wait for Preet Bharara to swoop in and sort it all out for us, it is time for the forensic audit which has been repeatedly demanded to be conducted now and for Rockland County’s taxpayers to be given an assurance that their tax dollars have been properly managed by this particular Rockland County Board.
You see, in our view, something is still rotten in Rockland County’s Sewer District Number One and the evidence is becoming overwhelming.