Along with many others I wish to thank the efforts of Michael Hull and Jeff Gillies for bringing a situation into the spotlight that warrants much further discussion – Rockland County Sewer District One – and the recent questions surrounding its entire culture and operation. It is difficult enough to follow the on-going saga of Rockland County politics and the multiple challenges facing us as a county, and while we often blame our neighbors for not being engaged, the public should not have to look under every manhole cover when we elect people to guard the public trust.
I can personally equate Sewer District One with the Suffern Parking Authority, which for four decades flew under the radar until questions about their operation created a merry-go-round of further questions. This ultimately led to the Parking Authority code enforcers being transferred under the supervision of the Suffern Police Department and a Village Board resolution to terminate and consolidate the Parking Authority back under the auspices of the Village; albeit I believe a much faster more cost effective route could have been taken.
In both these instances one constant was at play, one that is always the Achilles heel of any business – management oversight – or in these two instances the lack thereof by the governmental body in charge. In the Suffern case it was the Village Board and with the Sewer District it is the County Legislature. A culture of out of sight, out of mind, often takes hold with these quasi-governmental agencies, but in the case of the Sewer District some seasoned elected officials were on their board, plus a sitting legislator, Aney Paul, although a wary eye must always be cast when Ramapo Supervisor Chris St. Lawrence is involved.
The Suffern Parking Authority issues, however, pale in comparison to those at Sewer District in terms of dollar amount alone. The Suffern Parking Authority did not have seasoned elected officials on its board, a Triumvirate of Town Supervisor’s; St. Lawrence, Gromack and Stewart. One can argue though that our seasoned elected officials are only seasoned at tap dancing around questions from the public.
Mr. Hull and Mr. Gillies exposed an attempt to creatively finance a storage facility in Clarkstown involving the Sewer District, which immediately raised multiple questions that the two authors have continually addressed. As with any investigation one question leads to another with investigations often morphing into other areas. As one gentlemen posted on facebook, “Keep peeling the onion.”
Now we find out that several of our elected officials were being paid when they should not have been, with Supervisors St. Lawrence and Gromack benefitting the most because of their longevity. To no one’s further surprise, to hear Mr. Gromack tell it he sounds more like a victim, stating that the county will have to figure out what to do since he, along with others, have paid taxes on that income. St. Lawrence, in his usual bluster, has once again failed to show the proper respect to the public in addressing the matter.
As Rockland County GOP Treasurer Bill Weber has astutely commented:
“Usually where there is smoke, there is fire….this could be the tip of the iceberg. Were there expense reimbursements also….who signed the improper payroll checks and, for that matter, who signed all checks and who approved all items for payments. How are contracts “let”, and what is the bidding/RFP process, if any? Who are the subs and vendors that they use and are they campaign contributors to the members political campaigns….so many questions…”
Rockland County GOP Chairman, Lawrence Garvey, issued a press release calling for the immediate repayment of the funds and echoed the comments of Mr. Gillies that a forensic audit be performed. In banking, when it comes to lax internal controls, it is called a ‘look-back’. Either way it is a painstaking review of all previous transactions, coupled with a review of meeting minutes and all documents available.
In the mix of questions we also have the Eminent Domain case lost on appeal last August by the Sewer District, the appeal confirming the Rockland Supreme Court’s decision awarding eight million dollars to the property owner, Split Rock Partnership, as the fair market value of the property, plus four million dollars in interest and their legal fees.
The Sewer District took by Eminent Domain, also known as condemnation, approximately 64 acres of land in the Village of Hillburn in February of 2005 from Split Rock to build a sewer treatment facility. The Sewer District contended that the property was worth $320,000.00 based on its best use and Split Rock objected, citing the property worth nine million dollars under the same best use principle, which was the core argument of the case. Of course, this created a huge disparity in value and it ended up in court.
Now the short answer from the Sewer District will be they thought they were going to win and save the taxpayers millions of dollars. That’s fair and admirable, but the public is at the very least owed an explanation of why millions of taxpayer dollars were lost instead, and if it could have been minimized or averted. Questions such as why it took nine years for this to be resolved. Which commissioners were steering the ship? Was it prudent to appeal? Were there any discussions of settlement during the period or the potential ramifications of losing, such as the almost decade of interest and legal fees awarded Split Rock? Litigation of this nature is expensive and was the cost to pursue factored in. The Journal News reported the legal fees of the Sewer District’s own attorney to be two million dollars; if true, even more disturbing.
Reading the decision of the Rockland County Supreme Court, dated November 13, 2012, it seems that based on case law the Sewer District may have had an uphill struggle to begin with. In my opinion it seems that the Sewer District came to a gunfight with a knife, and put forth a lackluster performance on top of that.
During the proceedings two witnesses for the Sewer District could not be declared as experts because of non-compliance with rules governing such, along with the court granting an Adverse Inference against the Sewer District. An Adverse Inference is leveled when evidence, which is suppose to bolster your claim, cannot be produced; the inference to a jury or court is that such evidence may have been more damaging to your cause than helpful. The Sewer District could apparently not produce their own appraisals or feasibility study of the project because the documents were not available because they were apparently destroyed. This certainly raises more deep-rooted questions. You can draw your own conclusion by reading the decision.
Coupled with the recent judgment of nearly one million dollars to Upper Saddle River for violating the Clean Water Act for sewage overflows, saying it has not been a good year for the Sewer District is an understatement. But more seriously these episodes once again call into question these quasi-governmental agencies, their crony related existence, attorney management, and lack of checks and balances. It seems the most lucrative profession right now would be as an attorney for Sewer District One, or against them.
Perhaps future elected officials can learn from this, and perhaps the Sewer District needs to be re-districted under county government. The county legislature should address this.