The Rockland County Legislature voted 10-7 in favor of an amended 2013 budget Tuesday night, which restores jobs and programs cut in the proposed budget and also includes an 18 percent property tax increase.
Prior to voting on the budget, the legislature voted 14-3 in favor overriding the state's tax levy limit so they could raise the property taxes. Legislators Frank Sparaco, Joseph Meyers and Doug Jobson voted against the override. Sparaco and Meyers were also two of the seven who voted against the amended budget, along with Legislators Chris Carey, Aron Wieder, Ed Day, Nancy Low-Hogan and Patrick Moroney.
Leading up to the vote, some had criticized the legislature for possibly raising property taxes after raising them about 30 percent last year. During the public comment portion of Tuesday’s meeting, a few Rockland residents spoke out again increased taxes.
“In reality, nobody likes raising taxes. You think we like raising taxes? Do I have an emotional pleasure, a financial benefit from raising taxes? Of course not,” said Legislator Alden Wolfe. “Nobody likes to be in the position that we’re in right now. But, we’re obligated to pass a budget that’s as balanced as can be and I can say with a straight face that I believe that the budget that’s proposed tonight, with these changes, is the most balanced budget I’ve ever been asked to vote on.”
In the revised budget adopted Tuesday night, there were a number of items that differed from the budget proposed by the county executive. The altered budget came from the Budget & Finance Committee. Legislator Ilan Schoenberger, chair of the committee, said the legislators worked on cuts with Rockland County Sheriff Lou Falco, who consented to reductions to jail overtime, Sheriff’s Patrol overtime and jail relief. Schoenberger said the legislators also reduced the sales tax reserve and county legislative contingency budget.
“I’m very, very happy,” Falco said Tuesday night after the budget passed. “Public safety has been reinstated. Law enforcement is an essential service.”
The cuts totaled $7,585,838, and the legislators used that for about $6,169,000 in restorations for things like the mosquito control program, four mounted patrol positions and five positions in the Sheriff’s Patrol. The restorations included in the revised budget also include the security department in General Services, which is 16.5 positions filled by 19 people, food services for the jail, which is 10 positions, and laundry at the health complex, which is 13 positions. Additionally, the legislators made an adjustment of $486,000 called the COBRA Adjustment, which removed that figure from revenue in the 2013 budget because the legislators have to take that money and pay it to Empire, so it’s not a real revenue, according to Schoenberger.
He added a big factor that he wanted to restore the jobs cut in the proposed budget was the CSEA contract the county signed earlier this year, which included a cause that for the duration of the contract, which runs through 2013, stating that no county employees could be laid off for budgetary reasons.
“We must keep our word. We are government,” Schoenberger said. “When we give our word, we must keep it.”
Not everything was restored, however. The legislators opted not to restore funding to the county pharmacy and pre-natal clinic, which is being transitioned to Nyack Hospital.
That left the legislators with $1,416,665, which they voted to put in an account not to be touched unless it’s absolutely needed. Schoenberger said that while that money could’ve gone to reducing the property tax increase, a letter from Moody’s sent to the county earlier this year led them to set the money aside for any potential emergencies.
Schoenberger said in the letter, Moody’s officials wrote that the bond rating for the county could go up with the implementation of realistic revenue enhancements and expenditure reductions to close the significant gap. The same letter said the bond rating could go down with failure to implement realistic revenue enhancements and expenditure reductions to offset the budget gap.
“We have to show the rating agencies of our willingness to increase revenue enhancements in a place where it’s absolutely reliable and absolutely certain that that money will come in, and the most certain form of revenue for the county, unfortunately, is property tax,” he said.
Still, the legislators had some conflicting thoughts on the property tax increase.
“Property taxes have gone up around 85 percent in the last four years, the county portion of your property taxes, 85 percent,” Sparaco said. “If the 18 percent passes tonight, you’re looking at over 100 percent property tax increase over five years, along with the energy tax, the hotel tax, the cell phone tax and the other taxes that I can’t even think of right now.”
Sparaco added that he felt it was an insult to have the proposed budget include the 18 percent increase from the start.
“They just threw us their option, which was an 18 percent property tax hike,” he said. “As it’s new to many of us, it’s new to me. I didn’t even think they could do that. I thought they had to present the budget within two percent and we could override it and change that budget.”
However, Legislator John Murphy said the tax cap hurts counties like Rockland, where officials have worked to keep property taxes down over the last few decades.
“The two percent cap is reasonable for counties that had an enormous property tax base,” he said.
“By us holding our property tax rate to the second lowest in the state, two percent of the second lowest doesn’t generate revenue.”
He added that unfunded state mandates are forcing the county to raise more money, and they can’t raise all they need through higher sales taxes.
Ricardo McKay, legislative counsel, said that no matter how legislators voted on the tax levy override, the property tax would increase by 18 percent next year. He said that since the legislators couldn’t find the roughly $13 million to offset the increase, even if the override didn’t pass, it was budgeted for. So in that case, the money would come in and go to the state comptroller for 2014 tax reduction.
“If you vote this down, you are not reducing the tax for 2013. The real property tax will be 18 percent no matter how you vote,” McCay said. “Why? The budget that we received from the county executive had 18 percent property tax built in. Therefore, if his budget under the process we’re going through tonight gets to be the one that’s adopted, it will have the 18 percent cap whether you override the two percent or not. If the budget we put in as a modified budget is adopted, it has an 18 percent tax, so the 18 percent tax has to go through no matter what you do on this vote.”
Sparaco took exception to that explanation and said there was still time for additional proposals and amendments to the budget that could get the county under the tax levy. The only amendment that was proposed came from Day, who proposed a series of additional cuts with intent on lowering taxes.
A few legislators thought the amendment came in too late, as the first time they saw it was at around 10:30 p.m. Tuesday night, the night they were voting on the budget. They said there wasn’t enough time to really look into the amendment and the affects it would have on the county.
Without factoring that in, McKay said the amendment wasn’t submitted in the appropriate format and there wasn’t any way to write that into the budget given when it was submitted, so the amendment was withdrawn without being voted on.
The budget will now go back to the county executive, who will have five business days from when he is first given the budget to decide on whether or not to veto it. If he vetoes the budget, it goes back to the legislators, who have until Dec. 20 to vote on a possible override of the veto. If the county executive vetoes the budget, the legislators would vote on the override at their Dec. 18 meeting. They can only override the veto if at least 12 legislators vote in favor of it.
Editor's Note: The amended 2013 budget passed by the legislature includes two months of funding for the county pharmacy. The same provision was included in the original budget proposed by the county executive. The legislators will have to determine what the future of the pharmacy is prior to Feb. 28, 2013.