Cries of “disgusting” and “for shame” were hurled from a few in the crowd at the packed Rockland County Legislature office Tuesday night as the legislators voted 14-2 in favor of abolishing 140-plus county jobs.
While there are 17 legislators, only 16 votes were cast Tuesday night because Legislator Philip Soskin was absent from the meeting. The cuts come as part of the legislature’s voting on measures to close the county budget deficit through measures proposed by County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef. The positions -- which come from departments including Board of Elections, County Executive’s office, Health, Social Services, Environmental, Human Rights, County Attorney, Office for the Aging, Personnel, Planning, Sheriff, Highway, Mental Health, General Services and Hospital -- were picked for cuts after members from the county executive’s office met with various department heads.
However, two positions on the list of layoffs were taken off for further discussion next week. Deputy County Executive Sean Mathews asked the legislature to remove a human rights specialist and a principal assistant county attorney from the list at Tuesday’s meeting so the executive’s office could have a bit more time to discuss whether or not the two positions are critical.
“I deeply deeply regret this night,” said Chairwoman of the Legislature Harriet Cornell.
Many of the legislators spoke at Tuesday’s meeting about the difficulty of the decision they faced, with a few, such as Legislator Alden Wolfe, calling it the worst night of their time in public office.
“Government failed you on this occasion and I think that government failed you, but not necessarily for bad reasons,” Legislator Joseph Meyers told the audience. “We’ve known about our fiscal problems for four years, three years, two years, one year. We didn’t do enough about it when we should have.”
He went on to say that he thinks many of his colleagues were hoping the recession would be more short-lived and the sales tax would return, so they wouldn’t have to lay anybody off or increase taxes. This, Meyers said, shows what he considers a compassion for county workers.
Legislator Patrick Moroney made a motion Tuesday night to table the vote on layoffs another week in hopes that the unions and county executive could strike a deal during that time that would help save money. The motion failed 14-2, with only Moroney and Legislator Doug Jobson voting in favor of it.
“I’m afraid if we put this off, we are putting the final nail in our coffin as a county government,” said Legislator Ilan Schoenberger. “I hate to say it, but I’m afraid. This is a difficult and heartbreaking discussion.”
Schoenberger warned the other legislators about putting off taking action because credit rating agency Moody’s, which recently downgraded Rockland’s bond rating to just above junk bond status, is watching what the county does closely.
“They’re watching us to see what we will do to solve this county’s problem,” Schoenberger said.
He added that if they didn’t bring enough to the table for their upcoming meeting with Moody’s and other agencies, it could spell disaster for the county. With the poor rating, the county needs cash to pay its operating costs and planned on using revenue anticipation notes to do that. At Tuesday’s meeting, acting Commissioner of Finance and Budget Stephen DeGroat told the legislators investors are holding back until the county meets with Moody’s and other agencies on June 14th to see if Rockland will be downgraded again.
DeGroat said that Rockland is currently on “negative watch,” the lowest form of non-investment grade. The agency has 30-90 days to take one of two options, DeGroat said: lower the rating to junk bonds or take the “negative watch” off.
“The only way we can get that negative watch removed and stay in the investment category is we need to give them things, for example, like this residential energy tax,” he said.
DeGroat added that’s why it was important for the legislature to vote on the layoffs Tuesday night one way or the other.
Rockland County CSEA President P.T. Thomas said he was surprised with how Tuesday’s vote went, and just how many legislators voted in favor of the layoffs.
“Recently we had been talking about how the employees in the county are the ones that bring the revenue into the county, and I thought the legislators all understood that and agreed on that,” he said. “This legislature is usually very friendly with CSEA, but they acted in another way tonight.”