Rockland leaders ignored fiscal-crisis warning signs, report says

County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef discusses the Rockland County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef discusses the Rockland County budget crunch during a press conference at the Allison-Parris County Office Building in New City. (Oct. 23, 2012) Photo Credit: Angela Gaul

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Rockland County has overestimated revenues by more than $250 million since 2005, which has placed the county government in a dire financial predicament, according to a report released Monday.

The report -- prepared by the independent research group Hudson Valley Pattern for Progress for the Rockland Business Association -- found that Rockland officials overestimated sales tax proceeds by more than $70 million from 2005 to 2011 and mortgage tax revenue by more than $12 million.

"Over the years these shortfalls added up and made an even bigger problem," said Adam Bosch, a chief researcher at Pattern for Progress.

Overestimated revenues from the county's Summit Park hospital and nursing home also contributed to the county's deficit by more than $139 million from 2005-2011.

What's more, the researchers found that county legislators ignored warnings several years in a row from their own private consultant that the county's revenue projections were flawed.

"This is not a problem that county officials were unaware of," Bosch said. "They were warned again and again."

The group recommended that the county pursue a deficit-reduction bond to pay down the revenue shortfall and consider creating an elected county treasurer position to oversee the county's budget process.

Al Samuels, the Rockland Business Association's president and chief executive officer, said the report shows Rockland officials "abdicated their fiduciary responsibilities over a period of several years," which created the fiscal woes.

The Rockland Business Association is an advocacy group with more than 1,000 members. Samuels said county officials refused to cooperate with the research, which he said was even more troubling.

"County officials were not forthcoming," Samuels told a news conference Monday at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Suffern. "We were accused of going on a witch hunt."

The report's dire economic predictions will likely come as no surprise to Rockland officials, who are grappling with a projected $43 million shortfall in County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef's proposed 2013 budget.

Calls to Vanderhoef and lawmakers for comment were not immediately returned.

If county legislators approve Vanderhoef's budget without any major modifications, the county would trim its workforce by about 70 employees through layoffs by privatizing services and cut another 55 employees through early retirements.

Those 55 retirements could save the county as much as $3 million, according to Vanderhoef. Closing the employee pharmacy would trim another $2 million; outsourcing food services at the jail would save about $350,000; and dropping the mounted police unit would save $750,000, the county executive said during his budget presentation to legislators in late October.

Vanderhoef has also proposed raising property taxes by 18.4 percent, which would require a supermajority override of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's 2 percent property tax cap. This year, county taxes were increased by about 30 percent.

Rockland legislators, who are considering the preliminary 2013 budget, have raised concerns about Vanderhoef's proposed budget cuts. Officials at unions like the Civil Service Employees Association have blasted his plan, suggesting it violates no-layoff clauses in their contracts.

And the proposed cuts do little to reduce the county's aggregate budget deficit, estimated at $95 million.

Vanderhoef had sought state legislative approval earlier this year to increase the county's sales tax and borrow money to pay down the deficit. The proposal was approved by the Assembly on the last day of its session, but was rejected by the Senate.

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