Rockland's middle-class residents: We're the county Cuomo forgot

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo speaks in

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo speaks in the Red Room at the Capitol in Albany. (Jan. 7, 2013) (Credit: AP)

Gov. Andrew Cuomo last week called for expanded prekindergarten in distressed school districts, cuts in greenhouse gas emissions and a series of other progressive reforms in his State of the State address, to applause from residents in the Hudson Valley's inner cities and liberal enclaves.

But Debbie Sadowsky wasn't impressed.

The 58-year-old owner of Mostly Myrtle's bakery in Haverstraw said the governor's proposals may have gratified parents in Yonkers and environmentalists in Westchester County's tonier suburbs but won't lower her taxes or promote growth for her business.

Her idea of good government involves better train service between Rockland County and New York City, a change she doesn't expect to see anytime soon.

"We're a forgotten area, a forgotten county," Sadowsky said Thursday as she hawked her baked goods at the Nyack farmers market. "The taxes are what's keeping us from purchasing new homes and bringing more life here. We need easier access to Manhattan and for people in the city to have easier access to Rockland, so we can have that pipeline going."

Sadowsky is one of many in Rockland County who feels left out of government's plans. Ron Levine, spokesman for Rockland County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef, said the governor has addressed the concerns of high and low levels of the economic spectrum, but not those of the middle-class New Yorkers who are predominant in Rockland.

Cuomo will further flesh out his thinking about plans for the coming year in the annual budget address to be delivered Tuesday.

Levine welcomed the governor's calls to improve women's rights and harden utility infrastructure. He said he supported other items on Cuomo's agenda. He pointed out that Cuomo's call for help for distressed schools might help East Ramapo, depending on how the governor funds his initiative.

But Cuomo isn't addressing issues that squeeze Rockland County residents every day, Levine said. He said unfunded state mandates are a major reason why Rockland County government now faces a $96 million budget deficit.

"We see him speaking to groups that obviously have needs that have to be addressed," Levine said. "We were trying to find something that impacts us."

Rockland County Legis. Frank Sparaco (R-Valley Cottage), a pro-Second Amendment politician still reeling from Cuomo's decision to sign the new gun control laws, said he "never expected much" from the governor in regard to help for Rockland County. Sparaco said the unfunded mandates -- combined with the Cuomo administration's 2 percent cap on tax increases -- has made it impossible to manage government budgets.

"The unfunded mandates are killing the county. Passing a 2 percent tax cap is just pushing the bills down to the county then we push them down to the towns," Sparaco said. "I don't think it worked out too well and he needs to address that. I'd like to see him explain to the county how he can see us live underneath that cap. It's not possible."

CUTS BLAMED ON UNFUNDED MANDATES

Rockland officials have long blamed unfunded mandates from the state as the root cause of the budget problems that have led to cuts in vital services, steep tax increases and big deficits. In 2013, Rockland County was hit with an additional $33 million in state-mandated costs relating to rising health care and pension costs.

"We're in the middle of a massive shell game, and all the counties are losing," Legis. Edwin Day (R-New City) said. "What the governor needs to put at the top of his list is immediate mandate relief. You cannot start off with a budget with a hole, based on dynamics that are outside of your control. It's that simple."

Ray Wright, 71, has lived in Nyack his entire life and has seen the cost of living and taxes soar in recent years. He, too, blames state-mandated programs.

"They just keep giving all the mandates to the county and they don't help," Wright said. "There's no help from them, and then there's no help for us because we're the ones stuck paying for it with each tax increase. You could make a decent wage here, but then you shovel your money right back out for all the taxes. This is an issue that really needs to be addressed, but it hasn't been."

CUOMO BACKERS CITE BRIDGE PROJECT

Asked about middle-class angst in Rockland, the governor's spokesman, Matt Wing, cited a Siena Research Institute poll released Thursday that showed overwhelming support among New Yorkers for the governor's proposals, including a 60 percent approval rating.

"The governor has put forward a broad agenda to build on the success of the past two years, and the vast majority of New Yorkers, including Republicans, know it and support it," Wing said.

State Sen. David Carlucci (D-Clarkstown) also disputed the assertion that the governor has somehow jilted Rockland County in crafting his plan for the coming year.

The governor has proposed reforms to workers' compensation and unemployment that would save money for businesses like Mostly Myrtle's, amounting to an estimated total of $1.3 billion in savings a year statewide, Carlucci said. The senator also pointed to the $3.9 billion Tappan Zee Bridge project, which will create thousands of jobs and pour massive amounts of cash into the Hudson Valley economy.

"That's of huge importance," Carlucci said. "We're talking about one of the largest infrastructure projects in the nation happening right here in our community."

Countering that logic, Levine pointed out that the governor has yet to say exactly how he plans to pay for the new bridge.

"The ink isn't dry as to how the Tappan Zee Bridge will be funded," Levine said. "The ink isn't dry in terms of tolls they'll have to pay as they go to their place to work."

WESTCHESTER, ROCKLAND A 'STUDY IN CONTRASTS'

Rockland officials hope that Cuomo's budget address will answer a lot of questions about how the administration plans to pay for statewide economic development plans, including a $1 billion "Green Bank" to boost clean technology and a $50 million investment fund to help universities turn their research into business ventures.

"It remains to be seen where the proposals and suggestions will take hold," said Jonathan Drapkin, president of Hudson Valley Pattern for Progress, a Newburgh think tank. "That doesn't mean Rockland was ruled out."

Drapkin added that Rockland is largely to blame for its fiscal problems and recent tax increases. In Westchester County, leaders managed to bridge a $85 million budget shortfall via a balanced, bipartisan deal, he said.

"Rockland still has a lot of work to do on their own," Drapkin said. "They've got enormous fiscal problems. You have a study in contrasts between how Westchester and Rockland are addressing their financial issues. Rockland seems to be driving itself further into a fiscal hole, while Westchester is doing its best to dig its way out."

COUNTY URGED TO 'READJUST ATTITUDE'

The president of the Rockland Business Association, Al Samuels, agreed that Cuomo's agenda didn't necessarily impact Rockland County enormously.

"Much of what the governor discussed didn't have relevance on Rockland," he said. "Rockland County doesn't have a city."

Samuels said Rockland residents need to step up and take advantage of the proposals Cuomo has floated. Local officials, businesses and others haven't taken advantage of competitions for funding held by the Mid-Hudson Regional Economic Development Council, for example, he said.

Samuels, a member of the council, said the panel has doled out nearly $160 million in the Hudson Valley region since it was founded in 2011. Rockland County entities have received a total of only $3.1 million.

"Rockland needs to readjust its attitude towards the Regional Economic Development Council, the new paradigm for economic development in New York State," he said. "Rockland hasn't embraced the new paradigm."

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