Rockland town officials -- frustrated with the county chargebacks and cost shifts that are breaking local budgets and forcing them to cut services and raise property taxes -- are now weighing a lawsuit against county government.
Clarkstown Supervisor Alexander Gromack said a suit should be ready in a few weeks. Town supervisors have hired attorney Edward J. Guardaro to represent them.
"The towns have a very substantive basis for the lawsuit against the county," said Guardaro. "Much of the expenditure that they have for the upkeep of the county roads, those costs belongs to the county."
Guardaro explained that, for the past decade, the towns have taken responsibility for maintaining street and traffic lights on county roads -- in the spirit of putting public safety first.
"They have tried and continue to try everything possible to speak with the county to even out the balance of expenditures," Guardaro added.
Suing the county for the imposed chargebacks is also on the table, Guardaro said. For example, the towns have been getting bills relating to the education of students at Rockland Community College.
"If and when the town supervisors decide the negotiations are no longer an option, that's when they'll decide if they want to file a suit," Guardaro said.
On Thursday, Ramapo Supervisor Christopher St. Lawrence mailed a letter signed by all the town supervisors to Rockland County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef, requesting an immediate meeting. Ron Levine, a spokesman for Vanderhoef, said Friday afternoon that his office has not yet received the letter.
"No one else should be hijacking other people's budgets and blindsiding people," St. Lawrence said. "I think we should all be sitting down and working things out. The same taxpayers will pay for the county attorneys and pay for ours. We need to settle this."
This past Monday, each of Rockland County's five towns submitted their budgets, with three of the five towns overriding the state's 2 percent cap on property tax hikes to get the budgets done.
In Ramapo, St. Lawrence attributes 7 percentage points of the 9 percent property tax increase to lost funding and chargebacks from county government. This year, Ramapo was slugged with $560,000 in fees for Rockland Community College chargebacks.
The town also lost $720,000 in expected reimbursement from the county for officers it had in the Rockland County Drug Task Force and Intelligence Unit. Such reimbursements compensate the towns for paying the salaries of officers assigned to duties with county agencies.
St. Lawrence said that his town has been pushed to the limit by budget pressures. He said the town has already taken away town employees' cellphones, personal days, and vacation buyback incentives and cut back on salaries -- but still needs to ask for a 9 percent property tax hike to close a budget gap.
"We've cut down to the bare bones here," St. Lawrence said.
According to St. Lawrence, some of the recent cuts are proving counterproductive. A few years ago, the Ramapo Police Department was 124 officers strong. Now, through attrition, the force is down to 104 officers. At that force level, overtime costs have become a problem, St. Lawrence said. He said the town is now planning to reduce overtime by hiring nine new officers next year.
"It's a public safety issue operating with a smaller force," St. Lawrence said. "And overtime has become an issue. This way it'll balance out."
Expenses for street and traffic lighting on county roads will cost the town of Stony Point $61,500 in 2012, according to Stony Point Supervisor Geoffrey Finn. The town was billed $160,000 in college tuition chargebacks.
"They're county roads, why should the town pay for their upkeep?" Finn asked. "If things are being pushed to the town, they're hurting our budgets. We have to work together on these things."
Finn's proposed budget includes a property tax increase of 2.56 percent for residential properties. Amenities like the swimming pool and parks in Stony Point will remain open, but the number of park guards may need to be cut during 2013, Finn said.
"We're not giving the police department new police cars," Finn said. "We're not laying off new employees. But we're not hiring either. We want to continue the services we're giving and hold the line as best we can."
Rockland County Finance Commissioner Stephen DeGroat suggested that the grousing over lighting on county roads is directly related to discontent over the tuition chargebacks.
"County roads are maintained by the county," DeGroat said. "I think they didn't like the fact that we billed them with the chargebacks with the college fees and elections boards, so I think this is their response to that."
In Clarkstown, Supervisor Alexander Gromack said he's had to cut three highway workers out of his 2013 budget. That will save the town $134,670, he says. But the town is still facing a 6.2 percent property tax increase -- half of which is being blamed on county fees.
"We've been taking a proactive approach in the past five years," said Gromack, who has slimmed down the town workforce through attrition. The total workforce is now down by 73 positions, or 13 percent, he said. Clarkstown's police department has lost 10 officers in the past few years, through attrition, and is down from 173 to 163, Gromack said.
"We can't go any lower than that," he said.
In 2012, Clarkstown lost about $1 million in reimbursement for officers assigned to the county's Drug Task Force and the Intelligence Unit. More than $1 million in tuition and election board chargebacks were tacked on.
"Some of these fees we're going to fight in court, but that could take years," Gromack said. "We were on track to keeping it [the town budget] at 2 percent or less until we got these chargebacks."
Supervisor Howard Phillips of Haverstraw included an 8.86 percent property tax increase in his budget proposal. The spending package, up $2.7 million from the previous year's total to $40.1 million, includes cost-shifting expenses from the county.
Orangetown is facing a 9.19 percent property tax increase for 2013. To offset more than $700,000 in county cost-shifting, Supervisor Andy Stewart may be forced to close the town-owned Broadacres Golf Club.
COUNTY PREFERS "COMMUNICATION"
County officials say they understand the complaints they hear from the towns, but don't have the wherewithal to help.
"We continue to be receptive to talking about any questions the towns have about charges they are incurring by legislation passed by the county Legislature," said Levine, the spokesman for Vanderhoef. "We do not look to use lawsuits as a way of resolution, we prefer communication."
Levine explained that the county has felt heavy pressure from costs imposed by the state.
"The county Legislature had to come up with a way of balancing our budget and it had to come with these taxes and fees," Levine said.
The county is facing an $18 million budget deficit for the current fiscal year.
"People have to look at the big picture," Levine said. "They should recognize that everyone has experienced pain in this recession. We've had to lay off people, too. We've become the scapegoat and it's not fair. We agonized as we made those decisions."