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Editorial: Rockland needs tough governing, not a Hail Mary

The Allison-Parris County Office Building on New Hempstead

The Allison-Parris County Office Building on New Hempstead Road in New City. Credit: Newsday Angela Gaul

Rockland County is again banking on borrowing to plug a massive budget deficit -- projected at anywhere from $96 million to $110 million, depending on who's counting.

If this Hail Mary strategy, unanimously approved recently by the Board of Legislators, sounds familiar that's because it is: Last year, the county asked the State Legislature to approve something eerily similar, to help them with yawning budget gaps that have more than tripled since 2008.

It passed the Assembly then but went nowhere in the Senate -- and for good reason. The inevitable can't be postponed. At near junk status, Rockland's bond rating is among the worst for counties in the state.

It's likely that Rockland's continued pleas will meet the same muted fate in the state Senate this year. On Tuesday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo put forth his own plan for distressed localities. The governor wants to create a financial restructuring board to advise local leaders on how to make tough, but necessary choices.

It remains to be seen if the governor's plan, which also needs State Legislature approval, will trump Rockland's efforts to bond out its deficit, but it's clear the county needs help aligning its revenues and expenses. County lawmakers have yet to come to grips with the urgent need to shrink the size of government and stop the all-too-rosy revenue projections. Over the past two years, taxes have been hiked 48 percent, and more increases may be inevitable unless they get serious about spending. Absent painful choices like service cuts, workforce reductions and selling the Summit Park Nursing Care Center in Pomona -- it has about $123 million of its own debt -- the county will find itself exactly where it is today: broke and on the brink.

State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, whose office would have binding oversight over Rockland if the deficit bill is approved, recently criticized the county for increasing its sales-tax revenue projections by 4 percent and counting on $4.3 million in savings from an early retirement incentive offered this year. He warned the county that it's leaning too heavily on one-shot income, specifically $2.4 million from the sale of property. The comptroller raised concerns that Rockland's projected $96 million deficit might be too low, cautioning that it could be more like $110 million when the books on 2012 are finally closed.

The 10-year borrowing plan might help Rockland with its cash flow, but it won't solve the county's financial imbalance. It's not a long-term solution.

Rockland's ledger may get some help from the state, but ultimate fiscal health requires local leaders to make tough decisions and use honest math.