Now that credit-rating agency Moody's Investors Service has downgraded Rockland County's debt to a notch above junk status, Assemb. Kenneth Zebrowski (D-New City) has proposed that a state-controlled task force help the county with its rocky finances. The idea is worth a look, but there's no getting around the fact that solving Rockland's budget problems will require taking some bitter medicine.
The proposed nine-member panel -- to be filled mostly with people appointed by state officials -- would primarily make recommendations, scrutinizing county spending and taking a longer view toward its budgets and financial trajectory. It wouldn't have the powers that come with a far stricter financial control board, which can freeze wages and impose other harsh austerity tools. But with Moody's promising another review of Rockland this year, a control board could still come later -- and it would stick around a lot longer. Rockland officials need to take meaningful action now.
The task force plan is coupled with a bill to raise the county sales tax by 0.25 percent. Unlike the previous failed plan to raise the sales tax by 0.375 percent for 10 years, this smaller increase would be authorized for only three years, and could be renewed in two-year increments thereafter. But even this more limited tax increase is unwelcome.
Rockland's situation isn't isolated. There are many distressed county governments around the state, including Nassau, Suffolk and Erie, as well as municipalities such as Yonkers and Long Beach, that didn't take the necessary steps when the first signs of bad times reared their heads. Now that years of inaction and overspending have combined with a prolonged recession and public disdain for tax increases, communities must embrace painful choices, like cutting programs and park services, layoffs and the like.
Local leaders are on the hook. Having avoided these difficult decisions up until this point, they now have the duty to make them.