Rockland County’s budget this year has “unreasonable revenue and spending projections that could increase the county’s deficit,” state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli warned in a budget review. The county’s deficit is about $96 million and could increase to $110 million or more, according to the comptroller.
The comptroller said the county may be “too optimistic” in its budgeting for tax revenues, has not made an allowance for uncollectible taxes in 2013 and the budget for personal services appears insufficient, a chronic problem in Rockland.
The county’s budget totals $751 million, a 2.5 percent increase over last year’s adopted budget. The tax levy of $96 million is up about $14.9 million, 18.4 percent more than last year’s levy, the comptroller said.
“Rockland County officials are working hard to address fiscal stress in their municipality, but more needs to be done to bring the county’s budget into balance,” DiNapoli said in a statement. “Clearly, the county faces difficult budgeting choices. But the path to more accurate and realistic budgeting begins with an honest conversation about the numbers. The challenges in Rockland demonstrate the need for local governments to take corrective actions before a full financial crisis develops.”
County officials dispute the conclusions in the agency’s eight-page budget review and question why the Comptroller’s Office didn’t allow the county to respond before making the information public.
The Rockland County Legislature is required to prepare a plan of action that addresses the comptroller’s recommendations within 90 days.
Other findings in the review:
—County officials budgeted $175 million in revenue from sales and use tax, an increase of $6.8 million—4 percent—over 2012.
—The county budgeted $5 million to issue serial bonds to cover tax certiorari claims. The claims should be paid for from annual appropriations, not debt, DiNapoli said.
—The average amount allocated for uncollected taxes from the 2008 through 2011 fiscal years was $2.2 million, but the county has not made an allowance this year.
—County officials have consistently underestimated personal service costs in the past and have then over-expended the budgeted amounts. The largest amounts are in the general and hospital funds. DiNapoli said the currently budgeted amount of $158 million appears to be insufficient.
Standard and Poor’s Ratings Services lowered Rockland’s long-term general obligation bond rating from BBB+ to BBB- in June 2012 and rated its management practices as “vulnerable” based on overly optimistic budgeting. Moody’s Investors Services kept the county’s bond rating at Baa3 in December 2012 and gave it a negative outlook.
The Comptroller’s Office recently finalized an “early warning monitoring system” to identify local governments around the state that are facing significant financial stress.