A Conversation with County Executive Ed Day
John Jordan | December 19, 2017
After Bringing County Back From Financial Brink Day Looks to Advance Key Policies in Second Term
NEW CITY—The chief focus of Rockland County Executive Ed Day’s first four years in office was to implement governmental and budgetary reform to improve county government operations and put the days when county government was on the brink of default in the rear-view mirror.
Day recalled that in the first days of his administration in January 2014 he learned that the county was just $42,000 from defaulting on its $138-million debt.
Since that time, Day and his administration have succeeded in bringing reform to county government operations and arranging a critical $96-million bond financing deal that has helped put Rockland back on much firmer financial footing.
Day, who easily won re-election in November, announced recently that an audit projects the county’s deficit is anticipated to reach zero by the end of Fiscal 2017.
In an exclusive interview at his offices in the County Office Building in New City, Day looked back at how the county turned its finances around, his other key policies in his first term and what initiatives he hopes to put into effect in his next four years as the county’s chief executive.
Q: While Rockland County has come a long way since the early days of your administration when county government teetered with default, the county recently reached a milestone in turning its finances around. Can you explain what this milestone means and what measures need to be employed to prevent such an issue from happening again?
Day: The milestone we achieved frankly shocked me. I don’t think anyone could have predicted the success that we have had in addressing the deficit. The deficit is projected to be zero in 2017—$138 million basically restructured or paid back. What’s left, the bond we sold, we’re paying that back within the property tax cap. If you recall back in 2014 there was a presumption we would have to have a 10-year fee or surcharge to pay that back—the equivalent of a about a 12% property tax increase on county taxes. We did it as part of the budget and that I really believe was miraculous. I give credit to some very simple, straight-forward things: we have some very talented people who came into government, there are very talented people we found in county government, we have used one word very often and that word is ‘No,’ and we have expectations over our managers and commissioners and they have performed admirably. Even to this day when I look at the last budget runs we have done… we are below budget. Essentially we have taken an organization that was in free-fall, we have implemented common-sense strategies that frankly any good organization would have implemented. I have been blessed to have the strong backing of the people to do it and at the end of the day we were near broke. There was nearly no place to go except over the cliff. And as most do know—$42,000 in the bank when we made payroll the third week of January 2014. That’s where we started.
The measures (to prevent another fiscal crisis) are the measures we have employed already. This is not magic sauce. What we are doing is we are having expectations of (county department) management, insisting on customer service, we don’t spend money we don’t have, we project conservatively and we have done that every year. That is one of the reasons why the deficit is down because we have done well on sales tax and other revenues so that money went to the deficit and the general fund. It is always good to underestimate your revenues because if you overestimate them you get to the problem we had. Having been a part-time legislator I saw what was going on (in the past) there were (budget) numbers being sent out just to make it work. The example I use is that three years prior to my arrival (as County Executive) we had double-digit tax increases—30%, 18% and 11%— at the same time we had those increases in taxes our deficit was going from $96 million to $124 million to $138 million. So to the average person I say is this: “You are working overtime and you are bringing in extra money into your household, but when you look at your balance sheet, you look at your household budget, you are losing money. There is something desperately wrong with that picture. You cannot be losing money if you are bringing in more money unless there is something desperately wrong. We were in a free-fall and that is really something we can never return to. Part of it is what I call as an ex-cop, a ‘self-inflicted gun shot wound.’ It happened because it was allowed to happen. I will not allow it to happen (again) and neither will my people.
Q: You have implemented aggressive tax collection and code enforcement initiatives. Have these programs proven successful?
Day: Wildly so. We found that with the way the state law works you are allowed three years (to pay county property tax debt) before there is a foreclosure for being behind on your taxes. However, that is only residential properties, there were a plethora of commercial lots that essentially owners of these properties were not doing anything illegal, but they were taking advantage of the system…
Our law department and again (County Attorney) Tom Humback did a marvelous job on this, they researched the law and found that you don’t need to give them three years, give them two years and we sent notices out to everybody and we forced payment, we forced their hand and foreclosed. The largest foreclosure we did was Patrick Farm and it was a classic example of what people will do to use a system to their advantage. We foreclosed on Patrick Farm—$380,000 was due, we foreclosed. Thirty hours later we had a check for $380,000. So clearly it was not a matter that they didn’t have the money. They were using the system legally and what was happening in all these (foreclosure) court battles going on was essentially we were using our money to fight ourselves and I think that is wrong. We collected about $2.4 million of the $2.8 million that was out there so that money goes right to our county coffers and especially when you are in deficit to deficit reduction, so that was very helpful.
Code enforcement—this is something to me that I am duty bound to do. When I first ran for office I said I was going to do certain things to improve code enforcement I was told that the county can’t do a thing about it because (New York) is a home rule state. My favorite answer was they should have asked my mother about this because mom would know not to tell Eddy he can’t do something.
We utilized our Health Commissioner Dr. (Patricia Schnabel) Ruppert and Dr. Catherine Johnson Southern, who is now Deputy Commissioner of Health and we created the Rockland Codes Initiative, in conjunction with Tom Humback, our County Attorney. Essentially we started enforcing the (county) Sanitary Code. It is not zoning, it is not building codes, you work in tandem with the towns and villages that choose to work with us. Those who do not work with us, that’s fine, we are doing it anyway. We have collected over a half million dollars in fines and more importantly, nobody has been evicted. What we are doing is turning slumlords into landlords. That is what we are trying to do. We have no problem with anybody owning a home, renting it out and comporting with the law. That is a good thing, you are supplying good clean housing. But, when you carve out apartments and have five, six, seven, eight apartment cubby holes in a house where you take the poorest of the poor, the people with the least voice and victimize them for cash rents, when you jeopardize our firefighters, as a former first-responder, you are going to have an enemy in me. Our approach to this has been very successful. Have we cured this? No, because it has been going on for a long time, but we have had a significant impact. We have had some true success stories out there and now we are taking it to the next step. We now have a Rental Registry we are doing.
Initially, nobody wanted to do it. We had a grace period, we weren’t looking to be bullies about it. But, after three months we said if you don’t register the same fines that are incurred for violating the sanitary code, which is $2,000 a day per violation, will be levied unless you comply with the law. We have gotten more compliance now. The key is here is that we are going to end up getting a much sharper picture of the rental housing stock in Rockland County. Think of the possibilities now, especially if you are looking at businesses expanding and wondering if we have the affordable housing for people to stay here. But, if we can get a good handle on the rental stock in Rockland County, it’s empirical data, it is not anecdotal, we will know exactly what we have.
Q: With the impending completion of the new Tappan Zee Bridge (Mario M. Cuomo Bridge) do you see any signs that the new span will provide a boost to the Rockland County economy?
Day: Left to its own devices it will, however, my concern is the tolls. The tolls can kill us. I can’t be more clear about this—government has a knack for doing things that kill the private sector. They just love doing it…
I was very clear in 2012 when the comment was made about a $14 to $15 toll by (then Gov. Andrew Cuomo aide Larry Schwartz), I said that was unacceptable. There are a number of things we can do to stop that. Number one is the 524-mile waterway—the New York Canal System—was being funded by tolls on the Thruway. That was a magic trick done by the (State) Legislature some years back. It was widely criticized by (former) governors and by the State Comptroller and just recently was stopped. Your toll money was going to the waterways. You also have a Bridge Authority and a Tunnel Authority. The same politicians that talk about consolidation when I mention this say, ‘Oh no, you can’t consolidate the Bridge Authority, that is in our backyard.’ Why not?
The issue with the Bank Settlement Fund; I think we got $1 billion, but that is spread across the entire Thruway. Well, I am sorry we have a $3.9-billion project here. We have over $6 billion in that fund. (The new bridge) is the largest project in New York State history; that money should be going to that bridge.
The other thing that troubles me is that the Thruway Authority is being told why don’t you kick in some money and they go ‘No we are not going to do that, this is only to be paid for by the area.’ Well, how come you were taking all this money from us from the (Tappan Zee) tolls and using it for your Thruway operations. I think about 25% of the Thruway operations has been funded by the Tappan Zee tolls for years. Well, we want pay back now.
Editor’s Note: County Executive Day expressed his concern over the economic impact high priced tolls on the Mario M. Cuomo Bridge would have on Rockland County, prompting shoppers to forego the Palisades Center and The Shops at Nanuet malls in favor of Ridge Hill or other retail destinations east of Hudson.
My final point on this, our federal representatives keep hiding on this issue and I keep bringing it up. Our federal officials voted with (the late Sen.) Ted Stephens in Alaska to build the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere,” completely paid for (by the federal government) We got a TIFIA loan. That is insulting to this county and absolutely insulting to this region. We want that bridge funded. It is an interstate. It is the lynchpin of a more than 400-mile interstate highway system. We want this funded by the federal government also and they have not done the job. A loan has to be paid back. You are doing us no favors giving us a loan. If you can fund the “Bridge to Nowhere,” you sure as heck can fund some of this bridge. Work with the state and do half and half and maintain the toll at $5.
Q: Do you think the business climate in Rockland County has improved since you first took office?
Day: Absolutely, there is no question about it, just by the fact that we have more (Consolidated Funding) applications, more businesses coming in, and again what that translates into are jobs. You hear so much in the political circles about “We are creating jobs.” Government does not create jobs unless it hires people and taxpayers pay for it. What government can do is create fertile ground for development and that is what government should do and that is what we are doing… Right now since I came into office we have a 25% lower unemployment rate. We are hovering around 4%. So, we are doing well.