RCBJ-Audible (Listen For Free)
American Rescue Plan Act Funding Giving A Boost To County Programs; Uncertainty Over Fate of Palisades Center Hangs In The Air
By Tina Traster
Uncertainty over the future of the Palisades Center, the need for affordable housing, green energy and protection for firefighters in light of the recent Spring Valley fatal fire were among the complex topics County Executive Ed Day chose to highlight in his 2023 State of the County address at the County Legislature Chambers on Wednesday.
Day also said the county plans to spend “every single cent” of the $63 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding.
“Regardless of how one feels about the mall, the Palisades Center is a major tax revenue driver for the Town of Clarkstown, the school district, and the County of Rockland,” said Day. In past years, the county address had been held at the Palisades Center.
After a Herculean fight to recover from the pandemic, the Palisades Center megamall in West Nyack could be headed for a sale to satisfy its owner’s debts. Wilmington Trust, acting as a trustee for CMBS bondholders, filed in New York Supreme Court, New York County, to foreclose on the 2.2 million-square-foot shopping and entertainment complex, claiming Syracuse-based owner Pyramid Management Group defaulted on a $418.5 million loan tied to the mall property.
Day reminded the audience that the Palisades Center is one of the county’s top tourist destinations. According to the most recent Economic Study from New York State, tourism generated $422 million in direct sales within Rockland, saving the average household $556 in yearly taxes. It is unclear what the loss of the mall could mean for losses in tax revenue.
“We understand the gravity of the situation,” said Day. “Rest assured families, we will take the actions necessary to ensure this has a minimum impact.” The County Executive did not elaborate on what would happen next if the mall fails.
On a happier note, the County Executive told the crowd it had awarded $278,000 in grants to local organizations in 2023 to promote events to an audience outside the county. The county has launched a series of workshops to show our local businesses how to attract visitors and maximize their promotions in addition to a new tourism website. The county is in the process of hiring the Alon Marketing Group of Farmingdale, NY for one year for $95,456 to coach Rockland’s tourism’s assets to work more collaboratively to create county-wide tourism itineraries and to educate stakeholders on the tourist trade.
“Tourism creates jobs, strengthens the economy, and contributes to infrastructure development… and it is our duty to support this vital economic driver,” said Day.
Funding from the American Rescue Plan has given businesses a shot in the arm.
The county has given millions in ARPA grants to small businesses, restaurants, and food pantries to help with the financial repercussions of the pandemic.
Aiming to “work smarter,” the county’s Purchasing Division enrolled in a new supplier evaluation tool called Procurated, comparable to Yelp and Trip Advisor for public procurement. Prior to this, the only information we would receive for potential vendors was based on references submitted by the vendors themselves.
“This translated to making multimillion dollar decisions with little to no information,” said Day.
Day did not make specific mention of the fatal fire in Spring Valley that killed five and is said to have started over an electrical malfunction. However, he talked about the need to better recruit and protect firefighters and emergency workers.
“As our way of saying thank you, I’m proud to announce our HERROS College Tuition program is officially underway,” said Day. “This program will reimburse volunteer first responders up to $6,000 towards their tuition in exchange for their service to the County.”
The County’s Office of Fire and Emergency Services is developing new training courses and programs and constructing a new Fire Operations Building to make sure volunteers are prepared for any and all emergencies including purchasing a new training simulator to teach firefighters the warning signs of a flashover, which is when an entire room ignites into flames, becoming fully engulfed.
“When the County of Rockland was ordered by New York State to enforce the Uniform Code in the Village of Spring Valley, a first-ever initiative by the state, I pledged that people come before profit – plain and simple – and we would do whatever is necessary to protect the health and safety of village residents, visitors, and first responders,” said Day.
He continued: “But all the enforcement we are doing is only a band-aid on the real issue. We all know these problems will continue if we don’t solve what’s causing them in the first place.”
Day acknowledged one of the county’s gravest issues – a lack of affordable housing.
“We don’t have the housing stock needed to drive down home and apartment prices, which is leading to some of our residents living in these conditions, and new development is often resisted,” he added.
Prior to Day’s address, County Legislators Itamar Yeger and Laurie Santulli, a former and current volunteer firefighter, respectively, spoke of the tragic Spring Valley fire, emphasizing the need for decent housing.
“No one should live in an SRO (singe-room occupancy),” said Yeger. “Everyone deserves good safe housing at a fair price. I invite all to get together and build housing that is safe and effective.”
Affordable housing is not controlled by the county; rather it is determined by local town and village building codes.
“I now know someone who has been killed every year for the past three years in fires,” said an angry Santulli. “Our responsibility is to enforce codes to avoid as many deaths as possible. Hiding behind the concept of ‘it’s not in our jurisdiction’ is not an excuse.”
Day said the Office of Community Development is partnering with Hudson Valley Pattern for Progress to conduct the county’s first-ever comprehensive community and affordable housing needs assessment to determine what funding is available and the best path forward to develop affordable workforce housing.
The county’s is holding its first Housing Forum on April 21st, a day-long event to bring stakeholders like developers, lenders, DSS, HUD, and others to figure out how to overcome the hurdles.
Day also praised the county’s efforts to focus on a greener future with the Rockland Sustainability Project.
Under this initiative almost two dozen departments are working together on generating a long-term plan to improve the county’s rankings in the New York State Climate Smart Communities and Clean Energy Communities programs.
“The more milestones we achieve in these programs the more grant funding we are eligible for, ultimately opening the door for more green investments without impacting the wallets of local taxpayers,” said Day. The county has awarded $7 million in grants to municipalities and nonprofits for more than two dozen projects for parks, playgrounds, and gardens all across Rockland. It is conducting a feasibility study for a walk and bike path that would stretch from Palisades to Stony Point.
The County says it’s focused on the future generation of workers, and has expanded the Youth Employment Program. For more than 20 years, the Youth Bureau program has placed thousands of young people in jobs where they gain professional skills to prepare them for some of life’s many hurdles, the County Executive explained. “Just last year, we employed more than 250 people who worked over 35,000 hours.” With ARPA funding, the county is piloting an expansion of this program to be year-round and open to anyone ages 14 to 24.