County Executive Robert Astorino painted a grave picture of Westchester government finances at a meeting of the Local Summit in Mamaroneck on September 21st.
He said the current County financial structure is “falling apart on all levels” and a new model is needed.
He added that he doesn’t see the economy “getting better any time soon” and with a budget deficit he now places at $166 million, he envisions a long period of cost-cutting to put the County on a firm financial footing.
$50 MILLION IN CUTS MADE
The County Executive said he has already removed $50 million in expenditures, with another $40 million in his sights and still more to come.
He said he is in the process of putting together a balanced 2011 budget due this November that will not rely on new taxes, gimmicks or short-cuts.
Mr. Astorino said that he does not relish the role of cost-cutter-in-chief. “I’m not like Mr. Burns, the hard-hearted industrialist of the Fox TV program, ‘The Simpsons.’ ”
He said he is well aware that there are human beings behind the reductions he’s making and that a great deal of heart-rending travail is occurring.
2008 CHANGED BUSINESS WAYS
In the way the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001 changed the world, he said, “the economic events of 2008 changed the way we do business.” As a consequence many County businesses and family units today are just hanging on. Further, he expects another financial “shoe will drop” in the form of additional mortgage problems. He said that in facing these realities, his goal is to preserve as much of the County’s core services as possible, but we need to be prepared should a further economic hit occur.
WHY CUT CHILD CARE
Given the Executive’s interest in preserving core services, an audience member asked what his thinking was behind the reported reduction in subsidies for child care. He said Westchester pays $13,000 annually per child, roughly equal to college tuition for SUNY. “This is not sustainable,” he said.
He pointed out that while reducing the subsidy will cause hardship for many parents, there also were many other residents, particularly older people, who are having trouble coming up with their property taxes which help fund these subsidies. Also, high taxes have resulted in a substantial population outflow from the County at a time when there has been a substantial inflow of people in need of social services.
WHAT TO DO WITH PLAYLAND
Mr. Astorino said that one criterion for cost reduction is how valid a particular service is today. He used Rye Playland as an example. Founded in 1928, it is the only local government owned amusement park in the country. “Is Playland a core service that we have to preserve?” Mr. Astorino asked. “I was born and raised in Westchester. I went to Playland. I understand the emotional attachment. I also took my son to Playland. He said it was awesome. But, still, it loses a lot of money.”
He asked how important saving Playland was compared to cut-backs on bus lines or day care. Studies show 70 percent of the people who go there live outside the County. “What better way can we deal with the 101 acres?” he asked. Can we trim it back to just the children’s amusements? Does the “phenomenally successful Tiki Bar restaurant” give us a clue? It even draws yachtsmen from across the Sound. He promised that apartment house development on the Playland site is not on the table and, keeping in mind that park land will remain a park, he is actively soliciting requests for proposals on Playland’s future, which are due next February.
INTERCOMMUNITY COOPERATION AND OTHER HIGHLIGHTS
Asked about his views on intercommunity cooperation, the County Executive said it is a good way to save taxpayers’ money, whether it is municipality to municipality or joint operations between the County and a municipality. He said that the County is now handling Cortlandt’s police services and is currently talking with Ossining about possibly doing the same.
Among the other highlights of Mr. Astorino’s talk and questions from the floor were:
— County pension costs are unsustainable and will have to be addressed.
—The County expects to spend $135 million to provide healthcare to employees
and retirees for 2010. This too is unsustainable.
—Limits are being placed on employees’ ability to cash-out accrued vacation and
—Carolyn Pomerantz asked if the County was giving thought to raising new
income as well as cutting costs. Mr. Astorino responded that the best way
to attract businesses and not lose existing businesses is to cut tax and
—Marlene Kolbert asked whether it would help the County’s finances if New
York State picked up the cost of Medicaid and didn’t pass a share on to the
County. The Executive indicated this was not something he was dealing with.
But he said he wants to preserve Medicaid services for the most needy.
—Asked about affordable housing, Mr. Astorino said the County was working on
its Federal obligation to provide 750 units of affordable housing in 31
communities in seven years. He said the building of 18 units on Edgar Place in
Rye has just been approved.
—Bruce Schearer asked if County government was really necessary. Mr Astorino
laughed and said this was a valid question. He noted County government was
set up by New York State as a means of regionalizing government and as long as this enabling law exists so will County government.
—Asked about immigration, Mr. Astorino reiterated the commonly held view
that the current system is broken. “But people are here and we will help them.”
He said the County police do not ask a person’s immigration status unless their
record shows a felony conviction. He noted that he speaks Spanish which is
REACTION TO ASTORINO’S TALK
Audience reaction to Mr. Astorino’s largely downbeat assessment of the County’s immediate future, based on random audience interviews conducted after the meeting, was, to some, surprisingly positive.
Robert Waldman commented: “Even though I might not agree with everything he said, I thought it was a balanced, apolitical, and reasoned approach to the County’s problems.”
Glenna Gray said: “I thought it was a good presentation and it was good to meet the new County Executive.”
Jane Orans said: “It was good to hear about County government. It was hard to hear a litany of what is wrong in the County even though accurate. I might have liked Mr. Astorino to focus on one subject in depth rather than cover so many topics. He certainly was articulate.”
Judy Dobrof said: “He’s impressive. He told us what government is up against. I’m liberal and believe government should be paying for people in need. On the other hand, there is this problem with taxes. I hope the County will find places to cut where it hurts least.”
The Local Summit, which hosted the meeting, is an informal community council that seeks to make the Mamaroneck/Larchmont community a better place to live for everyone. It holds its public programs at 7:45 a.m., on the third Tuesday of the month at the Nautilus Diner in Mamaroneck.