Westchester County Executive Robert P. Astorino today delivered an optimistic and strong message in his annual State of the County address, stating that Westchester was "growing smarter, safer and stronger each day." Despite the increasing costs of Albany's unfunded mandates and the automatic escalation of labor costs, Astorino said an increase to the county property tax levy was out of the question.
"It's a pledge (not raising the tax levy) I have kept for five years and I am making it again tonight, because county government has to be on the side of every young person, couple, senior and business in Westchester that is struggling to make ends meet so they can stay here," said Astorino.
To help hold the line on taxes, Astorino has held the line on spending. This year's county budget is less than the budget he inherited in 2010. Among the cost saving measures instituted to lower costs were actions to competitively bid inmate healthcare services, successfully transfer operation of county mental health clinics to not-for-profits and getting seven of eight government unions to agree to chip in for their health care. These actions save the county $10 million per year.
The new $25 million Playland agreement with New York-based Standard Amusements will also save taxpayers money, as well as secure the long-term future of Playland. Standard Amusements will invest $23 million in capital improvements perhaps as soon as later this year, introduce new rides and attractions and make an up-front $2.25 million payment to the county and pay an annual fee of $300,000, that escalates each year.
In addition to the Playland agreement, Astorino highlighted other positive news in the past year:
- The county's Patriot Housing Initiative has found homes for 265 veterans (since 2013).
- The Industrial Development Agency (IDA) assisted on 16 economic development projects that generated more than $400 million in private investment, along with 3,400 permanent and construction jobs.
- The Local Development Corporation (LDC) assisted on a number of projects in the non-profit sector that generated $129 million and accounted for 1,600 jobs.
- Capital projects investments are close to surpassing the $1 billion mark (since 2010) and help create over 2,000 construction jobs per year while providing needed rehabilitation to our roads, bridges, sewers and parks.
- As part of Astorino's Safer Communities initiative, more than 350 volunteers were trained in Youth Mental Health First Aid, and another 400 service providers and advocates were trained as "community champions" with the mission of being a go-to local resource in terms of awareness and education when it comes to suicide prevention.
- The administering of Narcan was credited with saving 12 lives from heroin overdose in the past year. Police officers who went through the county Department of Health's Narcan program administered the antidote.
Astorino hailed a recent Second Circuit Court of Appeals decision which said actions by HUD to financially penalize the county were indeed subject to judicial review, as a "major victory against an aggressive and overreaching federal government," and a win for local zoning and home rule. The county remains on schedule in fulfilling the terms of the 2009 federal housing settlement agreement with currently 223 units occupied and 454 units with financing in place.
Among the new initiatives unveiled by Astorino was the new Westchester Economic Development office that will open a Manhattan office at 125 Park Avenue, directly across from Grand Central Station. The office will be functional and open for business starting in May. The purpose for the office is to aggressively promote Westchester's many assets, offerings and competitive advantages to companies and entrepreneurs looking to leave New York State. Astorino said, "Our message is simple. To those companies in New York City looking to Fairfield County or Jersey City, or perhaps the Carolinas, Florida or Texas, before you decide to leave New York State, you need to take a look at Westchester."
The county's new fatherhood initiative is designed to celebrate the critical role of the father, provide key tools and support, and help those in at-risk situations navigate and overcome potential barriers they may have to becoming effectively involved dads. Former New York Knicks all-star Allan Houston was in attendance and his foundation will partner with the county in the initiative. "Over the course of the past 50 years, the critically important role of the father in the family has been diminished," said Astorino. "A good and present dad is good for moms and good for kids. And if the county can be a catalyst for strengthening families, then this may be the most important role the county ever plays."
Astorino announced a new Safer Communities initiative with the development of a new mobile phone application called the Westchester Safety App. Expected to be available later this summer, the app will offer real-time traffic, weather and storm reports, and disaster preparedness tips via smart phones. It is being developed by Interlecta, a Westchester-based IT company, in conjunction with the county's Department of Public Safety. The download of the app will be free, and there is no cost to taxpayers.
And coming in May, the county's "A Job's Waiting for You Training" program gets under way and matches long-term unemployed workers with hard to fill jobs in health care such as MRI technicians through a training program that, upon successful completion, guarantees the trainee a job. The goal is to place 500 individuals in four years and ultimately expand the program beyond the health care field.
Astorino concluded his speech by saying, "Westchester is a place we love, where we raise our families, run our businesses and call home. Our past is a source of pride, our future is bright and together we will continue to make Westchester smarter, safer and stronger."
A 12-minute video version of the speech in Spanish is available on Asuntos Hispanos.