In his annual State of the County Address April 7, County Executive Robert P. Astorino pledged that he would hold the line on property taxes for the second consecutive year, while maintaining a strong safety net for the county’s neediest residents.
“Let some other county take home the Number 1 trophy when it comes to having the highest property taxes in the United States,” Astorino said. “And let Westchester concentrate on becoming a place that’s affordable to young families, senior citizens on fixed incomes and the broad middle class that is the backbone of our county.”
The speech, his second State of the County Address, was delivered in just under an hour from the Board of Legislators chamber in White Plains. It focused on three things: people, problems and the path forward.
To maintain the momentum of fiscal reform from his first year in office, the County Executive pledged that he would submit a budget for 2012 in the fall that once again would call for no hike in the property tax levy. This year’s budget lowered the property tax levy by 2 percent or about $12 million.
“The amount is relatively small, but it is a powerful statement that enough is enough,” said Astorino. “Finally, we are saying ‘no.’ Not ‘no’ to service, but ‘no’ to endless tax hikes to pay for wasteful spending. We have moved the conversation away from how much can we take from taxpayers to how much do we really need.”
Preserving the county’s social safety net, Astorino said, was another major accomplishment of his first year in office. This year, the Department of Social Services’ budget had to absorb a $27 million loss in federal Medicaid funds. Despite the loss, the department’s budget at $578 million was $3 million higher than the year before and, through better management, DSS was able to put an additional $6 million in direct aid into the hands of residents.
“Nowhere has the stress of the recession been felt greater than at DSS. Money is down and demand for services is up,” Astorino said. “Yet despite these financial body blows, our commitment to the needy did not falter…It didn’t happen with smoke and mirrors. It was a combination of putting more money where it was needed, managing existing funds better, and eliminating wasteful practices. Where the status quo was no longer acceptable, we weren’t afraid to change it.”
Management improvements at DSS included:
- automating the recertification process for benefits eligibility;
- lowering foster care costs – and improving care – by keeping children closer to their original homes as opposed to sending them to out-of-county and out-of-state institutions;
- moving to close homeless shelters with empty beds that the county must pay for whether they are filled or not. In the case of the WestHelp shelter in Greenburgh, it has been operating with 42 percent of the beds empty. Even with the closing, the county will have more than ample capacity across its other shelters to meet the needs of the homeless. The excess capacity in the shelters is the result of DSS teams dramatically cutting the time it takes to move the homeless into permanent housing.
“That’s a major win,” Astorino said. “Our goal for the homeless is permanent housing, not shelter housing.”
Initiatives and Innovations
As other examples of initiatives and innovations that are stretching tax dollars and making government operations more efficient, Astorino pointed to:
- consolidating the Department of Transportation into the Department of Public Works and using the savings to preserve bus routes;
- turning the county’s four mental health clinics over to nonprofit agencies;
- finding a provider of medical services for inmates at the jail, which will save an expected $3 million over the course of the three-year contract and potentially millions more because the county is now indemnified against legal claims; and
- taking over the policing of the Town of Ossining though a contract that will cost county taxpayers nothing, but provide substantial savings to Ossining residents.
Astorino said the county’s management focus for the year ahead would be for every commissioner and department head to relentlessly question whether the services they were delivering were essential, effective, and provided by those best positioned to deliver them.
“We start by rejecting the notion that less money has to mean less service, and we replace old thinking with new actions,” Astorino said. “The answer is not another government program. A big part of our problem is that we can’t afford the overhead of all of our existing programs, especially now when the state and federal governments are pulling back on their contributions. Future focus needs to be on self reliance and existing resources. That requires a new operating model energized by efficiency, common interests, new ideas and partnership.”
$103 Million Projected Deficit
The biggest problem facing the county, Astorino said, was its inability to keep up with runaway spending, fueled largely by unfunded state mandates and labor costs. Comparing all revenues and expenses, a projected deficit of $103 million is emerging for 2012.
“Broken down in terms of kitchen table economics, money is going out a lot faster than it is coming in,” Astorino said. “That’s it in a nutshell. It’s an economic concept that anyone who has ever paid a bill understands and knows ends poorly if not corrected. Past bills eventually overwhelm your ability to pay for future needs. Westchester County is perilously close to the breaking point.”
Nine state mandates currently consume 75 percent of the county’s property tax levy. Medicaid alone, at $211 million, is equal to 38 percent of the tax levy. Pension costs, another state mandate, are $51 million this year and projected to increase to $84 million by 2015. That assumes the county enters the state’s amortization program. The number jumps to $97 million if the county does not opt into the program.
Pension costs are a major contributor to the county’s escalating labor expenses. For 2011, the average cost of a county worker is $117,000. That figure includes salary and fringe benefits. The cost of fringe benefits, primarily driven by pension and health care expenses, amount to 55 percent of salary. The average fringe rate for private sector employees in the United States is 29 percent. For public sector employees, it’s 34 percent.
Jobs For Savings
Astorino urged the county’s labor unions to work with him to trim labor costs in return for minimizing potential layoffs in the 2012 budget. Last year, Astorino successfully led the fight to have non-union employees, himself included, pay a portion of their health care benefits. This year, he said that it was time for the unions to follow suit. Doing so would save the county about $10 million, which could be applied to saving jobs.
In contrast to the zero contribution that union county workers currently make to health care, the average health care contribution nationally to a family plan is 33 percent of the premium for private sector workers and 27 percent for public sector workers.
“It is impossible to see how we can avoid layoffs if concessions are not forthcoming from our unions,” Astorino said. “Let me stress, this is in no way intended as criticism of the men and women employed by Westchester County. They work hard and earn their salaries. Our problem is not managerial. It is purely mathematical. We have a pay structure that can no longer be sustained.”
While still shaky, Astorino said Westchester’s economy was showing positive signs of rebounding. Specifically, he said his personal efforts to reach out to businesses, coupled with incentives and expertise provided by the county’s Industrial Development Agency, were paying off.
AAA Bond Rating Reaffirmed
As evidence of Wall Street’s confidence in the way Westchester County government is being run, Astorino cited last week’s announcement by the Fitch, the ratings agency, reaffirming the county’s AAA bond rating.
To spur growth, Astorino said the county was fighting hard to keep jobs in and attract businesses to Westchester. He said his strong opposition to the sugar tax proposed by Albany, which was a direct hit against Pepsi, helped kill the tax and keep Pepsi in Westchester.
“Our advocacy paid off,” Astorino said. “The tax died. Most important, Pepsi is still here in Purchase and in Somers.”
In March, Pepsi Beverages signed a new lease that will expand its Somers headquarters by almost 40 percent and keep 900 jobs in Westchester.
Other major business developments include:
- Sabra Dipping, the hummus maker, is moving to Westchester.
- Amkai Solutions is moving to Westchester from Connecticut, bringing high-paying IT jobs.
- Contra-Fect, a biotech firm, is moving to Westchester from New York City as part of the NY BioHud Valley's expansion.
- Guggenheim Global Trading, a new $500 million investment fund, is locating its headquarters in Purchase.
- Dannon is expanding.
- So are colleges like Pace, Manhattanville, Fordham and Iona.
- White Plains Hospital and Northern Westchester Hospital have opened new emergency rooms.
- Hudson Valley Hospital has broken ground on a new cancer center.
- And last month, the Westchester Medical Center took a giant step in securing its financial future by retiring obligations to the county and selling its own bonds to investors.
“The direction is positive, the momentum is strong, the confidence is returning,” Astorino said.
Recognizing Individual Contributions
Major portions of the address were dedicated to recognizing the contributions of individuals and corporations across the county. He singled out IBM, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, and its most famous computer, Watson, which is now the world’s reigning Jeopardy! champion and an example of the power of artificial intelligence.
Astorino said Watson’s capabilities spoke to the talents of the county’s highly educated workforce and reinforced the county’s claim of being New York’s Intellectual Capital. In Westchester, 45 percent of residents, who are 25 and older, hold bachelor’s degrees or higher. The national average is 27 percent.
The pipeline of younger intellectual talent is strong as well. Of the 300 high school students from around the country named semi-finalists in this year’s Intel Science Talent Search, an astonishing 6 percent of them were from Westchester.
During the address, the County Executive cited the teachers and administration of Ossining High School, which produced 8 of the 19 semi-finalists, for special mention. He also congratulated Grace Phillips, a senior at Mamaroneck High School, who was named one of the nation’s 40 finalists in the Intel competition, and her teacher Guido Garbarino, both of whom were in the chamber for the speech.
Also recognized were members of the Department of Public Works for their efforts in keeping Westchester’s roads plowed and safe over the course of 12 winter snow storms, and several managers from the Child Welfare Division of the Department of Social Services. The Child Welfare Division became the first public agency in New York State to be certified by the prestigious Council on Accreditation.
“Our people have a combination of smarts and heart that’s second to none,” Astorino said.
A special tribute was paid to the memory of Army Specialist David Fahey. The former Yorktown resident was killed in February by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan. A bronze plaque and tree will be dedicated to Fahey at Westchester’s Fallen Memorial Walkway at the Kensico Dam Plaza. The dedication is scheduled for September 25, Gold Star Mother’s Day.
Astorino concluded his address by saying the work would continue on his three prime goals: providing tax relief, preserving essential services and promoting economic growth.
“Our fight to make our county more affordable for every resident goes on,” he said. “No one is saying it will be easy. But, as long as “of, by, and for the people” guide our actions, success will be ours. We have the people to get the job done. We are on the right path. We just need to stay on it…together.”