April 25, 2012 -- County Executive Robert P. Astorino, in his third State of the County Address, said that his administration has made substantial progress in controlling taxes and spending and promoting economic development, while at the same time providing essential services to the almost 1 million people of the county.
"This is what governing should look like," he said tonight in his annual address to the Board of Legislators and the public, which was aired on News 12 and given for the first time from the County Courthouse in White Plains. "And when it does, you have government that is financially strong, operationally effective and passionately on the side of the people. That's the kind of government I am committed to and that the residents of Westchester deserve."
Astorino used the occasion of the speech to announce that Teamsters Local 456 has become the first county government union to agree to contribute to the costs of their health care. Since taking office, Astorino has been appealing to all unions for health care contributions, saying taxpayers can no longer afford on their own to pay the entire $140 million annual costs of union health care.
"Our Teamsters union has approved a new contract, which I hope will stand as a model for our seven other unions," he said.
The seven-year contract provides a series of modest salary increases and freezes and – for the first time – includes a provision for the union members to contribute to the cost of their health care. The rank and file members of the union, which represents managers, overwhelmingly approved the contract Tuesday night. It now must be approved by the Board of Legislators.
"Once again I am asking our other employee unions and their leaders to please work with me to find savings to preserve jobs," Astorino said. "Let's save as many jobs as possible."
The agreement with the Teamsters comes as Astorino reiterated his commitment to submit a budget for next year with a zero-percent tax levy increase. It will be the third such budget with no tax-levy increase that Astorino has proposed since taking office in January 2010.
"It is well known to everyone in this room and watching at home that Westchester County has the highest property taxes in the United States. But a new fact is emerging," he said. "County taxes are down. After two years in office, the county tax levy is down 2 percent. And my vow to keep taxes down has not changed."
The greatest obstacle, he said, remains the unfunded mandates forced on the county by Albany.
This year, nine state mandates will consume 82 percent of Westchester County's tax levy, Astorino said, adding: "We have no control over the bills Albany sends us and the state has no self control over the size of the bills it sends us. The result is a cost explosion that threatens to bankrupt us... Big bucks for state bureaucrats and pennies for our parks, our day care, our buses, our flood prevention, our public safety, our seniors and our veterans."
These state mandates include the costs of employee pensions, Medicaid, services for pre-school children with disabilities, among many others. This year, Westchester's expected pension bill is $79 million. Next year, it is projected to increase to $91 million and the year after that to $105 million.
"Where is the money going to come from? " Astorino asked. "It is not going to come from raising property taxes under my watch."
The pension reform enacted by Albany this year may give some help in the distant future with new employees, he said, but does nothing now.
"The savings will take 30 years to fully kick in...Local communities and school districts here at home need help and they need it right now," he said.
Astorino thanked Gov. Cuomo for his efforts to break the status quo in Albany. He said that his own number one legislative priority is to put together a statewide coalition of county executives, mayors, school boards and others "to build a united front to show Albany its days of running from accountability, hiding from economic reality and dividing constituents against one another must come to an end."
While the county's economy is improving, Astorino said revenues coming into county coffers will be flat and insufficient to offset the increased expenses. Therefore, the only way he will be able to balance the budget for next year will be by making further cuts in spending. Since taking office spending has been reduced 7 percent.
"We have made tremendous progress because we're asking the right questions and treating tax dollars like our own," he said. "But just cutting won't get the job done." Rather, there must be continued emphasis on efficiency and making sure the county delivers the most services for every dollar spent, he said.
For example, this year he cancelled a bus route in Rye that was costing the county $240,000 a year to service 30 passengers. It was replaced with a change in another route that improved services for some of the same riders.
"Savings are critical in order to keep fares down, maintain the fleet and meet growing ridership demands," he said. "The long-term viability of our bus system depends on our ability to stretch every dollar as far as possible."
In March, the Transport Workers Union and Liberty Lines, the private company that operates the county's Bee-Line bus system, agreed to a new four-year contract that includes some union concessions on health care – such as increased worker contributions and different coverage options.
While stressing that he supports collective bargaining and is himself a dues-paying union member of AFTRA, Astorino renewed his call for all of the county government's unions to make similar concessions to that of the transit workers and now the Teamsters local. The county's seven other unions, including its largest – the Civil Service Employees Association – currently have expired contracts.
Despite the county's financial challenges, Astorino pledged to continue to maintain the county's safety net for its most needy. Currently, the budget for the Department of Social Services is about half a billion dollars.
"My support to the county's safety net has not wavered since I took office," he said, crediting the good work of the department's employees for its accomplishments, including national recognition for its work with children in foster care.
Elder care is another area where Westchester County is a national leader, he said. Beyond the services provided by the Department of Senior Programs and Services, Astorino said. "My commitment to seniors begins with my commitment to all residents to keep their taxes from rising."
Astorino opened his address recognizing the heroism of Sgt. Edward J. Frank II, formerly of Yonkers, who was killed last August in Afghanistan. He also pledged the help of the county's new Veterans Coalition to provide resources to returning veterans about jobs, health care, mental health services and more. "We can never forget the debt we owe to our veterans," he said.
In the course of the speech, Astorino paid special tribute to certain non government people for their efforts to make the county a better place: Noel D'Allaco, the founder of Operation Prom, which collects used prom dresses and distributes them to teens who might otherwise not be able to afford to attend their proms; and the volunteers, including Larry Wilson of the Turf and Landscape Association, who helped the county with the clean up of the Bronx River during River Rescue, and the more than 1,000 who helped with Pitch in for Parks.
Astorino also used the speech to outline the status of several key issues that affect county residents:
- Tappan Zee Bridge: "My position is very straight forward. The new bridge needs to be built as soon as possible and we need to do it right." This means making sure that a mass transit component is included. He said he believed a Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, is the best answer.
- The environment: The county has so many environmental-related events going on in April that Astorino declared it "Earth Month." This included Earth Day itself, the opening of a new Household Materials Recovery Facility in Valhalla and the completion of the final major stretch of the combined North and South County Trailways. "Good government and good stewardship of the environment go hand in hand, and I am committed to both," he said.
- Economic Development: In March, Astorino called on private entities to submit proposals for development of 60 vacant acres on the north part of the Grasslands Reservation, possibly for use for bio-tech. A growing group of bio-tech companies have been making Westchester their home, and Astorino would like to see this developed further. "There is no reason why the North 60 can't be the start of the next Silicon Valley or Research Triangle and the home of medical cures and technological breakthroughs," he said. In addition, he renewed his call for the Board of Legislators to approve his more than $80 million in capital projects that he has sent to them, which would improve roads and bridges, create 550 construction jobs and boost the local economy. He also announced progress with the ongoing effort to streamline county regulations to make it easier for nonprofit agencies to apply for contracts. One of the biggest draws to Westchester continues to be its highly educated workforce, he said, which has also kept unemployment relatively low in the county.
- Housing Settlement: Despite Astorino's opposition to the settlement negotiated by the previous administration, Westchester will continue to meet its obligations to help build 750 units of affordable housing in 31 communities over 7 years. Westchester is currently almost a year ahead of schedule in meeting the benchmarks included in the settlement. This progress has been made by working cooperatively with local communities. The county will continue to challenge efforts by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to expand the requirements beyond what is stated in the settlement.
Astorino said he will continue to be guided by the three principles he laid out upon taking office:
- Protect taxpayers
- Preserve essential services
- Promote economic growth
"For county government in 2012, our biggest accomplishment may be having the will to try to fix what's broken," he said. "Has every decision I've made been popular? No. Has every action succeeded? No. But in no case have we been afraid to confront problems as they exist."
"We have everything it takes to make Westchester better today and even stronger tomorrow," he said in conclusion.