No property tax levy increase next year, continued protection of essential services and promotion of economic growth and resisting federal efforts to dismantle local zoning – these were among the pledges from County Executive Robert P. Astorino Tuesday, April 23, as he delivered his fourth State of the County address.
In the almost hour-long speech delivered in the Westchester County Courthouse in White Plains, Astorino reflected on the accomplishments and challenges he has faced since taking office in 2010 and talked about his priorities ahead. The speech was delivered to the Board of Legislators and the general public, and was broadcast live on News 12.
"From day one, our goal has been to deliver results," he said. "The public wants and deserves results. But results don't come easy. Priorities must be set. Hard choices must be made. Partisanship must give way to partnership. Rhetoric must yield to leadership."
His priorities remain what he calls the "three Ps" – Protecting taxpayers, preserving essential services and promoting economic growth. "Westchester County continues to move forward carefully and steadily. We pledged to protect taxpayers, and we did just that. We pledged to preserve essential services, and we did just that. We pledged to promote economic growth, and we did just that. And working together, we will continue moving Westchester County toward an even brighter future."
In his speech, he detailed how he has kept focused on these three priorities.
Of property taxes, Astorino said, "For our social contract to survive, we need to strike the right balance between what the government takes and what the people can afford to give. My administration works every day on trying to get that balance right. Taxpayers are not faceless, bottomless ATM machines."
County property taxes account for about 15-20 percent of a taxpayer's bill. The other taxes are levied by schools, local governments and special districts.
On Astorino's watch, the county property tax levy was reduced 2 percent in 2011 and was kept flat in 2012 and 2013. He pledged that the budget he submits in November for 2014 will again include no tax increase.
"Cynics will say a 2 percent cut isn't much. But contrast it to the 17 percent tax increase over the previous five years. We're heading in the right direction," Astorino said, noting that Westchester has the highest property taxes in the nation.
Unfunded state mandates remain the largest obstacle to greater tax relief. These are state-mandated programs the county government must pay for, yet has no say over, such as the soaring costs of employee pensions and Medicaid. Just nine unfunded mandates will cost Westchester $466 million this year, or 85 percent of the county's $548 million property tax levy.
"To advocate for relief, my administration has been working with our schools and businesses – through the Westchester-Putnam School Boards Association, the Business Council and the Westchester County Association – to bring a unified message to Albany: We need relief now," Astorino said.
Preserving Essential Services
Despite the challenges, "smart choices" have enabled Astorino to cut property taxes – and still preserve essential services (roads, bridges, airports, public safety, health and education, parks, open space, the environment, etc.) and protect the county's most needy.
The county's ability to protect public safety was tested during Hurricane Sandy, an event that claimed three lives locally, downed hundreds of trees and left more than 200,000 households without power for days. Damage to county government property alone amount to more than $50 million, including $12 million in damage to Playland.
Every county department was mobilized in response, Astorino said. "This was a team effort at every level to get our residents through the storm."
The county government also mobilized resources on a broad scale to address the issues of violence prevention, in the aftermath of the Newtown, Conn. school shootings. The result was Astorino's Safer Communities initiative, which included two symposiums that drew a total of 700 people, one that focused on
public safety, particularly for schools; and the other on health and mental health issues. The purpose was to build coalitions, share resources and best practices to tackle this complex problem.
"Going forward you have my commitment that Westchester County will continue to lead a ceaseless effort to keep our kids, our schools and our communitiess as safe as they can be," Astorino said. .
Beyond what is accomplished in response to an emergency, it is imperative that the county continue to protect its most needy residents who don't have economic security, Astorino said.
Said Astorino: "One of the things I am most proud of is that Westchester's commitment to the needy has been strengthened under my administration."
Some examples he mentioned:
- Since coming into office Astorino has increased the budget of the Department of Social Services by $14 million, from $542 million to $556 million. During this same time, the federal and state governments have cut social services aid to the county.
- The number of slots for subsidized day care for the working poor is up by 18 percent, to almost 6,000.
- Adoptions are up 41 percent over the past three years and foster care caseloads are at an all-time low.
Astorino also touted a soon-to-be-launched food rescue initiative that seeks to reduce hunger in Westchester by recovering leftover food from local schools, hospitals, hotels and restaurants and redistributing it to food pantries and soup kitchens.
Promting Economic Growth
Economic growth is essential to keeping taxes down and paying for essential services. Towards that end, Astorino said his administration continues to aggressively court new business and work to retain those that are already here.
"In Westchester, our approach is to show both our smallest entrepreneurs and largest global corporations that we want their business and that we will work hard to help them be successful in Westchester. We do that by creating an environment that allows businesses to prosper."
Among the accomplishments:
- Since January 2010, the Westchester Industrial Development Agency (IDA), the county's main outreach organization to businesses, has provided various financial incentives to 29 companies of every size. This has led to more than $500 million of additional capital investment in the county, the retention of 4,800 existing jobs and the creation of 4,600 new jobs. The biggest project to date – in fact in the history of the IDA – involves Pepsi's decision to stay in Westchester and completely modernize its global corporate headquarters in Purchase.
- The county's new Local Development Corp. (LDC) is able to provide low-cost and tax-exempt financing to nonprofit agencies at no risk to county taxpayers. Northern Westchester Hospital and nursing home Kendal on Hudson are among the first to take advantage of the LDC.
Playland will open on May 11 for its 85th season. In his speech, Astorino gave an update on his plan to "reinvent Playland for the 21st century." Earlier this month, an asset management agreement was approved with Sustainable Playland, a team of world-class operators to run the park (instead of the county) and reverse declining attendance and million of dollars in annual losses to the county. Sustainable will invest $34 million of its own money to make the park a year-round-destination and pay the county more than $1 million annually.
The hope is to have all the approvals – including those from the Board of Legislators – in place by October so that Sustainable can begin the reinvention of the park. For more information, go to www.sustainableplayland.org.
The county was sued in 2006 under the False Claims Act of 1863. The charge was that the county accepted federal dollars from the department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) but failed to study whether race was a factor in housing opportunities. In 2009, former County Executive Andrew Spano and the Board of Legislators settled the case.
"Critically important: There was never a finding of fact of wrongdoing on the part of the county nor an admission of guilt," Astorino noted.
As part of the settlement, the county agreed to help facilitate the construction of 750 units of affordable housing in 31 so-called "eligible" (predominantly white) communities by 2016. The agreement included annual benchmarks. To date, the county remains a year ahead of schedule in getting units approved and financing in place, through a cooperative effort with the local governments that are involved.
"Everyone in the county should be proud of that record," Astorino said. "I know I am. Not just because we are meeting our obligations. But because of the way we are doing it: By working smartly and cooperatively with our towns and villages."
Westchester, the county executive pointed out, has a long and proud history of diversity, with the county being the 4th most diverse county in the state in terms of the number of African Americans and Hispanics.
"I will defend with every tool at my disposal the right of people to live in any neighborhood in Westchester, in any home that they can afford." Astorino said. "Let me say this loud and clear: there is absolutely no place for discrimination in our county."
HUD for its part has a very different agenda and approach, Astorino said – noting that HUD has called Westchester its "grand experiment."
He said: "Washington bureaucrats, who you will never see or meet, want the power to determine who will live where and how each neighborhood will look. What's at stake is the fundamental right of our cities, towns, and villages to plan and zone for themselves. This home rule is guaranteed by the New York State Constitution. HUD thinks it can trample on Westchester because it has the misguided notion that zoning and discrimination are the same thing. They are not."
He added: "Zoning exists to keep traffic from endangering kids on their way to school, to prevent factory noise and smoke from invading residential neighborhoods, and to stop raw sewage from polluting our drinking water."
Recently, the Board of Legislators joined with Astorino in authorizing a legal action to prevent HUD from reallocating $7.4 million in federal funds that had been promised to the county and its communities.
Astorino used the occasion, as he has in the past, to pay his respects to the men and women of Westchester who are serving in the nation's armed forces. In the last year, not one county resident died in combat. He paid special tribute to Nancy Schiliro of Eastchester, who was in attendance, a veteran who was injured in Iraq in 2009, but now works to help other injured veterans through Project Odyssey, which is part of the Wounded Warrior program.
The county executive also paid his respect to the memory of former County Executive Andrew P. O'Rourke who died in January.
And he recognized three Westchester students who are Intel Finalists this year: Jiayi Peng of Horace Greeley High School; Chris Traver of Croton-Harmon High School; Daniel McQuaid of Ossining High School; two student athletes, Mary Cain of Bronxville and Saniya Chong of Ossining; and two sets of foster parents, Anthony and Brenda Gears of Mount Vernon and Marisol and Eduardo Gonzalez of Scarsdale.
Also: Scott Vaccaro, the owner and head brewer of Captain Lawrence in Elmsford, and Maria and Pablo Morales, owners up a small bakery, Bake-Me-A-Wish in Peekskill were honored as small business success stories.
The National Anthem was sung by Melinda Ademi of Yonkers, who made it to the top 40 of Season 12 of "American Idol."